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Portratit by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)
Essays on DORIS LESSING in
British Literary Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium, ALL Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999
The Desperado Age:
British Literature at the Start of the Third Millennium,
Bucharest University Press, 2004
© Lidia Vianu
British Literary Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium, ALL Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999
Doris Lessing was born of British parents, in Persia in 1919, and was taken to Southern Rhodesia when she was five. She spent her childhood on a farm there, and first came to England when she was thirty, in 1949. She brought with her the manuscript of her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, which was published in 1950 and reprinted many times. It enjoyed outstanding success in Britain, America and Europe. Doris Lessing was awarded the Somerset Maugham Award, the Austrian State prize for European Literature (1981), and the German Federal Republic Shakespeare Prize (1982).
Doris Lessing is an uncomfortable novelist. She was born in 1919, and 1922 was the peak of experimentalism, of stream of consciousness in literature. Thirty years later, she had already written her first novel. The traces of experiment are clearly to be seen. Dissecting characters with the eyes of the mind, as well as with those of the heart, is the vice bequeathed to her by Joyce and Virginia Woolf.
She is fully aware that the novel must return to the narrative, to a simple, obvious story, if it means to survive. She feels that the author gains nothing by withdrawing in the presence of his readers. She counteracts the former withdrawal of the author by boldly stepping ahead of all her characters and speaking in the first person. She is not in the least afraid of omniscience.
Yet, the age of fragmentariness has not died yet. The discontinuity of the mind and of the soul is a disease which all her characters have caught. Doris Lessing tries to patch up a narrative using bits of reality and imagination, combined into a piecemeal whole.
The Golden Notebook (1962), for instance, is a sequence of possible stories, sketched, then abruptly left, at last remembered faintly and never followed to a dead end. The main hero and narrator of the novel (although sometimes, in the Yellow Notebook, the narration switches to the third person – without fear of the ghosts of Dickens, Galsworthy and other previously much despised novelists) is Anna Wulf. She is a writer who has only written one novel and lives on the little money it still brings her. After reading the whole novel, which deals with her direct experiences, as well as with reworking and changing, prolonging or replacing these experiences into fiction, we realize that Anna Wulf is an inert character, who struggles hard to keep alive, within the limits of sanity.
Lessing is a keen, perceptive, painfully accurate observer of a particular kind of inertness: a laziness of the body to keep up with the mind. The eyes are usually the most expressive feature of her characters. Their bodies usually go astray. Because of that, because of the precipice between the alertness of the mind and the lagging behind, almost the wish to die of the body, Lessing’s characters seem more often than not to sit on the furthest edge of sanity, their feet dangling into an abyss of non-being, an infinite, magic, all-reigning peace.
But peace (of mind or of body) is a non-existent realm, it is merely wishful-thinking, with Doris Lessing. Anna Wulf certainly never experiences it. She has long, torturing spells of unhappiness, she also experiences a longing for happiness which from time to time drives her to call out into wilderness, but when she could really be happy she is unable to enjoy it. Why is that? Because she is overburdened with the feeling of time, with the pang that the moment is short and going, going, gone.
Because of this permanent and breath-taking anxiety, Anna Wulf’s life, as retold, or rather faithfully recorded, we should say (this is Lessing’s chosen literary convention), by herself is a gasping, disconnected sequence of days, years, incidents and mainly regrets. I would not say that Doris Lessing is a writer of uncommon, sickly sensibility. I would rather stress the depth of her peering into herself and others, and I should not add to it any tinge of compassion or self-pity on the part of the author at all.
The novel has six sections, and four of the sections are divided into the black, red, yellow and blue notebooks, according to the colour of the notebook Anna uses in recording what we are supposed to read at random, as it comes. The sense of disorder is not studied, as it was with her experimenting forerunners. She does not split her stories because she is unable to build them properly, like Virginia Woolf. She does not escape into word-dreaming, wasteful lyricism like James Joyce. Doris Lessing likes stories, she can easily make them up and she makes no bones about telling them. She does not choose her most beautiful words. On the contrary: she writes under the pressure of thought or of emotion, and is proud to use language bluntly, blind to adornments.
The Golden Notebook has five (out of six) sections entitled Free Women. Consequently, the language, the subject-matter, the denouement (hardly visible) are all free. All, I should say, except the women themselves. Their freedom is painful bondage. A bondage to loneliness, depression, disarray and, last but not least, to the rending feeling that they are growing old and no freedom in the world can bar that. Age is freedom, too, but you have to pretend you have chosen it. Because there is also the other freedom of rejecting old age, in the manner of W.B. Yeats. Anna Wulf bends under the burden of her age but will not complain. She defies herself.
The two free women in this novel are Anna and Molly. They are both divorced, have a child and do not remarry (Molly does so, or at least only announces her intention at the very end). The stories of their lives run naturally, apparently uncomplicated, though in fact they are a web of incidents when you try to retell them. The most important thing in their lives used to be their being members of the British communist party, but when the novel takes place Anna is no longer a member and both have grown disillusioned with it.
Disillusionment with communism is one of the few main themes of this novel. The characters learn slowly to overcome their naïvety. A teacher goes on a trip to the Soviet Union knowing all the history of the Soviet Communist Party by heart. He is utterly disappointed to find out that nobody there is interested in this knowledge of his, that people are almost indifferent if not averse to what he so fervently believes in.
The sternness of some British communists, their attempts to keep up with Marxism Leninism, to imitate Moscow and follow in the footsteps of Stalinism are rendered with a strange mixture of humour and dismay. In America communists are black-listed; some of them even take refuge in England and become characters of Lessing’s novel. They have only fear and powerlessness left, and no belief (if they ever believed, which we are not told). Americans are amazed at the British freedom (in the 1950s) to confess adhesion to the communist cause. They are even scared. When our English heroines (Anna especially) grow out of their communist beliefs, they are simply disappointed.
