Born at the end of the “Great War”—the war that she believes overshadowed her parents and her childhood—Doris Lessing can be considered an elder stateswoman now, of literature, political experience, feminism. No fewer than thirty-six books by her were listed at the beginning of the first volume of her autobiography. Walking in the Shade is the second volume and, since it ends thirty-six years ago, should fortunately be followed by at least one more.
In that first installment (Under My Skin, 1994) Lessing described her life in what was then Southern Rhodesia, until in 1949 she left behind a husband and two children and set out for postwar Britain. Her family had arrived in Rhodesia when she was four years old, trekking in an ox-drawn wagon holding trunks of carpets, silver, paintings, and finery that in the event were scarcely to be needed. The colonial territory that was meant to make them comfortably prosperous farmers never delivered more than subsistence. The Great War veteran and his hopeful wife became burnt-out, passive people. Lessing describes how she would see them at the end of the working day, sitting silently side by side on the farmhouse veranda, dentures parked on the table for comfort. “I will not, I will not!” was what the fierce child chanted to herself whenever she thought of their fate. This determination not to fall in with colonial defeat and apathy, she makes clear, has been a prime motivation in her life.
Lessing declares that frustration and the relationship with her embittered mother made her for many years “one of the walking wounded.” An honest autobiographer, however, enables her reader sometimes to glimpse more than the author herself does. Compared to that of most city-bred, TV-bound children today, much about this childhood in the African bush looks like good preparation for a confident life. By the time she was fourteen, Lessing says, she could
set a hen, look after chickens and rabbits, work dogs and cats, pan for gold, take samples from reefs, sew, use the milk separator and churn butter, make cream cheese and ginger beer,…drive the car, shoot pigeons and guineafowl for the pot, preserve eggs—and a lot else. Doing these things I was truly happy. Few things in my life have given me greater pleasure.
The bush countryside was a wide open playground for herself and her brother, and any books available were greedily absorbed. In spite of some short unhappy spells at boarding school, there was little examination pressure, no obligatory enrollment in the academic rat race, no thought of slaving to earn an essentially pointless qualification. At the age of fourteen she simply decided to leave school and took off on a series of nursemaid jobs around the country, where her sharp eyes and ears took in a great deal that was to be used in her first novel, The Grass Is Singing.
Lessing (the surname comes from the second and least important of her adult partnerships) in fact comes across in these autobiographies as two distinct people. There is “Tigger”—the girlhood nickname taken from the bouncy young tiger in A.A. Milne’s classic storybooks. (Lots of people at that time must have been calling friendly puppies Tigger.) Tigger is the personality that could run a household and drive a rackety old car around rough roads early in her teens, who smiles radiantly from photographs in the book, a hugely energetic and healthy-looking child. There is no faking such a smile. It must have been the Tigger side of her personality that so casually made a success of her life after the arrival in England, living with her third child on a shoestring, getting a very successful first novel published, finding her way about in postwar London and meeting many of the important people of the time. One is struck quite often by how competent Lessing has been, more than she herself notices. Cracking into English literary society was evidently a healthy colonial skill like butter-churning; gusts of fresh African air seem to blow across her pages and cut through the London smogs of the 1950s. Even during the hard process of writing she was able, she says, to take deep, ten-minute naps that gave her energy for more hours of work. That’s not just competence; logistically speaking, it’s genius. But she writes quite without self-congratulation or self-importance about the successful aspect of her life. As to status and money, she has treated them with indifference.
The other personality, the one that cohabited with Tigger, is harder to pin down. It is the one that was always fascinated by her dreams, that wrote poetry, that expresses itself in the increasing inwardness of her fictional themes and will, I hope, be up for discussion in the next volume of her autobiography, where she may write about her preoccupation with Islamic mysticism. Here she is fairly brief and down-to-earth about the growth of this interest in the 1960s, after she broke with communism:
I knew that I had accepted the Marxist package for no deeper reason than that the communists I met in Southern Rhodesia had actually read the books I had, were in love with literature, and because they were the only people I knew who took it for granted that the white regime was doomed….
I began a systematic search for something different.
She scanned the books and gurus, followed up every lead she could, and moved toward a quite new way of interpreting the world which, unlike most people at that time, she stuck to. She describes this (with the capital letters) as the Search, the Path:
And now I have a real, a serious difficulty. From now onwards—that is, from the end of the fifties—here was a main current in my life, deeper than any other, my real preoccupation. A few people will understand, because they have lived through something similar, but most I think will be indifferent or bored. And so I shall simply state it: this was my real life.
