When Doris Lessing brought out the first two volumes of her autobiography, Under My Skin (1994) and Walking in the Shade (1997), she did so, as she explained, partly in ‘self-defence’, aware that at least ‘five American biographers’ were then writing their versions of her life. Some had been in touch and had been given short shrift; others she had never met. ‘Yet another can only be concocting a book out of supposedly autobiographical material in novels and from two short monographs about my parents.’ The soufflé-ish quality of Carole Klein’s Life of Lessing irresistibly suggests that Klein, who approached the forbiddingly private author in 1992 only to be sent packing, was that unfortunate person. Sure enough, the essays ‘My Father’ and ‘Impertinent Daughters’ (Lessing’s memoir of her mother, Maude Tayler) are both reheated here, trimmed and blanched but still instantly recognisable: signature flavours in the bland biographical mix. Inevitably, too, the autobiographies themselves have been cannibalised to bulk out the fare, supplemented by conversations with journalists who have interviewed Lessing, and with her former personal assistants, former political and literary acquaintances, and a voluble ex-lover. Many of these contributors spilled the beans only after insisting on anonymity. Why did they bother? Presumably it is Lessing’s wrath they want to avert, and Lessing will be perfectly capable of remembering the name, for instance, of ‘the young woman’ who worked for her in 1997 and recalls how ‘pissed’ her employer was at the poor critical reception of the Canopus novels.
Whether Lessing likes it or not, there is going to be more of the same. As Eve Bertelsen once pointed out, Lessing’s Bildung – her engagement with Communism, feminism, psychoanalysis and Sufism – is often read by literary critics as the symbolic history of our age, just as ‘D.H. Lawrence’s proposal that the Industrial Revolution began in the Eastwood of his boyhood and was finally exorcised in the woods of the Chatterley estate is a received fact of literary education.’ Like Lawrence, Lessing is an author whose life and work are held to be intimately attuned to the Zeitgeist. Assessments of her writing usually home in on her ability to interpret and challenge the mood of the times, and wittingly or unwittingly, in her oracular pronouncements on everything from CND to paedophilia, Lessing herself has reinforced this approach. The ‘small personal voice’ to which she laid claim in her well-known 1957 essay of the same title is that of the social prophet, constantly examining its relationship with a wider collective voice. She has, typically, been at once an outsider and a supremely political animal – a white radical in conservative 1940s Rhodesia; in the 1960s, a bitingly reluctant figurehead for the women’s movement; a disenchanted Red who retains a primarily sociological understanding of the individual; a colonial writer edgily occupying a position of prominence at the heart of the metropolitan literary scene. Her global readership stretches from America to the Third World and she has generated a body of critical interest equal to her own prodigious output (23 novels, ten short-story collections, nine non-fictional works, three plays, two libretti, two volumes of autobiography and a collection of poetry, at the last count). In spite of her tetchy broadsides over the years against academics and the supposedly obtuse and unimaginative line adopted towards her work by those ‘fed too long on the pieties of academia’, her novels have been required reading on a number of university courses in the United States and elsewhere for a while now: when I started the first term of my first year at a South African university in the 1980s, Martha Quest was right there at the top of the booklist, ahead of Dickens and the Brontës. So much for being marginalised by the university mafia – a charge Lessing makes implicitly and explicitly in several prefaces and afterwords to her fiction.
Klein’s is not the biography Lessing deserves, however. The whole book has a meagre, reconstituted flavour that hardly does justice to the quirkiness and disaffectedness of Lessing’s literary persona. Admittedly, the key facts are all here – Doris Tayler’s birth in Kermanshah, followed by the arrival of her brother Harry; the family’s relocation first to Tehran and then to Rhodesia; their adoption of coy pet names (Doris became ‘Tigger’, which she hated); Tigger’s tedious marriage to Frank Wisdom in the gin-soaked suburbs of Salisbury and her growing involvement with the Communist Party; her abandonment, after her divorce, of her two children by Wisdom; her remarriage to Gottfried Lessing and subsequent escape with their son, Peter, to England with the manuscript of The Grass Is Singing in her suitcase; and so on. But Klein is too baffled by Lessing and the choices she made, and usually too disapproving of them, to probe the connection between the life and the work.
