Katherine Fishburn (essay date Summer 1988)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8889
SOURCE: "Wor(l)ds within Words: Doris Lessing as Meta-Fictionist and Meta-Physician," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 186-205.
[In the following essay, Fishburn contends that Lessing's novels are highly complex, subtly self-conscious "metafictions" and that "Lessing has never truly been the realist (we) critics thought her … [she] only masqueraded as one."]
—A book which does not contain its counter-book is considered incomplete.
Jorge Luis Borges
Although Doris Lessing is probably best known as the author of The Golden Notebook, I think it is safe to say that most critics would not characterize the bulk of her fiction as formally experimental or even up-to-date. In fact, with the possible exception of Canopus in Argos, they would probably consign her fiction to the venerable but old-fashioned school of expressive realism. Widespread as this perception of Lessing has been, I would argue that it has had the unforeseen consequence of deflecting critical attention away from those very qualities of her fiction that serve to undermine and de(con)struct realistic texts. Quite ironically it is a perception that Lessing herself has fostered—and one that helps to explain why she has enjoyed such popularity with her readers. It was in her own 1957 manifesto, "The Small Personal Voice," after all, that Lessing claimed the aesthetic principles of nineteenth-century realism as her own, thus helping to confirm what her readers had already discovered: Doris Lessing was a novelist of the old school who could give shape and meaning to their lives—an old-fashioned novelist with a contemporary point of view. Lest it appear that I think Lessing's work has only appealed to an unsophisticated band of readers who were incapable of reading her correctly, let me hasten to add that I count myself among those who originally saw her as a realist. I also recognize that she has been read for a variety of reasons. But I still think the initial appeal of her fiction lay in its abundance of likable, intelligent, and perceptive heroines. Unlike the bitches, witches, vacuous virgins, and man-eating troglo/dykes of far too much contemporary men's fiction, the characters Lessing has created have been both realistically portrayed and easy to identify with. Sometimes, as in the case of Martha Quest, the shock of recognition was almost too much to bear, but in the main readers loved seeing themselves in print—and loved this nervy new novelist who allowed them this unaccustomed privilege. Given these reasons, which are as much emotional as intellectual, was it any wonder her readers missed all the other things she was up to?
Because most readers saw her as the realist she claimed to be, they remained blind to all the subversive (fictional) activity she was engaged in. In short, she had created a fiction of herself as writer that was in direct conflict with the kind of fiction she was writing. So compelling was the fiction "Lessing-as-realist," most readers missed the point of The Golden Notebook when it was first published in 1962. Although there were narrative hints aplenty that something extraordinary was afoot, most critics regarded the text as yet another portrait of contemporary women—a convoluted portrait, perhaps, but one that still lent itself to New Critical interpretations. Finally, in despair at being so gratuitously misunderstood, Lessing appended the now famous 1971 "Preface" to her novel, in which she tells us that her "major aim was to shape a book which would make its own comment, a wordless statement: to talk through the way it was shaped." But even then readers refused to relinquish their original perception of her as a realist par excellence. So when she published Briefing for a Descent into Hell in 1969, the critics tried to ignore it; and when she announced that The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) was her "attempt at autobiography," the critics pretended they had not heard her. Still clinging to their original view of Lessing, readers were shocked to the very core when their beloved realist announced with the publication of Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta in 1979 that she had embarked on what would become an entire series of science fiction novels. How could she do this to us? readers and critics alike asked rhetorically. Where was the Lessing they had known and loved all these years? The answer, of course, as Martha Quest discovered near the end of The Four-Gated City, was "Here, where else, you fool, you poor fool, where else has [she] been, ever."
For, as I intend to argue in this paper, Doris Lessing has never truly been the realist (we) critics thought her. She has only masqueraded as one, an authorial Wulf in sheep's clothing. Behind the mask, she has always been a metafictionist, a writer of self-conscious fiction. As Patricia Waugh describes it, metafiction is fundamentally "the construction of a fictional illusion … and the laying bare of that illusion" [Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, 1984]. "Metafiction sets up an opposition, not to ostensibly 'objective' facts in the 'real' world, but to the language of the realistic novel which has sustained and endorsed such a view of reality" (Waugh). In showing us how literary fiction creates its imaginary worlds, Waugh explains, "metafiction helps us to understand how the reality we live day by day is similarly constructed, similarly 'written.'" In short, it reminds us that both history and reality are "provisional"—that we no longer inhabit "a world of eternal verities but a series of constructions, artifices, impermanent structures" (Waugh). The "formal self-consciousness" characteristic of metafiction can range anywhere from the limited (like that of Muriel Spark) to the all-embracing (like that of Raymond Federman), with many steps in between. The chronology of Lessing's earlier writing roughly reflects this range, moving from the limited metafictional aspects of The Grass is Singing to the all-embracing metafiction of The Golden Notebook. Although it is true that her first few novels display only a minimal self-consciousness, the metafiction has always been there. As far back as the 1950s, for example, she was already trying to communicate the essential fictionality of reality itself by calling attention to the power and the provisionality of our language systems, be they political, social, or mythic. But readers have been so enchanted by the fact that this fiction mirrors their own reality, they have failed to see that—all along—the narrative mirror has been also held up to itself.
In The Grass is Singing (1950), for example, the story of Mary Turner's breakdown and the unkind behavior of her neighbors is so emotionally charged that it is easy to overlook the book's metafictional qualities. But contrary to the reviews it got, this novel is more than a riveting account of a woman's tragic deterioration. And, contrary to what an earlier critic has suggested, it is also something more than "a little novel about the emotions" seen through a Marxist lens. [In an endnote, Fishburn continues: "My observation is not meant to fault this essay, which argues its point quite effectively. By showing the dialectical tension between Mary and her society, in fact, it helps to prepare the critical ground for my own argument. Zak argues that Mary Turner, like other modernist figures, 'suffers [from] schizophrenic impoverishment'; but unlike most modernist texts 'the novel itself keeps before us … the nature of the world from which Mary is compelled to withdraw.' I take Zak's ideas one step further by arguing that the dialectic is portrayed with a degree of formal self-consciousness that calls attention to the fictionality of the world Mary withdraws from."] As textually innocent as it might appear, The Grass is Singing is a self-conscious novel that de(con)structs the two-storied edifice of apart-heid and domestic bliss. It is not insignificant to Lessing's purpose here that the heroine is destroyed by a combination of racial mythologies and domestic fictions (what Betty Friedan calls the "feminine mystique" in her 1963 book of that name). For both, to one degree or another, dehumanize their participants by forcing them to function less as individuals than as ideas. Thus it is central to the twisted mythology of apartheid that blacks are racially and incorrigibly inferior to whites, an assumption that inspires all sorts of neurotic vigilance among the whites who must constantly monitor one another to maintain the myth of their own superiority. And it is central to the feminine mystique that women find happiness and identity only in marriage, where they subordinate themselves to their husbands. As a classic example of metafiction, Lessing's text simultaneously invokes and de(con)structs these two social myths that bring her heroine not the status they promise but only grief and pain.
As long as Mary is relatively young, she is relatively safe from social pressures, allowed to play the role of social butterfly while she fills her days with parties, dances, and other forms of impersonal socializing. But as she ages it soon becomes clear that she needs to be brought into line, because she is "not playing her part, for she did not get married" (emphasis added). In other words, she is not living up to the idea(l)s of what a woman should do with her life. Once her friends notice this failure, they gossip endlessly about what kind of a person she is, finally driving her to look for a husband to prove that they are wrong in thinking "Something missing somewhere." This effort to silence her friends forces her into a marriage she really does not want and ruins her "casual friendship" with other people. In short, after overhearing her friends' unkind gossip, "Mary's idea of herself was destroyed and she was not fitted to re-create herself" (emphasis added). Faced with the bleak reality of living on the veld with a hopelessly inept farmer, Mary tries valiantly to make a go of it. But there is no happy ending for this marriage. For various complex reasons, Mary cannot endure married life with Dick Turner. At one point, she tries to escape by returning to town; like other unhappy wives before her, "she dressed, packed a suitcase, and left a note for him, quite in the traditional way" (emphasis added). But escape is not in the script. So Dick brings her back to the farm—to lone-liness, despair, and death.
Once she is back, her psychological problems become so severe that she no longer acts like a white person is "supposed" to act in racist South Africa. At this point her society's defense mechanism automatically clicks into place, leaving her lost and vulnerable. Under the circumstances, the only person left for her to turn to is Moses, her black houseservant, with whom she develops a forbidden, latently sexual friendship. Bizarre as the relationship becomes, it does involve some expression of simple human kindness. But because the fiction of apartheid is nothing if not perverse, Mary is not allowed to seek comfort from her black servant—even after all the whites have deserted her. Having broken the rules, she must be punished. And the punishment is death—at her servant's hands. Although it is true that Mary suffers from severe mental disorders and Moses's motives are never spelled out, her death is a direct result of their forbidden friendship. In short, Mary is acceptable to her society for only as long as she is willing to inhabit the political fictions of apartheid and maintain the appearance of marital happiness. When she rejects these fictions by preferring the company of her black houseboy to that of her husband, Mary sentences herself to death. Her murder, therefore, serves the double purpose of vindicating her society's fear of black violence and silencing a dangerous nonconformist. As far as Mary is concerned, the victory of her white society is unconditional, sealed by her death. But as far as Lessing's readers are concerned, it is an empty victory. Although all of Mary's neighbors, near and far, rally round in their common fears, we as readers do not share their condemnation of the poor woman. Instead, we join Lessing in condemning Mary's society. In so doing we join her in de(con)structing the institution of apartheid and the myths that would sustain it. For in a striking example of narrative economy, Lessing has exposed the absolute corruption central to the fiction of apartheid by using the black servant to enforce the white code. And by placing the events in the context of a domestic tragedy, she has also de(con)structed the myth of happy endings—the myth of the romance—for it is this myth that lies behind Mary's own destruction.
The clues to this book's metafictionality and the source of much of its bitter irony lie in the way Lessing describes how her heroine chooses to live by the social script when she could have chosen to remain single and "become a person on her own account." But theoretically free as Mary Turner is to reject the conventional script, in reality she does not appear to have either the strength or the imagination to write her own. So even though she eventually behaves in a rebellious fashion, she does so less out of a sense of purpose than out of a sense of hopelessness and desperation. It is not her behavior we should model ourselves after, therefore, but the text itself as it successfully challenges two of the Western world's most cherished fictions. As a story, in other words, it disappoints our desire for a happy ending. But as a text, it explains why happy endings do not work.
The critical context provided by Rachel Blau DuPlessis's Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (1985) is helpful here. DuPlessis works from the premise that "narrative structures and subjects are like working apparatuses of ideology, factories for the 'natural' and 'fantastic' meanings by which we live." As this statement suggests, DuPlessis finds the relationship between fiction and reality to be a two-way street. Narrative is informed by ideology, and social conventions act "like a 'script,' which suggests sequences of action and choice." In searching for evidence of ideology in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction about women, DuPlessis found a telling pattern to its endings. For the most part, these novels ended either in the heroine's marriage or in her death. In other words, the fiction warned women to abide by social expectations of the time. If the heroine married, all well and good, she could have a happy ending. But if the heroine refused to marry for whatever reason, the novel (and thus society) "punished" her by killing her off or portraying her as insane. But scripts can be rewritten and what has been constructed by language can also be de(con)structed by it. Thus DuPlessis finds in much twentieth-century women's fiction the "invention of strategies that sever the narrative from formerly conventional strategies of fiction and consciousness"; this is what she calls "writing beyond the ending." These strategies range anywhere from the "rupture of story" (such as that found in Olive Schreiner's 1883 The Story of an African Farm) to the creation of "collective protagonists" (such as those found in women's speculative fiction). As this range suggests, some of the strategies are more successful than others in liberating women from old scripts. In Lessing's novel, for example, as in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 "The Yellow Wall-Paper," the de(con)struction of restrictive narratives occurs at the heroine's expense. In fact, in some respects, the fate of Lessing's heroine is worse than that of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century heroines. For, unlike the pattern DuPlessis found in earlier novels where the heroine is subjected to either marriage or death or insanity, this novel subjects its heroine to all three fates. As we have seen, even though The Grass is Singing does not technically end with marriage, nonetheless it is the heroine's decision to marry that destroys her.
The bitter irony in Lessing's story is just this: Mary goes insane and is murdered precisely because she abided by social conventions. It is true, of course, that she does break her racist culture's code of behavior for whites. For this, she can expect to be punished and is. But because breaking the code means treating a black person like the human being he is, the irony of Mary's situation is intensified. In effect, she is punished both for honoring and breaking illusions. She cannot win. Thus the book reveals itself as metafiction, reminding us of the punishment in store for those who violate society's fondest fictions of racial superiority. And in its tragic conclusion, when Moses murders Mary, the book effectively lays bare the illusion of marital happiness and the fictions that would maintain it. For it is as clear as anything that Mary welcomes this release from bondage.
A similar metafictional critique of marriage can be seen in Lessing's story, "To Room Nineteen." Here both Susan and Matthew Rawlings construct a kind of blueprint marriage for themselves, a "marriage that was grounded in intelligence." For a while everything goes swimmingly. They both have good jobs; for two years they spend their time "giving parties and going to them, being a popular young married couple, and then Susan became pregnant, she gave up her job, and they bought a house in Richmond." "And so they lived with their four children in their gardened house in Richmond and were happy. They had everything they had wanted and had planned for. And yet …". (Lessing's ellipsis). Suddenly the text begins to question what their reason for living rests on. Their children? Matthew's job? Their love? "Yes, it was around this point, their love, that the whole extraordinary structure revolved … And if one felt that it simply was not strong enough, important enough, to support it all, well whose fault was that?" Even with this sense of their love's inadequacy, they muddle along, trying desperately not to make the same mistakes they see their friends making. But try as they will to preserve the form, as soon as the children leave home, this perfect marriage begins finally to take its toll on Susan. No longer able to avoid the consequences of participating in a conventional marriage, Susan slowly goes mad and eventually kills herself—demonstrating once again that abiding by the social scripts can drive a woman crazy.
In her second novel, Martha Quest (1952), Lessing continues her criticism of social conventions and institutions, reminding us that they are but fictions—powerful but provisional. And here she more obviously uses the novel to comment on itself. In the very title she chose, she violates the traditional quest narrative by naming a woman as hero. As Joanna Russ's oft-cited essay reminds us, male plots don't work for women. In "What Can a Heroine Do? or Why Women Can't Write" [in Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives, edited by Susan Koppelman Cornillon, 1972], Russ effectively defamiliarizes old plots by reversing the roles of heroines and heroes. Her revisions are quite amusing and very instructive; for example: "Two strong women battle for supremacy in the early West." "A young man who unwisely puts success in business before his personal fulfillment loses his masculinity and ends up as a neurotic, lonely eunuch." Is it any wonder, then, that Martha cannot get on with her life? What is a heroine to do? According to Rachel Brownstein, the answer is simple: the heroine gets married. In Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels, Brownstein argues that the heroine's "quest is to be recognized in all her significance, to have her worth made real by being approved. When, at the end, this is done, she is transformed …" In short, she becomes a bride: "the very image of a heroine. For a heroine is just that, an image; novel heroines, like novel readers, are often women who want to become heroines" (Brownstein, emphasis added). But because Martha simultaneously desires and dreads the role, becoming a heroine is not quite so simple for her. She is romantic enough to long for dissolution in love, yet she is sensible and skeptical enough to realize that a marriage like her mother's will not bring her the wholeness, happiness, and recognition promised by romantic fiction. In short, she is a modern girl caught in a traditional script: becoming a bride may be her fate as heroine, but there is no guarantee she will like it. When the novel ends in Martha's marriage to Douglas Knowell, therefore, it is most assuredly not a happy ending. But it is the conventional happy ending, one she seems almost doomed to accept. For the "main thing about the heroine," writes Brownstein, "is that hers is always the same old story." In sum, the "idea of becoming a heroine marries the female protagonist to the marriage plot, and it marries the woman who reads to fiction" (Brownstein, emphasis added).
The relationship between "novel heroines" and "novel readers" that Brownstein discusses is nowhere made clearer than in Martha Quest where Lessing continually demonstrates that her heroine has been (de)formed by fiction—by all her reading. Among the authors Martha reads are Havelock Ellis, Engels, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Whitman, and Thoreau, taking from them a fragmentary romantic view of life that has no practical connection to the world around her. Not only do these "authorities" (as she sees them) fail to help her make sense of her world, they have failed to give her suitable role models to pattern her life after. And even when she and her husband try to abide by "the book," their sexual experiments are mechanical and unfulfilling. Martha's perceptions of reality are both correct and incorrect. On the one hand, she knows intuitively that external reality is a kind of fiction (a metafictional concept). But the fiction she tries to impose on it is a literary fiction, one based almost entirely on her reading. Thus, according to the novels she has read, a farm should be "orderly, compact, cultivated." When she looks at her parents' farm, what she sees is the wild, encroaching bush, against which the "fields were a timid intrusion." Is she to believe what she had read or what she sees? Is she to do what she is told or what she wants? Unfortunately for her, she believes what she reads and does what she is told. Instead of fulfilling the heroic promise of her name, by the end of the novel Martha has been trapped by a system she despises and fears. She is a knight-errant who has gone nowhere. She is a quester without a grail, married to a know-all who knows nothing. She is, in short, a heroine.
In the ironically titled A Proper Marriage (1954), Lessing continues to de(con)struct the fiction of wedded bliss that has managed to seduce even the skeptical and uncooperative Martha Quest. As she did in The Grass is Singing, here too Lessing shows the interaction between the social and the political fictions that are operative in her heroine's life, highlighting the emptiness of Martha's marriage against the apparently more meaningful political activities of her leftist friends. In this novel also, Martha turns to books for aid in understanding her life. Unhappily married to the callow and rather insensitive Douggie Knowell, she relies on various "handbooks" to explain the situation, taking considerable comfort in the fact that her problems are the universal problems of women. After she and Douglas make love without contraceptives, for example, she angrily quotes the "book of words" to him that it is now too late to stop "those little dragons" of his (emphasis added). Hoping to make sense of her life and her marriage, she kneels by the bookcase: "Books. Words. There must surely be some pattern of words which would neatly and safely cage what she felt—isolate her emotions so that she could look at them from outside" (emphasis added).
As dependent as she is on books to help her, when she thinks it is likely she will at some point become her mother all over again, she "had no words to express this sense of appalling fatality which menaced everyone, her mother as well as herself" (emphasis added). One reason she has no words could lie in Martha's "half-formulated though that the novelists had not caught up with life; for there was no doubt that the sort of things she or Stella or Alice talked about found no reflection in literature." This surely is a broad textual hint that Lessing herself is in the process of creating a new kind of literature—a new fiction where women like Martha (and presumably like Lessing herself) can find themselves. Not only does Martha continually make reference to fiction and books, so does the narrator (speaking, one presumes, for the author herself). In a paragraph that describes how Martha is deeply affected by "an unsympathetic description of a character similar to her own in a novel," the narrator remarks that "it is of no use for artists to insist … that their productions are only 'a divine play' or 'a reflection from the creative fires of irony,' etc., etc." Later, describing Martha's revulsion to Douglas, the narrator states: "There is a type of woman—although whether she is a modern phenomenon or has always existed is not a question for novelists—who cannot bear to be found wanting physically" (emphasis added). Remarking on some of these scenes, DuPlessis notes that these early novels "undertake the discrediting of the conventional life of women—in romance, marriages, affairs, motherhood, the nuclear family, and other family ties." But she apparently does not see that this discrediting amounts to a metafictional attack on the fictions of romance, marriage, affairs, etc. Yet the attack permeates the entire series—slyly but unremittingly undermining the authority of all fictions.
One way it consistently undermines fictional constructs is by showing how inadequate they are in helping Martha complete her quest for meaning and selfhood. For whichever way she turns, be it to the myths of romance or those of politics, she is doomed to disappointment—as we see in A Ripple from the Storm (1958), where Lessing invokes the familiar (and by now self-parodic) metalanguage of Marxism to make it even more abundantly clear how language systems seduce and isolate her heroine. In this novel, Lessing returns more openly to the thematic concerns of The Grass is Singing, where she juxtaposed the failures of marriage to those of politics. But here the politics under attack are the politics of the Left, those of the communist sympathizers. Just as Martha Quest fairly shimmers with allusions to romantic love, A Ripple from the Storm reeks with Marxist jargon, as various "comrades" try to impose their vision of the future on a basically indifferent society. Thus we are treated to such gems of rhetoric as Anton's claim that he and his comrades have "the responsibility to be living in a time when mankind takes the first great step forward from the barbarity and chaos of unplanned production to the sunlight of socialism." Or his statement, repeated so often as to become a parodic motif, "'Comrades, it seems clear that we must analyze the situation.'" It is not insignificant that Martha marries this communist orator—thus merging the two themes. For Anton proves to be as inept a husband and lover as he is a communist, leaving Martha once more longing for "that man who must surely be somewhere close and who would allow her to be herself."
Although it is our major socio-political language systems that bear the brunt of Lessing's attack in these first four novels, literary fiction itself does not escape unscathed. By suggesting that her heroines have been formed by the books they read, for example, Lessing demonstrates in no uncertain terms exactly how conventional novels work to entrap and subdue women—thus helping to reinforce Rachel Blau DuPlessis's premise that "ideology is coiled … in narrative structure." But what can be used to defend an ideology can also be used to attack it. When Lessing uses narrative to discredit and dismantle socio-political fictions, therefore, she is in effect uncoiling the narrative—discrediting and dismantling the traditional literary fictions of realism itself, turning a former ally of social reality into its enemy.
If I am correct in reading these books as metafiction, why have we missed it before? I think because Lessing herself still claimed as late as 1957 [in "The Small Personal Voice"] that realism was the "highest form of prose writing" an author could choose and because she virtually buried her metafiction in such conventional looking novels. Why would she do this? In part, because her models were the nineteenth-century realists she so esteemed. And as a self-taught writer, it was only reasonable that she should at least try to emulate them. But I think even as she tried to model her writing after them, she knew intuitively it would never work. After all, how could nineteenth-century European realism begin to accommodate the ideas of an unrepentantly rebellious twentieth-century South African woman? It boggles the mind even to consider the possibility of confining Lessing to the restrictive codes of traditional realism. Although she herself might not have been able to articulate the problems she was having with realism in the 1950s, I think on some level she knew precisely what they were and why she had them. What she wrote, therefore, was a kind of reluctant or pseudorealism, a realism that contained the seeds of its own destruction. In short, what she wrote was metafiction—but metafiction of a fairly limited kind, not the fullblown metafiction of her later years. One rebels, after all, as best one can. So Lessing rebelled first of all against what she knew best: the fictions of marriage and apartheid. And, ironically enough, it was probably the ideas she gleaned from European realism that helped her make this initial break with her country's socio-political systems.
Lessing's early dissatisfaction with form can be seen in a quick comparison between Martha Quest and Emma (1816). When Jane Austen ends Emma with her heroine's marriage to the appropriately named Mr. Knightley, the irony is only situational, a reflection of Emma's youthful self-deception. Given her time and circumstances, it is probably best for Emma to marry Knightley; it is, therefore, a marriage we can all take pleasure in. But when Martha Quest marries the falsely named Douggie Knowell, the irony is both situational and generic: a reflection of Martha's failed rebellion and an implicit commentary on happy endings and the comic mode itself. It is not delightful that Martha is hoisted by her own petard; it is dreadful. It is most assuredly not a marriage for any of us to take pleasure in. In this novel Lessing merely implies metafictional contradiction. She could not yet see her way clear to "write beyond the ending," to use Rachel Blau DuPlessis's felicitous phrase. She could only indicate the inadequacy of traditional endings. She was limited in what she could do with Martha at the end, I would suggest, because old stories maintain a terrible grip on the imagination. Just as Martha was haunted in life by what she calls "the nightmare repetition" [A Proper Marriage] of women's fate, Lessing herself was still haunted by traditional realism. If Martha had refused to marry, what would she have done instead? It was a question Lessing could not yet answer.
It was only later, when she had fully mastered her craft, that she could rebel openly against the same fictions she had tried at first to model herself after. It was only then that she could invent her own tradition—providing firm support for Jorge Luis Borges's contention that "every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future." [In an endnote, Fishburn cites Jorge Luis Borges, "Kafka and His Precursors," in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, 1964. "Borges prefaces this remark with the following assertion: 'If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka's idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist.'"] Just as Kafka is seen in Borges's story to have invented his own precursors, revealing each of them in a striking new light, so too has Lessing invented hers. It has been a tradition that Borges himself would have appreciated, moving as it does both backward and forward in time, backward to the subversive women writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (only just now being revealed to us) and forward to those of the late twentieth. [In an endnote, Fishburn continues: "How many rereadings of early women's fiction have been made possible by the fact of Lessing's work? We shall never know, of course, but the literary criticism that has made these rereadings possible did not emerge in a vacuum, and I suspect that Lessing herself can be given some of the credit for freeing her critics from some of the traditional thought patterns we inherited from our instructors and their texts."] But it is also the case, I believe, that Lessing has created her own private tradition, limited to her own works. That is, the more she writes, the more we see in what she has already written. To be specific, once Lessing began to write beyond the ending, we suddenly realized she had been challenging it all along. And how did Lessing finally rupture the story? She turned her heroine into an author. In effect, she turned her into an updated version of herself. Finding in her own life an unconventional, unencumbered model for her fiction, she could finally free herself from Dickens and Tolstoy. It may be ironic, but it is hardly unexpected, that the writers who helped Lessing escape South Africa would become the second intellectual prison she had to break out of. For no fiction could contain her—not even her own.
Because of the political independence she had tenaciously maintained for herself in her earlier novels, by the time she came to write The Golden Notebook (1962), Lessing had established an intellectual base from which to critique all language systems. She says in the preface and elsewhere that writing this novel changed her, but she never spells out exactly how. One way it surely changed her was to liberate her once and for all from "the highest form of prose writing" and all those antediluvian literary ancestors she had been shackled with from birth. After several preliminary skirmishes in her first four novels, suddenly she could declare all-out guerrilla war: fully armed with craft and a newly defined purpose, she was finally in a position to subvert literary fiction in the same way she had been subverting social fictions all her life. But The Golden Notebook not only openly overthrows realistic fiction, it also implicitly undermines the status of everyday reality itself—a covert narrative action that would become a full-fledged assault in just a few years. But before Lessing could grapple directly with epistemological questions, she had to free an earlier heroine from the fictional prison she had constructed for her. Having completed The Golden Notebook, it was time to prepare Martha's escape from South Africa by naming and demolishing the social and political fictions that for too long had kept her heroine feeling "landlocked," a feeling which Lessing describes in the novel of that name. Once she got Martha out of Africa, it was easy; for she had made the break herself. Having herself left two husbands, two children, and an entire continent, it was getting easier all the time to write new plots for her own life. The least she could do for Martha was to bring her along. In The Four-Gated City (1969), she did just this. She broke the hold South Africa had on her fiction and transported her heroine to new shores and new adventures. In London Martha was free to explore new kinds of reality and so was the novel she lived in. As evidence of Martha's new status as free agent, Lessing unleashed a veritable Babel of language systems—including character sketches, Dorothy's lists, Martha's notes about madness and visionary insights—and let them, in Waugh's terms, "compete for privilege." Topping it all off was an apocalyptic science-fiction ending that catapulted her socalled "realistic" novel into the future.
Completely free from the restrictive fictions of historical realism and political systems, Lessing could then forthrightly challenge the fiction of reality itself—as she does in Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), a text that refuses to account for its competing fictional worlds. By presenting one of these realities exclusively through the narrative eye/I of one character, she reminds us that reality is what we "say" it is. By portraying two competing coequal realities, which both depend on language for their existence, she reminds us that fiction and reality have the same provisional ontological status. Then in The Summer Before the Dark (1973) Lessing reminds us again of the failed fictions of domesticity. Like Lessing's earlier heroines, Kate Brown too has been seduced and abandoned by marital happiness. The novel is replete with hints of its metafictionality. The language systems here consist of the "blueprints" for marriage Kate and her husband draw up, the "false" language of memory, and the symbolic language of dreams. And Kate's expertise is, after all, as a translator; to the people who hire her "she was language." Using her new status and job as a way to break the stultifying pattern of her marriage, Kate learns to live beyond the ending by heeding the message of her dreams, thus replacing one language system with another more meaningful one. A similar but more profound doubling of realities takes place in The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974). Here Lessing describes the life of an anonymous woman who is able to live in two alternate worlds, one a rough sketch of the near future, another a combination of the recent past and a dream world. As strange and incomprehensible as some of this book is, Lessing nonetheless continues to identify it as her "attempt at autobiography." By identifying it as such, she invites us to read it metafictionally as a commentary on the form itself—strongly implying that anyone's life story is (merely) fiction. But the book is also a commentary on the fictionality of reality itself—which, as Waugh reminds us, is the ultimate message inherent in all metafiction.