She is right: people will shrink from the New Age connotations of “Path.” For myself, though, I have more curiosity about what it meant, and means, for her than about the communism that was her university and social world for so many formative years.
A link between the “Tigger” personality and this other one may lie somewhere in the tortured relationship that Lessing had with her mother, a frustrated and unhappy woman who had some kind of breakdown out in the isolated Rhodesian farmhouse while Lessing was growing up. This, as well as her reading and dreaming, perhaps opened up a crack for her in the surface of the bluff, outdoorsy, closed-minds society that surrounded her, and also fed into The Grass Is Singing, which focuses on a lone white woman trapped in colonial mores, and breaking under the strain. For Lessing has always been drawn by themes of breakdown and madness; she has not, as she says in Walking in the Shade, ever been mad—but “I feel as if I have.” She became well aware, through her relationship with a psychiatrist during the 1960s of R.D. Laing, that madness is far from the way to revelation and glory—but still has needed to write about disintegration, descent into darkness:
When this kind of theme emerges again and again, one has to acknowledge—I have to acknowledge—that just under the surface there lies in wait for me, something like those ant lions, the tiny insects that lie just hidden in the bottom of a little pit in the sand, waiting to drag a struggling ant into quicksand…. There is a pattern in my mind, there must be, where order breaks into disorder and extremity. It came from World War I and my parents’ destruction by it.
Again, I find more interest in this aspect of Lessing than in the shrewd and observant social critic that some of her readers may prefer. But then, if as person and as writer she had been a Kafka, gone into the very depth of fear, she would not have lived on into this fruitful and thoughtful old age.
Under My Skin, the first volume of the autobiography, ends with the author aged twenty-nine and preparing to leave Rhodesia for England. Behind her she is leaving an ex-husband and two children. The business of abandoning young children, even into good hands, is a tricky one for readers. We seldom nowadays feel inclined to pass judgment on the life stories that autobiographers tell—but fear of abandonment is a primitive thing that everyone has felt during childhood. Complete objectivity is difficult, therefore, especially since Lessing relates that the divorce was from someone she quite liked, the remarriage to someone quite incompatible, and the leaving of the first two children swiftly followed by the birth of a third child (who went to England with her). Reviewers criticized her when the first autobiography came out for not explaining enough about this part of her life. Probably it is just too complex, in retrospect, to be done.
Lessing’s description of the England of the early 1950s is to some of us intensely nostalgic. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, genuine bliss—but also cold, dirty, rather hungry bliss. The young lived in bed-sitting-rooms culled from New Statesman classified ads (“Bed-sit, ckg fac, suit student, 45s. inc cleaning”), furnished with orange crates and heated by small, noisy gas fires. Sixpences inserted into gas geysers produced enough water for the weekly bath. Bomb damage was everywhere, fogs common before Clean Air legislation, many foods still on ration cards and others requiring patient queuing for supplies. You could not get a decent cup of coffee anywhere in the British Isles, Lessing rightly says (and, oh, the bottles of dark, viscous Camp Coffee with the label showing faithful black servant bringing tray to uniformed sahib!). The welfare state was being built, though, poverty and class warfare abolished forever. We thought.
Lessing had one special shock to absorb: the sight of white men doing manual labor. When she tried to tell people that South Africa was a hellhole for blacks and Southern Rhodesia not much better, she was met with impatience and disbelief. Being an outsider, speaking with neither the upper- nor the lower-class accent, made it easier for her to cast a cold eye on the country she had come to (she published her impressions in In Pursuit of the English), but she was, she says, uncertain how to define herself: a colonial? an exotic foreigner? a child of the end of the Raj?
In a sense, though, she brought a home with her: communism. She did not leave this home until the end of the 1950s, in fact only got her official Party card after she was already disillusioned—an act that she says was the most neurotic one of her life. Communism provided friends, support, discussion, above all a sense that she was part of a group of people who knew they were right, who alone understood the way the world was going. Everyone, she says, was Communist in those days. I don’t think so; but certainly every decent person was left-wing. And yet, as a lifelong rebel against—originally—her mother’s values, she was uneasy with the comrades’ semi-religious dogmatism from the start. She disliked shallow thinking, catchwords, and in particular criticisms from comrades of her excellent first novel for not being ideologically immaculate. So there is frequent return in the book to the contradictions of her years of allegiance. Why? why? why? preoccupies her, and she finds a host of conflicting answers. By the time in 1956 she took a trip back to Africa, she found herself classified as a Prohibited Immigrant, simultaneously courted by influential figures and trailed by the Special Branch.