Anna reads newspapers fervently, and is driven mad by the violence and injustice on the political scenes. For a while she believed in the validity of socialism (when she was very young, in South Africa), then in the communist theories (when she came to England). Communism to her used to be like an open window. But the window is slowly closed and the blind is drawn. She withdraws from the lies she finds out, from the distorted beings who continue to fight for the frail credibility of the Soviet model. She notices how their natures are affected, how their words drift farther and farther apart from their deeds. Anna does not voice, but she feels the immense gap between communist theories and communist reality. In the end, she does not deny her socialist inclination, but she refuses to compel the reality of her life to be patterned on it.
The image of communism as seen by Doris Lessing is disheartening. The writer does not blame the communist countries. She shows their failure and the failure of a western communist party. She warns us in this way against the danger of huge, hidden lies which may rise to the status of laws, rules. People may (and do) get killed in the name of such lies. Lessing does not describe or envisage the fall of communism. She merely discredits it thoroughly.
The characters who choose communism in The Golden Notebook obviously do so honestly, not driven or paid by Soviet propaganda or Soviet spies. They believe they need and can build a better world. Only the problem is that people like Anna sooner or later realize that they have not chosen the right way. It is true, they also accept that there is no better world, but before that they give up all hope of reaching it by means of communism.
Doris Lessing’s characters live in a western world, in a more or less flourishing economy, where they need not worry about food, clothes and other consumer’s goods. Their approach to communism is consequently ideological, they need not undergo physical sacrifice in order to defend their ideas. This point becomes very clear gradually, as Ana drifts away from her communist friends, fits more and more closely in her capitalist surroundings, gives up working for free for the party, and, on the last page of the novel, as a final blow to everything she has been, she announces she is going to take a job. She is also going to join the Labour Party and ‘teach a night-class twice a week for delinquent kids.’ (Should these children remind us of Burgess’s Alex?)
Molly, who is herself going to get married and away from any preoccupation with socialism, remarks:
‘So we’re both going to be integrated with British life at its roots.’
There seems to be no other way. When Lessing finishes describing her characters’ involvement with communism, there comes in a grim hopelessness. The world is as it is, and we had better not try to change it. Any change (in the direction of communism, at least) is a change for the worse.
Besides communism, another important theme of this novel is the relationship parents-children, especially in broken families. There is not one well-knit, happy family in sight, in the almost seven hundred pages of Doris Lessing’s novel. Anna gets married to a man she does not love, has a daughter Janet and separates from him barely a year later. Molly also leaves her husband Richard when their son Tommy is still a little boy. The husbands are either dry or womanizers. Richard tries about half a dozen of his secretaries, first settles for Marion, has children by her, then finds a younger one, and so the story can continue forever. The ex-partners of a marriage either dislike or really hate each other. At least Richard still keeps a good eye on his son Tommy, while Anna’s husband is nowhere mentioned.
The children who come out of these broken marriages are peculiar, more vulnerable and in disarray. Tommy attempts suicide before he turns twenty; he survives, but the bullet leaves him blind, and he ends up comforting his father’s second wife Marion (an alcoholic) by apprenticing her to socialism. His evolution is grotesque and I have a faint idea that, by telling us that his own mother Molly, and Anna, can’t understand him, Doris Lessing is also telling us that she herself is writing about something she cannot and will not bother to understand.
Lessing’s characters are all tinged with such enigmas, at various points of their lives. At a certain moment they surrender, they shrug their shoulders giving up any attempt to understand, and all we are left with is this touching, powerless, extremely life-like image. The stream of consciousness writers also described the limited understanding of the human beings when they devised the technique of the point of view (see Henry James), but they were at the beginning, they were not able to do it as naturally and simply as Doris Lessing. The Golden Notebook is therefore a step ahead: it makes the theories of the experimentalists take on the colour and texture of real life. While early 20th century writers were proud of having invented a new literary convention, Lessing tries to conceal conventions and pretends she is using none. Her simplicity is artful, nevertheless. She can’t forget what her predecessors have taught her. All that she can do is to place these teachings at the back of her mind, and give more of herself in one of her novels than Virginia Woolf did in her whole work. There is a diary-like quality in her novels, which is both her convention and the innovation of Desperado fiction. The writer returns from the gulfs of the subconscious and proclaims: I am here, I am true, I am myself.
The children themselves are not well delineated as characters. What is really interesting is their mothers’ attitude or rather relationship with them. Molly is in a state of continuous puzzlement and irritation versus her son. Her ex-husband Richard is not far from that, either. Tommy drifts apart from them, following a way neither his parents nor the readers can understand. Dissatisfied, presumably, with his own life, he tries to put an end to it. As he fails to do that, he finds another type of mortification: he continues his mother’s former socialistic beliefs, which, everybody knows by now, were a mistake. He wilfully repeats his mother’s failure, though he does not embrace communism. He is on the look-out for ideas that will change the world. Molly tells us:
‘Well. Tommy’s all set to follow in Richard’s footsteps. He’s already installed, and taking things over (...). Tommy is very definite about not being all reactionary and unprogressive like Richard. He says the world is going to be changed by the efforts of progressive big business and putting pressure on Government departments.’
To which Anna remarks: ‘Well he, at least, is in tune with our times.’
On the other hand, Anna’s daughter, Janet, is carefully trying to avoid her mother’s mistakes. She has grown up in an atmosphere of insecurity, without a permanent father, but besieged by jealousy when her mother had a love affair, a man who kept them company in the house. Anna feels an immense tenderness for her child. The wrong thing about their relationship is that, having no male support in her life, Anna tends to rely on Janet. But Janet is not willing to give much, she is only a child, she needs to take. So she decides she wants to go to a boarding school, away from her mother’s daily care (and demands), away from home. Anna finds herself alone and loveless.
