Doris Lessing, born in 1919 in Persia (present-day Iran), grew up in Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) with immigrant white-settler parents, spent the war years in Salisbury protesting in leftist groups the conditions of black people, and there wrote her first novel. The first volume of her autobiography, Under My Skin (1994), chronicles her life until she left Africa for London. This second volume covers the years 1949-1962, from her arrival in London with no resources but the unpublished manuscript of The Grass Is Singing (eventually published in 1950) to the publication of The Golden Notebook (1962). Both volumes are wonderful evocations of place and time, and in each, one very much hears Doris Lessing’s wise tone, unique in all of literature. It is this mentoring tone that is so distinctive in her novels, the sense that the narrator is sitting in the room with the reader, just talking. That tone remains in the autobiographies: There is always a double vision of the narrator’s present voice juxtaposed against her views in the past.
The title of this volume, Walking in the Shade, refers to the epigraph from “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” a popular song from the 1930’s. In a larger sense, it evokes Lessing’s coming to terms with communism: first, her joining the party, then later her leaving the party as the details of Joseph Stalin’s purges became known in the 1950’s. The “shade” signifies her outsider political position, both in and out of the party, for she was always aware of the contradictions inherent in being a communist. In a very real sense, this is a book about the politics of the 1950’s more than it is a book about the making of a writer.
Lessing went to London at the very beginning of the Cold War, and she went with a leftist political consciousness, nurtured by her experiences in southern Africa. Almost overnight, communism became suspect, because when World War II ended, the Soviet Union was no longer one of the Allies. The Western communist community became cut off. Still, the McCarthy era was never as frightening in England as in the United States (there was no equivalent there of the House Committee on Un-American Activities), and the British Isles harbored many American and Canadian leftist comrades-in- exile.
Lessing structures the book around the different houses she occupied in London over the course of a dozen years. Each address was in a different part of London, from a garret in the western immigrant area of Denbigh Road, to Church Street in Kensington, to Warwick Road in southwest London, back to central London near the BBC, and finally to Somers Town and an old house she bought and remodeled in Charrington Street. In each part, Lessing not only describes her living situation and sundry housemates but also includes a section of “The Zeitgeist, or How We Thought Then,” recounting in telling detail people’s attitudes in those times. In her wise tone, Lessing recalls the “feel” of the era—from the bombed-out buildings and bad food and worse coffee of postwar England to the Cold War shift in attitude and something so seemingly simple as the coming of television and the subsequent death of working-class culture.
With a new Labour government, people all over the world looked to England after the war as a place of hope for the future. Lessing, along with thousands of others from around the old British Empire, emigrated to London. Along with many others, she came with a dream of an egalitarian society, founded on communist ideals. She participated in communist groups throughout the decade, even as she was becoming disillusioned with the Communist Party. Her pertinent descriptions of leftists refusing to accept the information then being leaked to the West about the numbers of people tortured and killed by Stalin are devastating. The most startling of her assertions are that Stalin, not Adolf Hitler, should be considered the arch villain of the twentieth century; that there have been lies for decades about the numbers killed during the 1930’s and 1940’s in the Soviet Union; that the numbers of casualties during World War II were always inflated by adding the numbers of their own citizens killed on Stalin’s orders; and that the reason for the cover-up was the military alliance with the Soviet Union against Germany. Lessing cites a figure of eight million Russians lost, not the twenty million often given by the Soviet Union itself.
As with most movements, people still believed in the ideals, even as they turned a blind eye or excused the excesses of Stalin. Lessing understands her own complicity in this. In England, as elsewhere in the West, people needed to continue to believe in the possibility of an egalitarian society, so the protests against the arms race and particularly against nuclear weapons were led by leftist groups. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Committee of a Hundred, and the Easter Aldermaston Marches culminating in mass demonstrations in Trafalgar Square were all a part of Lessing’s political life in the 1950’s. She reveals how corrupt these groups were, right down to the puppet leader who told an aging Bertrand Russell exactly what to write and say. The antiwar movement in England in the late...
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