A present generation of readers probably think of Lessing more in connection with the history of feminism than with Africa or communism or (later) her work with the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament. The Golden Notebook came out in 1962, a time when, Lessing says, she was at a crossroads. Her sexual commitments had turned out badly and communism had finally failed her.
I needed a framework, a form, which would express extreme compartmentalism and then its breaking down—the experience I had lived through, was living through now. The ideologies were not only strictly political but about the way women saw themselves.
She had not written it in propagandist spirit and, she says, a book that was planned coolly was read hysterically. It was taken as a manifesto in the sex war without Lessing’s having consciously endorsed hostilities.
“It leads the strangest life, The Golden Notebook,” she says. A prostitute from a Rio slum who spoke no English told her that she loved it. Men have written to her on discovering that it is not just for women. Just as the theater critic Ken Tynan is now remembered as the first person to say “fuck” on television, the book has got famous as the first one to include menstruation. Some critics complained that it was biased, others that its characters were just too unpleasant (what extraordinarily wonderful people, she says, these critics must know). Some women readers felt that she was giving away female secrets. A distinguished Marxist criticized the book as too “subjective” and Lessing herself as someone wandering out of the bush and dazzled by the bright lights. Its final assignment to the status of uncontroversial classic must have been when a reader from Eastern Europe said to Lessing: “It’s fascinating, reading about all those old times.”
Readers, in fact, both during those old times and since, have always been less interested in the political background that Lessing believed important than in her portrayal of contemporary man-woman dilemmas. She herself says that the theme of the book was above all that compartmentalization is disaster (the chief character keeps a number of notebooks on different subjects, and symbolically unites them into one Golden Notebook). Obviously she had to react to the toxic compartmentalism of living as a Communist; but authors sometimes want retrospectively to neaten up the untidy passions of their earlier works, and readers can sometimes pick up a message that the author herself underestimates. What they have picked up here is a cry of protest: “Life for intelligent women, at this particular moment, is impossible.” The great twentieth-century earthquake in male- female arrangements caused by contraception, hardly grasped until past mid-century, is embodied in this baffled protest.
From The Golden Notebook Lessing moved on (and has not quite been forgiven for it). Apart from writing that particularly honest and timely book, does she even merit the simplistic label of “feminist writer”? She does not blame, she does not self-victimize, she does not simplify, she never ignores the relevance of a social and historical context. She has a sharp eye for the failings of feminism and gives some examples here of the behavior of those she calls the Cruel Sisters:
A scene: A famous American feminist is visiting London, and I go to see her with a man who has consistently taken a feminist position, and long before it was fashionable. As we walk through the hotel she deliberately slams one door after another in his face.
…The other day a group of women on one television channel were complaining about men’s rudeness to them, and on another a woman was saying all men are slimebags.
Could we have foreseen this efflorescence of crude stupidity? Yes, because every mass political movement unleashes the worst in human behavior and admires it. For a time at least.
Having gone through the political correctness mill of communism, Lessing has no trouble disregarding its lesser varieties. And one suspects that having had a difficult mother makes her realistic about women’s power and capacity for violence. Her personal feminist achievement may indeed have been to contemplate and understand this one well-meaning woman who hurt her.
A realist, a mystic, a shrewd observer, a risk-taker, a tough worker, above all Lessing has been prolific, writing out half a century’s experience as she lived it. The real life of a writer, she says, is boring and hardly describable:
Work begins. I do not sit down but wander about the room. I think on my feet, while I wash up a cup, tidy a drawer, drink a cup of tea, but my mind is not on these activities. I find myself in the chair by the machine. I write a sentence…. Will it stand? But never mind, look at it later, just get on with it, get the flow started. And so it goes on.
Never is a bare account of a writer’s day, she says, anything like a true account. “I fell back on that useful word ‘wool-gathering.’ And this goes on when you are shopping, cooking, anything. You are reading but find the book has lowered itself: you are wool-gathering. The creative dark. Incommunicable.”
November 19, 1998