Which brings us to the most important theme of this novel with discontinuous characters and intricate flow of incidents, all mixed up between reality and imagination, until you hardly know which is which, and take both for granted. That major theme is love.
In Doris Lessing’s books love is a lonely illusion. Anna analyses the feeling by dissecting herself. We get to know exactly what she feels: the strong bond she experiences, the momentary happiness, the gradual, painful loss of the loved being, the solitude haunted by the deserter’s absence, the desert of loveless days and nights, the impossibility to reiterate the miracle of love. What we never know – and here the author’s silence is deliberate – is the man’s inner being, the echo this love actually has in his soul.
Anna is a suspicious, mistrustful, proud lover, painfully aware of the tiniest sign of boredom or indifference towards her. Her exasperating sensibility makes her complicated to share a life with. She falls in love with Michael, who, five years later, leaves her. He was also married to begin with. We know absolutely nothing about the man. The author endlessly describes her own reactions, her agony over the loss of Michael, but she refuses to intrude upon the man’s privacy and suggest him as a possible character.
Lessing deals with love in the form of a woman’s private recordings of emotion. Like a hunted animal, she withdraws to lick her wounded sensibility in loneliness. She does not claim to be omniscient, although in her notebook on imaginary incidents she uses the third person narrative. Here we can see the strong influence of the stream of consciousness novel, of the point of view technique, of Joyce’s and Virginia Woolf’s endless interior monologues. Lessing is shy of exposing anybody else’s emotions except her own. This is obvious in the reticence of all the other characters to confess. The only true, almost fanatically honest confessions are the narrator’s. Mostly about herself.
Doris Lessing is a writer who does not spare herself in any way. First of all she passively allows herself to reach the utmost limit, the point where her suffering is unbearably intense, paralysing her body, shattering her mind. She does not defend herself, not even when she knows it is too late anyway. She allows the man to overwhelm and dominate her, she reaches out handing him everything she can give, and, at last, she is left empty-handed, crushed by maiming loneliness. She needs this suffering carried to its utmost. She needs to know the pain of the limit. She must find out how far she can go. A morbid curiosity prompts her to be ‘free’ to the bitter end. Free to experience and free to express. Because, on the other hand, once the experience is over, she does not spare herself verbally, either. She describes everything, but absolutely everything she remembers or she has understood. There is no restraint and no shame. She reveals both body and soul. She does not feel any word is forbidden to her. She was, or compelled herself to be free to live, after which she is just free to record.
It might be interesting to note that Anna’s love life is analysed in far more detail than her political misbelief. She talks ironically about her early commitment to socialism, but she is in dead earnest when she keeps remembering Michael’s embrace or her pain at being bereft. It seems that from the very beginning Anna found her own emotions far more important than her political choice.
The language Lessing uses to portray Anna’s love life is almost psychoanalytically free. There even is a character, an elderly woman, who uses in the novel psychoanalysis as a therapy. She tries to make Anna write again, to cure her from her silence. Now, Anna’s silence seems to the reader to be a false one, just one more way to add something to the suffering. As a matter of fact, Anna keeps weaving life into literature in her four notebooks. The literature she offers us resorts to the convention of chaos, carelessness, inability to conclude one particular incident before touching upon another. This is the inconclusiveness of real life, in fact, and we can conclude from here that, by making use of this particular device, Doris Lessing is trying to infuse more life into her book, to make it fresher than the old conventions, and therefore more credible.
I should say the writer succeeds. The Golden Notebook is a gasping record of unfulfilled love, of piecemeal happiness. At the same time, it is piecemeal literature. There is no attempt at (and, we are led to feel, no need of) a coherent narrative. Experiences come and go. Nothing is premeditated by the author’s will to narrate. At the end of the novel, the reader has learnt the lesson of hazard. Our understanding fails to see our experience as a coherent whole, so we accept this fitful novel as a proof that we are all the same and literature can do no better than record our disarray.
If we try to piece them together, the incidents in this book are few and unrelated. They are mere pretexts for the analysis of Anna’s soul. There is Molly, for instance, an actress who once divorced Richard. She has various affairs, she goes abroad for a year, she slowly forgets about communism (the belief of her youth). We do not really get to know much about her, although she is Anna’s best friend and the second free woman of the novel. Anna feels deep affection for her. They even share a house for a while, when Anna’s daughter is very small. Molly provides an interesting contrast to Anna. She is open, more carefree, rather an extrovert, while Anna is closed tight, worries to death and magnifies everything deep inside her.
No character can match Anna’s intensity and lack of humour, which is indispensable, I think, to the deep probing of her sensibility. All the other characters people Anna’s world like puppets against a vague background. Precision only belongs to the repeated incisions which Anna’s soul undergoes. She parts with Michael, she parts with communism, she even gradually parts from Molly, she seems to be in the process of altogether parting with life. She does not hide anything. She blames herself ruthlessly, for not being attractive enough, energetic enough, intelligent enough, for any fault she can find with herself.
As a matter of fact, Anna is a remarkable woman whom Doris Lessing denies a happy end. The lesson of this novel is ‘Do not expect any end at all.’ Indeed, as far as the author is concerned, the novel could have gone on for ever. It ended accidentally. It ended because the notebooks had no more blank pages, maybe. The Golden Notebook, destined to a coherent, amazing, ravishing story, is forgotten. Only the title of the novel preserves it, as a memento that literature no longer is what it used to be. It still means gift, the gift of phrase, of atmosphere, of retelling a story, but it is mainly enveloped in a confusing deconstruction. And this deconstruction is no longer a trick. With Joyce and Virginia Woolf, the incidents could in the end be rearranged, after painful figuring out, into a coherent plot. With Doris Lessing there is nothing to arrange. The point of the novel is to go deeper than the plot, into the texture of the soul. Atoms of feeling migrate according to unknown laws. Sensibility is a realm which our understanding fails to reach.