This is particularly frustrating since there is a problem with Lessing’s writing, in spite of all of its praiseworthy qualities – its ambitiousness, its formal daring and philosophical seriousness – which it is the biographer’s job to address. What, for instance, is the origin of Lessing’s characteristic detachment as an author, the forensic flatness of her voice? Lessing herself has given us very clear pointers in Under My Skin and ‘Impertinent Daughters’, where she sets out the shaping influences on her personality with remorseless clarity. Her mother had wanted a boy, could not contemplate having a girl, and had no name ready for the female child who arrived in 1919. It was left to the doctor who delivered her to fix on ‘Doris’. The baby had to be bottle-fed from the start, but since Maude Tayler did not realise that cows’ milk in Persia was not as rich as English milk, Doris ‘was half-starved for the first year and never stopped screaming’. Gallingly, her mother later took pleasure in telling her that she was
an impossibly difficult baby, and then a tiresome child, quite unlike my brother Harry, who was always so good … Better say, and be done with it: my memories of her are all of antagonism, and fighting, and feeling shut out; of pain because the baby born two-and-a-half years after me was so much loved when I was not.
Although Lessing’s mother was fond of explaining that ‘a child should be governed by love,’ her daughter was not fooled: ‘the trouble is, love is a word that has to be filled with an experience of love.’
Lessing is saying something crucial here. She returns to the subject of the emotional deprivation of her early childhood again and again, directly and indirectly: in the short story ‘How I Finally Lost My Heart’; in her autobiographies; in Love, Again, where Sarah Durham, on a visit to the local park, observes a young mother dismissing her daughter with the peremptoriness of Maude and identifies with the miserable child: ‘Hold on, hold on. Quite soon a door will slam shut inside you because what you are feeling is unendurable.’ In Under My Skin we are told, deliberately and precisely, that ‘my early childhood made me one of the walking wounded for years.’ Just so. That slamming door reverberates in the timbre of her writing. Klein observes, shrewdly enough, that while Lessing’s autobiography is utterly ‘free of the genre’s tendency to self-aggrandisement and self-pity’, its tone is often disturbingly impersonal; that ‘paradoxically, her writing combines a deep insight into humanity with very little of the empathy that usually accompanies such insight.’ Klein, however, does not explore the implications of this very obvious limitation in Lessing’s work at any length.
The truth is that, for a major writer, Lessing has an astonishingly narrow emotional register. ‘The warmth, the compassion, the humanity, the love of people which illuminates the literature of the 19th century and which makes all these old novels a statement of faith in man himself’, as she described it in ‘The Small Personal Voice’, is strikingly absent from her own writing. What we get instead is an acerbic toughness combined with an interest in social patterns and sweeping judgments. It is hard to avoid the suspicion, however, that this famous toughness is not the expression of an impartial imaginative sympathy, but of a limited affective response to the world. At her best – as she is in the autobiographies – Lessing is a ruthless and clear-sighted observer who is utterly unimpeded by sentiment; at her worst, she has a tendency to standardise human beings, while resorting to heavy-handed moral and political pieties. She has been sharply criticised for the pedestrian quality of her prose, and as vigorously defended. In her defence, for example, Clare Hanson argued in 1990 that the inert language of The Good Terrorist should be read in the same way that we read Joyce’s ‘tired style’ at the end of Ulysses: Lessing’s book ‘is a grey and textureless novel because it is “about”, or speaks, a grey and textureless language: it is, surely, quite missing the point to see the drabness as the symptom of authorial laziness.’
Unfortunately this position becomes harder to maintain as Lessing’s oeuvre increases and the leaden quality of the prose persists, regardless of its subject. The two Lessings – the tough and the pious – are at work respectively in The Fifth Child and its sequel, Ben, in the World. The Fifth Child is a potent and suggestive piece of writing, a recasting of the ancient story of the Fall as urban fable. In its own way it is as much a novel about domestic terrorism as The Good Terrorist and, like that novel, starts with the classic paradigm of the family as a microcosm of society. It is the Swinging Sixties. Harriet Walker and David Lovatt meet at an office party and discover that they are both ‘eccentrics’, at odds with the prevailing social climate: they want to fall in love, marry and settle down to have at least six (or eight, or ten) children. They buy an enormous Victorian house with a room ‘for each new baby’ and start reproducing. In spite of the initial misgivings of their friends and families the home they create is Edenic, a ‘miraculous kingdom’ offering warmth and stability, to which outsiders are immediately attracted. Lessing renders all this with laconic, deadpan precision: the sequential births in the big family bed, the long, pleasant communal meals at Easter and Christmas around the great family table, the happy family’s triumphant sense of vindication, ‘when the spirit of the times, the greedy and selfish 1960s, had been so ready to condemn them, to isolate, to diminish their best selves’.
