How does someone of Doris Lessing’s uncompromising intelligence turn into a little old lady? Not easily, especially if body conspires with mind in refusing to retire gracefully. ‘Most men and more women – young women afraid for themselves – punish older women with derision, punish them with cruelty, when they show inappropriate signs of sexuality.’ Having scorned maiden timidities sixty years ago. Lessing finds the discretions of age just as constraining. Love, Again is a novel about feelings – irrepressible love and paralysing grief – but it is still more about the analysis of feeling.
Sarah Durham (‘a good sensible name for a sensible woman’) is a theatrical producer, 65 years old. Calm, reasonable and successful, she imagines that the storms of adolescence and middle age are behind her. A voice from the past disturbs this cultivated equilibrium. Sarah reads the journals of Julie Vairon, a beautiful quadroon (‘like Napoleon’s Josephine’) brought up in Martinique towards the end of the 19th century, who travelled to Provence with her lover and became a bohemian artist and musician. Turning down the chance of marriage and respectability, Julie killed herself in 1912. Sarah adapts her music and journals for the stage, and soon finds herself haunted and oppressed by the story of a woman who chose not to grow old. ‘I care too much. I am altogether too much involved in this business ... What is it about that bloody Julie: she gets under people’s skin; she’s under mine.’ Under My Skin is the title of Lessing’s brilliant autobiography, published in 1994. ‘I learned a good deal writing this,’ she remarked of Under My Skin, and this novel has much to do with what she learned. Thinking about her own childhood and first loves has led to a sustained examination of the way that in all our lives early circumstances irrevocably shape the needs of maturity and age. Shaken by Julie’s resolve, possessed by her insistent music, Sarah finds to her shame and dismay that she has not after all passed beyond the claims of love. She falls vulnerably in love, or lust (she is not sure which), with two men in succession: first with Bill, the seductive bisexual actor who takes the part of Paul, Julie’s first lover, and then more deeply with Henry, the American who directs the play that Sarah makes out of Julie’s life. Neither Bill nor Henry is responsible for what Sarah sees as a calamity. She loves them because the disturbing thoughts occasioned by Julie’s story have made her ready for love, in want of love, desolate to the point of illness when love is lost.
Why? The answer that emerges, incomplete and forceful, has been buried for decades in the remotest gulfs of childhood. In Under My Skin, Lessing remembers her ambivalent love for her brother, the child her mother preferred. ‘I knew from the beginning that she loved my little brother unconditionally, and she did not love me.’ Lessing’s mother had demanded that Doris, too, should love her baby brother. The need for love was converted to the need to love:
I was helpless. Love the baby I did. I loved that baby, and then the infant, and then the little boy with a passionate protective love. This is not only an authentic memory, every detail present after all this time, but deduction too. By this event and others of the same kind my emotional life was for ever determined.
Here is the germ of Love, Again. The autobiography recalls how the never-forgotten little boy moulded her life: ‘This was my baby brother again. All my life there have been times when my arms have ached, yearned to hold a baby, and they are the arms of a little girl wanting her baby brother.’ Lessing considers this unassuageable ache in her new novel. It is when she sees the distress behind Bill’s cruelty that Sarah finds herself loving him; it is because of Henry’s imperative love for his own young son that he cannot return her passion.
In her Preface to The Golden Notebook, Lessing contemplates this process of fictional amalgamation.
At last I understood that the way over, or through this dilemma, the unease of writing about ‘petty personal problems’ was to recognise that nothing is personal, in the sense that it is uniquely one’s own. Writing about oneself, one is writing about others, since your problems, pains, pleasures, emotions – and your extraordinary and remarkable ideas – can’t be yours alone.
Sarah does not find fulfilment with either of her new loves. What she does find is knowledge, self-knowledge first and then knowledge of others. She perceives that the small theatrical company she had worked with for years in a close and productive professional relationship had been a family for her, a product of the kind of healing substitution that Lessing describes in Under My Skin. There are clear parallels between this artistic company, drawn together by the shared exhilaration of creating a new play, and the political groups described so often in Lessing’s earlier fiction, fired by the vision of a new society. Love, Again is not a political novel, but it has much to say about the broad framework which supports (or fails to support) our culture. Less resilient fellow-travellers supply a bleak commentary on Sarah’s progress. The novel repeatedly rehearses ‘the lines of that conversation which takes place more and more often, to the effect that for every whole, competent earning person are every day more of the people who cannot cope with life and have to be supported, financially and emotionally.’ Unassimilable misfits, their suffering and the damage inflicted by their suffering, have always been of central interest to Lessing. The Fifth Child provides a frightening example in the monstrous child Ben. In Love, Again, violence turns to pathos. Sarah has for years taken responsibility for the hapless Joyce, youngest daughter of her brother, ineducable and irredeemably self-destructive. Joyce
had an adequate home and family, proved by the fact that her two sisters were, as it is put, ‘viable’. Joyce was not viable. Perhaps one day soon ‘they’ would come up with an explanation. Joyce had an ‘I cannot cope’ gene, or lacked an ‘I can cope’ gene, or had one in the wrong place, and her life had been governed by this.