Consequently, Doris Lessing creates her own reader, who is different from the reader of her predecessors. She needs a disabused reader, who can take anything, who never complains yet never hopes, who, in short, can keep up with her. A reader for whom no surprise can ever rise again out of a literary trick. A reader so used to literature that he is ready to mistake it for life. Not life assimilated to the book, but the book re-integrated into life. This is, in the end, Lessing’s lesson: read as if you were living. Literature is not the faithful mirror of life. It is life.
In 1985 Doris Lessing published The Good Terrorist, a novel very much unlike The Golden Notebook emotionally, but very interesting for people who have lived under a communist regime. The tone and the approach to people here are totally different from those in The Golden Notebook. Vulnerability is ignored. The Good Terrorist is an analysis of political immaturity, of a prolonged childhood of the mind. Hideous ideas rise out of apparently harmless, naive heads. The atomic bomb itself could be invented, even dropped without the least compunction, by the dehumanized heroes of this book. They slowly slip into mere shapes of people, and all this is due to their attachment to Marxism and ultimately to terrorism.
Normal life is incompatible with the beliefs of the heroes in this book, who are all set on changing their society into something unknown to them, out of an impulse they do not bother to analyse. Unconscious violence, finding good soil in communist theory. This is where the main theme comes in. Its perfect embodiment is Alice, the main heroine of the book. Born in a well-off family, she seems to have grown up in an emotional vacuum. Her father divorces her mother at a certain point, marries another woman and has more children. Alice stays with her mother, she meets Jasper, a homosexual whom she falls in love with, in a platonic, disembodied way. Jasper introduces her to his group of communist-minded friends, who all address one another as ‘comrade’ when they hold a meeting, just as it happened in the meetings described by The Golden Notebook. The plot is rather uncomplicated, and to those who are not really interested in the effect of communism (even from afar) on people, it may even seem irrelevant. Alice starts resenting what she calls the ‘bourgeois’ life her parents are leading. She lives with Jasper and her mother for a while, in the large flat her father left them. Whenever Jasper happens to squeeze a certain amount of money from her, he vanishes for a few days, has some homosexual affairs, after which he tamely returns to Alice. Jasper depends on Alice materially. Alice depends on him emotionally. They have no physical life together. He cannot bear her to touch him. He is seen by Lessing as an evil imp, bent on mischief. He enjoys marching in any demonstration and doing all sorts of things against the so called capitalist order. Unconsciously, good Alice (the former good child and dutiful daughter) responds to Jasper’s hatred of all order whatever, and becomes the ‘good terrorist.’ She moves with him and some of his friends to a squat, that is they find a house which is no longer inhabited, and is going to be pulled down. With an extraordinary practical sense, she repairs and sets everything in order, using stolen things, discarded furniture, stolen money. She shrinks from nothing. She even steals from her mother and her father. At first she is only practically involved in this nomad, common life, which is in fact meant to hide the barren souls of all those who share it. Gradually, as she becomes more and more efficient, she finds herself immersed in activities organized by Irish terrorists (IRA). She participates in placing bombs. One of the group is even killed. She begins as a good companion to Jasper and ends as a real terrorist, who kills and enjoys killing in cold blood.
The Good Terrorist is an ironical, even sarcastic novel. It reveals the absurdity of lives dedicated to bringing about a communist way of life. When the Marxist characters talk about their cause, their hatred of bourgeois society (which, by the way, supports them as unemployed), we recognize with a shudder the lies, the intransigent (as a matter of fact criminal) attitude of party activists. The heroes in the novel, gathered in their squat, are an island of communism within British society. Everything they do, from scribbling on the walls to killing innocent people, is absurd, meaningless. When they talk about communism they hardly know what they are talking about. They all have in common a certain inadaptability to normal life. Alice is in her late thirties, childless, loveless, without any memories of her own. Jasper is a thoughtless, whimsical homosexual, whom she gradually starts to resent. Two more women are lesbian, one being a neurotic, who dies killed by her own bomb.
There is not a single normal human being in this book. Those who join the squat temporarily are regarded with suspicion and disdain, and the author refuses to describe them otherwise than seen by the terrorists. The implication is that whatever is touched by communist ideas becomes dry, barren, lifeless. Meaninglessness and futility reign. Everything Alice does to make the squat inhabitable, to feed its inhabitants, is just wasted effort. She acquires some significance for her fellows when she at last joins their hatred of all established values.
Now, hatred is actually what this whole book is about. There is hatred at all levels: private, social, political. There is even hatred in the way the author herself handles her words. She is coldly detached and hates her characters, outlining them in bitterly unforgiving statements. No compassion, no sympathy overflow. Just perceptive, sharp understanding of their darkest psychical recesses. No refuge from hatred is allowed to the reader, either.
Alice begins by learning to hate her mother, her father, her previous way of life, her education, her profession (which she never practised). She extends her hatred to the whole system, which provides her allowance, to the people who have been kind to her, to everyone she talks to. In the end, she comes to hate Jasper himself, the others in the group, everything except her own futile life. She decides to move to another squat, with another group, and we feel that the circle of hatred will be renewed.
The idea of hatred raises the question of its sources. It becomes more and more obvious as we go along that hatred is bred by the communist ideas the terrorists try to live by. These young (some of them no longer young) people are totally deformed by the lies they force themselves to believe, by the violence hidden in the apparently noble idea that they are fighting for a better world. We witness their attempt at appropriating a language which those trapped in communist regimes have been forced to hear and use for many decades, and we can hardly believe it can possibly be true. Doris Lessing herself makes her characters turn into freaks. Her novel, at least to someone who has experienced life under a communist regime, is a nightmare.