It probably goes without saying that the entire Canopus in Argos (1979–1983) series is metafictional, focusing as it does on chroniclers, editors, and narrators, as well as a myriad of competing language systems (reports, histories, letters, diaries, political rhetoric, propaganda, songs, etc.). This series, as I argue in The Unexpected Universe of Doris Lessing (1985), is written in such a way that it calls attention to its own rhetorical devices, making self-conscious readers of us. At the same time, Lessing challenges the assumptions and principles of some of our most powerful language systems—the institutions of religion, politics, and science. Her purpose in these five novels, as in Briefing for a Descent into Hell and The Memoirs of a Survivor, is to question the fabric of reality itself. Drawing on the principles of Eastern mysticism and those of particle physics, Lessing uses her fiction to challenge the Cartesian dualities that inform the Western world's concept of reality. In short, these books remind us that what we take for reality is only fiction—a familiar but entirely provisional construct—and what we take for "realism" is only an attempt to shore up the fiction of reality. In short, they are metafiction at its best. And it is precisely because these seven novels are all so clearly metafictional that we have finally been able to see the less obvious metafiction in Lessing's other novels.
Having established the metafictional aspects of Lessing's earlier novels, this leaves three later books to account for. The first two, The Diary of a Good Neighbor (1983) and If the Old Could … (1984)—republished together under the title The Diaries of Jane Somers (1984)—consist of novels that are disguised as diaries, written by a novelist disguised as a journalist disguised as an editor and author of romantic fiction, who quite self-consciously writes the diaries we read as novels. By writing these novels under the pseudonym "Jane Somers" Lessing has managed to turn herself into a fiction; as she says in the introduction to the single volume, "as Jane Somers I wrote in ways that Doris Lessing cannot." The third book is another metafictional novel craftily disguised as realism. But just as Briefing and Memoirs contain their own internal contradictory texts, so too does The Good Terrorist (1985). Its heroine, having identified herself as a terrorist by repudiating her parents' bourgeois life, nonetheless still speaks in their voice—complaining after one political demonstration, for example, that she hadn't got "her money's worth." Her combination of double-vision and double-speak occurs in another scene, when she sees a group of blue-collar workers in a restaurant. At first she feels warmly toward them, thinking "The salt of the earth!" Then she notices their greasy food and thinks "Cholesterol." Seeing what they are reading, she finally dismisses them with the phrase "Only lumpens." At another point, she characterizes the middle class as "Bloody, filthy accumulating … creeps"—only to reflect shortly afterwards that one of her co-tenants "hasn't got the expertise of the middle class."
Although she tries very hard to become a terrorist like her friends, she is the one who phones in a warning about the bomb they are about to set off. And the same world that her co-conspirators would destroy without thought or remorse, Alice tries valiantly to resurrect in the guise of the house they live in. In so doing, she symbolizes the "good terrorist" in Lessing herself. For as we have seen, throughout her writing career, Lessing has engaged in political terrorism of a literary kind by using the conventions of fiction against themselves. Unlike poor Alice's somewhat feeble efforts, Lessing's terrorism has also been epistemological, a direct challenge to our sense of reality. As drastic as her purpose has been, however, she has often housed her ideas in very domestic-looking fiction. In fact, she has frequently used a house itself as the symbol of psychological or ontological change. So what might appear in this novel to be a fairly innocent account of a misguided terrorist is another in a long line of books with a revolutionary purpose. Seen in the context of Lessing's other fiction, the house that Alice brings back to life/repairs/renovates/renews is the house of fiction/politics/society/reality that Lessing herself brings back to life/repairs/renovates/renews.
In her efforts to heal, Alice is also symbolic of Lessing. Although Alice does not succeed in healing society at large, she does save her suicidal comrade from death. And she also saves the house they have been living in; for, after she renovates it, the Council decides to convert it to flats rather than demolishing it as once planned. The house really symbolizes Alice's function in the story. For without being fully aware of the significance of her acts, she is trying to do some good in saving this lovely old building. But in doing so, she gets little help or encouragement from either friends or Council in trying to get it repaired. In short, to borrow a phrase from Stanley Fish, she is a character equivalent of the kind of author he calls the "good physician." As Fish uses the term in Self-Consuming Artifacts, the "metaphor of the good physician" describes an author who has the intention of telling "patients what they don't want to hear in the hope that by forcing them to see themselves clearly, they may be moved to change the selves they see." It is clearly a term that is applicable to Lessing's purpose in this novel. As she has done so often before, in this account of failed terrorism Lessing illuminates our faults—trying as so often to heal the body politic by telling us what we do not want to hear.
But Lessing is not just the "good physician" in this novel; she is also, as elsewhere, the good meta-physician: one who deals with questions of ultimate reality and the nature of knowledge itself. As a good meta-fictionist, from her first novel to her latest, she continues to tantalize us with the thought that all reality is but fiction—from our fondest dreams to our greatest fears. And in The Diaries of Jane Somers she reminds us that even Doris Lessing is a fiction—as is the Lessing of this paper. The paradox that she has so loved to play with is that she has been forced to use fiction to de(con)struct the fictions we live in. It is only fitting, therefore, that she free us from her own fictional constructs by de(con)structing them. Thus she has simultaneously held a fictional mirror to her readers' lives and broken that mirror in an effort to free us from its frame. Rather than looking to her early fiction only for self-portraits we would do well, therefore, to look to it for narrative instruction on how to break the codes that would constrain us—be they social, political, or literary. Mary Turner, Martha Quest, and Susan Rawlings might have been seduced by the script, but their author was not. Instead of repeating the old pre-scriptive and pro-scriptive conventions found in realistic fiction, Lessing has invented her own narrative strategies for subverting them. In so doing, she has given readers invaluable de-scriptions of how to rewrite fiction to suit ourselves. Readers and writers alike—men and women both—would all do well to embrace Doris Lessing not as "their realist" but as "their metafictionist"—a code-breaker par excellence.
But is she doing something that is all that different from other women writers today?
I think not. For, after all, much contemporary women's fiction is quite overtly metafictional. Maureen Howard's elegant Expensive Habits (1986) is metafictional in much the way E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel (1971) is. Dyan Sheldon wittily challenges myths of love and romance in Victim of Love (1982), which also contains a story within a story that is written by the protagonist's husband—himself a would-be novelist. In The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983), Fay Weldon gives a brutally amusing twist to the story of how a wronged wife prevails over the "other woman" by quite literally becoming her. Alice Walker clearly "writes beyond the ending" in Meridian (1976), where she rejects both the old storylines and the old myths about being female and black. Angela Carter reconstructs old fairy tales from a feminist perspective in The Bloody Chamber and Other Adult Tales (1979). Joanna Russ does the same thing for science fiction in her classic novel The Female Man (1975). Maxine Hong Kingston reinvents the autobiography in The Woman Warrior (1976) by focusing less on herself than on her female ancestors, making stories up when history is incomplete. Monique Wittig throws out the basis of most realistic fiction, including plot and character, in her feminist utopian novel Les Guérillères (1969). Iris Murdoch warns us of the dangers of seeing other people's lives as fiction in The Unicorn (1963), where two of the main characters both believe they are participating in a modern-day fairy tale—as, of course they are! And Anita Brookner invites the smudging of distinctions between fiction and reality in Look at Me (1983), where we watch the narrator give novelistic form to the events of her "real" life.
But as clearly as these books are metafictional, there are others, like some of Lessing's work, that are less clearly so. One problem in identifying them, as Molly Hite suggests in a recent [unpublished] paper on Lessing, has been that critics haven't known quite what to look for. Trapped by the tradition of male metafictional writers, we have not yet seen what constitutes women's metafiction. The problem is compounded by the fact that critics haven't always known what women's realistic fiction amounts to either, trapped as we have been by what Roland Barthes calls the doxa. In "Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women's Fiction," Nancy K. Miller reviews the way women's novels have been dismissed when they did not conform to the requirements of the doxa or the principle of vraisemblance, which she translates as "plausibility" ["Emphasis Added" is in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, edited by Elaine Showalter, 1985]. Defining the term as "an effect of reading through a grid of concordance," she suggests: "If no maxim is available to account for a particular piece of behavior, that behavior is read as unmotivated and unconvincing." Fiction that dares to violate the maxim, therefore, runs the risk of being dismissed as implausible and unworthy of serious critical attention. She concludes by arguing that "the plots of women's literature are not about 'life' and solutions in any therapeutic sense, nor should they be. They are about the plots of literature itself, about the constraints the maxim places on rendering a female life in fiction." In short, she implies that all women's writing is metafictional, because it all, in one respect or another, comments on the fictions we read or the fictions we live by. This view finds support in Joanna Russ's previously mentioned essay in which she reminds us that most of our traditional plots are male plots and thus not available to women. It also finds support in Rachel Blau DuPlessis's idea that twentieth-century women writers are breaking out of the old scripts and writing beyond the ending. In telling their own stories—inventing their own plots—could not all women, then, be writing metafiction?
I suggest they are. I propose, therefore, that we work from the premise that all women's fiction, until proven otherwise, is metafictional.
It is true that some feminist critics have expressed serious reservations about adopting the term. Molly Hite, for example, cautions feminist critics to adopt it only after they have carefully considered whether it is indeed one they want to appropriate from a "male and masculinist tradition." Although her reservations are valid ones, I have two reasons for urging the immediate adoption of the term. The first reason is the political one described by Nina Auerbach in "Engorging the Patriarchy," where she urges women to "absorb the patriarchy before it embraces—and abandons—us into invisibility" [see Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship, edited by Shari Benstock, 1987]. By appropriating the concept of "metafiction" in the way I have suggested, feminist criticism would have the opportunity, in effect, to regard "male metafiction" as a subspecies of "women's fiction"—or, to borrow the French term, one example of the many subversive, disruptive discourses known as l'écriture féminine. [In an endnote, Fishburn states that the phrase comes from Julia Kristeva; Fishburn also cites significant essays on the subject: Ann Rosalind Jones, "Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of l'Écriture féminine," in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, ed. Elaine Showalter (1985); Toril Moi, "Marginality and Subversion: Julia Kristeva," in her Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (1985); and Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora et al. (1980).] The second reason I would urge us to adopt the term is that it is so well suited to describe the de(con)structive activity of women's fiction, especially because it helps to draw theory and practice together. For, ultimately, metafiction is a liberating concept, empowering us to rewrite all the fictions of our lives—even the doxa. [In an endnote, Fishburn continues: "In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (trans. Richard Howard [New York: Hill and Wang, 1977]), Barthes defines the Doxa as 'Public Opinion, the mind of the majority, petit bourgeois Consensus, the Voice of Nature, the Violence of Prejudice.' What he says of the 'two monstrous modes of rhetorical domination: Reign and Triumph' is also suggestive for the project of women's metafiction. The Doxa he describes as being 'content to reign; it diffuses, blurs; it is a legal, a natural dominance.' In contrast, 'militant language, whether revolutionary or religious … is a triumphant language: each action of the discourse is a triumph à l'antique: the victors and the defeated enemies are made to parade past.' Although he is speaking of social discourses here, it would appear that women's metafiction could be described as a kind of 'militant language,' a discourse that parades its victory over its defeated enemies by rupturing the very texts that would silence it."] Like Lessing's early novels, models are everywhere waiting to be unmasked. Once we give them our attention, we will see that hidden in even the most innocent seeming texts are more than paper tigers. Behind the mask of women's realism we will find texts that contain their countertexts, fictions that contain their anti-fictions, wor(l)ds within words without end.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1655
Doris Lessing 1919–
(Born Doris May Tayler; has also written under the pseudonym Jane Somers) Persian-born English novelist, short story writer, essayist, dramatist, poet, nonfiction writer, journalist, and autobiographer.
The following entry provides an overview of Lessing's career from 1988 through 1995. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 15, 22, and 40.
Considered among the most significant writers of the postwar generation, Lessing has explored many of the most important ideas, ideologies, and social issues of the twentieth century. Her works display a broad range of interests and concerns, including racism, communism, feminism, psychology, and mysticism. The major unifying theme of her work is the need for individuals to confront their most fundamental assumptions about life as a way of avoiding preconceived belief systems and achieving psychic and emotional wholeness.
Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran) to English parents who moved their family to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when she was still very young. She was educated in a convent school and then a government-run school for girls before her formal education ended at the age of thirteen. Always a precocious reader, Lessing had excelled at school and continued her education on her own through the wealth of books her mother ordered from London. By age eighteen, Lessing had written two drafts for novels and was selling stories to South African magazines, although she would not publish her first novel, the autobiographical The Grass Is Singing—which centers on an unhappy woman living on an impoverished, isolated farm in Rhodesia—until 1950. In 1939 she married Frank Wisdom, a much older man, with whom she had two children that she neglected and left in the care of relatives. The marriage, which lasted only four years, inspired A Proper Marriage (1954), considered one of her most autobiographical novels. Lessing joined the Communist Party in the early 1940s—she severed her ties to the party during the early 1950s—and subsequently met and married Gottfried Lessing, a Jewish German with whom she had a son, Peter. The marriage was short-lived, however: Gottfried went to East Germany and Lessing and Peter moved to England. She has lived in London since 1949.
Lessing's first novel, The Grass Is Singing, was one of the first books to confront the issue of apartheid. In this story of an impoverished white couple's farm life, the wife vents her hatred of her social and political situation on a black man, whom she eventually provokes into killing her. The novel established two of Lessing's early major concerns: racism, or "the colour bar," and the way that historical and political circumstances can determine the course of a person's life. Lessing also established a strong reputation as a short story writer early in her career. Among her most acclaimed volumes of short fiction are Five: Short Novels (1953), The Habit of Loving (1957), and African Stories (1964), all of which deal with racial concerns in African settings and with the emancipation of modern women. Her growing reputation was secured with the highly acclaimed "Children of Violence" series, in which she traces the intellectual development of Martha Quest, a fictional heroine who resembles Lessing in several ways. Martha, like Lessing, is a "child of violence" born at the end of World War I, raised in the bleak postwar era of social struggle, and faced with the tragedies of World War II. In the course of the series, as Martha progresses from personal, self-centered concerns to a larger awareness of others and the world around her, she pursues various beliefs to gain psychic wholeness. Martha Quest (1952) is a bildungsroman in which Martha attempts to escape her restricted upbringing and her domineering mother. A Proper Marriage and A Ripple from the Storm (1958) recount Martha's two unsuccessful marriages to politically oriented men and her involvement in left-wing, anti-apartheid, and communist activities. Landlocked (1966), a novel considered by many to be an abrupt departure from the realistic concerns of the series, reflects Lessing's emerging interest in telepathy, extrasensory perception, and Sufism, an offshoot of Islam that proposes that mystical intuition should replace rationalism as a means of alleviating world problems. In this novel, which focuses on Martha's mother, May, Martha travels to England and experiences an apocalyptic vision. Britain, and then the world, are destroyed in The Four-Gated City (1969), a novel in which Martha comes to realize the limitations of rational thought and seeks to embrace and understand the higher truth of her intuition. Although faulted for its radical ideas, this novel was praised for its skillful evocation of apocalyptic and psychic elements. The Golden Notebook (1962) is widely considered Lessing's masterpiece. This complex novel centers on Anna Freeman Wulf, various aspects of whose life are collected in four notebooks, each of a symbolic color, and are viewed from numerous perspectives. Parts of a novel Wulf is writing are juxtaposed with sections from the four notebooks; the sections can be read in many ways to assume different levels of significance. The "golden notebook" of the title is Anna's desperate attempt through art to integrate her fragmented experiences and to become whole in the process. The Summer before the Dark (1973), one of Lessing's most popular novels, centers on a middle-aged woman who has a brief affair with a younger man as a means of rediscovering her identity. During the 1970s, Lessing began writing what she called "inner space fiction." These works reveal the influence of Carl Jung and particularly R. D. Laing, a well-known radical psychologist who proposed that insanity is merely a convenient label imposed by society on those who do not conform to its standards of behavior. In Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), two psychiatrists attempt to restore a delirious Cambridge professor to their idea of sanity. The professor undergoes an odyssey through the space/time warp of his own psyche, envisioning the oneness of creation and a future apocalypse. This novel hinges on the question of whether his vision is valid or the product of hallucination. The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) expands upon a similar idea. In this novel, Lessing suggests that humanity, given a choice between extinction or a radical change of values and behavior, must reject rationalism and develop a more intuitive approach to existence and survival. In the late 1970s, Lessing dismissed her acclaimed realist work as trivial and began a "space fiction" series, "Canopus in Argos: Archives." In these volumes, three competing galactic empires—the benign Canopeans, self-centered Sirians, and evil Shammat—are revealed to have manipulated earth history to retain a gene pool for their own immortality. These forces continue to influence events on earth through the intervention of immortal beings. Shikasta (1979), the first volume of the series, is a collection of records accumulated by Johor, a Canopean agent whose mission is to divert humanity from the destructive course set by the Shammat. The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five (1980) is an allegory that centers on an enforced marriage between rulers of two seemingly antithetical regions in the hope of adapting a peaceful coexistence. The Sirian Experiments (1981) consists of a series of documents in the manner of Shikasta narrated by a female member of an insensitive colonial administration. The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982) evidences Lessing's interest in dystopian themes in its story of a slowly freezing planet whose inhabitants expire while awaiting a promised transport to a warmer environment. Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire (1983) is a satire on language in which rhetoric is used as a tool for social enslavement. Writing under the pseudonym of Jane Somers, Lessing published two novels, The Diary of a Good Neighbor (1983) and If the Old Could … (1984), to dramatize the problems faced by unknown writers and to receive unbiased critical appraisal. Ten publishers rejected the first novel, and when it appeared in a limited, hardcover edition, many literary magazines ignored it altogether. The major concerns of the Somers books are similar to those of Lessing's feminist works: love, loneliness, and the problems of women. Both novels feature the diaries of Janna, whom critics presume represents Somers/Lessing. Following Lessing's exposure of the pseudonym, both works were collected under Lessing's name and published as The Diaries of Jane Somers (1984). In the novel The Good Terrorist (1985), a middle-class woman's extreme liberal idealism leads her to organize a group of would-be counterculture revolutionaries who commit an act of terrorism. Here Lessing examines the role of such rhetorical devices as political slogans in contemporary life. Somewhat similarly, The Fifth Child (1988) concerns a violent, antisocial child who wreaks havoc on his family and society. The first volume of Lessing's autobiography, Under My Skin (1994), covers the first thirty years of her life in Persia and Rhodesia, up to her departure for London in 1949. The first half of the book examines her unhappy childhood on a Rhodesian farm with her parents and younger brother. In the second half of the book, Lessing focuses on her early writing and her two failed marriages.
Lessing is generally recognized as one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. Using detailed, realistic descriptions, symbolism, and imagery to evoke a wide range of environments and moods, Lessing achieves what Edward J. Fitzgerald termed "tension and immediacy" in her work. Critics argue that her enlightened portrayal of marriage and motherhood, her anti-apartheid stance, and her experimentation with genre and form have made her an exciting—and often controversial—literary figure. Although many critics have not thought highly of her science fiction and mystical works, contending that her abandonment of realism entailed neglecting the social analysis that made her earlier works so valuable, Jeannette King argues that even "in her most experimental fantasies, Lessing has consistently explored the relationship between the individual psyche and the political, sexual, and religious ideologies that structure it…. For if Lessing's work has a single 'message,' it is probably this: only by distancing ourselves from our own most deeply held assumptions and beliefs can we ensure individual or social growth."
Virginia Tiger (essay date Autumn 1990)
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SOURCE: "'Taking Hands and Dancing in (Dis)Unity': Story to Storied in Doris Lessing's 'To Room Nineteen' and 'A Room,'" in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 36, No. 3, Autumn, 1990, pp. 421-33.
[Tiger is a Canadian critic and educator. In the following essay, she focuses on Lessing's short stories "To Room Nineteen" and "A Room" in her discussion of the author's use of narrative voice and realistic literary techniques. Tiger also examines the ways in which these two stories relate to the novels Lessing constructed from them, The Summer Before the Dark and The Memoirs of a Survivor, respectively.]
"To see" is the dominant verb in the realist text "à la gastronomie de l'oeil" as Balzac expressed it—and realist fiction is preeminently concerned with seeing, with a seeing in detail.
—Mark Seltzer ["The Princess Casamassima: Realism and the Fantasy of Surveillance," Nineteenth-Century Fiction 35 (1981)]
To view Doris Lessing's short fiction in relation to "the coercive network of seeing, power and surveillance" (Seltzer) that characterizes the literature of the realist enterprise invites triply the hazardous. Of first concern is the author's well-known opposition to theoretics. On principle, Lessing dismisses critical terms like realism (and its contemporary companion, feminism) as prescriptive about rather than descriptive of her project. Her position (itself prescriptive, especially as polemicized in the 1971 Introduction to The Golden Notebook, the 1979 Remarks upon Shikasta, and the 1984 Preface to The Diaries of Jane Somers) would seem to suggest hostility as much to the realist readings as to those of the feminist. Of second concern—although this has yet to be critiqued—Lessing aligns herself with those critics and readers who take as axiomatic that the authoring of texts represents an unassailable authoritative act. Hers becomes the claim that intertextual contexts can be ignored. Third—and finally in this article's critical speculations—there are the problematics of the shorter fiction. To speak of short and long fiction is to make the assumption that distinguishing between one kind of text and the other is defensible, a distinction encouraged by the practice of such writers as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, and the later Nabokov. Like them, Lessing has extrapolated from and transformed several of her short stories, reembedding them in longer narratives. Forming an enriching—although not so very rigorously examined—part of her work, the sixty or more short stories raise intertextual matters about the shorter fiction's relation to the longer works as well as intriguing questions about the overall production of text.
The stories seem to have been written during periods especially crucial to the author's development, as has been observed in a discussion of Lessing's first decade in England [see Claire Sprague and Virginia Tiger, "Introduction," Critical Essays on Doris Lessing, 1986]. These turbulent, prolific years—the 1950s—saw a political novel, two reportorial works, plays, poems, essays, and reviews as well as a regiment of short stories. Appearing first in such magazines as the New Statesman and Nation, Encounter, the Partisan Review, and the Kenyon Review, the stories "contain[ed] most of the themes of her major novels, including concerns that did not clearly emerge till later" [Jean Pickering, "The English Short Story in the Sixties," The English Short Story: 1945–1980, edited by Dennis Vannatta, 1985]. More than several of the stories from this period anticipated what in the 1970s appeared to be new dimensions in Lessing's fiction. Their marking of shifts in ideology and narrative strategies amounted to the laying of foundations for what Betsy Draine has since identified as the competing attitudes and warring styles upon which the later work was constructed [Substance Under Pressure: Artistic Coherence and Evolving Form in the Novels of Doris Lessing, 1983]. As Lessing's longer fiction has moved away from the realism and materialism of the first series, Children of Violence 1952–1969, toward the speculative fantasy and mysticism of the second series, Canopus in Argos 1979–1983, the English stories (in Britain collected in 1978 under the titles To Room Nineteen, Volume One and The Temptation of Jack Orkney, Volume Two) observed—sometimes, with a piercing malice—prevailing social arrangements. At the same time flickering across these canvases and diffusing overt meaning in the manner Jacques Derrida terms dissemination were incursions of the unreal, dream intimations, the unlocking of buried visions.
That there is an insistent continuity between the short fiction and the longer works seems incontrovertible. Several of the stories republished in the 1978 collection are related directly to later novels: Shikasta's (1979) intergalacticism earlier appeared as fictional landscape in "Report on the Threatened City" and the first Jane Somers novel, The Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983), derives inspiration and theme from "An Old Woman and Her Cat," a short story about an eccentric and ancient woman who outwits the agents of Social Welfare by hiding, like a crafty wild cat, in the crevices of London. These reweavings are tempered reimaginings, their strategy like Joyce's first play with Ulysses in a Dubliners' story to have been called "Mr. Hunter's Day." In contrast to such modified reimaginings, three stories by Lessing, "The Temptation of Jack Orkney," "A Room," and "To Room Nineteen" are substantially recast, finding their encodings in Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), The Summer Before the Dark (1973), and The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974). And importantly, these three novels (ones so solidly linked to and developing amply from the shorter fictions' initial explorations) mark an interlude between Lessing's two major narrative series. Briefing for a Descent into Hell, The Summer Before the Dark, and The Memoirs of a Survivor appear in the years between the realism of Children of Violence and the speculation of Canopus in Argos. To argue from story to storied, one could make a sound case for Lessing's success in and need to test fictive limits in her interrogation of fiction's capacity to represent what she takes to be reality.
It is less the continuity between the story and its storied encoding and more the problematics of the short story that will here be attended. More precisely, I want to explore two questions. First, does the foreshortened discourse in the short story result in texts of singularity: that is, texts not evidencing plurality. Second, do Lessing's short fiction rehearsals reveal an early impatience with the realist project and its impulse to document, control, and supervise "things as they are." To engage these questions, I will examine in some detail "To Room Nineteen" and "A Room," both of which appeared in A Man and Two Women (1958). In these two stories, Lessing offers exemplary models of writing in the neutral discourse of the realist mode. Nevertheless, by means of their ruptured narrative surfaces, the two stories make eruptive what usually remains under control in a realist text: the operations of the libidinal, the anarchic. And the thematics of opposition between the intelligible and the irrational, the everyday and the aberrant becomes apparent by the calculated strategy of disfiguring the world of the realist project so as to refigure its significance.
More than many others "To Room Nineteen," Lessing's much anthologized short fiction, demonstrates how problematic is the conventional notion that short stories thrive on unitary schema. For in this single text competes a diversity of narrative codes; indeed, the text seems at first to embarrass its own ruling system, showing contradictions that its novel counterpart, The Summer Before the Dark, does not embrace in its limpidly straightforward structure. Assessed significant enough in the production of the Lessing canon to lend its title to Volume One of the 1978 edition of her collected non-African stories—thus privileging by inference that period and narrative modality in subsequent discussions of Lessing's work—"To Room Nineteen" first appeared as the nineteenth as well as final story in the most self-reflexive of Lessing's collections, the anthology, A Man and Two Women. Rather more variegated, indeed uncertain, than the African collection This Was the Old Chief's Country (1951) in terms of thematic consistency, these British texts heralded what was then still the colonial marginality of their author by their persistent tone of deflected detachment. Observing with clinical condescension the troubled attachments of the sophisticated, liberal bourgeoisie, the stories judged and found wanting conventional social creatures—publicists, journalists, set designers, professional layabouts working on the edges of the arts in the London of the late fifties.
In these texts, the author demands authority. So insistently does omniscient point of view control that ironical distance seems more authorial performance than narratorial stance. The "panoptic" eye/I of the narration conveys impatience with social codes and roles, its tone sometimes even that of the spiritual sneer. As "To Room Nineteen"'s first sentence commands: "This is a story, I suppose, about a failure in intelligence: the Rawlings' marriage was grounded in intelligence."
Readers and critics alike have been seized by "To Room Nineteen," celebrated by one Lessing scholar as "one of Lessing's most moving … texts" [see Mona Knapp, Doris Lessing, 1984]. Introduced by way of summary and sketch is a middle-class English woman, a commercial artist sensibly married and sensibly attentive to her "handsome, blond, attractive" husband, a sub-editor on a large London newspaper. "And this is what happened," pronounces the narrative, its parodic discourse flat, dry:
Susan became pregnant, she gave up her job, and they bought a house in Richmond. It was typical of this couple that they had a son first, then a daughter, then twins, son and daughter. Everything right, appropriate, and what everyone would wish for if they could choose. But people did feel these two had chosen; this balanced and sensible family was no more than what was due to them because of their infallible sense for choosing right.
The effect of the discourse (what in another context has been described as Lessing's "exaggerated use of a particular linguistic register") is to undercut "the characters [so as] to make us feel that they are no more than puppets, creatures of convention" [Clare Hanson "Free Stories: The Shorter Fiction of Doris Lessing," Doris Lessing Newsletter 9, No. 1 (1985)]. The assertive commentary delivered by the narrator—who interrupts, interrogates, and then retires—intensifies the intended readerly perception that character is culturally scripted and behavior socially constricted:
And so they lived with their four children in their gardened house in Richmond and were happy. They had everything they had wanted and had planned for. And yet …
Well, even this was expected, that there must be a certain flatness …
Yes, yes, of course it was natural they sometimes felt like this. Like what?
Their life seemed to be like a snake biting its tail. Matthew's job for the sake of Susan, children, house, and garden—which caravanserai needed a well-paid job to maintain it. And Susan's practical intelligence for the sake of Matthew, the children, the house and the garden—which unit would have collapsed in a week without her.
