(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Paradoxically, this autobiography is as much a revelation of the impossibility of writing true autobiography as it is a chronicle of this famed writer’s life. The problem, as stated by Doris Lessing, is time and memory: “You remember with what you are at the time you are remembering.” The past, as Lessing aptly reveals, is no static, timeless place frozen in memory, but a place where things are always on the move, changing, subject to revision. The temptation to distort, to improve, to justify, to collude with “fond lying memory” must be resisted in the interest of truth, but then again, “What is truth?” an unjesting Lessing asks. How does one represent the relativity of time—“the difference between child time and grown-up time—and the different pace of time in the different stages of an adult’s life. A year before you are thirty is a very different year from the sixty-year-old’s year.” She wonders how she would write this same autobiography at age eighty-five. Another complication is the mysteriously involuntary nature of memory: “Why do you remember in every detail a whole week, month, more, of a long ago year, but then complete dark, a blank? How do you know that what you remember is more important than what you don’t?” These are metaphysical problems indeed, but a strength of Under My Skin is the way this dauntless writer is able to convey the slipperiness of the past, the shifting sands of perception, the puzzlement and the bafflement that comes with the contemplation of former truths, lives, selves. At times, it seems that Lessing herself can scarcely believe all that she uncovers of her own remarkable early life, but readers who also know her semiautobiographical novels in the Children of Violence series—Martha Quest (1952), A Proper Marriage (1954), A Ripple from the Storm (1958), Landlocked (1965), The Four-Gated City (1969)—will experience an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.

Doris Lessing was born Doris Tayler in 1919 to British parents who had emigrated after World War I to Persia (present-day Iran) where her father, Alfred Cook Tayler, held a position in a bank. When she was five years old, her parents moved to Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) with great expectations of making a fortune in farming and returning to England. Her father had lost a leg in the war and he knew nothing of agriculture. Her mother, Emily McVeagh, was a nurse from a family with some social pretensions: Her choice of profession was regarded by them as unsuitable for someone of her class. She had been in love with a doctor who was killed in the war. When she met Alfred, he was her critically wounded patient in a London hospital. She did not love him, but agreed to marry him because she was thirty-five and wanted children. Thus, at the time of their wedding, she was racing a biological clock, he was still in physical and mental breakdown as a result of the war, and the stage was set for domestic tragedy (described in Martha Quest) before Doris or her younger brother arrived on the scene.

Anyone seeking corroboration of Freud’s theory that artistic creativity has its origins in neurosis will find it here. Lessing’s rejection of her mother’s relentless middle-class values, her depression over her father’s obsession with the war that crippled him, her outrage at the white racist attitudes toward blacks, her inability to fit in with her less intelligent, less talented peers, her traumatic boarding school experiences, her feelings of cultural and economic deprivation because of her parents’ failed lives in the bush—all of this is fully conveyed. What is also conveyed, however, is the child Doris’s early joy in the African landscape, where she and her brother roamed freely. Lessing’s love of Africa shines through in these descriptions, undiminished by all that has happened since.

Lessing dwells on World War I as an event that poisoned not only her parents’ lives, but her own life as well. Certainly 1919 was an inauspicious time to be born: Twenty-nine million people died of an influenza epidemic that year, while ten million more had been killed in the Great War, or the “Great Unmentionable” as her father bitterly called it. He was one of the walking wounded who survived the horror of trench warfare only to learn how betrayed he had been, how naïve to believe this was the war to end all wars, how useless had been the great sacrifice. Her mother’s life also had been twisted by war, denying her the man she loved and the lifestyle she believed she deserved, giving her instead an impoverished life in the African bush, with a shell of a man who became her constant care. The impact of their failed, neurotic lives made Lessing repeatedly vow never to be like them. Her mother’s obsessive attempts to find fulfillment by living through her children, particularly by dictating every detail of Doris’s life, drove Doris to leave home at age fifteen, something she was ill-equipped to do, having dropped out of school at age fourteen. The convent school to which she first had been sent is described by Lessing as a true chamber of horrors, but neither did she like the public high school she attended for one year; pleading eye problems, she persuaded her parents she should withdraw and continue her self-education through her habitual, voracious reading.

In the colonial capital of Salisbury (present-day Harare), she was only able to find menial employment as nursemaid, clerk, and telephone operator, but it was here that her life took a decisive turn. She was drawn into the social circle of the Left Book Club, where she met her first husband, Frank Wisdom, a civil servant ten years her...

(The entire section is 2333 words.)