When Doris Lessing wrote The Good Terrorist, the fall of communism was not a fact yet. The author’s feeling that putting Marxism into practice is the worst thing that can happen to human beings is perfectly convincing. All the characters are at last estranged from everything, from their aim and their own lives as well. They are dangerous atoms of violence, hatred, distorted emotions and thoughts. They are thoroughly dehumanized.
This book should, of course, arouse in our minds one important question: how far have those who have actually lived under a communist regime been distorted, alienated, dehumanized? I do not think Doris Lessing can have known. She only meant to warn the non-communist world against the hidden hideousness of totalitarian regimes. Unlike The Golden Notebook, a novel whose characters engaged our emotions, The Good Terrorist is meant to repel, shake the reader and make him open his eyes.
Writing first an emotional book, then a rather political one, Lessing tries her hand at two kinds of texts: loving and loveless. Both approaches contain the same warning: stay away from utopias. Communism being the worst of them.
Should we consider Lessing a political writer? Should we look upon her as an analyst of the mind, of the soul? Anna does not find real love, Alice can’t fall in love. Both are failures, each in her own way. I should conclude by saying that Doris Lessing – at least in the two novels under discussion – is a recorder of human failure. She cannot and will not separate the political from the private side of life. Her characters must constantly undergo a private ordeal, which is minutely analysed and which ultimately has political reasons. On the whole, Doris Lessing writes a primary on how to ruin a life by mistaking the worst kind of society for the best. She warns against communism, and I feel she can best be understood by those who have lived through that nightmare and grope their way out of it.
The Fifth Child is, technically speaking, quite different from the previous novels. It is a short, coherent, yet utterly puzzling story. Harriet and David Lovatt meet at a party. They are two solitary, shy, introspective people and it is love at first sight. No time is lost. They buy a huge house, have four children in a row and invite the whole family over, for fabulous, 19th century holidays. Their home is warm, welcoming, appealing in the old fashioned way. It seems to go back into history.
Paradoxically, a fifth child is born to these tame parents, a child who makes them plunge both into primitivism and into the wildest contemporaneity of the ruthless civilized society at the same time. The fifth child is Ben, explained by doctors as a ‘hyper-active’ being (from embryo to adolescence), and by his mother as a return of ‘goblins.’ The child exhausts Harriet until it is born. It comes into the world much larger than usual, and starts crawling right away. Everything Ben does is amazingly forceful. He has no age, physically speaking, but is quite primitive as far as his mind is concerned.
The fifth child scares the whole family away, his sisters and brothers included. Everything Harriet and David had dreamt of and had actually achieved is gone. They are left alone with Ben, in comparison with whom even a cousin with Down syndrome is a sweet angel. Ben kills the cats and dogs in the house with his bare hands, though he never admits to that in any way. After several years, Harriet allows herself to be persuaded to send Ben to a special home for abnormal children, where he might slowly but surely die. A few months later, she feels she has to see him, finds him in a straight jacket, in dire misery, and brings him back. The Lovatts’ life becomes a nightmare.
Everybody scatters away. The house is all empty. Ben goes to school but can learn nothing. He hangs about with a group of wild teen-agers, boys on motorcycles, who take him to be their mascot. Eventually, Ben grows and makes his own gang, whose leader he becomes. He speaks in broken, telegraphic English, but is respected. He hides in caves and other unknown places with his delinquent friends. They rob whatever they can. They kill. Harriet knows, and her inner terror is infinite. She understands the root of contemporary violence: it must be the ‘goblin children.’ The Fifth Child is a remarkably simple, yet sophisticated, philosophical answer to the same question raised by Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange. Why do children, teen-agers kill and rob? Why the ruthlessness of innocence? Because, Lessing insinuates, we breed it inadvertently. Too much love and happiness may slip into the dark ages, and an unknown genre comes up. Whatever we do not want to see, whatever we fear and reject is all inside us. A mere incident can trigger it off, and another Ben may be born. Beware of the comfort of civilization, therefore. The dystopia is always inside ourselves. This is the true message of Doris Lessing, the uncomfortable novelist.
Martha Quest (1952) is the first novel of the cycle Children of Violence. It announces Lessing’s major themes, all crammed in a pseudo-realistic text, heavily influenced by the stream of consciousness. It is hard to summarize this plotless novel, which however teems with incidents, like most Desperado novels. It is equally hard to forget this chronological maze, this apparently straightforward tale strewn with the most indirect approaches that can be devised. At first sight, Doris Lessing is a tame story-teller that leaves a bitter taste on your palate, an uncomfortable anxiety at the back of your mind. On second thought, she is the hidden dynamite, the detonation of common sense in search of an enraged–Desperado–author. An author impatient with all conventions, yet weary with endless attempts. A mixed mood, of exploration and familiarity. The question mark among the literary Desperadoes at the turn of the millennium.
Martha Quest awakens to life in ‘a British Colony in the centre of the great African continent,’ and gets married at eighteen, in 1939. Everything is recorded faithfully, from her life on her parents’ poor farm to the secretarial job she takes in the capital of the colony, upon finishing school. Things keep happening at random, out of the blue. A true Desperado, Lessing refuses to plan a plot. Details heap up, but few are followed into ulterior motives, suspense or at least coherent characters. The main state – of everything and everyone – is that of confusion. Faced with characters who brim over with emotion but deny their own sentimentality, who are very much in earnest but can only react with irony or in self-hatred, the reader is confused.
Nothing makes sense, yet everything is a hundred percent true, undeniable: we are trapped in verisimilitude. At times, we even try to help the writer, to step in and put some order in this unruly narrative, which is so clear, yet so inaccessible. The idea of Magritte’s painting of a pipe comes to mind. In large letters, in the vicinity of the pipe, the painter wrote: ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe.’ Lessing is sending out the same message: Do not expect literature, this is not a novel, everything is a failure, and this is the fun of life.