What happens? Were this a text conforming to prescriptive definitions of the short story genre, Susan Rawlings would undergo change as a result of conflict, a change to which all elements in the narrative had contributed harmoniously and economically. However, so flattened is the portrayal of character that "To Room Nineteen" subverts conventional expectations, endorsing—it would first appear—the very typicality it has exposed through parody.
So what did it matter if they felt dry, flat? People like themselves, fed on a hundred books (psychological, anthropological, sociological), could scarcely be unprepared for the dry, controlled wistfulness which is the distinguishing mark of the intelligent marriage. Two people, endowed with education, with discrimination, with judgement, linked together voluntarily from their will to be happy together … one sees them everywhere, one knows them, one even is that thing oneself. (italics mine)
By means of the pronominal shift from first-person to third, an intertextual conspiracy is set up between the narrator's construction and that of the reader. The "I"/eye of the first line ("This is a story, I suppose, about a failure in intelligence" shortly becomes the "one"/[unitary] one where effected is the merging of reader and narrator into one unit. As the text quoted above insists "one sees them everywhere, one knows them, one even is that thing oneself" (italics mine).
And what happens? Having negotiated a sensible, intelligent marital détente at the age of forty or so, sensible, intelligent Susan Rawlings—her husband (although dallying in thin affairs) still very much a good husband, a good father, her four children off at school, her Richmond house managed by an agreeable housekeeper—goes mad. And the text too goes berserk, its surface coherence being, as Lessing remarked of The Golden Notebook, "shot to hell."
Like her counterpart, Kate Brown in The Summer Before the Dark, Susan Rawlings is that "well-documented and much-studied phenomenon, the woman with grown-children and not enough to do." Unlike Kate Brown, Susan Rawlings is not permitted a summer of solitude—the text's foreshortening strategies forbidding the integrative psychic voyage the longer fiction (with its obligatory longer-leashed development) allows. Invaded, like Kate, by restlessness, irritation, resentment, "emotions that were utterly ridiculous, that she despised," Susan tries to confront them calmly, intelligently: "She spoke to herself severely, thus: All this is quite natural. First, I spent twelve years of my adult life working, living my own life. Then I married … I signed myself over, so to speak, to other people. To the children. Not for one moment … have I been alone, had time to myself. So now I have to learn to be myself again. That's all."
By this point in the narrative's progression, the gesturing narrator has withdrawn from commentary, judgment being conveyed largely through the protagonist's stream of thought. To a degree, the strategy permits the individuation of what was first presented as a merely typical character. More important, it extends the identification of narrator/reader (earlier valorized in the pronominal "one") to include a now valorized protagonist. The reader observes from a centered vantage point of empathetic identification (the text's authorial sneer having vanished along with its posturing narrator) as Susan Rawlings—craving "a room or a place, anywhere, where she could go and sit, by herself"—takes steps away from her big, beautiful Richmond house in order to begin to reinhabit herself. The room nineteen of the story's title is the seedy Paddington hotel cell Susan hires and visits daily.
That this room of her own should be expropriated by a concerned, proprietary husband sending detectives contributes in overt ways to the text's dénouement as well as the context of its reception by readers. The "easing hours of solitude" are invaded, as the text implores: "Several times she returned to the room, to look for herself there, but instead she found the unnamed spirit of restlessness, a pricking fevered hunger for movement, an irritable self-consciousness that made her brain feel as if it had coloured lights going on and off" inside it. Like her nineteenth-century counterpart, The Awakening's Edna Pontellier, Susan returns a final time to the place of her awakening and—turning on the gas—swims into that ultimate anonymity: death.
As with Edna's self-immolation, Susan's suicide is unassimilable: a negation. "Why did she kill herself?" undergraduate and graduate students alike have exploded, "she should have gone back to work." "Or told her husband she was hurt by his infidelities," they expostulate, using the same pragmatic "intelligence" the story is intent on subverting. Graduate students have tempered their sense of the text's displacement by arguing from the context of received feminism. Both responses amount to a production of text resembling one given in, for example, a 1984 reductive reading—twenty odd years after the story's publication and two decades after the construction of the contemporary Anglo-American feminist critique: "The story clearly implies that without the colossal middle-class apparatus to tie her down, and without a patriarchal system to require that she cheerfully welcome her bondage, her personality would never have been eroded to the point of breakdown and suicide" (Knapp). As pedantic [as] this interpretation seems, it indicates how strenuously the voice of the nominally detached narrator commands and controls, how effectively the pronominal shift from "I" to "one" implicates the reader.
An alternate narrative code, submerged yet vital, calls into question any reading of the text as solely a realistic representation of contemporary women's estate. "To Room Nineteen"'s surface design conceals a less accessible narrative code in which the author, Doris Lessing, is exploring spiritual possibilities, mysteries on the other side of the given, the typical, the representatively real. Here the text insists that crises of the spirit are resolvable through meditative modalities, that fluid motility should be associated with libidinal desire. As in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, the ending of "To Room Nineteen" undercuts its primary text: in both, death is vital, fructifying, caressing. Forces bathe each heroine in solipsistic pleasure, giving truth to Freud's insight in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that death is the ultimate object of desire.
Susan Rawlings and her husband plan everything "intelligently," a word which appears in the text fifteen times, although its sense is carried, by my count, some fourteen additional times. Numerically the word allies itself with the cognate term "sensible" while warring with the libidinally evocative "garden," a word appearing sixteen times and whose metaphoric sense is carried through seven scenes in which the protagonist visits the oceanic, heterogeneous, and haunting realm beyond her big, mortgaged, and beautiful white Richmond house. "She went to the very end of the garden, by herself, and looked at the slow-moving brown river; she looked at the river and closed her eyes and breathed slow and deep, taking it into her being, into her veins." In this undergrowth with its "wild sullied river" she begins to prowl, a wild cat, "howling with rage." She is terrorized by an image of her spirit: a demon she imagines invading her, the devil of "reddish complexion and ginger hair" wearing "a reddish hairy jacket, unpleasant to the touch." Shortly, she will give this haunting hallucination form. "Well, one day she saw him. She was standing at the bottom of the garden, watching the river ebb past, when she … saw this person…. He was looking at her, and grinning … out of an absent-minded or freakish impulse of spite…." The wild cat who prowls through the thickened garden appears in another libidinal image: the "intelligent" Susan Rawlings standing before a mirror, brushing back near-electric hair, its Medusa energy crackling. Glancing at her own image, she "thought: Yet that's the reflection of a madwoman…. Much more to the point if what looked back at me was the gingery green-eyed demon with his dry meagre smile."
Eruptive narrative codes like these recall doubling strategies deployed by nineteenth-century female gothic modes. As the example of Jane Eyre in the red room instructs, women and mirrors are intimately linked. In Lessing the motif of the mirrored mad double registers (and dislodges) competing modes of consciousness as well as competing codes of narration. To shatter the glass is to set free the mirror's enclosed prisoner and the realist text's supervised captive: the mystery below fact's surface. Put another way, Susan Rawlings' voyage through the looking glass will take the wayfarer-soul to room nineteen, there to remake interiority by unmaking intelligence. The "dark creative trance" in which the protagonist is submerged by her author is an unsilencing of the irrational, libidinal pulse "intelligence" contrived to mute. Thus as disquieting as is the submerged/emergent text, its last sentence affirms the human spirit in all its heterogeneity: "She was quite content lying there, listening to the faint soft hiss of the gas that poured into the room, into her lungs, into her brain, as she drifted off into the dark river."
In this tale of narratorial making, unmaking, and remaking there are unearthed the powerful workings of desire, the story having traced those stages of release that allow its protagonist to be free at last. Yet it is at the greatest of expenses, this freedom. For authorial homicide has occurred; Susan Rawlings is dead, however gently the text swims round her. The second short story under examination—one sharing with "To Room Nineteen" as privileged symbol the room—offers a redeeming rather than promissory note. It represents as well a very different modality of short fiction, hardly a story at all but rather a mediation, a sketch, a sojourn in (rather than voyage to) consciousness—titled, tellingly, "A Room."
The title—invoking in feminist terms a now irreversible metaphor for physical, psychological, social, and gendered entrapment—recalls what the story will come to revoke. At the text's inauspicious beginning, an unnamed narrator observes: "When I first came into this flat of four small boxlike rooms, the bedroom was painted pale pink, except for the fireplace wall, which had a fanciful pink-and-blue paper." The opening sentence announces the realist project, its uninflected tone being buttressed by other familiar strategies of realism. Factual detail abounds: for example, information as incidental as the commercial name for a dark purple paint that covers a fireplace's obtrusive bulk, its presence thereby appealing to the readerly wish for stable, predictable fictional worlds.
There is as well the presumed unproblematic matter of narratorial veracity. The narrator's stance as a visual observer and authorial recorder—an eye and an "I"—augments the reader's sense of the room as particular, substantial, real. Made memorable by the recording scrutiny of the narrator are the room's ugly iron fire grate, the grainy lumpy wall beside a bed, blue curtains, plumcolored woodwork, the square solid bronze gas fire that strikes discordant notes. "So the whole wall doesn't work, it fails to come off," the disinterested narrator informs. Discursive commentary continues as the observing "I" annotates the flat's previous inhabitants and describes other occupants of the apartment building. For example, there is the Swedish woman in an identical flat one floor above. "Sometimes, when I sleep in the afternoons, which I do because afternoon sleep is more interesting than night sleep, she takes a nap too. I think of her and of myself lying horizontally above each other, as if we were on two shelves." Recorded are the blended sounds of footsteps, quarrelsome voices and rattling cups that drift from the apartment house through the flat's walls; interrogating the room's stillness, they soon become (like Susan Rawlings' green-eyed double) its spectral tenants.
Here, the realist's scrutiny—its fascination with seeing, reporting, supervising, and controlling significant detail—represents not compliance with convention but a witty narrative ploy. Essentially, the subversive strategy furthers the text's intent to have its readers collude in constructing the credible in order to reinforce a jettisoning of realist/materialistic assumptions. Thus the non-naming of the unnamed narrator in the context of a story characterized by reliance on detail dislodges another realist mainstay. Un-named the narrator is not named. Divesting the narrator of all but the first person pronominal identification implies she has neither proprietary nor proprietory name—from the perspective of property as a species of the material order.
Yet the text also proposes that the "I"/eye narrator is an autobiographical projection of the author, the not unnamed Doris Lessing: author in/of "A Room" by way of her performance before readers in the character of a writer. "I always drift off to sleep in the afternoons with the interest due to a long journey into the unknown," records the dream-intent author:
with the interest due to a long journey into the unknown, and the sleep is thin and extraordinary and takes me into regions hard to describe in a waking state. But one afternoon there was no strange journey, nor was there useful information about my work. The sleep was so different from usual that for some time I thought I was awake.
In the text's voyage through thresholds—another journey through the looking glass—is a crossing over into unfamiliar regions whose "facts" are to be placed beside the constraining certitude of the physical world.
As so often in Lessing's longer fiction, the dream state here in "A Room" announces the locus for transpersonal metamorphosis. Brooding on the hideous black iron grate, the writer/narrator experiences herself as a child sitting before a smoking fire; the walls are now unpainted, the room mean with poverty. It is a time of war, and she is desolate with loneliness, the smoke tearing the back of her throat. Just as evanescently as it has appeared, the dream ("or memory—whose?" wonders the writer) recedes. Left is the conviction that the other room exists, "under this room, or beside it, or in it." Frontiers distant from the apparent certitudes of representational scrutiny with which it began, the text settles back into stasis, closing with two questions: "what? And why?"
"To hear," not "to see," is the dominant prepositional verb in "A Room," despite the text's seductive use of the realist project. The frequency with which hearing is used on a level of description and act (by my count seventeen times as compared to seven references to sight) suggests the significance of the attentive listener, not the documenting scrutinizer. Privileged is the passive soft receiver, the "soft dark intelligence" so favored as heroic material in Lessing's novel, The Memoirs of a Survivor. And if "A Room" marks an early critique of the idea of personality as fixed, Memoirs' recasting of the shorter fiction represents a conclusive rebuttal of the realist assumptions in favor of impersonal psychic economies. In the longer fiction another unnamed narrator journeys through dissolving walls to rooms; as these merge and separate, the anonymous voyager overlaps with other selves, merging and separating. Like the land visited by "A Room"'s narrator, the one entered by Memoirs' protagonist hides behind the face of the factual world. Some visited spaces, the benevolent ones, remain empty "impersonal" images of desire while a recurrent "personal" nightmare grows to compelling shape in one overheated, overstuffed Edwardian setting. Entering one room to reshape the past by soothing a miserable child, the narrator instead finds herself experiencing the mother's emotions. The child she finally reaches is not the sad daughter but the oppressive mother, shifted back in time to her own frustrated infancy.
What emerges from the longer fiction is a text that threatens to dismantle itself, so "warring [are its] codes" (Draine). Nevertheless, Memoirs (like its germinal story, "A Room") provokes without pomposity. This cannot be said of Briefing for a Descent into Hell, the many layered novel whose "collage technique of … diary, letter, news report, science fiction speculation, medical dialogue, poetry, stream of consciousness, popular song, interpolated short story and afterward" (Sprague and Tiger) orchestrates bombastically a simple theme, one developed economically in what was the novel's donné, "The Temptation of Jack Orkney." The shorter fiction is a singular example of a capacious plot being foreshortened and a steadfast theme—the temptation to get religion—being relentlessly foregrounded. A conventional chronological narrative marks the slow process undergone by the eponymous protagonist following his father's death, a death which disturbs the middle-aged liberal into questioning all his beliefs. The action culminates in Orkney's awareness of the possibility of an invisible world; the landscape he inhabits at the story's end is analogous to the one visited by the unnamed narrator of "A Room." Nightly, Orkney enters behind "the face of the sceptical world"; his world of dreams is "another country, lying just behind his daytime one." Nightly, Orkney voyages through walls and past partitions, and navigates dream-realms as promissory in their libidinal energy as the dark river Susan Rawlings was designated to drift down.
In bringing these three stories to their conclusions, Lessing expands the range of her subversive discourse. Disorderings are not confined to the narrative conventions of the short story. For Lessing also appropriates and reformulates the more massive conventions that have structured Western mythologies for three centuries: the tropes and typologies of realism. Michel Foucault, we recall, suggests that the realistic fiction "forms part of that great system of constraint by which the West compelled the everyday to bring itself into discourse" ["The Life of In Famous Man," Michel Foucault: Power, Truth, Strategy, edited by Meagham Morris and Paul Pallon, 1979]. His is a claim that Doris Lessing—with her loathing of labels, her distrust of orthodox Western thinking, her increased impatience with the realist enterprise—might well applaud.
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The Grass Is Singing (novel) 1950
∗Martha Quest (novel) 1952
This Was the Old Chief's Country (short stories) 1952
Before the Deluge (drama) 1953
Five: Short Novels (novellas) 1953
∗A Proper Marriage (novel) 1954
No Witchcraft for Sale (short stories) 1956
Retreat to Innocence (novel) 1956
Going Home (essays) 1957
The Habit of Loving (short stories) 1957
Each His Own Wilderness (drama) 1958
Mr. Dollinger (drama) 1958
∗A Ripple from the Storm (novel) 1958
Fourteen Poems (poetry) 1959
In Pursuit of the English: A Documentary (novel) 1960
The Truth about Billy Newton (drama) 1960
The Golden Notebook (novel) 1962
Play with a Tiger (drama) 1962
A Man and Two Women (short stories) 1963
African Stories (short stories) 1964
∗Landlocked (novel) 1966
The Storm [adaptor; from a drama by Alexander Ostrovsky] (drama) 1966
Winter in July (short stories) 1966
Particularly Cats (autobiographical essay) 1967; revised edition entitled Particularly Cats … and Rufus, 1991
Nine African Stories (short stories) 1968
∗The Four-Gated City (novel) 1969
Briefing for a Descent into Hell (novel) 1971
The Story of a Non-Marrying Man, and Other Stories (short stories) 1972; also published as The Temptation of Jack Orkney, and Other Stories, 1972
The Singing Door (drama) [first publication] 1973
The Summer before the Dark (novel) 1973
The Memoirs of a Survivor (novel) 1974
A Small Personal Voice: Essays, Reviews, and Interviews (essays, reviews, and interviews) 1974
Collected Stories. 2 vols. (short stories) 1978; also published as Stories, 1978
†Shikasta (novel) 1979
†The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five (novel) 1980
†The Sirian Experiments (novel) 1981
†The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (novel) 1982
The Diary of a Good Neighbour [as Jane Somers] (novel) 1983
†Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire (novel) 1983
‡The Diaries of Jane Somers (novel) 1984
If the Old Could … [as Jane Somers] (novel) 1984
The Good Terrorist (novel) 1985
Prisons We Choose to Live Inside (essays) 1987
The Wind Blows Away Our Words (nonfiction) 1987
The Fifth Child (novella) 1988
African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe (nonfiction) 1992
The Real Thing (short stories) 1992
Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949 (autobiography) 1994
Playing the Game (graphic novel) 1995
Love, Again (novel) 1996
The Pit (short stories) 1996
∗These novels are collectively referred to as the "Children of Violence" series and the "Martha Quest" novels.
†These novels were published together under the title Canopus in Argos: Archives in 1992.
‡This work comprises two earlier novels, The Diary of a Good Neighbour and If the Old Could …, that Lessing published under the pseudonym Jane Somers.
John Bemrose (review date 24 August 1992)
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SOURCE: "London Calling," in Maclean's, Vol. 106, No. 34, August 24, 1992, p. 62.
[In the following positive review of The Real Thing, Bemrose singles out "The Pit" as "the collection's finest story."]
In 1777, the English writer and wit Samuel Johnson remarked, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." By that standard, British novelist Doris Lessing, 72, has a good deal of vitality left. She first arrived in London in 1949, a young, unpublished novelist from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) intent on winning her literary spurs in the imperial capital. More than 40 years and almost 40 books later, she still makes London her home. The city appears in the background of many of her works, including her ground-breaking 1962 novel about the lives of women, The Golden Notebook. But only in her latest collection of short stories and sketches, The Real Thing, does her beloved adopted home seem like a character in its own right. London "was like a great theatre," she writes in the sketch "Storms." "You could watch what went on all day, and sometimes I did. You could sit for hours in a café or on a bench and just watch."
In The Real Thing, Lessing's London-watching has unearthed a variety of human types and predicaments of the sort that would surely have delighted Dr. Johnson. Some of the entries are only a few pages long, yet they are remarkable at distilling the essence of people Lessing has observed. In the sketch "Sparrows," the narrator eavesdrops on a middle-aged couple in a restaurant garden. It soon becomes clear that their relationship has grown stale. But when the woman coaxes a timid fledgling sparrow to take the crumbs that she offers, her joy at her success strikes the scales from her husband's eyes. "For the first time since they had sat down there," Lessing writes, "he was outside his selfish prison and really seeing her."
Such pieces hover between journalism and fiction. They appear to be based on real-life incidents, but Lessing is too much the novelist to refrain from interjecting her favorite themes. Her career-long concern with the awkward dance between the sexes dominates "Her," a description of a London party in which a group of male politicians unwittingly exclude and demean a female colleague. As so often happens in Lessing's work, the woman seems more mature and resourceful than the boyish men around her. Lessing does not portray men as well as she does women, but in such stories as "D.H.S.S." and "The Mother of the Child in Question" she at least lends them a certain besieged dignity.
Besides the shorter observation pieces, The Real Thing also contains a handful of short stories in which Lessing's imagination is working at full throttle. The title story concerns two middle-class couples, Sebastian and Angela, and Henry and Jody. The four Londoners, all friends, are spending a weekend together at a country cottage. What complicates matters is that Henry and Angela used to be married to each other. The American Jody, Henry's girlfriend, is deeply troubled by the fond, talkative intimacy between the two former spouses. Indeed, they spend much of the weekend away together, attending to their sick daughter, who is staying at a nearby farm. That leaves Jody and Sebastian alone for hours on end. Inevitably, they fall into a long discussion of the situation, allowing Lessing to offer a fascinating meditation on the nature of maturity and emotional honesty.
The collection's finest story is "The Pit." Sarah, a woman who enjoys her life alone, is suddenly confronted by her ex-husband. James had left her years earlier for a beautiful woman named Rose. Now, Rose is having an affair with someone else. Crushed, James has come limping back to ask Sarah if she will have an affair with him. Sarah is tempted because James is still attractive, and the pain of his desertion has long since modulated into something more mellow. The tension in the story flows from Sarah's indecisiveness as she reviews her options and remembers her marriage.
One of the great achievements of "The Pit" is its portrait of Rose, who never actually appears in the story. Detail by detail, she comes to life in Sarah's perceptive mind, until the profoundly insecure, manipulative and theatrical Rose seems ready to walk off the page.
Like most of Lessing's best fiction, "The Pit" is an exploratory work that tests the limits of conscience and behavior. London is not mentioned: indeed, it is the sort of story that could happen almost anywhere. Yet London seems to hover in the background, the matrix of the fertile, unpredictable human mystery that Lessing loves.
K. Anthony Appiah (review date 28 June 1993)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5738
SOURCE: "The Art of Sympathy," in The New Republic, Vol. 208, No. 26, June 28, 1993, pp. 30-4, 36-7.
[Appiah is an English-born American critic and educator who has written extensively on philosophy, literature, and African culture. In the following largely positive review of African Laughter, he discusses some of the major themes of Lessing's work, namely her depiction of "the moral intricacy of human life."]
Early in African Laughter, Doris Lessing recalls a childhood visit to her brother's colonial school:
Everything was clean and tidy and there were green English lawns. I felt alien to the place. This was because I was alien to the English middle class, playing out its rituals here, as if on a stage. I knew even then they were anachronistic, absurd and, of course, admirable in their tenacity.
It is the last phrase, the sting in the tail, that alerts you that this is Lessing, not some moralizing theorist. Absurd people, of course, have admirable traits: that is one of the ways in which moral life, even the most passive moral judgment, is intricate. In the face of the glaring injustices of racial domination in Southern Rhodesia, it is a moral achievement to keep such complexities in mind; and to do so requires a clear-eyed attention to the everyday details of human life.
It is unfashionable in the literary academy to discuss such worn-out themes as the moral vision of novelists, the sort of thing that Lionel Trilling did those long years ago; and it is correspondingly de rigueur to expatiate upon their politics, and to complain about them. Since Lessing has often been weighed in a "progressive" political scale—that is, according to her views on racism, communism and feminism—there has been an especially strong pressure to neglect those aspects of her moral imagination that cannot be reduced to politics. And this is a disaster, since distinguishing between morality and politics is especially important with a writer like Lessing, whose moral intuitions so strongly resist implementation as a social program.
Lessing's first and last lesson—a lesson that has been announced by theorists but can only be grasped, it seems, through narrative—is precisely the moral intricacy of human life. She seems to have come out of Africa already aware of this complexity. You might have thought she had learned it from the circumstances of her upbringing, were it not a secret that many with histories like hers have not known.
Her circumstances were extraordinary enough. Though she was born in Iran, in 1919, to British parents, Lessing was raised in Southern Rhodesia. Her father, Alfred Cook Tayler, invalided (like so many) in the First World War, married (like so many) the woman who had nursed him back to health. After his wartime experiences, Tayler "could not face being a bank clerk in England," as Lessing once wrote, and so he took a job with the Imperial Bank of Persia. On leave in England in 1925, he saw a Southern Rhodesian display at one of the empire exhibitions, discovered that he could buy 3,000 acres at 10 shillings an acre and emigrated "on an impulse" with his wife and two children, Doris and her younger brother, Harry.
The land on which they lived had been alienated, like most of Rhodesia, by the colonial government, which had crowded the Africans into what were called "Native Reserves." Her father grazed cattle. In an autobiographical essay, his daughter reports that he
… cultivated about 300 acres of his land; the rest was left unused. He employed between 50 and 100 black men, and their wages were 12s. and 6d. a month, with rations of maize meal, beans and a little meat. The laborers came from the Reserves, Nyasaland [Malawi], Portuguese territory [Mozambique]. They built themselves a mud hut in the "compound." They were given a day to do this…. They worked from six in the morning till six at night with an hour off at midday, seven days a week in the busy season. These were the conditions of the whole country: my father was a better, more humane employer than most. But no one can be more humane than an economic framework allows one to be.
The nearest white neighbors were several miles off, and Rhodesian racial etiquette kept the Tayler children from real friendship with black children. Her brother was away at boarding school. So Lessing grew up with books and with the African landscape. Though she was sent to a convent school in Salisbury (now Harare), she was allowed to stop her formal education at 14, staying on in the city to work for a couple of years as a nanny, before returning to the family farm, convinced of her calling as a writer. At home and after school she educated herself, reading "the best—the classics of European and American literature." Two years later, having written and destroyed some "bad novels," she returned to Salisbury to work. Then, on the brink of the Second World War, she married a Rhodesian civil servant, with whom she had two children.
In 1942, in her early 20s, after the failure of her first marriage, she joined the local Communist Party and became, as she says, a "rackety 'revolutionary,'" "interested in the possibilities of black resistance." She had learned, as she grew up, that she did not want to belong to the master race in a society of white masters and black servants. Now the party gave to her conviction a theoretical framework and helped to complete her shapeless education. The party also provided the introduction to Gottfried Lessing, her second husband, a German Communist, whom she married in 1945. In 1949 she left Lessing and made her way to London, bearing his name, their young son and the manuscript of her first novel. "Let us put it this way: I do not think marriage is one of my talents," she told Roy Newquist in the early '60's.
But if marriage was not one of her talents, writing was. The novel in her baggage, The Grass is Singing (1950), brought her immediate acclaim. There were seven reprints within five months; reviewers pronounced her the finest new novelist since the war. A year later she published her first short stories in This Was the Old Chief's Country. In the next few years she published novels and short stories regularly, mainly set in Africa; and in 1956 she made a return visit to the country of her youth (which she described in Going Home, her first travel book). Lessing was not to return to that country for more than a quarter century, though she continued to write about Africa into the late '60s. She was declared a "prohibited immigrant" by the prime minister of Southern Rhodesia, who once sharply told her: "I wasn't going to have you upsetting our natives."
Though Lessing learned that she did not want to live as a white settler, she also discovered that white Rhodesia—for all its middle-class British snobbisms, its provincialism and tedium and its even more appalling blindness to the black lives that made possible its standard of living—was not without its virtues. This sense for the intricate has made Lessing impatient with politics and parties. The Rhodesian Communist Party, which was the creation of servicemen and various war exiles, was "so pure," she felt, that "if we had been in any other part of the world … the beautiful purity of the ideas we were trying to operate couldn't have worked." Faced with the considerably less pure British Communist Party, with its deference to Stalin and its odious political correctness (the term in those days had rather more meaning than it does today), Lessing rebelled, leaving the Party in 1956, and not simply, she has insisted, out of disgust with the Russian invasion of Hungary. Her entrance into the Rhodesian Communist Party reflected the seriousness of her moral engagement with the evils of racial domination, and her departure from the British Communist Party reflected the same moral seriousness.
That Lessing would not stay long with the Party should have been obvious to anyone who had read The Grass is Singing. The novel begins with a newspaper report of the death, apparently at the hands of her "houseboy" Moses, of Mary Turner, a white woman on a remote Rhodesian farm. As the book unfolds, we live through the events that have led up to this unlikely murder, following always the life of its victim.
Mary Turner is a strange, sad woman, suffering under the burden of obligations imposed upon her as a white woman by the sad, strange conventions of a colonial settler society. The novel is intensely humane in its attentiveness to the minutest details of the mental life of this central character: her small-mindedness and her ambitions, her silent rage at her uncomprehending husband, her longing for the life of the small town where she had worked as a secretary before her marriage. As her mind goes and her husband becomes more and more distant, she begins a sexual dalliance—its true scope only hinted at, never quite clear—with Moses. And when, near the end, caught in a moment of intimacy with him by a white neighbor, she dismisses this black man disrespectfully, we understand—we know it is not our business to forgive—this betrayal of the only human meaning in the withered landscape of her existence.
Throughout her career Lessing has been able to enter sympathetically into the lives of ordinary, morally fallible people, living in circumstances that make nobility impossible. The capacity of her unloveliest characters to engage the human in each other—even when they have inherited a racism that blinds and separates, even when the physical burdens of old age have made their lives tedious to them—is one of the finest achievements of Lessing's fiction. Nothing could be further in spirit from the mechanics of socialist realism.
The fact that Lessing combines compassion with nuance is important to appreciating African Laughter, her ruminations on four visits that she made back to the country of her youth after it finally achieved its independence as Zimbabwe in 1980. Her strictures carry so much weight because they flow from a clear and sympathetic appreciation of the humanity of those whom she observes, and especially because she is able to turn the same beady eye on those she admires, and even, surprisingly often, on herself.
