Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2147
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 This second volume covers the years 1949-1962, from her arrival in London with no resources but the unpublished manuscript of The Grass Is Singing (eventually published in 1950) to the publication of The Golden Notebook (1962).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 1950’s, she notes, was the genesis of the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960’s in the United States.
As a successful leftist writer (The Grass Is Singing was reviewed favorably and reprinted several times), Lessing was a member of one of the very first delegations of foreign writers allowed into the Soviet Union in the 1950’s. This was the beginning of an era of many delegations, all arranged by various Soviet committees: peace delegations, socialist delegations, and groups of miners, musicians, artists, and teachers. All were tightly controlled in their itineraries, contacts, and discussions. At a visit to a collective farm on Lessing’s trip, a peasant dared to step forward and say that all was not positive, that foreigners were told lies, that the Russian people had terrible lives, and that communism was horrific. Pulled back by his comrades, he spent the rest of the visit silently staring at the Western visitors. Everyone knew that such behavior would land the man in the Gulag. Several in the delegation nevertheless rationalized the incident as the ravings of an envious man.
In 1956, at the Twentieth Party Congress in Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev revealed to the world (some of) the crimes of Stalin, but many of the faithful Western comrades refused to believe, saying that Khrushchev had been bought off by the Central Intelligence Agency or the capitalist press. Lessing was one of those who wondered why Khrushchev had not told the whole truth, ten times worse than the details he gave. She says it was hard to let go of her belief in the ideals of the communist system, but Khrushchev’s confession changed her: “Now I knew that everything I had been clinging on to was nonsense.” It also was in 1956 that she went back to southern Africa, courtesy of the Soviet cultural attaché in England. A Prohibited Immigrant in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, she was nevertheless permitted entry. Always in touch with the black expatriate African community in London and acquainted with all the political leaders, such as Kenneth Kaunda of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Babu Mohammed of Zanzibar, Lessing interviewed people in four countries. Her book Going Home (1957) describes that trip.
Many of her friends and comrades were devastated and literally went mad as a result of their disillusionment on learning about the real horrors of communism. Lessing writes movingly of the experience of breakdown, that descent into madness, in several of her novels, among them The Golden Notebook, The Four- Gated City (1969), and The Summer Before the Dark (1973). She says that she was able to deal with the possibility of madness in herself by writing about it in her characters: “I write myself out of those potentials for disaster.” Her generation’s predilection for “disorder and extremity” came from World War I; she tells of her parents’ psychological destruction by that war. Lessing’s father lost a leg and spent a year in the hospital, taken care of by Nurse McVeagh, later his wife. Lessing’s mother had lost her first sweetheart by drowning after his ship was torpedoed by a German sub. After their marriage, they went first to Persia and then to Southern Rhodesia to start a new life, but the war was a permanent part of their lives and thus of daughter Doris’s.
The Golden Notebook was an attempt to give form to the “extreme compartmentalization” and then breakdown that the belief in communism had fostered in a whole generation of people, people whose childhoods were permanently scarred by World War I. “Old, young; black, white; men, women; capitalism, socialism; these great dichotomies undo us, force us into unreal categorisation, make us look for what separates us rather than what we have in common.” The book was mostly misread, Lessing says, reviewers latching onto the woman versus man “sex war” theme. It came to be called the “Bible of the Women’s Movement” in the late 1960’s and 1970’s because of its honesty in detailing women’s situation—with children, with men, and with their own sexuality (it was one of the first novels to discuss menstruation). Lessing is bitter about readers and reviewers who demand that all writing must be autobiographical, wanting to identify this or that character with the author, refusing myth, legend, and fable—products of the imagination—and assuming that they can find “the truth” in factual detail.
When she had finished The Golden Notebook, Lessing says she had written herself out of the “package”—the package of her Western education blinders. She was ready to learn a new way. She began by studying various forms of Buddhism, then Hinduism, but soon she realized that the Western “individualist” style would not work—she must have a teacher, a mentor, in order to find her way and to submit to a spiritual discipline. The teacher she found was Idries Shah, a Sufi (Islamic mystic); from that time on, “this was my real life,” she writes. Her later works all reflect her work with parable, mysticism, and nonlinear ways of thinking, especially The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974),Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), and her speculative fiction series,Canopus in Argos: Archives (five-novel series collective published in 1992).
Walking in the Shade also is about Lessing’s writing process—how she wrote and how she managed as a single parent with a young child. Her usual habit was to write on a portable typewriter for most of the day while Peter was at school. She would pace about the room, smoke, and take quick catnaps to clear her mind between long sessions of composing. Lessing cannot suppress her creative storytelling urges, and the book is stuffed with dramatic sketches, often introduced with “A scene:.” She is also a master at different styles and uses pastiche as brilliantly as she did in The Golden Notebook itself. She rewrites the beginning section of The Golden Notebook as if it were a society column to tweak the critics who complained that her male characters were all unpleasant. Lessing also chronicles her relations with the publishing industry, then and now, and her connections with agents and with theater and television producers.
The book’s greatest weakness is its sometimes extreme allusiveness, with no explanations provided for readers not familiar with the intellectual scene in 1950’s London. Although the anecdotes about her encounters with Nelson Algren, Kenneth Tynan, John Osborne, J. P. Donleavy, Shelagh Delaney, Brendan Behan, and even the more famous Bertrand Russell or Henry Kissinger are interesting or amusing, often the name-dropping is simply boring.
The book’s greatest strength is its honesty in explaining and reliving the mind-set and attitudes of the Cold War decade from the perspective of a former communist. As she says, “To have been a communist but not now to be one was normal and described most of the people one met.” Her work in this autobiography is an extraordinary attempt to get past the lie of memory to the honesty of how and why she thought and acted as she did at the time. Lessing’s double vision and voice are always heard, guiding the reader with the wise tone of the teacher and mentor that she remains.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIII, August, 1997, p. 1844.
Library Journal. CXXII, September 15, 1997, p. 75.
The Nation. CCLXV, October 13, 1997, p. 31.
National Business Review. October 31, 1997, p. 42.
The New York Times Book Review. CII, September 14, 1997, p. 16.
The New Yorker. LXXIII, November 17, 1997, p. 108.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, August 11, 1997, p. 392.
Times Literary Supplement. Dec. 5, 1997, p. 6.
The Wall Street Journal. October 15, 1997, p. A21.
Women’s Review of Books. XV, November, 1997, p. 5.
World and I. December, 1997, p. 256.
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