The story begins on the farm of the Quests, in South Africa, when Martha is fifteen. No lyrical or memorable quotation ever comes our way. Everything must stay – and be narrated – as commonplace as it can get. The obvious message of this book, as well as of others by Doris Lessing, (The Golden Notebook, The Good Terrorist, The Fifth Child), is that any family is a failure. Martha is ‘resentful of her surroundings and her parents.’ At the end of the book, she is actually getting married to a man she resents. We could safely say she even resents herself. She experiences, at fifteen, ‘that misery peculiar to the young,’ but she is not out of her misery at eighteen, when she marries Douglas out of an unexplained and unexplainable impulse or web of circumstances. She ‘was tormented, and there was no escaping it.’ In pure and genuine Doris Lessing tradition.
Looking around, in between the mass of books she swallows, Martha decides ‘she would not be bitter and nagging and dissatisfied, like her mother.’ Three years later, on the verge of her own wedding, she is just like that. But before going to town, at sixteen, she is ‘idle and bored,’ and she is not up to much later on, either. Her intellect, her career do not seem to matter to her. A life without a sense of plan. She is too confused to allow herself to be guided by any kind of ambition. Lessing predetermines her to lose her way, and Martha does so conscientiously, to the bitter end, to the furthest consequences, which implies that, short of a miracle, she may cease to exist.
World War I ruined the health of Martha’s father, and lingers in his endlessly repeated stories, which nobody listens to. World War II is close by. The question of antisemitism and the danger of communism are briefly mentioned. A young man dies fighting in Spain. The Jews and the Reds are rejected alike. Martha has a liking for both. She shows common features with Anna Wulf in The Golden Notebook. Socialism sounds interesting to her. She wants equal rights for the natives, but there is no hint at real political thought in this book. Just understatements, sketches of attitudes, broken opinions, suggestive of a more humane approach.
Part one ends with the last moment of Martha’s hated adolescence. She has decided to leave the farm and go to town:
‘And a door had closed, finally; and behind it was the farm, and the girl who had been created by it. It no longer concerned her. Finished. She could forget it.
She was a new person, and an extraordinary, magnificent, an altogether new life was beginning.’
Part two changes the background, enhances the exhilaration, but does not remove the deep-seated menace: life is ageing, and ageing is bitter. The frenzy of youth does not save Martha. Marriage will not save her, either. The author herself wants her lost. Lost in inner violence. The uncomfortable character of an uncomfortable writer.
Eighteen-year-old Martha is ‘fierce and unhappy and determined.’ She meditates upon her ‘lack of feeling’ and her ‘calm fury.’ The third part brings about Christmas, sex and, naturally for Lessing, ‘disappointment.’ As Martha muses, ‘she was having her first love-affair with a man she was not the slightest in love with.’ A genuine literary Desperado herself, Lessing rejects the stream of consciousness violently. Here she refuses to unveil minds and offer us her characters’ heads upon a platter.
Part four still allows Martha to experience ‘violent anger, a feeling of being caged and imprisoned.’ It is aroused by her mother’s letter, but in fact it extends to her whole existence. She grows dimly aware of the coming war, ‘there, before her, like a dark chasm in her spirit.’ She is ‘depressed,’ ‘apprehensive,’ confused to the point of denying herself. Her experiences, her whole life are transitory. ‘Marry in haste, repent in leisure,’ Mr. Maynard thinks, after pronouncing Martha and Douglas husband and wife. The novel has no end, as it had no beginning. It narrates continuously, yet we find it hard to retell what happens. Doris Lessing is discovering here the Desperado trick of the secretly vanishing plot. A swarm of incidents do not make a story. Everything happens, yet the plot is void. Lessing has nothing to narrate, yet narrates it continuously. Out of fear. The fear to pry into hurting sensibilities and rent sentimentality. The fear of feeling. The shell of the soul will not open. Read by, the novel says. All life is a journey, and literature an imperfect window. Behind which Doris Lessing will not wave to us.
Under My Skin (1994) is Doris Lessing’s ‘Volume One of My Biography, to 1949.’ The shock is shattering. The novelist turns out to be everything we – no, I – would not have wanted her to be. I read the book, I lost a friend. Doris Lessing is everything but friendly in her inner world. Anything but likeable. Her loveless heroes and solitude-crazed women are no accident. They are her all right.
An informational novelist (as she calls her merging writer’s self), she writes an autobiography made up of incidents after incidents. The same as in her novels, we rarely find a quotable, whether personal, wise, lyrical or whatever, sentence. Preeminently uncomfortable to read, Lessing reveals her secret here. Her literature is unwelcoming because she herself is just like that. Preeminently to be judged. Forgiven? Let those who have not lived under communism forgive her.
This autobiography is more of a novel, actually. Here and there we recognize something already seen, such as:
‘...my mother...did not love her parents. My father did not love his.’
Strange and unbearably uncomfortable, Lessing does not love hers, either. Should we then wonder why her heroes at best ignore their parents, if they do not hate them and spite them? A violent solitude (Children of Violence is not a title chosen at random) poisons all her narratives. The writer herself steps to the front, cruelly alone, and tells us bare stories. No intriguing hybridization, no softening lyricism, no soothing sympathy. Lessing’s narratives are heartless bodies which survive mechanically, by incident, by accident. She writes during the night of the soul.
Born in Persia, on 22nd October 1919, when ‘half of Europe was a graveyard,’ she explains:
‘I used to feel there was something like a dark grey cloud, like poison gas, over my early childhood.’
The question arises automatically: only her childhood? Or more? Her dryness is quite singular at this time of effusions and authorial madness. She states herself,
‘I feel every year more of an anachronism.’
She tries hard to take the reader into her confidence, and ‘write this book honestly.’ Maybe she tries too hard. Maybe we are better off not knowing more than just her novels.