On the first of these visits, for example, in 1982, Lessing found herself talking to the "garden 'boy'—the old word still used, quite unself-consciously"—of a white family with whom she was staying. Once the gardener's employers were out of earshot, he asked her
… if he could come and work for me, he needed to better himself…. He said he had seen rich black people on television and in films, and he wanted to be like them. This took me back thirty odd years, to when I used to sell Communist newspapers around a certain "Coloured" (that was the correct word politically then for people of mixed race) suburb in old Salisbury. While I preached informed opposition to white domination, I was being stopped on every street corner by aspiring young men who wanted to go to America where everyone was rich. I used to give them gentle lectures on the need to think of the welfare of All before self-advancement. What a prig. What an idiot. I can see myself, an attractive but above all self-assured young woman … with revolution as a cure for everything.
In our mistrustful times it will no doubt occur ungenerously to some that moments such as these are rhetorical ploys, designed to put careless readers off their guard: "See, I can criticize myself! You can have faith in my objectivity. You can rely on my criticisms of others." But this suspicious reading of such passages misses what is, I think, their moral thrust: they are meant to exemplify the balanced assessment of all sides, even one's own. Clearly Lessing believes that such balance is the only way to heal Zimbabwe's racial and ethnic wounds. Lessing, in short, is practicing what she preaches.
Another kind of skeptic will see in Lessing only another ex-lefty, banging on about the moral blindness of those who left the Party later than she did. This suspicion, too, is misplaced. Lessing is able to recognize the decent impulses that lie behind political rhetorics—on the left and the right—and that recognition does not weaken her loathing for oppression. The result is a kind of judicious human accounting, a credit here, a debit there, that is reflected in the episodic character of the book. Just when we have had too much of the bad news—corruption in high places, despair among the poor—Lessing reminds us of the splendid new energies released by the end of Rhodesian apartheid.
At least as important as this moral good sense is the clearsighted human understanding that makes it possible. One is oneself fixed in the beam of Lessing's penetrating gaze from the first moments of the book. The opening chapter begins:
Southern Rhodesia was a shield-shaped country in the middle of the map of Southern Africa, and it was bright pink because Cecil Rhodes had said the map of Africa should be painted red from Cape to Cairo, as an outward sign of its happy allegiance to the British Empire. The hearts of innumerable men and women responded with idealistic fervor to his clarion, because it went without saying that it would be good for Africa, or for anywhere else, to be made British. At this point it might be useful to wonder which of the idealisms that make our hearts beast faster will seem wrong headed to people a hundred years from now.
At the start of this passage it might seem that we are being asked simply to mock Rhodes's ambitions or to condemn imperialism. But once Lessing has tempted us to this simple response (the irony of "happy allegiance" cheerfully baiting the trap) she deprives us of the confidence of our moral superiority. The British in Rhodesia, she points out soon, did not engage in genocide; they did build hospitals for "natives"; they banned alcohol out of paternalism, not out of spite. "If it is asked, How did these people, no more or less intelligent than ourselves, manage to accommodate so many incompatibles in their minds at the same time, then this belongs to a wider query: How and why do we all do it …?" Indeed, Lessing often suggests that our contemporary openness to these earlier sins of the fathers conceals from us our own new sins, among them the destruction of the natural world.
The book is pervaded with a kind of ecological gloom. When she is speaking on the first of her visits, in 1982, with three black men to whom she has offered a ride in her car, Lessing reflects:
I wanted to talk about the emptying and thinning of the bush, how the animals had gone, and the birds and the insects, how this meant everything had changed; how myriads of small balances, hundreds in every small patch of bush, necessary for water, soil, foliage, climate, had been disturbed. I had already begun to suspect that these changes were more important than, even, the War, and the overthrow of the whites, the coming of the black government. Now, years later, I am sure of it. But I could not talk like this to these people then, at that time. It would have sounded like an irrelevance: at best, like one of the eccentricities the whites go in for.
This death of the bush is one of her themes, a theme that connects her with her own childhood in Southern Rhodesia and her own memories of what the bush meant to her as a child. She writes of long-ago trips with her family through this landscape she loves; of lying in their encampment, surrounded by an enclosure of cut branches to keep out the leopards, sleeping on a platform of fresh grass under the stars. ("Being in the bush was to be with animals, one of them.") But the disappearance of the bush is more than the subjective loss of childhood, it is also the real end of the dawn chorus that woke the Taylers from those nights of wonder.
This concern for nature is something that binds Lessing to the world of her childhood and to the whites whom she visits in the present. Sometimes she suggests, as in some of her short stories, that the blacks, too, some of them, love this land, but she never quite puts her finger on their feelings. She cannot chart their sense of the landscape as she can map out the nature-worship of the strange white settler culture she grew up in.
This reticence about black sentiments is part of a longstanding pattern. In her work of the '50s, when Lessing was writing about Africa, it was almost never from an African point of view. The one exception is instructive. It is the short novel Hunger, a piece of socialist realism, which almost all her critics (the predictable exception being the Soviets) agree with Lessing in regarding as a failure. Lessing reports the origins of this story in her ruminations after a gathering of writers in Moscow in 1952, where the British contingent, united in little else, agreed that "writing had to be a product of the individual conscience, or soul." The Russians, of course, did not agree. Then, one hot day, after leaving the rest of the party on a tour of "a building full of presents for Stalin," Lessing sat down by herself and began to ruminate. Were they, the British writers, really right?
… after all, there was Dickens, and such a short time ago, and his characters were all good or bad—unbelievably Good, monstrously Bad, but that didn't stop him from being a great writer. Well, there I was, with my years in Southern Africa behind me, a society as startlingly unjust as Dickens's England. Why, then, could I not write a story of simple good and bad, with clearcut choices, set in Africa?…
I tried, but it failed. It wasn't true. Sometimes one writes things that don't come off, and feels more affectionate towards them than towards those that worked.
One wonders, at first, if it is in reaction to this single conspicuous failure that Lessing settled on the most striking strategy of African Laughter: namely, its silence about the interior lives of black Zimbabweans.
This restraint sometimes disappoints. One longs for speculation about what some of the characters she meets are "really thinking." And yet, in the end, her reticence is another expression of her good sense. I think, by contrast, of Naipaul, with his confident epistemology, his perpetual certainty that he has penetrated the true meaning of the "native," even in lands he barely knows. And immediately I prefer Lessing, who, even in this land where she grew up, is willing (and then, after so many years' absence, only carefully) to speak just for the part of it she really knows.
That these two writers are, in this way, so different, is a reflection of the depths to which the culture that we share with them—this culture of the West—is committed to an epistemology of the skin. Because Naipaul is not white, he has been encouraged to believe that he knows where he is going in the nonwhite world; and he must distance himself from that world, or risk being identified with its failings. Because she is white, Lessing has been brought up to an equal certainty that she does not know her way among the black and the brown; and she can be confident that whatever these people do, and despite her upbringing among them, she will never be held responsible for their doings.
In truth, color has very little to do with it; but the reticence of color that seems to underlie Lessing's position leads to the right judgment. She does not know much of how life looks to the peasants and workers of Zimbabwe; and she knows, too, that the reason is not their color but their experience. Lessing shows us only the exterior of the black Zimbabweans, but still we are in her debt for what that view teaches us about what is happening in Zimbabwe.
And we owe Lessing an even more substantial debt for her interior portrait of the white community in its transition out of the trauma of losing the war. On the first of her visits, soon after the war's end, Lessing goes to visit her brother Harry, a staunch supporter of white minority rule who fought in the war in the bush. On their first evening together, they begin by avoiding the subject that divides them: his sister's "funny ideas" about black equality. An angry exchange almost ensues when Harry says, "I suppose you do still have those funny ideas about—well, about everything," and Lessing replies:
"You could say that I have my funny ideas. You could say they've turned out not to be so funny in the end."
At this he goes red, he is really angry. This is the moment when we could explode into argument. I say hastily, "Today, when I came past Marandellas, I remembered how we used to camp out there, near the school."
He smiles, and nods, meaning, Yes, you're right, let's not …
But as he is going off to bed, Harry stands in the doorway, a glass of brandy in his hand.
He couldn't bear to put off what had been at the back of his mind while we talked, just as it had at mine, and now he delivered a monologue, in a hot, angry, frustrated bitter voice, and it was exactly the same as the one I had listened to only last night, on the plane, from the race-horse breeder.
"Your precious Africans …"
This diatribe becomes so familiar that Lessing quietly dubs it "The Monologue." In its canonical form, The Monologue refers not to "Your precious Africans" but to "The Affs"; dilates upon the absurdity of the name of Canaan Banana, the first president of Zimbabwe; observes that "they" don't know how to make anything—television, democracy, anything—work; talks of leaving for "The Republic" of South Africa (this is before the release of Mandela); and ends, as Harry does, with: "They're inferior to us, and that's all there is to it."
In response to problems in his business—lost white customers, newly empowered black workers—Harry has decided to do what many white Rhodesians did both before and after independence: he is going to "Take the Gap." ("White people," Lessing explains, "who left Southern Rhodesia, and then Zimbabwe, for The Republic, 'Took the Gap.'" She does not know where the phrase came from.) Lessing says that "looked at impersonally, and I certainly had been forced to do that, my brother was interesting from a cultural point of view." But it is also clear that, in 1982, his psyche was, like many white Rhodesian psyches, deeply wounded.
The historical processes that led to Zimbabwean independence—and which therefore allowed her to return—included an extremely bloody civil war in which the government's black armies, led by whites, fought against the freedom fighters of Robert Mugabe's ZANU and Joshua Nkomo's ZAPU. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the whites who lost so recently were, in 1982, still resentful and unhappy. What is slightly more surprising is that the blacks, whose frank oppression was the aim of the war, and who lost friends and families to its brutality, seem largely to have been released by victory from the necessity of resentment.
The recognition of how damaging the war has been to the white psyche comes upon Lessing suddenly. She is talking to her brother about his conversion to a form of fundamentalism preached by his son, a young man who fought during the war against the freedom fighters (or "terrs," short for terrorists, as the whites tend to call them in their abbreviating patois). "Suddenly I understood something: … What my brother and my father had in common was not genes: at least, genes were not why both were slow, hesitant, cautious, dream-logged men who seemed always to be listening to some fateful voice only they could hear: they were both men hurt by war." The war in the bush was for Harry what the First World War had been for his father.
Harry, like Doris, mourns the loss of the bush, the death of the old ecology. As he talks of Taking the Gap, he tells his sister that "at least" he "won't have to watch" the bush "being destroyed here." The genuine love for the bush—and for farming with the land, not against it—is clearly something that Lessing understands very well, even if she is not "the right kind of Rhodie." She records, again and again, the conversations of white people truly in love with the land:
If The Monologue in its various forms was boring, and you wished only to be somewhere else as it started up again—again, again—when these people talked about farming techniques, it was a very different thing. These reformed pirates and landgrabbers know about inventions and discoveries from every part of the world. They experiment, they innovate, they wonder if tree-planting in Scotland or the thousands-of-years-old tricks used to wring water from deserts being used by Israel could be applied to Zimbabwe. They discuss wind power, solar power, water-screws from the Middle East and Egypt, new ways of building dams, the introduction of drought-resistant plants from semi-deserts, the control of pests by other pests or helpful plants, the farming of eland instead of cattle.
Indeed, Lessing's first rebuke to the new African government is that, in spreading rumors, during the war, that "making contour ridges to stop erosion" and "compulsory dipping of cattle" were sinister plots by whites "to undo the blacks," Mugabe, and his "Comrades in the bush," said "things that were less than intelligent." In taking up, for herself, this theme, Lessing is explicitly borrowing an element of The Monologue.
… I sat in cars, being driven through areas crowded with every kind of shack, hut, shanty, each surrounded by straggling mealies and a few pumpkins. The earth was eroding into gullies, the trees were being cut for fuel. Who drove me? Explosive, splenetic whites.
"Just look at that, look at it, there won't be any soil left …"
Lessing is willing to be seen agreeing with these splenetic bigots because she is convinced that, about this, they are right. Complexity rules.
Lessing second trip since independence was six years later, in 1988. Much had changed. For a start, the two black parties in the Zimbabwean parliament had amalgamated. At the same time, Lessing says, political corruption had spread everywhere. She quotes a U.N. official: "It is not exactly unknown for the victorious side in a civil war to line their pockets, but Zimbabwe is unusual in creating a boss class in less than ten years and to the accompaniment of Marxist rhetoric." You can tell this is Lessing, however, because the next paragraph goes on: "But reading newspapers from Zimbabwe, listening to travelers' tales, what came across was not the flat dreary hopelessness of Zambia, the misery of Mozambique, but vitality, exuberance, optimism, enjoyment."
In the 1980s Zimbabwe did create a class of bosses—or "Chefs," as they were called in contrast to the "Povos," or the poor (a word from the Portuguese picked up by the guerrillas when they were hiding out in Mozambique during the civil war). But in those first few years after independence, the Marxist rhetoric went with a real sense of nationalist excitement. As Lessing tells it, this feeling was shared by many, black and white.
On the verandas, where a few years earlier she had listened to the "explosive, splenetic whites," she now listens to a group of Zimbabweans (black or white, she does not say), some of them supporters, during the bush war, of Mugabe, some of Nkomo, some of Bishop Muzorewa. "Every conversation at once turns to the Unity Accord, between ZAPU and ZANU, Matabeleland and Mashonaland, Mugabe and Nkomo, the Accord which has transformed the atmosphere, everyone optimistic, everyone saying, 'At last Zimbabwe is one country.'" These people talk of Mugabe with "idealism, of a kind frightening to people"—like Lessing—"who remember similar talk about despotic leaders." They ask, "Why doesn't President Mugabe stop the corruption?" They say, "Mugabe says …" and tell Mugabe stories. "I swear this isn't far off being in love."
Because this is like love, they will not listen to Lessing when she points out that eight years is not long after a destructive war; that corruption is to be found everywhere. The particular form this love took in Zimbabwe was "the naivest, most untutored enthusiasm for communism. The newspapers printed nothing critical of Communist countries. The Gorbachev revolution was hardly mentioned."
In 1971, long before Zimbabwean independence, Lessing had written in Briefing for a Descent into Hell: "I had an old thought … that no matter what changes of government or what names were given to a nation's system of organization, there was always the same flavor or reality that remained in that place." Now she notices the continuities between the old Rhodesia and the new Zimbabwe, and the same Herodotean environmentalism suggests itself:
Sometimes one is tempted to believe that the mental attitudes of a country have something to do with its sun and soil. Old Southern Rhodesia was the same, complacently indifferent to the outside world. Leaving it was like leaving a stunned or a drugged country. The only comparable places are in certain midwestern states in America, where curiosity about the world ends at, let's say, the borders of Iowa or Nebraska. A university audience will hardly know where Afghanistan is—or Sri Lanka, or Pakistan. In California, sun-drugged youngsters will stare at the mention of Gorbachev.
Similarly, Zimbabwe. You may spend an evening with a professor of history, or of literature, whose attitudes toward the Soviet Union or China are identical with those of thirty years ago.
This strange blindness—rooted in the soil of Rhodesia-Zimbabwe—produces from Lessing her own Monologue. She "grew up when 'everyone' was a Communist"; she can recognize, as a result, in the Communist politicos the "scarcely concealed glitter of mendacity, the pride at cleverness that knows how to outwit opponents with election rigging, or the fixing of statistics, character assassinations, the whole 'bag of tricks.'"
In the records of Lessing's later trips, in 1989 and 1992, we see the decline of Zimbabwe. The enthusiasm of the mid-'80s is eaten away by corruption and economic decline. By the end even she is finding it hard to keep a balanced view. "During a game of Epitaphs, it was decided there was only one possible epitaph for Robert Mugabe: 'A good man fallen among thieves.'" Perhaps Lessing is right. I have not been to Zimbabwe since the mid-'80s. Then I saw what she saw: the excitement of a bustling new nationalism. It seems to me that I still hear some of that excitement from Zimbabwe. Things may not have been going well, but this is still a country that believes, in its new multiracial incarnation as in its old racialist one, in its own election. Robert Mugabe and the Chefs may have settled into the depressing rituals of a one-party state; cynicism may have seeped into more of the increasingly impoverished crevices of Zimbabwean life: but here and there remain these strange—perhaps even dangerous—pockets of faith.
Because she has so little taste for politics, I do not quite trust Lessing's political judgment. Indeed, it is her overwhelming hostility to politics that accounts for many of the moments when her touch seems not quite certain. "So bullied are we all by ideologues," Lessing complains at one point, "it is hard to say the Africans have anything whites do not, or that we have anything they do not, but the fact is, up and down Africa, as travelers have always averred, they enjoy themselves." The trouble with this notion (which provides her book's title) is not that it is politically incorrect, but that it is sentimental and fatuous. (They have, after all, been known to enjoy themselves "up and down" Europe, too.) Similarly, many of Lessing's complaints about Zimbabwean political rhetoric seem utterly oblivious to the task of politics: to the problems of building national solidarity in the fragile landscape left by civil war.
What we learn from this book, then, is not so much the political history of Zimbabwe in its first dozen years, but the psychic history of Southern Rhodesia, the inner history of the white settlers and what has become of them: the best of this book is the white man's story. And none the worse for that. But there is a different story to be told; and the people who tell it will be writers like Tsitsi Dangarembga, author of Nervous Conditions, as fine a novel as the subcontinent has produced in recent years, a novel for which Lessing herself declares her admiration. Dangarembga began life in a peasant family; and one need hardly add that she is black. There is no question that she could tell the story of black Zimbabwe from the inside. She has already begun to do so.
In 1982 at the Harare show—the big trade fair and, in the past, like the Salisbury Show, a great event for white society—Harry meets an elderly white woman who has been to visit South Africa. "I've been in The Republic to have a look. But I'm sticking it out here. They're a nice lot compared with there. You can always have a good laugh with our Affs." This, Lessing's book suggests, is what most white Zimbabweans were like back then, when they were feeling well-disposed toward their black fellow citizens: condescending, bluff, complaining. Not a pretty picture. But on their verandas, with their dogs and their children and their immense hospitality toward each other, they have their attractions—if, that is, you can forget, for a moment, about the black men and women who serve their vast meals and work in the landscape beyond the lawn. Anachronistic and absurd, to be sure; but also, in their sense of community, admirable.
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Brightman, Carol. "Doris Lessing: Notes of a Novelist." Book World—The Washington Post (16 October 1994): 1, 14.
Favorably reviews Under My Skin.
Burroway, Janet. "An Unfashionable Woman." The New York Times Book Review (6 November 1994): 1, 42.
Argues that the two major themes shaping Under My Skin are "the twin workings of memory and projection."
Innes, Charlotte. "A Life of Doing It Her Way." Los Angeles Times (8 December 1994): E1, E8.
Essay based on an interview in which Lessing discusses Under My Skin.
Leonard, John. "The African Queen." The Nation 259, No. 15 (7 November 1994): 528-36.
Reviews Under My Skin, noting relationships between Lessing's autobiographical account and her fiction.
Rose, Ellen Cronan. "Somebody—but Who?" Women's Review of Books 12, No. 6 (March 1995): 11-12.
Describes Under My Skin as a revelation of Lessing's current interpretation of such longstanding issues as her relationship with her mother, her sexuality, and her "fear of becoming … mired in the past."
Rubenstein, Roberta. "Life and Doris Lessing." Chicago Tribune (23 October 1994): section 14, pp. 1, 12.
Praises Under My Skin for its "vivid reconstructions of decisive experiences and significant people of [Lessing's] childhood."
Rubin, Merle. "Author Doris Lessing Turns a Writer's Spotlight on Herself." The Christian Science Monitor 86, No. 248 (17 November 1994): 14.
Argues that although "Under My Skin is sprinkled with provocative, often contradictory, sides on topics from abortion, sexual attraction, and parent-child bonding, to race relations, left-wing zealots, and the colonial legacy," few of these questions are resolved.
Schemo, Diana Jean. "A Portrait Unwinds, as in Life." New York Times (2 November 1994): C1, C10.
Discusses Under My Skin, modern art, and biography. The essay is based on an interview with Lessing.
Harriet Ritvo (review date 13 January 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1389
SOURCE: "A Dog's Life," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, Nos. 1-2, January 13, 1994, pp. 3-4, 6.
[Ritvo is an American critic and educator whose works include The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (1987). In the following excerpt from a review in which she also discusses the books The Hidden Life of Dogs (1994) by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and Cats: Ancient and Modern (1993) by Juliet Clutton-Brock, she examines the revised version of Particularly Cats … and Rufus, arguing that Lessing implicitly criticizes "many of those who study animal behavior [and] automatically treat anthropomorphism as a weakness that distinguishes the soft-headed and the simple-minded among humans."]
Although they may not always be aware of it, pet animals are caught between worlds—members of the family, in an emotional sense, but only in very rare cases having any of the responsibilities or rights of their human companions. However comfortable, or even privileged, their lives may seem, they are always vulnerable—not only to the caprice of their owners, but, if they are allowed to spend part of their time at liberty out of doors, to the random cruelty, spite, and greed of other people. If sold or abandoned, they may find relations with humankind abruptly altered, so that they end their days in a laboratory or a cage in a pound, not on a sofa. And their status is often equivocal. An accountant once advised me (incorrectly, as it turned out) that although the costs of moving books, furniture, and close relatives were tax deductible, the cost of moving cats was not.
Conversely, if pet cats and dogs are not quite human, they are not quite animals either. They have lost their wildness, and the reciprocal intensity of their relationships with people distinguishes them from most farmyard beasts. Of course some pets turn out to be capable of independent lives if their human support system disappears, and both cats and dogs can still interbreed with their nearest wild relatives. But many thousands of years of adaptation to the exigencies and opportunities of human companionship have produced psychological alterations perhaps as profound, if not as striking, as the physical differences between the chihuahua and the wolf.
Few people would bar a labrador retriever or a siamese cat from their homes, at least on grounds of temperamental unsuitability; and even fewer would admit a wolf or a European wild cat to similar intimacy. But this obvious reaction begs several more difficult questions. Domestic cats and dogs are complicated organisms, and their actions are far from merely instinctive or automatic. What qualities of temperament or personality account for their relatively accommodating dispositions? What explains the reciprocity of the relationships that many people enjoy with their cats and dogs? Has their protracted and intense experience of domestication made pets more intelligent and adaptive than their wild relatives, or less so? Do they have minds, and, if so, what is on them?…
Like most pet owners, Doris Lessing shares [Elizabeth Marshall] Thomas's conviction of mutual understanding and reciprocal communication taking place between humans and their animals [see Thomas's The Hidden Life of Dogs, 1994]. In Particularly Cats … and Rufus (reissued, after a quarter of a century, with the addition of one chapter and many fine illustrations by James McMullan) this conviction constantly informs [Lessing's] moving, sympathetic, and shrewdly observed descriptions of her life with cats. Thus she says of one animal she nursed through an unpleasant illness: "No, of course cats are not human; humans are not cats; but all the same, I couldn't believe that such a fastidious little beast as black cat was not suffering from the knowledge of how dirty and smelly she was." And she describes the way that another cat accepted her explanation for inadvertently threatening him, after he had let her know, by fleeing, that he feared raised sticks: "I picked him up, brought him back, showed him the harmless broom handle, apologised, petted him. He understood it was a mistake."
Lessing's experience with domestic cats has been unusually broad. Before she moved to Londoner, she had lived on a Rhodesian farm where the family's many cats had to deal with the special dangers and opportunities of nearby wilderness, as well as the ordinary ambiguities of agricultural life—whether one was a barn cat or a house cat, for example. Yet despite the alarming presence of snakes and eagles and other exotic predators, the greatest threat to these rural African cats, as to the housecats of Europe and North America, was posed by human beings. Lessing makes this point by means of a very sobering anecdote. Controlling the numbers of various animals, domestic and wild, was the responsibility of Lessing's mother, and she routinely drowned superfluous kittens. But after years of slaughter, she wearied of these duties and refused to perform them, ultimately leaving Lessing and her father alone with an exploding feline population. In what Lessing describes as "the holocaust of cats," they shot as many as they could find.
Despite this strong language and the quietly conveyed horror of the experience, Lessing claims that she did not grieve for the dead animals. An earlier trauma—abandoning a cherished kitten when her family had moved from Persia to southern Africa—had forced her to harden her heart against the emotional claims of cats. Thus she begins a memoir of typically urban experiences with pampered pets, thoroughly integrated into a human household, by recalling the poignant paradox that underlies all human relationships with cats and dogs. As much as their similarity to us may be acknowledged by the intimacy with which they share family life, the consideration accorded their wishes and demands, and the time and money devoted to their maintenance, their difference is constantly made clear. Although particular animals may be valued, even extravagantly, cat and dog life is cheap. Even the strongest bonds between human and pet can be violated with ease, and for reasons that would, in an exclusively human setting, be considered trivial or even criminal.
Lessing displays this paradox in her own sensibility and experience. Capable as a teen-ager of shooting cats without flinching and as an adult of killing excess kittens (she does not say how), she participates in the lives of her pets with deep empathy, shares vicariously in their triumphs and disappointments, tries to cure their illnesses, and mourns their aging and death. She exercises her controlling influence gingerly, trying to balance their needs and desires with her own. She is, for example, particularly uneasy about depriving her cats of their sexuality, because she feels that with it they lose some of their looks and their personality. Thus she describes the transformation in a favorite cat that had been spayed. "Her confidence had been struck. The tyrannical beauty of the household had vanished…. A strident note entered her character…. In short, she had turned into a spinster cat. It is a dreadful thing we do to these beasts. But I suppose we have to do it." And she continues to do it when she feels she has to.
Although Particularly Cats is hedged around by the tragedies of feline existence, it is memorable as an account of the depth and the pleasures of the relationship between humans and cats, in which Lessing describes a series of feline companions, each distinct, each admired, and each beloved. Her account is intensely personal and particular. She makes no claims to objectivity or to any authority besides that of the eyewitness. She portrays herself simply as a committed cat lover, and even offers occasional, slightly uncomfortable, specimens of the language in which she addresses her pets: for example, "beeeoootiful, delicious puss." Nevertheless, Lessing presents as powerful an argument in her way as Thomas does in hers, and to much the same effect. For both a degree of identification with animal feelings—anthropomorphism—offers direct insight into the minds and characters of domestic animals, an enlightenment not available by any other means. And both therefore raise the question—Thomas explicitly and Lessing implicitly—of why many of those who study animal behavior should automatically treat anthropomorphism as a weakness that distinguishes the soft-headed and the simple-minded among humans. Perhaps the people who minimize the possibility of communication and understanding between humans and other animals are the ones who should have to defend their assumptions.
Lisa Tyler (essay date Spring 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3392
SOURCE: "Our Mothers' Gardens: Doris Lessing's 'Among the Roses,'" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 163-73.
[In the following essay, Tyler examines Lessing's short story "Among the Roses" from a feminist perspective, elucidating its mother-daughter theme in relation to the ancient Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone.]
Doris Lessing has long demonstrated in her work a love-hate relationship with women's magazines, which she seems to regard as contemporary equivalents of conduct books: repressive, didactic works that stress conformity to tired gender roles and celebrate frivolity at the expense of thought. Ella, the fictional figure that Anna creates in The Golden Notebook, works for Home and Hearth; its parodically conventional name perhaps suggests a certain disdain on Anna's part, and quite possibly Lessing's. Lessing is more openly scornful in Play with a Tiger. When Harry taunts Tom with the prospect that his new job will entail "administering to the spiritual needs of the women of the nation through the 'Ladies Own' [sic]," Tom responds, "I'm only going to be on the business side. I won't be responsible for the rubbish they—" and "stops, annoyed with himself. Harry and Mary laugh at him." Clearly, women's magazines epitomize the establishment, and writing for them amounts to selling out.
Lessing modifies her stance slightly in The Diaries of Jane Somers, in which Janna edits a women's magazine named Lilith; here, Lessing recognizes the work that goes into such publications, although not exactly endorsing their contents. Nonetheless, the publication of a Lessing short story ["Among the Roses"] in the April 1989 issue of Ladies' Home Journal came as something of a surprise. Given the story's content, however, its publication there is not altogether inappropriate. [In a footnote, Tyler adds: "'Among the Roses' has since been published in The Real Thing, a collection of Lessing's sketches and short stories."]