Her grubby anorexic frame drifts dispiritingly through the novel, resisting and denying Sarah’s drive to understand, to explain. Joyce represents what cannot be understood and cannot be helped. The recognition, shared with Joyce’s parents, that nothing can ever put Joyce right is an important qualification of the book’s faith in human capacity.
Joyce is utterly cut off from history, literature, music – any form of culture. So, too, are her more efficient sisters, Briony and Nell (‘two pretty young greyhounds’). Looking at the young, Sarah envies their grace, the irreclaimable ‘lustre’ of those under thirty. But she does not envy what she judges to be the stultifying unawareness of their generation. These girls
were both ignorant, being products of a particularly bad period in British education ... They had read nothing and were curious about nothing except the markets in the cities they visited. To please Sarah, Briony had said, she had tried to read Anna Karenina, but it had made her cry. These two amiable barbarians scared Sarah, for she knew they were representative. Worse, an hour in their company had her thinking, Oh well, why should anyone know anything? Obviously they do perfectly well knowing only about clothes and having a good time. Enough money had been spent on their education to keep a village in Africa for several years.
This (fairly familiar) observation represents a still more insidious threat to Lessing’s sense of value than Joyce’s pitiful ineptitude. It is not an accident that Lessing has rooted Sarah’s familial group in the world of the arts, rather than politics. Her work in this field leads to Sarah’s near-breakdown, but it is in part the resources of art that enable her to come through in one piece. This is a confessedly literary novel, unusually so for Lessing; it is the knowing product of a lifetime’s reading. Sarah interprets the griefs of love through centuries of poetry, exchanging lines with her friend and theatrical collaborator Stephen, a kinder brother than the one nature gave her.
Here too, however, the novel soberly notes the insufficiency of its own solutions: art can help, but it cannot save. Stephen is also in love, with Julie Vairon – a dead woman, a character in a play. His obsession and suffering make Sarah’s unhappiness seem trivial. Their stories are parallel, Stephen spiralling into darkness as Sarah painfully moves towards the light. Doris Lessing has written about depression before, but never quite so bluntly as this.
This is the real thing, the Big D (as its victims jocularly call it when not in its power), it is the authentic hall-marked one-hundred-percent depression: he’s gone over the edge ... Her mind approached carefully, and in controlled terror, the thought that if the pain she felt was a minor thing compared to what he felt, then what he felt must be unendurable. For she had often thought that she could not bear what she felt.
To be in love with art is sometimes a way of being in love with death, as it is for Stephen, who, like Julie, finally decides not to grow old.
What makes Lessing’s narrative voice distinctive is its cool distance, always accompanied by an acknowledgment of the intractable energies of the irrational – fantasy, dream and nightmare. She was an unorthodox Marxist, even in her days as an active Communist, because she persisted in valuing Freud. This is one of the contradictions she remembers in Under My Skin. ‘Any insight at all about another person was “psychologising”, was – Freudian. Moscow had categorised Freud for ever as reactionary.’ She insists on the need to comprehend, but she also (taught here by Lawrence) confronts the limits of rational comprehension. This position was one reason that she was a heroine to the generation of women who read her work when it first appeared. The Golden Notebook, published in 1962, was revered by many feminists in the Sixties and beyond, and it remains one of the postwar books that have mattered most. It is not just that she often, sharply, declares her resistance to the many forms of cultural wrong endured by women. She also values what women had been taught to see as trivial in their experience: family drama and the inner life it creates, with its inescapable and often destructive drives. But Lessing does not believe in separatist feminism: ‘The truth is I have sympathy for men,’ she commented in 1969. Sarah’s misery is acute, and it has to do with her being an old woman. But her sadness is a light affair compared with what Stephen has to endure, and his plight is compounded by the fact that he is excluded, rather deliberately so, from the resources of femininity. Women can be cruel too, as Lessing has often reminded us. It is not Stephen but Sarah who is ultimately the survivor, with memoirs to leave for younger inheritors.
Sarah has courage, and this is perhaps the moral quality that Lessing honours most. She takes risks, is prepared to make damaging mistakes, cares little for her dignity. That she is in a position to venture so much is in part a matter of her good fortune: Sarah is a prosperous, educated and handsome woman, possessed of a robust and healthy mind. Old though she is, she knows that she is still one of those blessed by life.
In all these attributes she reflects the position of her creator. Lessing is lucky, but she has always been willing to try her luck. Critics have repeatedly been baffled, and sometimes exasperated, by the insouciance with which she has jeopardised her literary status in hazardous new adventures. Her work in science fiction and her declared allegiance to Sufist mysticism are both examples of this perturbing audacity. Lessing’s recent rhymed graphic novel Playing the Game is another gesture of defiance towards those who think the time has come for her to opt for a quieter life. Dashing urban fantasy and science fiction, it tells the story of a young man who takes an enormous chance, loses everything, but learns more than he could ever have done from a position of security. ‘Winner takes all,’ it sardonically concludes.