She grows up in a ‘poor family’ in Southern Rhodesia, and leaves it in 1949. Her memories are as precise as a Japanese drawing, and as neutre as those. Is she incapable of showing emotion, is she devoid of sympathy, or is it just her (only) mask? The Fifth Child is present in a general statement:
‘ Forgive me for the banality of this reflection, but there is something very wrong with the human race.’
For a while, in early childhood, Doris Lessing went to boarding school at a Catholic convent, and there she discovered she did not fit in with the other girls because she was ‘too old for my age.’ A novelist born old, who never grows up or feels young? Her heroes are ageless, why should she not be the same?
‘At the Convent I was learning the skills of the survivor, of loneliness, of exile.’
All her books are an exile from joy and lyricism. The opposite pole from hybridization, Doris Lessing is a Desperado of the pure narrative. She feels the incidents should not be mixed with anything, maybe not even with the words (the huge adventure of Experimenters) if that feat were possible.
All her childhood she fought helplessness (her parents’, her own), and built a nightmare out of it. She swore to herself:
‘I was rejecting the human condition, which is to be trapped by circumstances.’
She does not say whether she thinks she has succeeded. Her books are all traps. Her heroes are trapped. The readers feel in the grip of emptiness. The author tells us the story in the third person, she talks to us, she informs us, yet – where is she? So that we can blame her, frown at her and say, as she did: I hate it. ‘I will not.’ I have had enough.
Doris Lessing read voraciously as a child, but did not go much to school, or at least not till she was thirty, when this volume stops. In her own words, she was
‘A drop-out, long before the term had been invented.’
Mother of three (two sons and a daughter), she has next to nothing to say about her children, about her relationship with them. Actually, she left the first two with their father, while she married a communist (Gottfried Lessing), and became a communist herself. Was she too busy planning the future of the world? Too busy to be part of her own life and her children’s? Her reason, in her words:
‘I became a Communist because of the spirit of the times.’
She went to meetings, put in a lot of work. The second man she married turned out – possibly – to have been a KGB agent, who was actually killed in 1979, after he had climbed up and down the political ladder in East Germany. She left two small children, and
‘I explained to them that they would understand later why I had left. I was going to change this ugly world, they would live in a beautiful and perfect world where there would be no race hatred, injustice, and so forth.’
Which makes her doubly guilty: as a mother, and as a woman with the wrong political beliefs. People like her should have been forced to live in that world of their dreams, they should have been fed communism forcibly.
Doris Lessing summarizes her political involvement thus:
‘I was a Communist for perhaps two years, in Southern Rhodesia, from 1942 to 1944 (...). I joined the Communist Party in, I think, 1951, in London, for reasons which I still don’t fully understand, but did not go to meetings and was already a ‘dissident,’ though the word had not been invented.’
A mistake admitted, but which will not go away, however hard the writer may try to scrub it out. A repellent choice. Just like Alice’s, in The Good Terrorist, only without the excuse of craziness. They had ‘Political Education classes’ in Rhodesia at least twice a week. She was shocked by the communist use of language. She claims it is all gone, yet she remembers the words:
‘We believed in the infinite perfectibility of humankind, the imminent triumph of kindness and love – our myth was the same as the religious one...’
How can we take her word for granted when she says she was not really committed? Or that she got married twice, knowing both men were not suitable husbands for her? She once dreamt of a pink future (which turned out to be a nightmare, though not to her), now she sees doom everywhere:
‘Now a different and deadly disbelief afflicts us: we are not intelligent enough – the human race – to make a new world or even prevent the old one from being destroyed.’
This autobiography suddenly makes her untrustworthy. Her word is to be doubted for ever and ever. No wonder she wrote, ‘fiction makes a better job of the truth.’ Describing her first thirty years, Doris Lessing poured herself into fiction and became just as insubstantial and insufficient. She did not write a real autobiography, but a fictionalized version of who she might have been. The question compulsively arises: Does she really know who she actually is?
She keeps saying she has always been very good at waiting. That doors have been shutting behind her all her life. That she was born ‘out of my own self.’ Now, this is a feeling to remember. Never live your own life, never know what it is like to be yourself. Reading must have made up for missed education, experience provided Lessing with enough to say. It was she herself who was absent most of the time. Everything else was there. The novels came out ‘informative,’ after one another. A long fictional travel with no affectionate stop. A brazenly straightforward, harsh personality that floats on top and can catch at nothing. Doris Lessing’s autobiography leaves behind a sense of pity, of disrespect and superficiality. A lost novel, a losing battle against an unknown truth. This is what we actually learn for sure: Here is a novelist who cannot speak for herself because she has not yet found out who she is. Too bad.
The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) is an endless novel that half foretells (quite accurately, in part), half imagines. Violence seems to be a favourite theme with Doris Lessing. We have here the violence of humans reversing to primitivity and cannibalism. The book slightly reminds us of The Good Terrorist (with its squatters) and The Fifth Child (as another parable or explanation for teen-age criminality). The place of the plot is England, yet nowhere (a dystopia, again), the time is not far away in the future (a generation later, most likely). A huge migration is on its way. Civilization is falling apart, people leave everything (homes, appliances, jobs) in order to flee the gangs of teenagers that are no longer human, basically.
The survivor is a woman, who speaks in the first person, and witnesses the constant decay calmly, unprotestingly, helplessly. ‘Everything had broken down,’ she explains, so she sees no point in opposing or even denying the inevitable. Doris Lessing confessed in an interview that, at first, she meant this book as an autobiography. The predicting side became stronger, however, and much more appealing. The autobiography was pushed into a kind of half-reality, a repeated escape beyond a dissolving wall, which reveals scenes from the author’s childhood and adolescence. In the novel, they are attributed to Emily Cartright, a twelve-year-old girl, entrusted to the ‘survivor.’ The girl grows, and eventually leaves with a gang.