As the magazine puts it, in "Among the Roses," "The renowned British writer examines the most complicated relationship of all: the one between a mother and her daughter." [In a footnote, Tyler adds: "In taking my title from Alice Walker's essay, 'In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens,' I am perhaps taking a dubious liberty. The myth of Demeter and Persephone may be decidedly more problematic for black women writers, for whom mother-daughter repetition may be a decidedly less desirable goal. African-American mothers are more likely to face poverty, exploitation, discrimination, and oppression, experiences that they would prefer that their daughters not have to face. In Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, for example, the mother kills her daughter precisely to save her from repeating her mother's life—in this case, a life of slavery. For a less extreme example, see Walker's essay, in which she laments that her mother's artistry was 'muzzled'—a fate Walker herself has resisted, not repeated."] In the story, Myra, the mother, visits a rose garden in Regent's Park and unexpectedly encounters her daughter, Shirley, whom she has not seen since they quarreled in Myra's garden three years earlier. Shirley had earlier made clear her disdain for her mother's hobby: "Shirley not only hated plants and gardens, but the country as well…. [S]he thought people who gardened were stupid and boring. Yet here she was." Spotting her daughter, Myra thinks to herself, "What was she doing here? The last place! Flower gardens were not her style at all, let alone being by herself. Shirley was never alone, she hated it." Myra watches her daughter take a cutting from one of the roses on display and marvels, "Shirley into gardening! Was it likely?" Myra only gradually realizes why Shirley is there at all: "Suddenly it occurred to [Myra]: Perhaps she came here hoping to run into me? She knows I come here a lot." Myra's suspicions are confirmed when she moves away, only to hear Shirley's "noisy feet running after her."
Every event in the story takes place in the context of one garden or another. The imagery of roses, birds, and fountains suggests traditional Marian imagery, and Myra's name is an anagram of Mary; the garden is at one point identified as "Queen Mary's Rose Garden," in reference, of course, to the former Queen of England, but perhaps suggesting the Queen of Heaven as well. The ubiquity of gardens in the work further suggests the idyllic meadow of flowers from which the young Kore was abducted in the ancient Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, and the rebirth of vegetation when mythological mother and daughter were reunited in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the oldest known version of the myth. In the myth, Persephone or Kore is abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld. Her mother, Demeter, seeks her in vain; grieved by her loss of her daughter, Demeter, goddess of vegetation, refuses to let seeds sprout or plants grow and thus causes a famine on earth. Zeus orders that Persephone be returned to her mother, but because she had eaten a pomegranate seed in the underworld, she must return to the underworld for a part of each year. When mother and daughter are reunited, Demeter restores fruitfulness to the planet (Athanassakis 1-15).
Like Persephone, Shirley, too, suffers during her exile to the underworld—in this case, marriage to a physically abusive man who roughly parallels Hades. Myra notes that Shirley looks "discontent," "sad," "alone and lonely." Shirley later, uncharacteristically, tells her mother, "I'd just like to see you, I've been missing you, believe it or not." The separation has hurt Myra as well. When she first spots her daughter, "Myra at once felt a much too familiar anguish, which she chose to ascribe to the tactlessness that permitted that dress on that body" (emphasis added). She is later more honest with herself:"Soon Shirley came in, and Myra's heart hurt at the sight of that face…." Clearly their separation has grieved them both.
If they need each other so desperately, why, then, have they spent three years avoiding each other? Shirley ostensibly broke off the relationship over her mother's nosiness. Myra had gone over to Shirley's house on a visit: "No answer from the front door, so she went to the back and there, through the window of the kitchen, saw Shirley having it off with some man certainly not her husband." Not surprisingly, a quarrel follows this inverted primal scene. As Shirley then indicates, it's not her mother's "spying" that bothers her, but the prospect of her mother's life: "If she, Shirley, thought she was going to end up like her mother, then … It went on and on …" (first ellipses Lessing's). Shirley doesn't want to "end up like her mother," to be like her mother, to become her mother.
Timid and conventional, Myra abhors conflict and much prefers the peace of rose gardens to the sturm und drang of human relationship. In her passage through the gardens, she considers that what she most enjoys is her sense of control and choice: "There was no greater pleasure than this, wandering through roses and deciding, I'll have you … no, you … no, perhaps…." In her role as a mother, she lacks such control and choice, and clearly this lack disturbs her. Two years earlier, she had chosen a rose called "Just Joey"; "joey" is a slang term used to refer to a young animal or child (OED). "This charmer had done well," Myra recalls, not unlike her elder daughter, Lynda. As this year's choice, she prefers a rose called "L'Oreal Trophy" to the one Shirley chooses, "Troika": "Myra was not going to buy that, it lacked subtlety, did not have that unearthly shimmer to it." Unfortunately, Myra cannot so easily reject her daughter, who is also, in her opinion, "bold, highly colored" and lacking in subtlety.
What seems to disturb Myra most about her problem child is Shirley's physicality: "The dress was too tight and emphasized a body that managed to be thin and lumpy at the same time, because of big buttocks and prominent shoulders." During the confrontation that results in their three-year separation, "… Myra stood listening to Shirley standing there with her hands on her round hips, her big knees showing under a short ugly dress, her face scarlet with rage—and thought how common she looked." The version of the story published in The Real Thing offers an even harsher statement from Myra: "[She] thought she looked like the common little bitch she was." Myra later observes Shirley, "her big shoulders hunched forward, her shining black hair making licks down her red cheeks, her short gaudy skirt showing big knees" and paradoxically notes immediately following this extraordinarily uncharitable description, "This ugly woman was attractive to men, always had been, even as a small girl. Men were looking at her now." Myra's description of Shirley is obviously distorted by Myra's own biases. She is, perhaps, a little jealous of (and even threatened by) her daughter's strength and physical attractiveness, qualities she herself lacks. She is especially uncomfortable with Shirley's sexuality, perhaps because she has so thoroughly repressed her own. Ironically, this daughter is more "earthy" than Demeter.
Like Shirley, Myra is dismayed by the differences between herself and her daughter. Greatly disturbed by their quarrel, "Myra had not bothered to get in touch after that. The truth was, she was glad of the excuse not to see her." She prefers the more congenial Lynda, whom she thinks of as "her other (her real!) daughter" to the troublesome Shirley:
Lynda, the elder daughter … now lived the same kind of life her mother did, with two children, a boy and a girl. When the two women were together, Myra and Lynda—ample, slow, calm-eyed—people knew at once they were mother and daughter, but no one had ever at once thought Shirley was Myra's daughter or Lynda's sister. Where had Shirley come from?
Myra apparently sees Shirley as a kind of changeling, a daughter so foreign to herself that any relationship is certain to be complex at best. Yet ironically, the two are more alike than they are different.
For example, Shirley pauses before "a rose Myra herself rather fancied," and Myra thinks to herself, "By this time next year the plant would be in Myra's garden. And in Shirley's?" Similarly, Myra is described as "adjusting her pace to her daughter's."
Later, in a less peaceful moment, Shirley shrieks that her mother "always put up with everything" and angrily demands to know why her mother has never stood up to "Dad"—yet paradoxically, she herself admits of her former husband, "He beat me, Mum!," and Myra detects a tone of admiration in Shirley's voice. As Adrienne Rich writes:
Many daughters live in rage at their mothers for having accepted, too readily and passively, "whatever comes." A mother's victimization does not merely humiliate her, it mutilates the daughter who watches her for clues as to what it means to be a woman. (Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, 1986)
Rich later goes on to point out that "a daughter can feel rage at her mother's powerlessness or lack of struggle—because of her intense identification and because in order to fight for herself she needs first to have been both loved and fought for." Thus even Shirley's anger grows from her sense of unity with her mother.
Moreover, throughout the story, both Myra and Shirley consciously make reciprocal gestures of identification with each other: Shirley begins by taking up her mother's hobby of gardening; Myra responds by inviting Shirley to see her roses. Myra mentions that Dad is "off fishing this weekend," and Shirley in turn confides that the man she lives with "goes on nature rambles … every bloody weekend." Myra notes the similarity of their situations: "'Then I'll be a fishing widow and you'll be a natureramble widow,' dared Myra, smiling—as she knew—with nervousness."
It is this final gesture of identification that very nearly sets Shirley off once again. These tentative gestures of identification further echo the Demeter-Kore myth, in which the mother and daughter are doubles for each other [see C. Kerenyi, Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter, translated by Ralph Manheim, 1977]. The myth centers on "the achievement of a successful identification with the mother," which works in the myth as a "form of female solidarity … whose basis is the special and particular comfort, affection, and general gratification which women are able to offer one another." She emphasizes that this mother-daughter bond, which is central to the myth, is "a female solidarity which is discovered in the context of a patriarchal world."
The Homeric Hymn and Lessing's short story resemble each other structurally, as well as thematically. Male family members are conspicuous by their absence; the reader knows next to nothing of Myra's husband, and Shirley's husband and lovers are only slightly more present. Christine Downing's remark about the hymn pertains equally well to Lessing's story: "Clearly this representation of a primal dyad between mother and daughter, not intruded upon by a father or siblings, could fairly be called 'a family romance.'" Moreover, in both the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and Lessing's short story, "the attempt to reestablish the mother child unity is related … from the mother's point of view" [Marilyn Arthur, "Politics and Pomegranates: An Interpretation of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter," Arethusa 10 (1977)].
At least in part the breach between mother and daughter suggests a division between two not-quite-reconcilable worlds—one of female community and another of heterosexuality. When Shirley initially rejects her mother's gardening as a hobby, "She claimed she loathed Nature except (wink, wink) for a little of what you fancy"—thus making explicit this choice between two alternatives. It is, after all, her mother's (literal) glimpse of her active sexuality that causes the breach between them in the first place. Others have noted such divided allegiances in Lessing's oeuvre, most notably, perhaps, in The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five, the second volume in her space fiction series. [In a footnote, Tyler adds: "See for example Kaplan:
The avatar of this triangle may be Doris Lessing herself, the Outsider, Everywoman on the veld, with the wise, omnipotent, unattainable, remote British Empire on one side, and the warm, human, emotional, impoverished, culturally inferior (in the eyes of white settlers), ignorant, black population on the other. Or perhaps the paradigm is even more personal: Doris Lessing torn between the remote, aloof father and the emotional, irrational, less admirable mother of the Children of Violence novels." [Carey Kaplan, "Britain's Imperialist Past in Doris Lessing's Futurist Fiction," Doris Lessing: The Alchemy of Survival, edited by Carey Kaplan and Ellen Cronan Rose, 1988]
This pattern, which Marianne Hirsch describes as one of "oscillation" [The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, 1989], can be life-affirming: "… the life cycle itself arises from alternation between the world of women and that of men" [Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, 1982]. Lessing affirms this pattern in Marriages, in which only the marriage of a man and a woman who come from alien worlds can restore fruitfulness to both their planets.
Certainly, as a number of her critics have noted, Lessing favors dialectic both as a mode of thought and as a narrative strategy. She implies in "Among the Roses" that this relationship may be a dialectical one, that mother and daughter will once again quarrel—and once again return to each other, that they will endlessly repeat the cycle. As in the myth, "Even in their reunion there is still a portion of bitterness … The mother never quite succeeds in getting her daughter back again" [C. Kerenyi, "Kore," Essays on a Science of Mythology, C. G. Jung and Kerenyi, translated by R. E. C. Hull, 1969]. Before Shirley approaches her, "Myra decided for the hundredth time she didn't want any more of Shirley." Later, Shirley, perhaps a little frightened when her mother uses the word "widow" to refer to them both, very nearly explodes in a fit of temper: "She stopped, evidently remembering that she had just made up with her mother and did not want to quarrel again. At least, not yet." Even the story's final sentence suggests repetition; Myra sighs: "But she changed the sigh into a cough, for fear it would set Shirley off again." As Marianne Hirsch writes of the myth, "Loss is presented as inevitable, part of the natural sequence of growth, but, since time is cyclical, mother-daughter reunion forms a natural part of the cycle."
Lessing's story, then, emphasizes cycle as well as dialectic. Myra apparently returns to the rose garden annually, and her route is a "circuit" that brings her back "to where she had started." She and her daughter repeatedly meet in rose gardens, and a rose garden will be the site of their next meeting.
Adrienne Rich has publicly criticized Lessing for what she calls "a real failure to envisage … any kind of really powerful central bonding of women, even though individual women get together in her novels and go through intense things together" ["An Interview with Adrienne Rich," by Elly Bulkin, Conditions, 60 (April 1977)]. But Lessing seems, in this story at least, to be showing women attempting to create such a bond, although admittedly with great difficulty and some reluctance. Shirley's anger at her mother is extreme, out of proportion. Her response perhaps suggests that there is something fishy about her father's fishing trip; marriages in Lessing's fiction are rarely portrayed positively, and she generally implies that extramarital affairs are almost inevitable. But Shirley's "furious black resentment that positively scorched her mother" may also be displaced anger, anger at the men and the society that place both her mother and herself in such a weak, dependent position that they must "put up with everything" and never stand up to their husbands. As in the Demeter-Persephone myth, then, "The grievous separation of mother and maiden implies that in a patriarchal society women are divided from each other and from themselves" [Susan Gubar, "Mother, Maiden and the Marriage of Death: Women Writers and an Ancient Myth," Women's Studies 6 (1979)].
Contrary to Rich's argument, Lessing's women do not see each other as inadequate substitutes for heterosexual relationships; on the contrary, men are merely inadequate, unsatisfactory substitutes for that unattained and unattainable first love of Lessing's female protagonists:
Increasingly in her later fiction, Lessing indicates that women's future is with each other. In several of her novels in the 1970s and 1980s, women thrive better with one another than with men so that her women's needs to fuse and suffer in heterosexual relationships look like neurotic distortions of their unhealed needs for mother love. [Judith Kegan Gardiner, Rhys, Stead, Lessing and the Politics of Empathy, 1989]
Lessing's own jealousy of her sibling and her use of the word "Troika" in this story suggest a possible family love triangle in which the father (so crucial to Freud's Oedipal stage) is never involved.
In "Among the Roses," Lessing posits a complex relationship between a mother and her daughter, a relationship that avoids both the symbiotic unity of infancy (which, as Nancy Friday rather graphically points out, becomes grotesque in adulthood) and the matrophobia that characterizes so many women's works, and particularly the works of feminist daughters with conventional, traditionalist mothers. Their relationship is not assured; on the contrary, Lessing stresses how stormy and difficult fashioning such a relationship is likely to be. But both women are clearly trying, and the story ends rather comically (especially for the sometimes dour Lessing, whose sense of humor rarely appears in her work) on a note of mutual tolerance and agreement:
"Oh, God," said Shirley. "I can't believe. I simply cannot believe …" She stopped, evidently remembering that she had just made up with her mother and did not want to quarrel again. At least, not yet. "Oh, well, it takes all sorts," she conceded, as agreeably as was possible to her.
"Yes, it certainly does," said Myra with a sigh. But she changed the sigh into a cough, for fear it would set Shirley off again.
This story perhaps constitutes Lessing's most optimistic examination of the mother-daughter relationship; certainly it is one of her most tightly focused. Her novels, whose mother-daughter relationships have received more attention, sometimes seem by comparison overstuffed with an embarrassment of plots, subplots, and complex themes. In her stories, the disciplined spareness of design compels the reader to confront directly the dramas and difficulties of mother-daughter relationships.
Richard Eder (review date 20 October 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 799
SOURCE: "Storytelling by Reluctant Extraction," in Los Angeles Times, October 20, 1994, p. E8.
[An American critic, Eder has won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. In the following review, he laments that "Lessing proclaims but does not convey the wretchedness" of her early life in Under My Skin.]
In the first volume of her autobiography [Under My Skin], Doris Lessing writes that in 1947 and 1948 she went through the worst time in her life. Living in Salisbury in what then was Southern Rhodesia, she had left her first husband and two small children and moved into a leftist bohemian circle, where she met and married a German Communist refugee named Gottfried Lessing.
It was an "unhappy though kindly marriage" and it would not last; meanwhile she supported herself by working for a lawyer, sold short stories to South African magazines, and struggled with a first novel.
This could perfectly well add up to wretchedness. The trouble is that Lessing proclaims but does not convey the wretchedness; or just where and how things hurt. Indeed, her tone—detached and grimly buoyant—is no different than the one she uses to recount her childhood and growing up.
None of it was happy in her recollecting; the problem for the reader is not the quality of the unhappiness but of the recollecting.
Asserting the particular horror of 1947–1948, for example, she writes: "I hinted at the dreadfulness in Going Home (one of her three dozen previously published works)." Over and over, as she gets to some crucial part of her early life, she refers the reader to one or another of her novels. Lessing is a remarkable novelist; the good stuff is there. It is not here.
"And now, sex," she announces at one point, and proceeds with a few mildly graphic and pleasureless details of a relationship or two. This is autobiography by reluctant extraction. No wonder. There is not much left for it. It is the slurry after the gold is panned; a clothes closet containing hangers, most of the garments having been taken out and worn out. She narrates with frequent elegance and pervading emptiness.
Certainly there is material, and once in a while a phrase or a passage lights it up. Lessing was born in Persia, where her father worked for a British-owned bank. It was a life of some luxury, followed by a far more rigorous struggle homesteading on a Rhodesian farm. Lessing's father was a witty, depressive, restless man; broken in World War I, where he lost a leg and was hospitalized for months. He married his nurse, an expansive woman with a love of books and music.
She abandoned a promising career in the London hospital system to follow her husband's unhappiness abroad, and cultivate her own in the process.
The shadow of her parents' discontent darkens the memoir; even the pleasures are under gray light. Mr. Lessing wore himself out trying to make the farm pay; in a society of hardbitten settlers, his wife missed the gentilities of the English middle class. She had brought engraved calling cards; there was nobody to call on.
Lessing evokes a dismal epiphany at age 12: seeing her parents sitting in the evening, silently smoking and bowed in defeat. Her reaction was not sympathy but a furious determination never to fall into their trap.
Visiting the past is revisiting the trap, one that she found herself so nearly caught by. And she shrinks away from its walls even as she recalls them. Shrinking away is not the best artistic posture; she is much better now and then when she bursts into full-throated rage.
Otherwise, there are a few moments of unclouded evocation—the beauty and freedom of the African back lands, the quiet rhythm of a farm day—but they quickly cloud over. She attempts to portray the neighboring families they knew, but she wards them off by naming them.
Her boarding schools are recounted at a numb distance; so is her marriage to a young and rising civil servant. She played the competent, cheerfully quirky young colonial wife and mother to the point of madness. "Tigger," she recalls with frozen horror, was her nickname—because of the bounciness.
Her husband and children are present but impalpable, as if the scandal and pain of walking out, moving across a stuffy little colonial capital and going to live with artists and leftists were the exchange of matter for anti-matter, with no connection between them, even that of memory.
Only imagination—in her fiction—would make a bridge. Toward the end, before she emigrates to England and her literary career, she, Gottfried Lessing and their baby would occasionally picnic with her first family, but she tells it as if two sets of ghosts were sharing the tea cakes.
Basil Davidson (review date 22 October 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 888
SOURCE: "She Had a Farm in Africa," in The Spectator, Vol. 273, No. 8676, October 22, 1994, p. 48.
[An English novelist and historian, Davidson is a prominent scholar in the field of African history. In the following review, he remarks favorably on Under My Skin.]
Does anyone remember Southern Rhodesia? An echo of Cecil Rhodes and the Cape-to-Cairo 'project' must still linger somewhere at the back of the English mind, as relating to unknown places vaguely north of South Africa where such as Selous used to shoot their kudu and various other beasts. Yet the imperial memory, above all in metropolitan terms, is notoriously short and shallow. Even to the English of South Africa, their fellow-settlers in Southern Rhodesia, not to speak of those in lands beyond the Limpopo still more remote, were the dwellers in a deep provincial nowhere. Fair and fine, fair and fine, 50 farms and a railway line, was a tolerant response to any stranger from across the seas who might incautiously ask about those hayseed neighbours in their immeasurable acres of high veld 'beyond the end of cultivation'. And for a long time, true enough, there was little else save a scatter of farms along the spider trail to the north. There were of course the natives; but they were not a matter for notice.
This was the improbable country which produced the remarkable writer that is Doris Lessing, who [in Under My Skin] gives us, in chapters of characteristic talent and abrasion, the story of her life before, then pushing 30, she emplaned for England and the grand adventure of becoming famous. That was in 1949, and it had to be as difficult an enterprise as one may easily imagine, for she had no reserves of money, no influential friends or even contacts, and no understanding of our war-weary land then trying to set itself to peaceful targets. One thinks at once of a comparison with another 'South African' who had arrived in London 68 years earlier, and rapidly made a name with The Story of an African Farm. Olive Schreiner was handicapped with the provincialism of being a South African in our newly-cooked and very self-regarding empire. Her success became memorable. But Lessing's has been much more so. For Lessing had to overleap a double provincialism: from a limping farmer's household somewhere along that northern line of rail to the 'brilliance' of Joh'burg and the 'sophistication' of the Cape, and then from that to the strenuous realities of London in the wake of war.
The proven skills she brought with her were various but no longer useful. She knew how to 'set a hen, look after chickens and rabbits, worm dogs and cats, pan for gold, take samples from reefs', shoot for the pot and other such things, as well as having some insight into the joys of sex and the frailties of man. She soon revealed, however, the onset of a formidable writer's skill, at first with her Martha Quest stories and then aiming further and still more shrewdly, with her unforgettable milestone along routes of modern feminism, The Golden Notebook. If anyone does now remember Southern Rhodesia in its human dimensions, this will surely be in large or even total measure thanks to this superbly reckless but entirely determined chronicler of the 50 farms and the railway line.
Her new book is 'volume one of my autobiography', and seems to me a notable success. It covers all the early years and has occasional glimpses into the future. For my taste it is rather too long, being over-generous on ancestral detail, and tedious wherever the author embarks on a wide terrain of political reference: as, for example, with absurdly sarcastic comments on the poor old Atlantic charter of 1941, a political gesture that did some good at the time and surely no harm. There is also much about the dozen or 20 immigrants of those years who, some from South Africa and others from Europe, undertook to advance the cause of communism in Southern Rhodesia, an acutely racist and politically primitive country, without the remotest chance of being heard.
But the hold-ups are brief along the passage of this wonderful kind of roman fleuve, and even a competent editor, supposing one had been given the opportunity, must have known better than to mess around with it. For as soon as Lessing steps down from her platform of Besser-wissen the lovely flowing talent takes over and there cannot be too many of her pages. Even with the bits of Besser-wissen, an unlovely property, there comes a piercing honesty of self-judgment and perception, with a quality of narrative that almost never falls to excess. Here, repeatedly, is the marvellous immediacy of observation that has marked her best work from the earliest novel of the 1950s, The Grass Is Singing; and the 50 farms (and even the railway line, of which we get a little now and then) will never again be so movingly recalled. Various aspects of 'my autobiography' insist on that, as indeed they should, and not least perhaps if surprisingly her rendering of the mind-set miseries that were loaded, even in a remote land, on the returning survivors of the wars of our blood-stained century, and were miseries that could not ever be assuaged. These are true insights, and one can weep in memory over some of these pages; I did myself.
Michiko Kakutani (review date 1 November 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 922
SOURCE: "Reality's Chaos, Translated Into Art," in The New York Times, November 1, 1994, p. C17.
[In the following review, Kakutani praises Lessing's evocation of Africa and colonial life but laments that the author's self-portrait is "an incomplete one, filled with rationalizations and evasions."]
A third of the way through this intriguing memoir [Under My Skin], Doris Lessing describes herself as a young girl, watching her parents sitting side by side in front of their house in the Rhodesian countryside, their faces anxious, tense and full of worry: "There they are, together, stuck together, held there by poverty and—much worse—secret and inadmissible needs that come from deep in their two so different histories. They seem to me intolerable, pathetic, unbearable, it is their helplessness that I can't bear."
Young Doris tells herself to remember this moment always: "Don't let yourself forget it. Don't be like them."
"Meaning," she adds, "never let yourself be trapped. In other words, I was rejecting the human condition, which is to be trapped by circumstances."
As she recounts it in Under My Skin, the first volume of her autobiography, Ms. Lessing would do her best to live up to this imperative, angrily defying all her parents' injunctions of caution. She dropped out of school at 14, left home a year or so later, had a succession of jobs as a nursemaid and a telephone operator, and began dreaming of escape to some glamorous far-off land. To the world, she presented the face of a clever, amusing and highly competent young woman, who was known to her friends as Tigger, after the bouncy tiger in Winnie-the-Pooh. It was an image, she says, that belied a troubled, lonely nature: over-sensitive, judgmental and defiant.
Although Ms. Lessing's detachment as a writer would aid her in the pursuit of the freedom she so coveted, this liberation would also come at a price. By the time this volume ends and Ms. Lessing is leaving Africa for good, she has not only jettisoned one husband and more or less abandoned a second, but has also left behind two young children. Of this decision, Ms. Lessing writes simply that the unhappiness she felt in her first marriage would have made her "a liability" to her husband and children if she had stayed.
"Perhaps it is not possible to abandon one's children without moral and mental contortions," she writes. "But I was not exactly abandoning mine to an early death. Our house was full of concerned and loving people, and the children would be admirably looked after—much better than by me, not because I did not perform this task exactly like every other woman around me, but because of this secret doom that was inside me—and which had brought my parents to their pitiful condition."
This matter-of-fact tone informs much of this volume, leaving us with a vivid, if somewhat chilling picture of the author as a self-absorbed and heedless young woman. Ms. Lessing tells us that she was not in love with her first husband, or her second, and that her maternal instincts temporarily "switched off" after the birth of her second child. Again and again, she describes her actions as a mere reflection of the Zeitgeist, a point of view that may illuminate the social dynamic animating so many of her novels, but that also suggests a certain reluctance to assume responsibility for personal choices.
Of one lover, Ms. Lessing writes, "I was not in love with him nor he with me, but it was the spirit of the times." Of her embrace of Communism, she similarly observes, "I became a Communist because of the spirit of the times, because of the Zeitgeist." Her decision to have a third child (this one with her second husband, Gottfried Lessing) is also explained in terms of larger, impersonal forces, in this case the ravages of World War II: "I believe it was Mother Nature making up for the millions of the dead."
Certainly many of the events recounted in this volume will be familiar to readers of Ms. Lessing's Martha Quest novels: a lonely childhood in the African bush, quarrels with a difficult mother, escape to the big city, an early marriage and immersion in the world of left wing politics. Indeed, this volume not only underscores just how autobiographical the Children of Violence novels really were, but also sheds new light on the process whereby Ms. Lessing transmuted the chaotic events of her own life into the hard, bright stillness of art.
One need not be acquainted with any of Ms. Lessing's earlier works, however, to become absorbed in reading this memoir. Set down in quick, fluent prose, Under My Skin offers the reader a beautifully observed portrait of the African landscape that's often as sensually resonant as the one Isak Dinesen created in Out of Africa. The book gives us a sad, unsentimental portrait of British expatriates like Ms. Lessing's parents, living on daydreams of repatriation and imagined wealth, and a fierce, sometimes very funny portrait of colonial Communists and their hangers-on.
As for the portrait Ms. Lessing draws of herself, it's an incomplete one, filled with rationalizations and evasions, and at the same time is energized by the author's groping efforts to come to terms with her past. Perhaps the next volume of her autobiography, which is to take up the story of her move to London and her determination to become a writer, will more fully address the emotional consequences of her actions and the legacy of her willful youth.
Caroline Moorehead (review date 4 November 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1009
SOURCE: "Memoirs of a Survivor," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 7, No. 327, November 4, 1994, pp. 38-9.
[Moorehead is an English journalist and nonfiction writer. In the following review, she praises Under My Skin for its vivid and evocative depiction of Rhodesia and for the insights the book offers into the relationship between Lessing's life and fiction.]
Neither Bertrand Russell nor John Cheever emerged well from their children's portraits of them; one was Olympian and cruelly exacting, the other alcoholic and homosexual. Maude McVeagh was not successful or well-known, but as Doris Lessing's mother she has come to prominence in the first volume of her daughter's autobiography as a desperate manipulative woman with a limitless urge for control. It is a devastating indictment not just of an unhappy woman but of parenthood. The saddest thing is that she tried so hard to get it right.
Under My Skin occupies that no-man's land between biography and autobiography, where the characters who play the main parts from time to time take over the narrative and the author is defined more by what is observed than by what is said. In this first volume, which takes her up until her departure from Rhodesia for London in 1949, Doris Lessing also does for herself what biographers traditionally do for literary subjects: she traces the links between the real people and places of her past and the ones in her fiction. Those who enjoyed the sequence of novels about embattled Martha Quest when they appeared in the 1950s will recognise her heroine constantly in these pages.
Few recent writers have brought to their earliest years quite the clarity and definition with which Doris Lessing recalls her childhood. Like Patrick Leigh Fermor minutely describing the central Europe he walked through at the age of 20, at a distance of nearly 50 years, Doris Lessing retrieves texture, smells and sounds most of us have, if not lost, certainly allowed to fade. Alienation, not simply from parents but from most of the human species, began early; few of these recollections are pleasant. Adults, to the watchful three-year-old girl, were smelly and unsavoury, with their "enormous pale bodies, like milk-puddings … flailing large pale arms". They have "loose bulging breasts" with "whiskers of hair under arms" and "snot on a face that is grinning and shouting with pleasure".
It is a terrifying world, in which being tickled is a nightmare, more bullying than fun, and yet "a necessary preparation for life". For Doris Lessing, childhood was a major war, played out across several battlegrounds with vastly inferior weapons, her only defence disguise into another persona, with the name of "Tigger": a cheeky little girl who could make everyone laugh. But even Tigger was no match for Maude McVeagh, a "vibrating column of efficiency and ruthless energy" whose over-attentiveness yet lack of proper love grinds bitterly through the years. The hatred is chilling. No surprise, perhaps that many of the adults took more to Harry, her younger brother, a gentle, responsive child who does not seem to have viewed the world with quite such unremitting hostility.
Under My Skin falls into two distinct parts: the years of childhood—a short spell in Persia, then to a farm in Rhodesia and a life of poverty and claustrophobia, clinging to the values of home with liberty bodices and steamed syrup puddings, redeemed only by the magic of the surrounding bush—and ten years of young adulthood before the longed-for departure for England. In these years came two marriages, both precipitate, and a steady output of writing she makes little of.
There was also absorption into the new Communist Party of Rhodesia, a moment of political awakening explored in the Martha Quest books and told at some length here, with incredulity at the misplaced belief in Stalin and nostalgia for a time when "our map of the world was still innocent". From the first marriage came a son and a daughter, both left with her husband; from the second, another son, who went with her to London. What the loss of the first two children cost her is not dwelt on; nor is the cost of her loss to them.
Not that Doris Lessing is easy on herself. She is as tough about her own frantic desire to break away as she is about the hypocrisy and evasions she found so contemptible in her parents. She takes the business of writing autobiography very seriously, and has thought out her position with care. Under My Skin was conceived, at least in part, as an act of self-defence, as five biographies of her are currently being written in America.
Had her memoirs been written in her thirties, they would have been, she says, overly combative; in her forties, full of despair and guilt. In her seventies, a far more detached curiosity is possible, though she is strict on the subject of truth, condemning as absurd the notion that it is the duty of friends, lovers and comrades to tell all, and admiring those who, as they grow older and are told more secrets, learn to keep their mouths shut. At least, by 70, the tricky landscape of memory has become more stable.
Under My Skin is a stern book. Wonderfully evocative of both people and places—especially the Rhodesian countryside seen through the eyes of a child—it is sometimes a little thin on humour. There is not much affection or comfort to be found in its pages. The inability ever to remember the good times, but always the bad, is a refrain that she turns to again and again, attributing this pessimism in part to having been born in 1919, "when half of Europe was a graveyard".
The "dark grey cloud, like poison", that settled over her early childhood, fanned by the bitterness of her father who had lost a leg in the war, filled her with this endless "struggling panicky need to escape". It is with a cold eye, and at times an accusatory glare, that Doris Lessing looks out from the "defended observation post" that was her childhood self.
J. M. Coetzee (review date 22 December 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4495
SOURCE: "The Heart of Me," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 41, No. 21, December 22, 1994, pp. 51-4.
[Coetzee is a South African novelist, critic, essayist, and translator. In the review below, he offers a summary of Lessing's life and career, remarking on Lessing's thoughts concerning feminism, politics, sexuality, and her mother.]
Presented with snapshots of the Tayler family and asked to pick out the artist or artist-to-be among them, one might at a pinch settle on the father, rather stiff and military but clearly not unintelligent; certainly not on the daughter, pleasant enough but ordinary as a loaf of bread. Yet the daughter had it in her not only to escape a future that one can almost read in her face—marriage to a decent young chap and life on a farm in Rhodesia managing servants and having babies—but also to become one of the great visionary novelists of our time.
Alfred Cook Tayler, Doris's sad-eyed father, having lost a leg in the trenches of World War I, married the nurse tending him and quit a native country he could no longer bear. His wife, already in her mid-thirties, had to sacrifice a career in order to have a family. Their daughter Doris—later Doris Wisdom, then Doris Lessing—was born in Persia in 1919.
Following ideas about child-rearing fashionable at the time, Emily Maude Tayler imposed on her two children a rigid schedule of feeding times and bowel movements, reproducing upon them by new means her own upbringing by a cold stepmother. Doris responded with deep anger against a mother who on principle refused to feed her when she cried and who later made it clear that she preferred her son to her daughter. "For years I lived in a state of accusation against [her], at first hot, then cold and hard." There is no need to seek out instances of "'abuse,' cruelty and the rest" when memories persist of how her mother "chatted on and on in her social voice" about "how the little girl in particular (she was so difficult, so naughty!) made her life a total misery." No child could have stood up to such an "assault on [her] very existence."
Since her mother would not love her, she turned to her father. "The smell of maleness, tobacco, sweat, the smell of father, enveloped her in safety." But there was a darker side to his love. The "scarred pitiful shrunken stump" of his amputated leg poked out at her from his dressing gown, an obscenity "with a life of its own." There was also the tickling game, "when Daddy captures his little daughter and her face is forced down into his lap or crotch, into the unwashed smell…. His great hands go to work on my ribs. My screams, helpless, hysterical, desperate." For years afterward she had dreams in which she screamed and struggled while brutal male faces loomed over her. "I wonder how many women who submit to physical suffering at the hands of their men were taught by 'games,' by 'tickling.'"
After Persia the Taylers moved to Rhodesia—a colony then only thirty-five years old—drawn by the lure of quick fortunes to be made in maize farming. But their thousand-acre farm ("It would not have occurred to [my parents] that the land belonged to the blacks") was not large enough to be economically viable. Though her mother adapted well, her father lacked the doggedness needed for farming; they were always in debt.
For the children, however, growing up in the bush was a wonderful, formative experience. From their parents they learned about geology and natural history; bedtime stories fed their imagination (Lessing acknowledges that her mother had a genius for teaching). Books were ordered from London, and devoured. (Books were cheap enough in the 1920s for a struggling colonial family to buy them in quantities; no Zimbabwean child of today, and certainly no rural child, can afford the wealth of reading matter that Lessing had available to her.) By the age of twelve Doris knew
how to set a hen, look after chickens and rabbits, worm dogs and cats, pan for gold, take samples from reefs, cook, sew, use the milk separator and churn butter, go down a mine shaft in a bucket, make cream cheese and ginger beer, paint stencilled patterns on materials, make papier mâché, walk on stilts …, drive the car, shoot pigeons and guineafowl for the pot, preserve eggs—and a lot else….
That is real happiness, a child's happiness: being enabled to do and to make, above all to know you are contributing to the family, you are valuable and valued.
Later Lessing would indict settler society for its "coldness [and] stinginess of the heart" toward blacks; the charge would be fleshed out in The Grass is Singing (1950), an astonishingly accomplished debut, though perhaps too wedded to romantic stereotypes of the African for present-day tastes, as well as in African Stories (1964). Yet Rhodesia was not a wholly bad environment in which to grow up. Aside from the restorative power of the natural world (about which Lessing is unabashedly Wordsworthian), there reigned among the children of the settlers a strongly egalitarian spirit that helped her escape the class obsessions of her parents. And among the 10,000 whites in Salisbury, the capital, she would discover a sizable contingent of refugees from Europe, most of them left-leaning, many of them Jewish, who would exert a decisive intellectual and political influence on her.
Meanwhile, to the confusing signals that her parents sent out, Doris responded with behavior typical of the unloved child calling for love. She stole, lied, cut up her mother's clothes, set fires; she had fantasies that the Taylers were not her real parents.
At the age of seven, "a frightened and miserable little girl," she was packed off to a convent boarding school where the nuns—themselves the unwanted daughters of German peasants—frightened their charges with hellfire stories. Here she spent four wretched years. After a further stretch in an all-girls high school in Salisbury, with weekly letters from her mother blaming her for the money she was costing them, she dropped out of the education system definitively. She was thirteen.
Yet she had never been a poor student. On the contrary, if only to please her mother, she made sure she always came first in class. She was popular with the other girls, inhabiting a false self she calls "Tigger" (after the A. A. Milne character), "fat and bouncy,… brash, jokey, clumsy, and always ready to be a good sport, that is, to laugh at myself, apologize, clown, confess inability." When later she gravitated into Communist circles, she was known as "Comrade Tigger." She repudiated the nickname once she left Rhodesia in 1949; but, refusing to go away, the Tigger self mutated into what Lessing calls the Hostess self, "bright, helpful, attentive, receptive," and disturbingly reminiscent of her mother.
Is this a clue to the title of the first volume of her autobiography: Under My Skin? In isolation the title makes a fairly conventional self-revelatory promise. But an epigraph reminds us of its context in Cole Porter: "I've got you under my skin / I've got you deep in the heart of me / So deep in my heart you're really a part of me, / I've got you under my skin. / I've tried so not to give in …" The hidden addressee of the book, the "you" deep in Lessing's heart, under her skin, emerges all too plausibly as her long-dead mother.
Averse to any display of emotion, her mother had expressed tenderness by persuading her children they were ill and then nursing them to health. Doris played along, using illness as an excuse to spend days in bed reading. But at home she could not find the privacy she craved. When she began to menstruate, her mother trumpeted the news to the males of the household. When she tried to diet, her mother piled her plate. Her fourteenth year was spent "fighting for my life" against a mother who, as she had tried to control her infant bowel movements, now seemed to be asserting ownership over her body.
To escape an unendurable situation, she took a job as a nursemaid. Guided by her employer, she began to read books on politics and sociology, while nightly the same employer's brother-in-law crept into her bed and ineptly toyed with her. Characteristically, Lessing does not pretend she was a passive victim. She "[fought] the virginity of [her] placid suitor … in a fever of erotic longing." "It is my belief," she writes, that some girls—among whom she clearly includes herself—"ought to be put to bed, at the age of fourteen" with an older man as a form of "apprentice love."
Lessing's precocious preschool reading had included Scott, Stevenson, Kipling, the Lambs' versions of Shakespeare, Dickens. (In her time, she notes tartly, "children were not patronized" but on the contrary encouraged to try things that were beyond them.) Now she began to read contemporary fiction, D. H. Lawrence in particular, as well as the great Russians. By the age of eighteen she had written two apprentice novels herself. She was also selling stories to South African magazines. She had, in fact, slipped into being a writer.
Of the three best-known writers southern Africa has produced—Olive Schreiner, Nadine Gordimer, and Lessing (who, though reluctant to accept the label "African writer," freely acknowledges that her sensibility was formed in and by Africa)—none completed high school. All were substantially self-educated, all became formidable intellectuals. This says something about the fierceness with which isolated adolescents on the margins of empire hungered for a life they felt cut off from, the life of the mind—far more fiercely, it turned out, than most of their metropolitan cousins. It also says something about how desultory the pressure was on girls to proceed all the way through the educational mill, domesticity being their ultimate lot.
Intermittent visits home only confirmed to Lessing that she had done well to escape when she did. Her mother was beginning to conform to the worst of colonial stereotypes, complaining about the servants in a "scolding, insistent, nagging voice full of dislike," while her father slowly wasted away from diabetes, a "self-pitying, peevish, dream-sodden old man, talking about his war." When he eventually died, she had an urge to scratch out the words "heart failure" under Cause of Death on the death certificate and write instead "First World War."
Becalmed in what felt more and more like a backwater (the period is evoked in Landlocked, 1965), she wrote and rewrote The Grass is Singing, the novel that would bring her recognition and, more importantly, a precarious financial independence. "I was waiting for my future, my real life, to begin." Rhodesians still spoke of England as "Home." As for her, "I was not going home … I was fleeing from it."
Lessing's first marriage, at the age of nineteen, had been to a man much older than herself—a marriage involving not the real woman but the Tigger self, the "jolly young matron." Not yet ready for motherhood, she gave birth to a son, then neglected him. He responded with anger and bewilderment uncannily like that of the young Doris.
A second child followed. She was drinking more and more, having affairs, treating her husband badly (much of this experience went into A Proper Marriage, 1954, the second of the Martha Quest novels and the most directly autobiographical). The situation was clearly untenable. Vowing that her children would one day inherit "a beautiful and perfect world where there would be no race hatred, injustice, and so forth," she gave them into the care of relatives and began to make plans to leave the country without them. She bore within her, she felt, the same "secret doom" that had ruined her parents' lives and would ruin her children's too if she stayed with them. "I was absolutely sincere," she records dryly. "There isn't much to be said for sincerity, in itself."
In the wake of the battle of Stalingrad, with the glory it brought to Russian arms, Lessing was converted to communism. In her account of her Communist years a certain defensiveness is still detectable. In truth, she writes, "I was never committed with all of myself to Communism." By the time the cold war broke out and she and her comrades suddenly become "pariahs" to white Rhodesian society, she was already beginning to have doubts. By 1954 she was no longer a Communist, though for years she felt "residual tugs of loyalty."
The activities of the Salisbury Communists, their loves and hates, take up much of the first three Martha Quest novels. Lessing justifies the extended treatment she gives—in both autobiography and these early novels—to this politically insignificant clique on the grounds that it exhibited "the same group dynamics, that made and unmade the Communist Party of the Soviet Union."
Recruits, as her books suggest, tended to be people with unhappy childhoods behind them, looking for a substitute family; their own children they shrugged off as unwanted nuisances. As an enthusiastic newcomer (and as a woman), Lessing was assigned the task of peddling The Guardian, organ of the South African Communist Party, in the poorer districts of Salisbury. Of all her Party activities, this may in fact have been the most useful to her as a writer; it enabled her to meet working-class people and see something of working-class life (A Ripple from the Storm, 1958, gives a fuller and livelier account than we get [in Under My Skin]).
One consequence of joining the Communists was that Doris met Gottfried Lessing, whom she married in 1943. Gottfried came from a prosperous Russian family of assimilated German Jewish descent, turned back into Germans by the 1917 revolution and then back into Jews by the Nuremberg laws. He was also, in his wife's words, "the embodiment of cold, cutting, Marxist logic," a "cold, silent man" of whom everyone was afraid.
Gottfried does not figure directly in the Martha Quest novels because he was still alive when she wrote them (he ended his life as East German ambassador to Uganda, where he was shot during the coup against Idi Amin). Lessing does her best to explain and portray sympathetically this unappealing man, with whom she describes her sexual life as "sad." What he really needed, she writes, was a woman kind enough to "treat her man as a baby, even for a few hours of the dark."
Gottfried encouraged her writing, though he did not approve of what she wrote. "What I liked best about myself, what I held fast to, he liked least." She had married him to save him from internment as an enemy alien; to strengthen his application for British citizenship she remained in an "unhappy but kindly marriage" long after it should have ended. Only in 1948, when his application was approved (and she, as his wife, could regain her original citizenship), did they feel free to divorce.
Lessing has never been a great stylist—she writes too fast and prunes too lightly for that. The first three Martha Quest novels, or at least long stretches of them, are bent under the burden not only of prosaic language but of an uninventive conception of novelistic form. The problem is compounded by Lessing's passive heroine, dissatisfied with life but unable to take control of her destiny in any meaningful way. But if these novels have not lasted well, they at least attest to ambition on a large scale: the ambition of writing a Bildungsroman in which individual development will be traced within an entire social and historical context.
Lessing was not blind to her basic problem, namely that her nineteenth-century models were exhausted. After the third volume she interrupted the series, breaking entirely new ground with the formally adventurous Golden Notebook, in which entries from the main character's notebooks are intermingled in a conventional narrative. Landlocked, with which the series resumes after a seven-year gap, reflects in its stylistic experiments not only Martha's impatience with a life without a future but Lessing's own impatience with her medium; while The Four-Gated City, 1969, with which the series closes, points forward toward Briefing for a Descent into Hell, 1971 (which Lessing called "inner-space fiction"), Memoirs of a Survivor, 1974, and the speculative fiction of the Canopus in Argos series rather than backward to the early books. What Lessing was looking for, and to a degree found, was a more inward, more fully modern conception not only of character but of the self and of the self's experience of time (including historical time). Once this had been arrived at, the nineteenth-century trappings fell away of themselves.
Since the publication of The Golden Notebook in 1962, Lessing has had an uneasy relationship with the women's movement—which claimed the book as a founding document—and a positively hostile relationship with academic commentators, who claimed it as a prototypical postmodern novel. Between herself and her most enthusiastic feminist disciples she has maintained a wary distance, while dismissing literary critics as fleas on the backs of writers. She has in turn been criticized by feminists (for example, Adrienne Rich) for failing to imagine an autonomous feminist politics, and by literary critics for trying to control the interpretation of her books rather than allowing them to spin off into textual space.
In her autobiography she does not hesitate to let fly at "correct" political attitudes, which she sees as little different from what in the heyday of the Party was called "the line." Thus—despite her father's tickling game—she labels the present concern with the sexual abuse of children a "hysterical mass movement." She condemns "the avaricious or vindictive divorce terms so often demanded by feminists." Ever since adolescence, she records, she has been more interested in the "amazing possibilities" of the vagina than in the "secondary and inferior pleasure" of the clitoris. "If I had been told that clitoral and vaginal orgasms would within a few decades become ideological enemies … I'd have thought it a joke." As for the social construction of gender, she recalls the "ruthlessness" with which she stole her first husband from another woman, a "basic female ruthlessness … [that] comes from a much older time than Christianity or any other softener of savage moralities. It is my right. When I've seen this creature emerge in myself, or in other women, I have felt awe."
On Western breast-beating about the colonial past, she comments: "[It cannot] be said too often that it is a mistake to exclaim over past wrong-thinking before at least wondering how our present thinking will seem to posterity." A Nigerian writer found one of her stories about African life good enough to plagiarize and publish under his own name, she recalls: so much for the politically correct line that whites should not write about black experience. Her own fiction explores male experience, including male sexual experience, without reserve.
As someone whose life has been substantially involved with public and political matters, Lessing confesses a certain respect for people who don't write memoirs, who "have chosen to keep their mouths shut." Why then her own autobiography? Her answer is candid: "Self-defense." At least five biographers are already at work on her. "You try and claim your own life by writing an autobiography."
But one suspects larger reasons too. Besides the epigraph from Cole Porter, her book bears another from Idries Shah, whose writings on Sufism have been important to her since the 1960s. Shah links individual fate to the fate of society by suggesting that society cannot be reformed until people can individually identify the forces and institutions that have dictated the course of their lives. Self-exploration and social evolution thus go together.
The two epigraphs also cohere in a surprising way. Through the music her generation danced to, such as the music of Cole Porter, says Lessing, pulsed a deep rhythm promising sex and salvation. When this subliminal promise of the Zeitgeist was not fulfilled, the whole generation, including herself, reacted as if cheated of its birthright. "I feel I have been part of some mass illusion or delusion"—the illusion that everyone is entitled to happiness. (In contrast, she suggests, the deep rhythm of today's cacophonous popular music sends people out to torture, kill, and maim.)
As a child born in the aftermath of World War I, Lessing is convinced that she, like her parents, vibrated to the basso ostinato of that disastrous epoch. "I wonder now how many of the children brought up in families crippled by war had the same poison running in their veins from before they could even speak."
The idea that the ship of history is guided by currents deeper than consciousness—an idea of which her deep-rhythm hypothesis is a slightly batty example—keeps coming back in Lessing's autobiography. In fact, the turn away from a Marxist, materialist conception of history had already been hinted at in A Ripple from the Storm, in which Martha Quest dreams of a huge saurian, fossilized yet still alive, staring dolefully at her from an earth-pit, an archaic power that will not die. One of the problems with the present project—a problem of which she is well aware—is that fiction has better resources for dealing with unconscious forces than discursive autobiography. Her previously most successful explorations of the historically embedded psyche have been in such works as The Golden Notebook and the visionary symbolic-allegorical narrative Memoirs of a Survivor (in which, incidentally, she attempts to reconceive herself as mother of a daughter rather than daughter of a mother). It is as novelist rather than as memoirist, therefore, that, three quarters of the way through the present project, she pronounces her succinct verdict on it: "There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth."
The best parts of Lessing's autobiography are about her early childhood. To most of us, early experience comes as such a shock that we remember nothing of it—an amnesia, Lessing suggests, that may be a necessary protective mechanism for the species. Her own powerful (and powerfully rendered) first memories revolve with distaste around the ugliness and loudness and smelliness of the world she has been born into—the "loose bulging breasts [and] whiskers of hair under arms" of adults in a swimming pool in Persia, the "cold stuffy metallic stink … of lice" in a Russian train.
In their clarity of recall (or of imaginative construction—it makes no difference) and cleanness of articulation, these first five chapters belong among the great pieces of writing about childhood:
It is as if the thatch is whispering. All at once I understand, my ears fill with the sound of the frogs and toads down in the vlei. It is raining. The sound is the dry thatch filling with water, swelling, and the frogs are exulting with the rain. Because I understand, everything falls into its proper place about me, the thatch of the roof soaking up its wet from the sky, the frogs sounding as loud as if they are down the hill, but they are a couple of miles off, the soft fall of the rain on the earth and the leaves, and the lightning, still far away. And then, confirming the order of the night, there is a sudden bang of thunder. I lie back, content, under the net, listening, and slowly sink back into a sleep full of the sounds of rain.
Passages like this celebrate special moments, Wordsworthian "spots of time," in which the child is intensely open to experience and also aware of heightened openness, aware that the moment is privileged. As Lessing observes, if we give time its due phenomenological weight, then most of our life is over by the time we are ten.
There are also fine passages later in the book where Lessing candidly reinhabits her youthful narcissism. She pedals her bicycle "with long brown smooth legs she is conscious of as if a lover were stroking them." "I pulled up my dress and looked at myself as far up as my panties and was filled with pride of body. There is no exultation like it, the moment when a girl knows that this is her body, these her fine smooth shapely limbs."
There are also leisurely recollections of pregnancy, childbirth (trouble-free), and nursing, including reports on her babies' feeding habits and stools, written from one of the personae she has now embraced: that of wise mother or grandmother instructing younger women.
It is clear that more effort went into the early chapters than into the rest of the book, in which Lessing all too often slips into the mode of casual reminiscence. Too many of the personages in the later chapters will matter little even to Lessing's more dedicated readers, despite halfhearted attempts to claim relevance for them.
In the end, the book is dominated by the figure of Lessing's mother, who has been present either openly or in disguised form in much of what she has written during a career now into its fifth decade. In this latest round, Lessing does her best to be fair to her opponent. For a page or two she goes so far as to hand over the narration to her—an experiment soon abandoned. "There was never a woman who enjoyed parties and good times more than she did, enjoyed being popular and a hostess and a good sort, the mother of two pretty, well-behaved, well-brought up, clean children." (The hidden barb here, the barb Lessing cannot resist, is the code-word "clean," which in the Tayler household referred to potty-training.) The trunks that accompanied them from Tehran to their mud-walled home in Rhodesia held silver tea trays, watercolors, Persian carpets, scarves, hats, evening dresses—finery that her mother would never have a chance to show off. On the farm this "handsome, well-dressed, dryly humorous woman, efficient, practical, and full of energy," found no outlet adequate to her ambitions. Her affections were transferred from her husband to her son as soon as he was born; he remained bound to her till he went off to boarding school, where, somehow, he learned to say No. "Now I see her as a tragic figure," Lessing writes; during her lifetime, "I saw her as tragic certainly, but was not able to be kind."
Yet despite a determined attempt to appreciate her parents in their historical setting, [Under My Skin] repeats the pattern of blaming the mother, familiar from Lessing's earlier writings, and thus, I fear, dooms us to the return of the mother and a rerun of the mother-daughter quarrel in the next volume. There is something depressing in the spectacle of a woman in her seventies still wrestling with an unsubjugated ghost from the past. On the other hand, there is no denying the grandeur of the spectacle when the protagonist is as mordantly honest and as passionately desirous of salvation as Doris Lessing.
William H. Pritchard (review date Summer 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3838
SOURCE: "Looking Back at Lessing," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVIII, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 317-24.
[Pritchard is an American educator and critic. In the following review, he remarks on the theme and style of Under My Skin and summarizes Lessing's development throughout her literary career.]
A little over two decades ago when Doris Lessing published her ninth novel, The Summer Before the Dark (1973), she could lay claim to consideration as the foremost female writer of fiction then working in English. The women's movement was in full swing and among many of the more literarily inclined Lessing occupied a position of respect second only to Virginia Woolf. And she was contemporary in a way Woolf, thirty and more years dead, couldn't be. The Golden Notebook (1962), which met with some puzzlement when first published, had become increasingly cited and talked about (if not always read through) by those aspiring toward being what, in the core section of the book, Lessing titled "Free Women." She had also completed the five-volume series, Children of Violence (more familiarly the "Martha Quest" novels) in which a woman who shared much of Lessing's biography was tracked, in her quest, from her days as a young woman in Southern Rhodesia, through marriages, pregnancies, divorces, to her eventual death in London. By 1973, Lessing had also published—in addition to many volumes of short fiction—a novel (her first) of Africa, The Grass is Singing; two autobiographical prose works; and Briefing for a Descent into Hell, a dark, dystopian vision of the future. In The Summer Before the Dark, a woman approaching middle age, married and with children, embarks on an affair with a man significantly younger than herself. The novel was given a front-page review by Elizabeth Hardwick in the New York Times Book Review, and in the course of her interesting account of it Hardwick identified the "rather flat, puzzling, aching anguish" that she found characteristic of Lessing's fiction, including her latest. "Enormous sadness and depression," was the particular tone Hardwick heard, and she thought it not wholly to the advantage of The Summer Before the Dark as a novel.
At present, Lessing's work is a good deal further away from the central concerns of most serious readers of fiction. Nothing in the writing she has published in the last two decades comes even close to challenging these readers, whether female or male, the way The Golden Notebook and the Martha Quest novels—especially the concluding, most disturbing one, The Four-Gated City—challenged them. She has become a respected and respectable figure to be surveyed in accounts of post-Second War novelists, viewed dispassionately along with Iris Murdoch and Margaret Drabble. So it is a good time for her to weigh in with this enlivening and substantial first volume of autobiography [Under My Skin], taking her from childhood up to her move from Africa to London in 1949. Lessing says early in the book that she admires certain people who have chosen to keep their mouths shut; but with rumors of five American biographers at work in one way or another on her life, the motive of self-defense came to the fore. Few people are left who can be hurt by what she has to say, at least in writing about her first thirty years. She can tell the truth, as she sees it, "without snags and blocks of conscience." Thus she prepares us for the leisurely, extremely detailed narrative that unfolds in the effort to tell us exactly what it is she's "got" under her skin.
The easiest answer, and the one Lessing more than hints at in the book, is her mother, Emily Maude McVeagh, a nurse who cared for Lessing's father, Alfred Tayler, in London's Royal Free Hospital where he was suffering from shell shock, depression, and an amputated leg. After the First World War the Taylers went out to Kermanshah, in Persia, where Alfred worked in the Imperial Bank and where Doris and her brother were born; later, after a sojourn in England, the family settled on a farm in Southern Rhodesia, the country in which Lessing spent her young life. She tells us that she now sees her mother as a "tragic figure, living out her disappointing years with courage and with dignity," but there's not much of this sympathetic figure in the book. Rather we're given the woman who, conforming to procedures back then, refused to feed the infant Doris when she cried; the woman who toilet trained her, who was "a vibrating column of efficiency and ruthless energy," who while Doris leaned against her father's knee (the real one, not the metal-and-wood replacement) went on and on to some visitor about how her children were sapping her strength, how her talents were withering, "how the little girl in particular (she was so difficult, so naughty!) made her life a total misery." When the family traveled home to England from Persia in 1924, Lessing's mother decided they should go via Moscow so as not to expose the children to the heat of the Red Sea. The horrendous journey that ensured, across the Caspian Sea in an oil tanker full of lice, then on a foodless train to Moscow where they subsisted on hard-boiled eggs and bread, bought by the mother at stations from peasant women (with typhoid and typhus everywhere, swarms of beggars and homeless children)—all this formed the substance of stories her mother would tell in future years. Lessing says she doesn't remember these events, nor does she remember how, at the Russian frontier, her mother browbeat a Russian official to let them in even though their passports were imperfectly stamped. Since Doris was only five at the time, one can't blame her for remembering things other than what her mother emphasized afterwards. But the "nervous flight" from her mother Lessing says she was engaged in as far back as she could remember, may have been in play here; at any rate by age fourteen she was "obdurately against" everything that Emily Tayler represented.