All characters are superficially sketched, and the plot is a sequence of days and details. Lessing generally builds bushy books, which lead you across mazes of incidents and offer no major lead. This is her Desperado streak. She changes fiction by mixing it with the diary, with a matter-of-fact, chronological rendering of most private experiences. Doris Lessing’s greatest art is distance, from herself, her characters, or any kind of exciting plot. Distance from traditional sentimentality, first of all.
The novel envisages huge devastations started by ‘hooligans,’ which lead to ‘mass deaths of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people.’ Refugees come and either stay, or eventually join the dehumanization that is spreading fast. The survivor muses:
‘We can get used to anything at all; this is a commonplace, of course, but perhaps you have to live through such a time to see how horribly true it is.’
Emily is a refugee child, with a yellow-eyed pet which is half-cat, half-dog, and which, for a while, prevents her from losing her humanity. Because she loves Hugo, her pet, so passionately, Emily postpones joining a gang, and when she does leave the book, Hugo saves her again. The survivor (whose name we never learn) sees her vanishing into another universe, a beautiful ‘transmuted’ young woman, whose hand rests on the neck of a Hugo who is now a ‘splendid animal, handsome, all kindly dignity and command.’ They walk behind ‘One’ who goes ahead, showing them the way ‘out of this collapsed little world into another order of world altogether.’ They pass ‘that other threshold,’ followed by Gerald and his gang of formerly barbaric toddlers, being transformed into another existence, as ‘the last walls dissolved.’
Before this vision of escape, though, Hugo is ‘an ugly beast,’ carefully protected by Emily from the teen-agers who would like to kill and eat him. As for Emily,
‘I did not ask. I never, not once, asked her a question. And she did not volunteer information.’
Typical for Doris Lessing. Her imagination finds it repulsive to probe inside (we might wonder how she managed to write The Golden Notebook, in this case). Her heroes are self-contained and hate sharing. We are kept in front of the gate, simply denied the key.
The only likeable hero of this novel is the ‘future,’ which this book both kills and revigorates. A dystopia with a happy ending? Imagination can associate the most dissimilar elements:
‘And so we talked about the farm, our future, hers and mine, like a fable where we would walk hand in hand, together. And then ‘life’ would begin, life as it ought to be, as it had been promised – by whom? when? where? – to everybody on this earth.’
Emily is brought to the survivor by a stranger, and left in her care. With Lessing’s already well known inability to sympathize with maternity, the plot outlines the closest image possible – in this author’s terms – of a mother–daughter relationship. It is resigned, cold, loose. Just like Anna Wulf and her daughter, in The Golden Notebook. A dryness that is just one more surprise, coming from a woman with three children, about whom she does not talk much. This particular book is dedicated to her son, Peter, though.
There is a faint similarity with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Emily says about the gang one day:
‘Apart from eating people, they are very nice, I think.’
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness comes to mind as well. While all those horrors take place outside, the survivor keeps moving ‘through the tall quiet walls,’ and finds out a lot about Emily’s childhood and adolescence, which are in fact Lessing’s own, as she had first planned the novel. The solitude, the lack of affection, the younger brother, the emptiness. No wonder the writer hardly has any warmth to share with her readers, no wonder she is reticent and dry. Would a formal education have helped? I am tempted to say it would have organized her thoughts, it would have made a difference in the quality of her meditation, the breadth of her vision. Intuition alone does not always do the trick for a writer who produces many volumes, in the hope that he or she has something to say.
The feeling Doris Lessing creates is that her books are invaded by weeds. This is her Desperado feature. She will not filter everything, she writes as she breathes, easily, indiscriminately. Which can prove trying to her readers at times, or simply unrewarding.
Lessing’s imagination is conscientious, but not rich enough. She strikes gold with one idea, then stuffs the galleries with words, gestures, insignificant incidents which add up to nothing, are easily forgotten. In this book (before The Fifth Child or The Good Terrorist) she imagines a new society, after the death of the present one. The new social unit is the gang (like a tribe), whose members start with the vague feeling of ‘inner violence,’ and end up devouring one another, forgetting all about their humanity:
‘By the end of that summer there were hundreds of people of all ages on the pavement.’
Almost everybody agrees to leaving the city that is now deprived of electricity, food, water, appliances, even air. It sounds like leaving the earth when it has self-destructed.
Towards the end of the novel, a new gang turns up, foretelling (in 1974) something similar to what is happening today in Romania to some ‘children of the street.’ Very small ‘kids’ (between three and ten) live in the Underground, like ‘moles or rats in the earth,’ and the only thing they are good at is surviving. Nobody knows how they have reached their present state: abandoned, runaways, with no knowledge of family life and no human reflexes whatever. No loyalty, no friendship, no memory: ‘wicked’ creatures, who inspire sheer panic. Gerald, whom Emily fell in love with, becomes their leader, and they all vanish into the inconceivable world beyond. Gerald is twenty, but these kids have outgrown him in their descent to sub-humanity:
‘In every way they were worse than animals, and worse than men.’
This ‘band of infant savages’ associates angelic childhood with the most terrible horror of death. They kill everything. Everyone. Civilization is stifled by the pre-human. Doris Lessing descends to the hell of her own imagination.It may seem amazing how a book devoid of plot, devoid of characters, attracts readers. This is by no means pleasurable reading. It is repelling, tense, frustrating. To say that Doris Lessing is an uncomfortable novelist is mild. She actually bullies her readers into an unrewarding text. We leave her world with a feeling of being poorer. She demands too much from us, and offers precious little in exchange. It is her way of being a Desperado: she manages to turn us into a perpetuum mobile. We are first readers, then writers (since she withdraws so abruptly), and puzzled critics at last. Do we like Doris Lessing? It is irrelevant. And, anyway, at this point, it is everyone for himself.