This "state of accusation" Lessing identifies is painful to read about, since next to blaming the father, blaming the mother is always something a daughter can indulge in. Of course Lessing doesn't want to indulge herself—she's too severely moral for that—and at certain moments in the book she speaks of herself as marked out for trouble in a way more powerful than can be blamed on her luckless mother or father. For example, later on when she decides to abandon not only her first husband, Frank Wisdom, but also the two children she bore him, it is a delicate moment for the autobiographer to handle. Lessing rationalizes a bit, saying the children would be looked after by loving people who would do the job more efficiently than she. She knew this, not because she hadn't up to that point performed the task just like the other women she saw around her, "but because of this secret doom that was inside me—and which had brought my parents to their pitiful condition." Near the end of the book she speaks of still not understanding, when she settled in London, the fact that she had been "conditioned for tears." These phrases seem to me attempts at naming what is finally beyond understanding, and what no talk about one's father or mother will explain: namely, the demon that drove this intensely gifted, perennially dissatisfied—sometimes to the point of despair and breakdown—young and older woman. "I've got you under my skin / I've got you deep in the heart of me": Cole Porter's lines furnish the book's title and act as one of its epigraphs. But we're asked to ignore the jaunty tone of the song and perhaps not to think of its concluding advice: "Use your mentality, / Wake up to reality," the sort of advice you give only when you've determined that you "never can win"—advice Lessing has never been about to take to heart. [In a footnote, the critic adds: "For someone who makes as much, in the autobiography, of popular lyrics, Lessing time and again gets their words wrong. She does okay with Porter's 'Under My Skin,' but messes up 'Night and Day' ('Night and day / I think of you'). 'It's a Sin to Tell a Lie' doesn't begin 'I love you, yes I do, I love you,' and 'Swinging on a Star' doesn't say 'Do you want to be better off than you are / Carry moonbeams home in a jar …' Yeats's little poem 'The Scholars' does not end 'O God, what would they say, if their Catullus came their way.' This probably doesn't matter but if she likes them enough to quote them, why not get the words right?"]
It must be said that the young, extremely attractive girl featured in the excellent photographs in this book, seems unaware that her "secret doom" has already conditioned her to tears. Aware of this odd disparity, Lessing names this healthy resilient animal—proud of her body, able to make others laugh—"Tigger," and the nickname survived through two marriages. (When she became a Communist she was called "Comrade Tigger.") It's Tigger who has pillow-fights with her mother or undergoes her father's tickling so as to play the game.
It's Tigger, the "healthy bouncing beast," who manages to survive the four years in a convent school to which she was sent. It's Tigger who marries Frank Wisdom, a young civil servant, who drinks and dances with the other young marrieds, has children without disaster, says at one point that she could have made a good veterinarian, or a doctor, or a matron, or a farmer. The vitality of Lessing's prose, especially in the first half of the book, testifies to Tigger's claim. What a wonderful place to grow up, her writing convinces us, as she and her brother sit under the telephone lines stretching from the Mandor Mine across a grass field to the Taylers' farm:
Our ears to the metal pole we listened to the thrumming, drumming, deep-singing of the wind in the wires where we watched, as we listened, the birds, hundreds of birds, alighting, balancing, taking off again, big birds and little birds and plain birds and birds coloured like rainbows or sunsets, the most glamorous of them, the rollers, mauve and grey and pink, like large kingfishers.
As with The Grass is Singing, this writing has some of the delicate sensuous life of early D. H. Lawrence. Speaking at one point of the "intense physicality" of Lawrence's prose, she admits that he "must have influenced me." No doubt about it: a memorable Lawrentian passage describes her looking after a brood of hatching chicks when her mother has taken her father to the hospital in Salisbury. As Doris sits up in a cold room and watches the eggs, there appears in one of them a "little rough place" that meant birth was imminent:
I held the egg to my ear, and heard the tap tap tap of the hidden chick, and wept with excitement and relief. Out flopped that hideous chick, dried at once into adorableness, out flopped another … soon all over the cracking eggs lay and sprawled the wet monstrous creatures, and between the eggs trembled the pretty dried-out chicks. I ran out, found the oldest and most experienced hen, and put her into a pen where the nest box was already lined with straw and feathers, and when I brought out a couple of dozen little chicks and put them one by one into the nest she seemed not to know her own mind. Then, her brain switched gear, she clucked, and delicately trod her way among them and became their mother.
This is beyond praise, an example of moments when her writings gets under the alert reader's skin.
In fact I found myself appreciating and admiring passages where the grim spirit in the heart of Lessing isn't wholly allowed to upstage superficial Tigger. Something like an older version of the latter can be heard when, from time to time in the book, Lessing addresses contemporary women out of the wisdom of age seventy-five. Gynecologically speaking she compares herself to the fabled peasant woman who never had anything wrong with her—no "pre-menstrual tension," three normal births, easy periods which ended in her early forties, no unpleasant menopause. So she wants to hold out some hope for young women who are prepared only for "womb troubles":
When I—my generation—looked forward to our lives as females, we were not full of fear and foreboding. We felt confident, we felt in control. We were not bombarded with bleak information from television, radio, newspapers, women's magazines. If girls were told, from very young, that they can expect bad times of every sort from pre-menstrual tension to menopausal miseries, is it not possible they are attracting bad times?
"I became a Communist because of the spirit of the times, because of the Zeitgeist"—so Lessing explains her being recruited into the dissident "progressive" band of believers she discovered in Rhodesia. Typically, she makes her decision an accession to the inevitable, rather than a moral action (she writes in a similar vein about abandoning her husband and children). Whether or not one is convinced by such rationalizations, the latter stages of this autobiography, filled with the names of a great many people we have never heard of and are given no reason to have interest in, are rather heavy going. Never one to have second thoughts about a paragraph or a page she's written, Lessing exercises little stylistic shaping of her outpouring of anecdote, character, and situation. Her hope may be that it's enough merely for her to recount them, but this seems to me very much not the case. Certainly she's right to give as a reason for writing the book the fact that she was part of "an extraordinary time, the end of the British Empire in Africa." It may take a more than ordinary care with sentences and paragraphs to make that time come strongly alive to us.
Critical accounts of Lessing's contribution and stature as a writer of fiction mainly bypass her style by acting as if she didn't have one, or at least that it is of not much account, since the substance of what she says is so important. I do not think she would be pleased by this form of condescension, and there is no reason to avoid the question of what difference style makes in her work, since The Grass is Singing and the early "African" stories are written in a direct, unadorned, intelligently observant prose to be admired. D. H. Lawrence's presence is felt, but in a less fevered and rhetorical way. It's with the Martha Quest novels that questions of style and compositional procedure arise. The first four novels of Children of Violence, three of which were published before The Golden Notebook, are written in the leisurely, extremely conventional novelese Lessing inherited from her realist predecessors; the narrative terms are basically those within which Arnold Bennett, say, worked in The Old Wives' Tale and the Clay-hanger trilogy. It is expected that we will care about the "story" of this young woman as she deals with her parents and her marriages, and though it's easy enough to caution that Martha Quest is not Doris Lessing, I would guess nobody reads these books without having some interest in Lessing's biography and how it felt to be acting out one's life in the late days of the British Empire in Africa. Yet readers with an appetite for interesting happenings in fiction may be slightly disappointed as they move through the many pages of these novels. Reviewing the second of them, the ironically titled A Proper Marriage, Kingsley Amis—whom one wouldn't suspect of being a devoted reader of Lessing—praised various excellent things in it and confided that "Mrs. Lessing is a whole network of streets ahead of the 'average' novelist." But in trying to summarize the story he apologized for implying that almost nothing happens, "especially when, as here, almost nothing happens." Amis doesn't point out what seems to me the case, that these novels also lack a density of psychological speculation that might fill in for the absence of "action." Lessing pretty much stays inside her heroine—unlike, say, the George Eliot of Middlemarch—and takes on a neutral tone of presentation that can, cumulatively, provoke exasperation. [In a footnote, the critic adds: "As it evidently did in a reader who scrawled in the margin of our library's copy of A Proper Marriage, apropos of Martha Quest's troubles, 'Bitch, bitch, bitch. Why doesn't she do something? I don't feel sorry for her.'"]
As for The Golden Notebook the consensus seems to be that after writing the first three Martha Quest novels, Lessing felt dissatisfied with her conventional narrative and proceeded to deconstruct, interrogate and elaborately play around with the novel form. Ten years after Notebook was published she wrote a rather tendentious preface to a revised edition, claiming that most of the criticism the novel received on its appearance has been "too silly to be true." Perhaps so (I haven't made a comparative study), but Irving Howe's review of it in The New Republic was anything but silly. He called it "a work of high seriousness," "the most absorbing and exciting piece of new fiction I have read in a decade." Howe, back there thirty-four years ago, was bowled over by the fact that the center of the novel's action was concerned with Anna Wulf, "a mature intellectual woman." This, Howe said, was a rarity in modern fiction, as was Lessing's ability to insist upon connections between the mind of her heroine and the larger social and political events of the 1950s. But there were of course other attractions of the book, especially to those women who made and still make up the bulk of its readership (900,000 hardcover copies sold). Here was a book in which a man is described as looking at every woman by "imagining her as she would be when he had fucked her into insensibility." A novel in which a character goes to bat for the vaginal ("real") as opposed to the clitoral orgasm and in which the "free women," Molly and Anna, ruthlessly satirize Molly's ex-husband, the successful businessman Richard. All strong stuff for 1962, though it seems doubtful whether the book can now be read by either sex with the fresh excitement it once provoked. At any rate, it's canonized, the subject of many articles, dissertations, published books, and is certainly the most highly structured of Lessing's books, probably for better rather than worse.
But as the sixties wore on and the world in general became (even) more violent, fragmented and unhappy, so did Lessing's fiction. Her engagement with the irrational, with drugs, with the Sufi mystics and the unsavory psychology of R. D. Laing, made the monstrously overlong novel that concludes Children of Violence (The Four-Gated City, 1969) a book that at least for this reader provided no pleasure, to put it mildly. And things did not improve with the toneless solemn inner journeys in Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and Memoirs of a Survivor (1974). Even the more available, previously mentioned, Summer Before the Dark, turns at its end into a tale of woe, unrelieved by any humor or irony. As for Canopus in Argos, the four-volume science-fiction series that followed (1979–82), there must be those who read it with some interest, though no one I know of did.
After this prolonged stretch of disenchantment with the novel as "bright book of life" (D. H. Lawrence), Lessing published, under the name of Jane Somers, two novels about a woman writer: written in diary form, easy to read, unencumbered by much "thought," they were published pseudonymously, so Lessing said afterwards, to see whether the public that would buy books signed Doris Lessing would do the same for Jane Somers. (They sold only modestly, and were later republished under Lessing's name.) What exactly this little experiment demonstrated I don't really see. Maybe the public and the critics were right not to rave about these books, even though they were "really" authentic products. Maybe the real test would have been, as Jonathan Yardley astutely suggested, for Lessing to have kept on publishing novels under the pseudonym—that would have been a bold experiment. But she didn't, and followed them instead in 1985 with The Good Terrorist, about a group of young people in a London "squat," whose animating figure is Alice, the "good" girl of the title. Reviewing it, Alison Lurie unfathomably called it the most interesting political novel since Conrad's The Secret Agent. In fact The Good Terrorist (unlike Conrad) is shapeless, to the extent of having no chapter breaks in its nearly 400 pages. In Under My Skin Lessing refers to her monomaniacal heroine as "quite mad," but evidently still thought it worthwhile to trace her and her dismal companions' fortunes in a detached voice of narrative reportage. Finally, more or less winding up the eighties, appeared The Fifth Child, a short and shocking account of what happens to a family when a mother's fifth child turns out to be a "wild" child, more incorrigible animal than human.
I would trade the last twenty years' worth of Lessing's novels for the stories and sketches she published three years ago—in an appropriately named book—The Real Thing. The focus here is no more nor less than London, from its restaurants, to Regent's Park and Hampstead Heath, to (in an especially attractive sketch) the London Underground as observed by the author riding on the Jubilee Line:
Charing Cross and everyone gets out. At the exit machine a girl appears running up from the deeper levels, and she is chirping like a fire alarm. Now she has drawn our attention to it, in fact a steady bleeping is going on, and for all we know, it is a fire alarm. These days there are so many electronic bleeps, cheeps, buzzes, blurps, that we don't hear them. The girl is a fey creature, blonde locks flying around a flushed face. She is laughing dizzily, and racing a flight or flock of young things coming into the West End for an evening's adventure, all of them already crazed with pleasure, and in another dimension of speed and lightness, like sparks speeding up and out.
Who knows, maybe one of these girls was nicknamed Tigger. At any rate Lessing's prose here has the kind of relaxed power and delicacy, making it all look easy and casual, that is evident in many of the pages of Under My Skin and that has been so absent from the anguished, hard-driving, monumentally solemn world of her longer fictions. Cole Porter would not have wanted to live there, but he might have found a spot just under the skin of a writer discovering new things about herself and the world as she moves through her eighth decade.
Carol Franko (essay date Summer 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9268
SOURCE: "Authority, Truthtelling, and Parody: Doris Lessing and 'the Book,'" in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 255-85.
[In the following essay, Franko examines "Lessing's ambivalent attitude toward canonical authorities" by focusing on the ways in which the narrators of her novels and short stories—including The Golden Notebook, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, and "The Sun Between Their Feet"—use and view language.]
It's O.K. to hate your mom, it's in the book. (Lessing, The Golden Notebook)
What is the function of the story-teller? [Heide Ziegler and Christopher Bigsby, "Doris Lessing," The Radical Imagination and the Literary Tradition: Interviews with English and American Novelists, 1982]
Photographs or sketches of Doris Lessing (her hair pulled back in a no-nonsense bun) adorn the covers of her books and perhaps are intended to support her image as wise woman and stern prophet. Description of Lessing's prose as "magisterial" and "confident" function like these book-jackets, presenting a consolidated essence true to the source but missing what I find most interesting about Lessing's fiction. Lessing's narrative voices are often confident—sometimes intrusively so, sometimes snootily so. However, such voices also betray their struggle to assert this author-ity. The parodic moments in her fiction intensify the preoccupation of her narrators with the "contested, and contesting" nature of their words in relation to those of others [the quoted words come from Mikhail Bakhtin, "Discourse in the Novel," in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, edited by Michael Holquist, translated by Caryl Emerson and Holquist, 1981]. Gary Saul Morson has remarked pithily that "Parody is the etiology of utterance" [The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky's "Diary of a Writer" and the Traditions of Literary Utopia, 1981]. Lessing uses parody in various ways to give her own etiology of the origins and contexts of discourse and to tell with authority her truths about life and language.
The phrase "Doris Lessing and the Book" stands for Lessing's ambivalent attitude toward canonical authorities. By "the Book" I mean first of all the written word, with all of its associations with religious, legal, and other institutional authorities, and the intertextuality that Lessing, like all writers, must negotiate. But with Lessing, meanings of "the Book" must extend to language itself because she continually thematizes language in her fiction, a fact that is sometimes overlooked in the ongoing debate over whether Lessing has always been or has never been a "realist" writer.
The following quotations suggest what Lessing shares with one great realist: a desire to writer truthfully because such writing is an authoritative as well as a responsible social act:
I aspire to give … a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind. The mirror is doubtless defective … the reflection faint or confused; but I feel as much bound to tell you … what that reflection is, as if I were in the witness-box narrating my experience on oath…. dreading nothing … but falsity…. Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult. (George Eliot, Adam Bede, Ch. 17)
I wouldn't say that … now [wouldn't say that "it is not merely a question of preventing an evil but strengthening a vision of good that will defeat evil," from "A Small Personal Voice," Lessing's oft-quoted essay from 1956] because I don't know what good and evil is. But the way I think now is that if writers … write really truthfully (it is very hard you know to be truthful, actually) you will find that you are expressing other people. (Ziegler and Bigsby)
The contemplations in chapter 17 of Adam Bede are a relatively rare occurrence in George Eliot's fiction, and her narrator does not doubt language so much as her own powers to use it truthfully. In contrast, in (to list some examples) the Children of Violence series, The Golden Notebook, and the Canopus in Argos novels, Lessing's narrators continually remark on language, continually suggest that language and the discourses that construct identity have great power, but that they do not tell the truth. Lessing never relinquishes the goal of truthtelling, and to approach it she takes up two worldviews: a Marxist and a mystical orientation.
Lessing's narrators often view language from a Marxist perspective, one that unmasks language as the partner of oppressive and lying ideologies. Martha Quest, for example, details the heroine's subjectivity as a battleground of discourses, both the ones written down in the books and newspapers she's always reading and the ones inscribed in her "blood." Lessing also critiques language from a mystical perspective that asserts an extra-linguistic knowledge and experience. Thus Anna Wulf comes to believe that
real experience can't be described…. A row of asterisks, like an old-fashioned novel, might be better. Or a symbol of some kind, a circle perhaps, or a square. Anything … but not words. The people who have been … in the place in themselves where words, patterns, order, dissolve, will know what I mean and the others won't. [The Golden Notebook]
As far as her personal beliefs can be gauged, Lessing has moved from an interest in a Marxist metanarrative to an involvement with sufism. However, both the Marxist and mystical critiques of discourse have been evident in her fiction all along.
Lessing, then, wants to write truthfully about the power of language to construct experience and its inadequacy to convey "real" experience. This puts her narrators in a position Bakhtin would relish: the main way they establish their authority in relation to "the Book" is by calling attention to the contextual nature of discourse, thereby disarming potential criticism and implying that their utterances transcend dialogism. Lessing's strategies for giving authority to her narrators develop toward this all-purpose double-voicedness that Bakhtin describes as a dialogic relationship with "one's own utterance as a whole":
Dialogic relationships are also possible toward one's own utterance as a whole, toward its separate parts and toward an individual word within it, if we … speak with an inner reservation … as if limiting our own authorship or dividing it in two. [Problems in Dostoevsky's Poetics, 1984]
This double-voiced stance toward one's utterance extends the activity of parody. Parody reminds us that the words with which we strive to shape our own intentions are "always half someone else's" (Bakhtin, "Discourse"). In "The Sun Between Their Feet," Lessing uses parody in a traditional "realistic" exposure of the falseness of official discourse. The Golden Notebook contains a more ambivalent, even duplicitous use of parody both as theme and technique. Anna Wulf, the writer-protagonist, is drawn to parody, yet deplores its complicity in what she terms the "wrong tone"; meanwhile parody makes possible her progress as a writer and a social being. Like "The Sun Between Their Feet" and The Golden Notebook, Briefing for a Descent into Hell suggests that we must take responsibility for coauthoring the discourses that shape social and private reality. Briefing, however, displays neither the "innocent" narrative authority of the African story nor the ambivalence toward parody of [The Golden Notebook]. Its narrator garners authority by emphasizing the paradox that there is no escape from "the Book," no human reality that isn't shaped by narratives, and that the words we use in stories can only point imperfectly to reality. The parodist is thus the only truthteller, since she reminds us that "parody" is the only way to talk or write—this being Lessing's version of the authority that comes from having a dialogic relationship with one's utterance as utterance.
Nothing much happens in Lessing's African story, "The Sun Between Their Feet." In this story about watching and telling, an anonymous narrator watches some beetles and describes their efforts to form a ball of dung, presumably around their eggs, and roll it up and down a hill. The narrator watches for a long time in the hot African sun, from midmorning until late afternoon brings a thunderstorm. Her attitude toward the beetles combines amusement and sympathy. Early in her vigil, she moves from sitting above the beetles to crouching behind them on the grass. Later, the sun beating down on her head, she attempts to hurry their progress by scooping up beetles and ball and placing them on a smaller hill. But the beetles return to their steeper choice, demonstrating the narrator's dry remark that "it is not for us to criticise the processes of nature."
This account of "The Sun Between Their Feet" leaves out two crucial elements: the opening paragraph that situates the setting in relation to colonial history, and the narrator's references to and quotations from a text she calls "the book," which comments on the behavior of dung beetles. From the opening paragraph we learn that the narrator is exploring some wild land behind a train station. There is a road leading from the train station to a deserted Roman Catholic Mission. Beyond the church, this land of granite boulders, which is a Native Reserve (because useless to white farmers, one presumes) appears impassable. But the narrator finds a way in and remarks that
people had made use of this wilderness. For one thing there were the remains of earth and rock defences built by the Mashona against the Matabele when they came raiding after cattle and women before Rhodes put an end to all that. For another, the undersurfaces of the great boulders were covered with Bushman paintings.
In a few sentences the narrator sums up the history of Homo sapiens in this landscape, and then moves to the dung beetles, whose "history" of ball-rolling reaches back to the Egyptians (who named them sacred) and beyond. "The Sun Between Their Feet" is not just a story about watching and telling; it is also about narrative authority and about reading. Aligning herself with the African landscape, with its nonhuman inhabitants, and with "the processes of nature," the narrator detaches herself from mere human concerns (even while conveying her anger at British imperialism in southern Africa). She further develops her authority by her parody of "the book" that purports to explain the beetles; in this way she asserts her independence of the printed page.
The narrator's language becomes exuberant when she describes the dung beetles. Here two beetles are making their ball:
One had set his back legs over a bit of dung and was heaving and levering at it. The other, with a fast rolling movement, the same that a hen makes settling roused feathers over eggs, was using his body to form the ball…. Both beetles assaulted it …, frantic with creation, seizing it between their back legs, spinning it, rolling it under them…. [When it got away from them, they] start[ed] again on the mother-pile of muck.
The amused tone and maternal imagery meshed with mock-heroic diction are typical of the narrator's descriptions of the beetles, which contrast dramatically with that of the written authority that she first mentions after the above description:
The book says that dung beetles form a ball of dung, lay their eggs in it, search for a gentle slope, roll the ball up it, and then allow it to roll down again so that in the process of rolling 'the pellet becomes compacted.'
The more the narrator describes what she sees, the more ludicrous such formulations become. The beetles she watches never "allow" their ball to roll down a slope; rather, they keep losing the ball and "plunging" after it. When the narrator positions herself on the grass so that she can "view the ascent through their eyes," she sees that the beetles are not "search[ing] for a gentle slope" (the book's phrase) but have selected "a savage mountain." When she tries to transfer them to a little hill, they "mother" their ball "patiently back to the mountain's foot." The narrator then quotes the book again: "The slope is chosen,' says the book, 'by a beautiful instinct.'" Maybe so, but the book is too removed from its subject to convey this truth. When read alongside the narrator's vivid reporting of what she sees, the book's account loses credibility. It falsifies the reality of the dung beetles (the Scarabaeus, or Aleuchus sacer, as the book informs), these beetles who were sacred to the Egyptians because they hold "the symbol of the sun between their busy stupid feet."
Nature's storyteller (my facetious epithet for Lessing's narrator) thus confidently performs "the dual role of the parodist as reader and author of another's work" [Margaret A. Rose, Parody//Meta-Fiction: An Analysis of Parody as a Critical Mirror to the Writing and Reception of Fiction, 1979]. She reveals the inadequacy of "the book" by quoting it "in too much context" (Morson). She does something similar in the terse opening paragraph when she notes that this land once witnessed the warfare of the Mashona and Matabele peoples "before Rhodes put an end to all that"—this phrase both a mocking echo of any knowing British colonialist and a grim statement of fact, since the whites did "put an end" to indigenous cultures in southern Africa. The narrator thus establishes herself as a skeptical truthteller, no respecter of imperialists like Rhodes nor of written authorities like the unnamed book that tamely misses the energy of the dung beetles. What follows is speculation about a third way that Lessing's storyteller usurps the authority of "the Book," now represented by Albert Camus's "The Myth of Sisyphus" [in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, translated by Justin O'Brien, 1961].
Rather like the State of Nature in social contract theory that apparently harbors only adult male humans, there are no bugs, no sun, and no mothers in "The Myth of Sisyphus," although there is earth (on the "earth-clotted hands" of Sisyphus). The setting (nominally the Greek underworld) is an existential paring down of life to one man, one rock, one mountain, and one sympathetic viewer/teller. Camus's narrator imagines that Sisyphus takes his punishment of "futile and hopeless labor" and turns it into a triumph, by claiming it as his own, and thus elevating his story to tragedy: "If this myth is tragic, [it] is because its hero is conscious." The narrator further explains that like the old, blind Oedipus, Sisyphus discovers the intimate connection between absurdity, tragedy, and joy. The stubborn hopefulness of Camus's story ("The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart" ["Myth of Sisyphus"]) combined with its insistence on the absurdity of existence is a frequent theme in Lessing's fiction. In The Golden Notebook, a novel that unbuilds so many certainties, allusions to "The Myth of Sisyphus" function in a rather strained manner to assert the value of "small painful … courage" [The Golden Notebook], of social consciousness, and of "find[ing] the means to proceed beyond nihilism" (Camus, "Preface").
While it is never mentioned in "The Sun Between Their Feet," it is impossible not to think of "The Myth of Sisyphus," and not to notice the contrast between Camus's tragic hero, always dignified in his labor, and Lessing's comic ones, always ridiculous as they "bundle" themselves after their ball:
I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. (Camus, "Myth")
"The slope is chosen," says the book, "by a beautiful instinct, so that the ball of dung comes to rest in a spot suitable for the hatching of the new generation of sacred insect." (Lessing, "Sun")
They clung on to … their treasure with the desperation of stupidity … It was difficult to imagine the perfect shining globe the ball had been—… now … a bit of refuse … Tomorrow … [when] the sun had come out, they would again labour and heave a fresh ball of dung. ("Sun")
Lessing's narrator, battling rival voices who have written of "her" subject matter, reveals the text that treats the beetles as too piously abstract, and "The Myth of Sisyphus" as too human-centered, valuing only tragic consciousness and not comic vitality. She writes the myth of an absurd universe as the account of creatures at once earthy and sacred, as the story of life going on in its "stupid" way.
Despite their difference of genre, setting, etc., "The Sun Between Their Feet" and The Golden Notebook are both about narrative authority and truthtelling in conflict with "the Book(s)" of powerful discourses. The narrator of "Sun" positions her discourse in opposition to inadequacies of "the printed page" and in conjunction with the authority of fact and presence, as if her story were not also a text; parody is simply the tool she uses to discover the partial vision of other narrators. In her "Introduction" to The Golden Notebook (published in 1971, nine years after the novel first appeared) Lessing takes a similar stance toward textuality, asserting that truth exists as much in oral traditions as in books and criticizing the authority of literary critics, themselves molded by educations that overvalue whatever "Book" represents current dogma. Like the narrator of "Sun" presenting her account as somehow separate from textuality, Lessing defines her novel through its independence of novelistic discourse and even of language—it is "new"; it contains "rawer material" than other works she has written, material that she has managed to convey before it "shaped itself into thought and pattern"; and its structure speaks a "wordless statement."
This last oft-quoted phrase provokes skepticism in me. How can "wordless statement" sum up a fiction that features a writer-protagonist who defines herself through her preoccupation with words, texts, and the problem of representation? One of the paradoxes of [The Golden Notebook] is that while so much of what we read is supposedly a private discourse—that of Anna Wulf's notebooks—Anna's comments to herself become, for readers other than Anna, authorial and authoritative voices that shape our responses to her texts. Anna is author, reader, reviewer, parodist, and critic of her own texts. Early in [The Golden Notebook] Lessing gives a vivid image of this authority: Anna is pictured sitting at her desk "looking down at the four notebooks as if she were a general on the top of a mountain, watching her armies deploy in the valley below."
Here is a sketch of "Anna Wulf" in relation to the macro text of The Golden Notebook: Anna is a character in the novel Free Women, which is divided into five sections; section one opens the macro text, section 5 closes it. Anna also appears in the "first person," as the author of four autobiographical notebooks (the Black one is about her experiences in Africa during WWII and in London with the filmmakers who want to use the commercially successful novel she wrote about the African years, the Red records her history with the British Communist party, the Yellow includes the draft of a novel, and the Blue is an experimental diary), each divided into four sections. She also authors "The Golden Notebook" after she has closed down her other journals; this document is the penultimate section of the macro text. The inner Golden Notebook reveals that the Anna of the notebooks is apparently the author of Free Women (which now appears as her semiautobiographical fiction). The character Saul Green (who appears in the Yellow and Blue notebooks as well as the Golden one) gives her the subject matter and first sentence of Free Women (she reciprocates, giving Saul the first sentence of a novel that he completes). The last section of Free Women thus follows the revelation that it is not the encompassing text it seems; despite the fact that it "physically" frames the macro text, it is "really" an embedded text.
This "Mobius-strip" structure, with its multiple inscription of Anna Wulf, resists finalizing interpretations that would make a false whole of Lessing's novel [see Molly Hite, The Other Side of The Story: Structures and Strategies of Contemporary Feminist Narrative, 1989]. Yet criticism on The Golden Notebook demonstrates that it is hard to avoid discussing Anna as though she were a single, coherent character. The earnest tone of Lessing's novel adds to this difficulty; Anna's painfully honest introspection, for example, makes it hard to keep "her" fragmented fictionality in mind. The Anna Wulf explored here, then, is one of several. This Anna desires a "wordless statement," in a different sense (I think) than Lessing uses it in the "Introduction." This Anna is the voice of a negative narrative authority, the writer who is also the master reader, she who prefaces, interrupts, concludes, and/or later remarks on her texts by explaining their aesthetic and moral failings. This Anna comments that language is "thinning" in the face of modern reality. However, the way she describes her distrust of her medium suggests that language is really too thick for her liking—too thick with the poisoned intentions of others, too thick with old, outworn definitions, and just too thick, that is, not a transparent medium for the "real thing."
This Anna is leery of parody, by definition a thick discourse. At first she welcomes "angry parody" for its critical, unmasking function, and uses it not only against the "enemy" without—the commodifiers of art, for example—but also the enemy within her own texts. In Black 1, Anna's parodic film synopsis of her novel Frontiers of War uncovers what she judges to be the "immoral" emotion that generated it, a "lying nostalgia" that promotes war and that sells books and movies. This early episode exemplifies Anna's ambivalent relations with parodic discourse. Parody marks her distance from others, a distance that is a mixed blessing: no one else finds her novel immoral, so Anna's self-judgment ironically results in moral isolation. At the same time, parody makes vivid her complicity with the desires and intentions of others, reminding her that she does not have complete control over her meanings; nostalgia, for example, creeps in.
Parody, soon mutates from critical tool to a term Anna uses to condemn her writing when it exhibits symptoms of the two moral and intellectual diseases of Cold War society: nostalgia and its "first cousin," the cynicism she calls the wrong tone:
I am again falling into the wrong tone—and yet I hate that tone, and yet we all lived inside it for … years…. It was self-punishing, a locking of feeling, an inability or a refusal to fit conflicting things together to make a whole; so that one can live inside it, no matter how terrible. The refusal means one can neither change nor destroy.
Throughout Black 1, Anna breaks the flow of her narrative to comment that she is falling into the wrong tones of nostalgia or cynicism; she makes similar commentaries in her Yellow and Blue notebooks (on the falseness of fiction and her failure to "just record" daily truths). This self-critique enhances her credibility and makes us self-conscious about our responses to her text: why haven't we noticed the false or blocked feeling? But we may also start thinking about how strict Anna is with her writing, and about how difficult it is to achieve a tone that is not contaminated by unwanted influences—indeed, perhaps it is impossible. Furthermore, if Anna, as model reader, presents reading as a process of looking back and discovering what is wrong with a previously written text, what is to prevent her (or Lessing's readers) from applying the same logic to her passages of self-critique? This question becomes more urgent when we consider that parody, which Anna comes to label "false art," and which (in Yellow 4) she makes quite a point of excluding from her writing, is what finally enables her to enact her vocation as writer/representative of her time and to affirm the agency of responsible, reflective, empathic people like herself—the "boulder-pushers," as she comes to call them.
Anna is torn between individualist and interdependent ideals of the writer's self, between being an "owner" of her words and intentions, a self who takes responsibility but who is vulnerable to isolation, cynicism and/or self-hatred; and an interdependent sharer of selves, experiences, meanings, a self who can say "we" in an uncomfortably literal way but who may fail to distinguish between "real" feeling and nostalgia and whose capacity for empathy could become psychosis. Although I am keenly aware of the simplification involved, I think it is the individualist Anna, the owner/purifier/unmasker of meanings, who "speaks" narrative authority. The second, interdependent version of the writer's self is a theme and a presence—sometimes threatening, sometimes idealized—in Anna's notebooks. This "we-Anna" who shares selves and experiences literally represents "her" time. Furthermore, although "she" does not speak except through the critical, self-conscious Anna, the utopic potential "she" represents is the main reason for Anna's clinging to sometimes simplistic notions of truth and reality and for her desire to expel alien voices from her discourse.
"There is something new in the world." This statement, part of an eloquent speech Anna makes to her psychiatrist, declares that she does not want to contain all of her experiences in timeless archetypes, and that she thinks the modern world must be understood as possessing new powers, both of destruction (the H-bomb and the mind control practiced by the modern media are her two examples) and construction, a golden-age building of "a life that isn't full of hatred and fear and envy and competition every minute of the night and the day." Anna's developing mystical attitude that "real experience can't be described" in language is both something Lessing believes and Anna's most drastic effort to protect this utopic potential that she senses, for example, in the new lives many women are leading, despite the pains and dangers of these lives. By arguing that these new truths cannot be described in existing terms, Anna prevents them from being contained and falsified. However, since Anna still regards herself as a representative, she is not content with just sensing these truths herself. The "new" must be communicated.
"If I could say we, really meaning it, I wouldn't be here, would I?" Anna's pithy question, directed to her psychoanalyst [The Golden Notebook], evokes several aspects of Anna's alienation: her disillusionment with communism, which like the capitalism she also despises is by its dishonesty vitiating a sense of "we"; her growing belief that fiction writing does not represent but rather evades and deforms reality, thus further severing her connections with a "we"; and, finally, her sense that words themselves are losing their meaning by becoming divorced from intention—she cannot tell, for example, when other writers are using parody, and similarly, her parodies are read "straight." Anna's resulting double bind—her need to communicate new communal truths versus her need to rid her discourse of a diseased dialogism—leads to a dramatic self-censorship: Anna uses her negative narrative authority to reject one mode of writing after another and thus to close down her four notebooks. The following is her closing down of the Yellow notebook, the one she uses for drafts of novels and stories:
'Jeez, Mike,' [Dave] said, you'll write it someday, for us all.'… 'You'll write … how our souls were ruined here on the snow-white Manhattan pavement, the capitalist-money-mammon hound-of-hell hot on our heels?' 'Gee, Dave, I love you,' I said … [and] hit him … square to the jaw-bone, stammering with love-for-the world, love-for-my-friends, for the Daves and the Mikes and the Buddies….
If I've gone back to pastiche, then it's time to stop. [The yellow notebook ended here with a double black line.] ([The Golden Notebook]; final brackets are Lessing's)
Anna's dismissal of her parody of "buddy-love" ignores how thick it is with her preoccupations, with her fear and hatred of the commodification of art and her need as an artist to speak for her peers, an act that is a kind of "love-for-the-world." In this sense, Mike and his pals speak for her, even though the parody also expresses her impatience with a view of the artist as (American) macho male whose closest relations are with other guys. Finally, with its cartoon embodiment of cool parodist aping self-indulgent confessor, Anna's "pastiche" arguably signals a transformation of her obsession with nostalgia and cynicism, those twin components of the "wrong tone." How could anything be more sentimental and cynical than this? Yet what language should be used to convey the desire for an unalienated, meaningful existence, one that contains occasional explosions of positive feeling ("I hit him then, square to the jaw-bone")? What discourse would pass Anna's test? Anna of the negative narrative authority teaches me to be skeptical of her passages of self-critique; thus, I read her buddy-love parody not as evidence of her moral and artistic exhaustion but as an exaggerated preview of her strategies in the inner Golden Notebook.
In her "Introduction," Lessing takes special pains to discuss the inner Golden Notebook, offended that early treatments of the novel ignored its importance. She claims that in this section readers "can no longer distinguish between what is Saul and what is Anna, and between them and the other people in the book." Lessing's statement implies that we could identify a choral voice in the inner Golden Notebook, maybe something like the symphonic voice in Woolf's The Waves. It's more accurate to say that in the inner Golden Notebook (and in the fourth section of the Blue notebook that precedes it) Anna Wulf creates a dialogue between her individualistic self who strives to purge language of poisonous contexts and her communal, perhaps extra-linguistic self who experiences reality without the boundaries drawn by her critical intelligence. This intersubjective sharing of experience seems to be what Lessing has in mind when she claims paradoxically that the reification of characters into types (according to class, gender, politics) throughout the novel co-exists with a salutary mingling of identities: "They [the types] have also reflected each other, been aspects of each other, given birth to each other's thoughts and behavior—are each other, form wholes" ("Intro"). The two sections that detail Anna Wulf's and Saul Green's relationship (Blue 4 and the inner Golden Notebook) bring this intersubjective reality to a climax. Anna and Saul (an American writer and disillusioned leftist currently having a breakdown) here embody both the collective madness of their time—bent on war and annihilation—and the utopic potential of transformed personal/political relations; specifically, Anna seems to "catch" Saul's sickness. In these sections Anna is "invaded" by soldiers, peasants, people from her African past, and she realizes that Saul is continually experiencing analogous invasions. We learn that in their constant fighting, she and Saul are speaking the words of others; they are "possessed," forced to be representatives: of men versus women, left versus right, working class versus middle class. When they agree to part, a separation Anna is convinced is necessary to her sanity, they believe that they will always be connected to each other—like brother and sister (Anna's view), or like being on the same team (Saul's expression).
The necessary but dangerous intersubjectivity conveyed in the inner Golden Notebook "unlocks" feeling, enabling Anna and Saul "to fit conflicting things together to make a whole." This denouement is achieved through a parodic revisiting of the sentimental and cynical "wrong tone" that has haunted Anna's notebooks. Anna transcends the false, blocked feeling of the wrong tone not by producing a merging of voices (in which her readers "can no longer distinguish between … Saul and … Anna, [or] between them and the other people in the book" ["Intro"]) but by living and writing with a heightened, parodic self-consciousness. Saul participates in the process whereby Anna both parodies and reaffirms her moral and aesthetic concern to be truthful to reality, and he is going through an analogous process; however, we are always aware that Anna is the recorder/translator of their adventures in breakdown/breakthrough.
As they experience the feelings of each other and of people around the world, Anna and Saul are aware that they are living out "parodies": Anna, for example enacts a "boo-hoo" parody of the tragically jealous, scorned woman, while Saul is alternately the heartless rake and the good American boy. This self-conscious parodying is radically different from other places in the novel where characters unwittingly ossify into grotesque parodies of various modern "types." Anna's narrative highlights one consequence of hers and Saul's self-awareness; they act out the parodies, and thus finish them, "butto[n] them up." However, parody does not just help Anna and Saul discard outworn patterns; it also enables them to "earn" an affirmation of values that have come to seem naive or old-fashioned in the complications and disillusionments of Cold War modernity—values like empathy, courage, endurance.
Anna's progress toward reaffirming these values is furthered by her mental encounters with a "disinterested" yet "controlling personality," a part of herself whom she calls "the projectionist," and who appears in a male persona, a version of Saul. Anna sees the projectionist as a destructively cynical figure. This is odd because she also describes him as the part of herself who refuses to let her give into madness and who forces her to re-view the texts that make up her past, thus at once allowing her to affirm that her life is "still there" and asking her to re-write the emphases that she has placed on various events. In a sequence thick with Anna's characteristic dilemmas, the projectionist asks her "And what makes you think that the emphasis you have put on it [on a series of scenes from her past] is the correct emphasis?" Anna hears a "parodic twang" in the word "correct," a parody of both "the Marxist jargon-word correct" and of "a primness, like that of a schoolteacher." Although the projectionist is thus parodying what I have been calling Anna's negative narrative authority over her texts, he apparently does want her to scrutinize the correctness of her emphases. He shows her a series of films, "Directed by Anna Wulf" that parody the "convention[al], well-made,… glossy" quality of her narratives. This episode leaves Anna with a "feeling of nausea" which she interprets as "the strain of trying to expand one's limits beyond what has been possible." I would add that much of the strain is due to the complex use of parody she is asking herself to make: she is to continue to doubt the truth of her writing while at the same time recognizing the conventional, limited form of her self-critique.
Anna's further adventures with the projectionist come after a crucial passage in which she anticipates (i.e., recognizes that she already knows) what he will teach her next. These moments of "knowing" things have characterized her encounters with "craziness and timelessness," and they have convinced her that "the place in [oneself] where words, patterns, order, dissolve" is a more primary reality than any truth that words can convey. However, in a reversal of logic, Anna muses that "the conditions of [this reality] existing at all" may depend on people "preserv[ing] the forms, creat[ing] the patterns," which suggests that language may help produce the reality it fails to represent truthfully. Armed with this paradox and with the exhortation to parody both her writing and her self-critique, Anna re-views the film of her life, which reveals a new emphasis. It now rushes past previous high points and lingers over secondary characters who are captured in moments of sad or stubborn endurance. Anna sees she is redefining heroism as the "small, painful sort of courage which is at the root of every life, because injustice and cruelty is at the root of life."
These new "films" are truer than the previous ones, but they are still conventional—still thick constructions, not mere windows for truth—and thus can be historicized and parodied: Anna notes that they have "a rough, crude, rather jerky quality" that she names "realistic" and that reminds her of "early Russian or German" films. Anna's reaffirmation of basic values in these films is echoed by Saul, who comes back from one of his walks determined to articulate a utopian blueprint for him and Anna to follow. Like Anna's recognition that her efforts to capture reality are at best necessary rituals, Saul admits the absurdity of his assuming the role of "pedagogue," but he still insists that he and Anna and others "around in the world" are "part of the team" ("I hate teams," says Anna), that they need to "rely on each other" and "believe in our beautiful, impossible blueprints." His speech is a return to humanist faith via absurdity and despair, but also via parody, something Anna indirectly acknowledges: she compares his "moral axioms" to "mottoes out of Christmas crackers," but she also notes that he is now performing his rake's persona as a "gallant parody."
Thus parody as discourse and attitude becomes crucial for giving utopic possibility a voice and a "book" in The Golden Notebook. Parody allows Anna to say "we" and "really mean it" without losing the critical "I" who still uses under protest a language always steeped in others' intentions and always inadequate to the "truth." Parody also allows Anna and Saul to be friends, sister and brother, part of a team—quite an achievement in a novel that explores the modern war between the sexes. Finally, this utopic use of parody results in Lessing revisioning the "book" as artifact. The materiality or object-ness of the inner Golden Notebook is emphasized: we are told how Anna spots it in a shop, how Saul covets it and tries to appropriate it by writing a verse/curse in it, how it records the topics and first sentences that Anna and Saul give to one another for their future projects, and finally, how, after Anna gives Saul the notebook, her handwriting gives way to his. This portrayal of an "embodied" intertextuality suggests that the team Anna and Saul are on is engaged in literally remaking the books of culture.
If we try to ride the mobius strip of The Golden Notebook to some kind of closure, it appears that the Anna Wulf who has the extraordinary experiences recorded in the inner Golden Notebook goes on to write Free Women, a flat, "realistic" novel, whose parodic section titles are quietly funny—for example, the heading for Free Women 2 reads "Two visits, some telephone calls and a tragedy," and the one for Free Women 4 includes the phrase, "Anna does not feel herself." Of course, in a realist gesture toward narrative authority, one of the points Lessing was making with her structure was how the mess and complexity of the notebooks (real life) gets translated/confined into the "absolutely whole conventional novel" of Free Women, a conventionality that Lessing says is "always a lie" ["A Talk with Doris Lessing," in A Small Personal Voice: Essays, Reviews, Interviews, edited by Paul Schlueter, 1974]. Briefing for a Descent Into Hell expands Anna Wulf's/Doris Lessing's skepticism of language and literary form, suggesting that the conviction that all language use is a necessary but inadequate ritual fosters a "Maryrose attitude" toward genre. Maryrose, the lovable but inaccessible woman featured in Anna's Black notebooks, typically cuts through the intellectualizing of Anna's circle with the question "What's wrong with that?" [The Golden Notebook]. With its pastiche of realism, fantasy, myth, and science fiction, the hybrid structure of Briefing for a Descent Into Hell implies a "what's wrong with it" attitude: if all language is inadequate, this amalgam that Lessing terms "inner space fiction" is no more and no less ridiculous than the parodic realism of Free Women. Indeed, perhaps its more explicit novelizing of language's inadequacy makes it more truthful and hence more authoritative.
The plot of Briefing for a Descent into Hell draws on a contemporary trope: the conflict between institutional mental health and the individual psyche. Protagonist Charles Watkins (Professor of Classics, Cambridge), has amnesia and has been admitted as John Doe into a London psychiatric hospital. As we learn through his fragmented first-person narrative, Charles is experiencing himself as the archetypal quester. He fears "sleep," meaning normal consciousness. His dreams take him on a journey around the southern Atlantic in pursuit of a crystal space ship. When this crystal picks him up, he has visions about a web of being; he sees the earth from the vastness of space and watches the history of the crust of life on it. These visions bring Charles to the brink of recovering an alien memory of his identity and purpose. His narrative becomes increasingly ambiguous as he, or someone, relates two parodic versions of how the "gods" worry about humanity and so periodically send envoys to hell (earth). Meanwhile two psychiatrists debate Charles's case in terse memos. The sinister "Dr. X" uses an experimental drug which puts Charles in a coma and then insists on electric shock treatment, which the nice "Dr. Y" delays as long as possible. However, Y's humaneness leaves him no more open than X to Charles's efforts to explain the reality of his dreams. Letters from Charles's wife, friends, and a former lover further complicate our knowledge of him. Charles decides to have the shock therapy so that X and Y will let him leave the hospital. He also hopes it will allow him to recover the tantalizing remainder of his dream-answers. Not surprisingly, though, the electric shock instead returns him to his Charles Watkins identity, his socially acceptable self that finds all the visionary concerns distasteful and embarrassing.
My reading focuses on a paradigmatic section of this complex structure, one that modulates from a meditation on language and myth through two versions of how the gods attempt to intervene in human life. The conference-of-the-gods opens with an acknowledgment that is also an indictment of the Book—"I gotta use words when I talk to you," a line from T. S. Eliot's "Sweeney Agonistes"—followed by an interpretation: "Probably that sequence of words, I've got to use words, is a definition of all literature, seen from a different perspective." It's not clear whether Charles or a new voice makes this authoritative gloss on Eliot's line. If we assume that Charles is the narrator, we must acknowledge that his tone and function have shifted, from breathless voyager to confident explainer.
The indeterminacy of the narrator enacts the main theme of the novel: interdependence. In the passage preceding the conference Charles/Odysseus reaches a climax of insight:
A divorce there has been … between the "I" and the "We,"… and I (who am not I, but part of a whole composed of other human beings as they are of me) … am … spinning back … towards a catastrophe … when the microbes … [were] knocked out of their true understanding, so that ever since most have said, I, I, I … and cannot … say, We.
With his acceptance of the catastrophic myth that explains Earth's atomized individuality Charles has achieved a new, nonhuman coherence. No longer "I" but "we," he has shed earthly perspectives of time and space:
I'm on the other side of the Catastrophe … before it. Though I'm free … to say "after," since like "up and down" it is … entirely how you look at it…. But man-wise … I am before the crash … in … air that rings with harmony…. I, voyager, Odysseus bound for home at last.
Charles expresses his "we" identity in a hybrid myth combining Odysseus's trip home with the visionary claim of interdependence and both with the science-fictional Castastrophe. He speaks in a moment of complete faith, from "within" the hybrid vision. We can choose to read the conference-of-the-gods as told by Charles, who is now "we," and who, with his account of the Descent Team, may be remembering his "real" identity. But we can also read it as an authorial voice (that I will refer to as an androgynous s/he) that has fused with Charles's but is distinct from his in a crucial way: this voice does not speak from "within" vision and myth; rather s/he engages readers in the task of reconstructing myths, rendering her discourse authoritative by openly participating in storytelling as version-making.
The conference-on-the-gods section contains two versions of one story: Near the end of the twentieth century Earth is going through a catastrophic period, and the gods must once more "descend" to Earth with the by-now-hackneyed message: "That there is a Harmony and that if they wish to prosper they must keep in step and, obey its Laws. Quite so." The narrator prefaces this story with a discussion of the Greco-Roman pantheon, modeling how to use stories and myths. S/he advocates at once taking them literally and regarding them skeptically and enacts this double transaction in self-consciously dialogic prose:
Enmeshed like a chord in Bach, part of a disc as exquisitely coloured as a jelly fish … made up of sun and planets and baby planets[,]… looking at the thing from any point of view but Earth Time, it is possible a change of emphasis from Saturn to Jupiter involving a change in all conditions on Earth and taking centuries (our time) may perhaps have had to find its message thus: That Jupiter fought Saturn (or Zeus, Chronos) [and] … defeated him, and thereafter Jupiter was God to Earth. But here is a thought … not for the first time—of course, not, there is no thought for the first time—why God? The … most kingly and, so they say, most benign of planets whose rays envelop Earth in justice … and [touch] … humanity, that grey mould struggling for survival in its struggling green scum…. And on Mount Olympus bearded Jove, or Jupiter, lorded it over the subsidiary Gods—not without a certain magnificent tetchiness. But why Father?… Who is our Father?… None other than the sun, whose name is the deep chord underlying all others, Father, Sun, Amen … as the Christians still pray. Why not Father sun, as Lord on Olympus …?… Of course, man cannot look directly at his Sun. Gods go in disguise, even now, as then they were, or might be, Pillars of fire—Forcefields, Wavelengths, Presences. It is possible that the Sun, like other monarchs, needs deputies, and who more suitable than Jupiter…. After all, Sun is … on an equal basis with the other stars, chiming in key with them, and having its chief business with them—for this is nothing if not a hierarchical universe, like it or not, fellow democrats.
This passage "explains" the pantheon, thus setting the stage for the conferences that follow, but it also evokes Lessing's ongoing debates on language and reality. Several strategies are evident: merging of sensory imagery (music and color); frequent use of the subjunctive; skeptical asides; juxtaposition of mythical and scientific diction; and punctuation of lofty subject matter with lowly diction. These dialogic strategies embody the narrator's suggestion that the definition of literature is inseparable from the riddle that there is a reality "beyond" language that nonetheless must be conveyed "through" language ("I gotta use words"). Indeed, the narrator's protracted unfolding of how "Sun" has been represented by lesser deities is probably intended as a little allegory, or another version, of this riddle. This passage and the entire conference-of-the-gods section demonstrate that the authoritative storyteller can offset the tendency of language to deprive reality of its complexity by bringing into play the dialogic and myth-making potentials of language. The narrator's techniques—especially the subjunctive ("it is possible," "may perhaps") and the skeptical asides ("so they say")—make readers a partner in the process of reconstructing myths. Our participation in this ambivalent stance toward language affects our response to the two versions of the gods' conference and "descent." We recognize that both are parodic, but because they are set in the context of the search for ways to communicate ineffable reality, we take a double attitude toward them: they are ridiculous; they are true.
The first version of the gods' conference contains several elements that imply a deliberate awkwardness: (1) the didactic message is spelled out in a dialogue (between Mercury and Minerva); (2) the allegorical characters are "fleshed out" with descriptions that are stilted translations of homeric epithets (e.g., Minerva admits to Mercury, "Only an idiot gets into an argument with the Master of Words"); (3) with several references to evolution and progress, the tone is vaguely and bombastically "Victorian." This version emphasizes how Minerva (like her Greek counterpart Athena in The Odyssey) wants to help humanity. She scolds Mercury that it is time to descend to Earth again. They banter, alluding to such myths of origin as the theft of fire and the eating of forbidden fruit. Mercury, god of thieves, curiosity, communication and progress, accuses Minerva, pegged as austere Justice, of wanting to trade roles with him. Mercury then descends, "and the Battalions of Progress are strengthened for the fight." The narrator breaks in, dismissing this "whimsical" version for one in the "contemporary mode," which
is much to be preferred, thus: that Earth is due to receive a pattern of impulses from the planet nearest the Sun…. As a result, the Permanent Staff on Earth are reinforced and
was convened on Venus, and had delegates from as far away as Pluto and Neptune…. The Sun Himself was represented…. Minna Erve was in the Chair.
This excerpt again suggests that the narrator is trying to be awkward, the "modern" names Minna Erve and Merk only the most obvious instances. The parodied sources are more apparent here: science fiction, crudely construed, with some James Bond elements. Exposition comes awkwardly through a film: the Descent Team is shown one called Forecast, which details Earth's catastrophic condition. As in the first version, there are attempts to make comedy from the traditional traits of the gods. The humor is strained, the message of Earth's danger and need by now familiar: why then this second version of the gods' council?
In some ways this "contemporary" account of the gods' interest in human affairs, which comes halfway through the novel, is the heart of Briefing for a Descent into Hell. It offers a heroic explanation and cure to Charles's insanity: he is a member of a Descent Team, and his amnesia and visions represent his effort to shed his Charles Watkins identity and remember his "true" purpose as messenger of the gods. Merk's descriptions of what the Descent Team will suffer in the "Poisonous Hell" of Earth echo Charles's condition: amnesia, feelings of loss and disorientation, experiencing "waking up" as illness. Moreover, Merk's references to "the Briefing" of the Descent Team echoes the title of the novel (as do references to hell and descent in this section) and may seem to offer a "key" to Briefing for a Descent into Hell as an intelligible, aesthetic, and thematic whole: "Which brings me to the final point…. There is to be no Briefing…. You'd be bound to forget every word…. No, you will carry Sealed Orders…. brainprints." However, Merk's insistence that "There is to be no Briefing" contradicts Lessing's title in a parodic gesture that reminds us of the ubiquitousness of versions and of an intrusive narrator who wants us to participate in the making and unmaking of stories and myths, all the while keeping in mind the inadequacy of language to convey reality.
Lessing here offers what might be termed a "quixotic" parody of language, Marthe Robert has used the term "quixotic" to describe an attitude toward literary conventions or social ideals that replaces the "categorical either/or of satire with a distressing and carried to the limits of the absurd"—hence the quixotic writer inscribes genres or ideals with "piety and irony, respect and humor, admiration and criticism, compassion and rigor" [The Old and The New: From "Don Quixote" to Kafka, translated by Carol Cosman, 1977]. These quixotic "ands" apply equally well to "The Sun Between their Feet" and to the inner Golden Notebook, to Nature's Storyteller's amused reverence for the dung beetles and to Anna's and Saul's serious joking about their faith in utopic possibility. The narrator of the conference-of-the gods section is more radically quixotic, however. This section is the "heart" of Briefing for a Descent into Hell not just because it may reveal the "true" biography of Charles but also because it represents most dramatically the novel's quixotic "both/and" approach toward language and narrative in general. Language and narrative are used parodically and seriously—hence the awkward versions of the gods' conference (parodies of parodies) that draw attention to their status as "pastiche" even while they reiterate the serious theme of interdependence and the human failure to perceive it. Just as the novel as a whole ends with Charles recovering his conventional, limited memory, the conference-of-the-gods section ends by fading into an obstetrics ward where a crying newborn is being told to sleep, "like a good baby." The "I" here, who experiences itself as a baby "knock[ed] over the head with sleepers, soothers, syrups, drugs and medicines," could be Charles, or any one of the Descent Team, or just anyone. Charles's parodic/heroic alternative biography thus ends with a reminder of the Sisyphean "againness" of failure in any quest.
The maternal reporter of "The Sun Between their Feet" affirms her revision of the Sisyphean myth without acknowledging that her utterance has any other "etiology" than her detached yet empathic participation in the grand materiality of the beetles, laboring up and tumbling down their mountain under the African sun. The printed word is not to be trusted, but neither does it represent much of a threat to the truth. Simply by quoting "the Book" parodically, in the context of the dung beetles' real activity, Nature's Storyteller reveals it as pathetically removed from their "stupid" yet "shining" participation in creation, energy, life ("Sun"). The Anna Wulf who reads her texts with an eye for their envelopment in the "wrong tone" cannot assume authority so easily nor affirm her similar values so emphatically: she does not trust hers or anyone's discourse, and she cannot use iconoclastic parody without thinking of how it is tainted with the Book that it mocks. And yet, caught in the absurd dilemma of laboring to extricate her discourse from a poisonous dialogism so that she can convey the utopic potential of intersubjectivity, Anna makes her Sisyphean progress only via the dialogic, quixotic medium of parody. Parody allows her to inscribe for herself the empathic detachment that comes "naturally" to Nature's Storyteller; it allows the "golden intertextuality" of hers and Saul's notebook, an artifact that suggests that the Book can be made anew.
There is nothing new under "bearded Jove, or Jupiter … [or] Father sun" for the narrator of the conference-of-the-gods section of Briefing for a Descent into Hell, no escape from the Book for this version-making storyteller who speaks as an anonymous, androgynous "we," and whose originality/authority resides in a tolerant but persistent thematizing of the inadequacy of language and the slipperiness of myth (Briefing). "There was a general brightening and steadying of their individual atmosphere, forcefields or auras." This multiple-choice description of how his majesty "Sun" affects Merk and others exemplifies the quixotic use of language as parody and reporting. The mix of "science" and "mysticism" in such passages has a mixed effect on the credibility of the narrator's "contemporary" rendering of the conference; if it is like a B movie, it also exemplifies how storytelling can undermine exclusionary world views. Thus we can trust this narrator not because s/he is superior to the printed word, nor because s/he feels guilty for contributing to the distortions of reality in the Book, but because s/he is always reminding us that if "parody" is the only way to use language, then the parodist is the only truthteller. And if there is "no thought," or story, "for the first time" (Briefing), there is also no end to the author-parodist's creative dung-hauling/boulder-pushing of old stories that still need to be told.