Imperfection intrudes into this idyll in the form of Ben, the Lovatts’ fifth child. From the outset he is different from their other children: violently active in the womb, heavy and stiff once born, ‘muscular, yellowish, long’, with a low forehead and ‘greeny-yellow eyes, like lumps of soapstone’ – ‘absolutely not ordinary’, as Harriet remarks. We are never told what, exactly, Ben is: he is variously described as a ‘changeling’, a ‘troll’, a ‘goblin’, a ‘dwarf’, a ‘gnome’ or, confusingly, a ‘Neanderthal’. Harriet speculates that he must be a ‘throwback’, the result of ‘a chance gene’ afloat in the human matrix: ‘she felt she was looking, through him, at a race that reached its apex thousands and thousands of years before humanity, whatever that meant, took this stage.’ Is Lessing herself clear on the question of Ben’s nature? Probably not, although at this point she depicts him as primitively violent and antisocial. He strangles the family dog, stalks birds in the garden and threatens his siblings, who take to locking their bedroom doors at night. Harriet gives in to pressure from David to institutionalise Ben, but then relents, triggering the dissolution of their home: David avoids it and the older children all opt to live with other relatives, leaving Harriet alone with her fifth child. By 15, Ben, preternaturally strong, with his thick speech and ‘cudgel-like bones’, has become the leader of a local gang which terrorises the neighbourhood in a series of rapes and robberies. Poised and chill, the narrative concludes with Harriet hoping that Ben will simply drift away, leaving her free to sell the house and move on.
The Fifth Child ends somewhere in the 1980s, and one of its more pointed ironies is that Ben is finally assimilated by a society that has itself degenerated in the interim by taking the rapacious egotism of the 1960s a step further: ‘wars and riots; killings and hijackings; murders and thefts and kidnappings … the 1980s, the barbarous 1980s were getting into their stride.’ Brutal Ben fits right in. In Ben, in the World, dismayingly, this brutality is sanitised, and the uncontainable has suddenly become containable. The Fifth Child ultimately raised the question of how civilisation is to be measured, inviting an answer which was at best ambiguous, given the ugliness both of the novel’s vision of the civilised world and of the threat posed to it by the likes of Ben. In the sequel we have reached the 1990s, and Lessing, in line with the New Age sappiness of that decade, has allowed herself to lapse into sentimentality. In the earlier book, Ben was a rapist; now we are supposed to believe that he is a noble savage, a lovable ‘yeti’ (the word occurs some six times), more victim than victimiser. He is ‘poor Ben’. The Lovatts have moved and, at 18, he must fend for himself. Beneath the New Ageism, the Neanderthal analogy seems to be uppermost in Lessing’s mind: when Ben is not a yeti he is, once again, a ‘throwback’. As a fully-grown man he is short and heavily built, with a mat of fur on his shoulders. He cannot digest bread, eats raw meat and has an unusually keen sense of smell. In what reads like an itemised denouncement of the modern (as opposed to the Stone Age?) world and its evils – capitalism, prostitution, Third World poverty, unchallenged scientific enterprise – Homo sapiens has become the real threat to a humane society.
This conceit, if a little well-worn, might still have worked had Lessing not been content to recycle a clutch of stereotypes. Rube-like Ben works first on a West Country farm, then on a London construction site, and is twice cheated by his shifty employers. He is given a place to stay by a kindly widow and her cat but soon becomes involved with an equally accommodating whore called Rita, who is thrilled by his taste for rough sex, and only reluctantly allows her pimp, Johnston (a Humphrey Bogart lookalike), to use Ben as the unsuspecting courier in a drugs run to Nice. It is particularly difficult to take any of this seriously, since both Rita and Johnston speak as if they have been educated at private schools and have the middle-class sensibilities to match (this also goes for their sidekick, Richard, a ‘rough and even cruel man’, who is nevertheless moved to tears by the thought of Ben’s helplessness). In fact, Lessing has written not just one, but two tarts with a heart into the book. Once in Nice, Ben is picked up by Alex, ‘a film-maker from New York’, whose girlfriend Teresa, a beautiful Brazilian ex-prostitute, becomes his chief protector in a nefarious plot hatched by a mad American professor to kidnap the yeti and use him for scientific experimentation.
This is all told in an enervating, repetitive, lustreless prose, as if Lessing were unable to summon up enough creative energy to look for fresh alternatives. At one point Ben’s ‘eyes are all gratitude’, at another they are ‘darkened by pain and by loss’. When Rita is unhappy we read that ‘her heart hurt her’; when Ben is unhappy, we hear that ‘his heart was hurting most dreadfully’. The American scientist is unironically described as ‘a madman’ and ‘a monster of cruelty’ with, of all things, ‘prominent eyeballs’, while in her battle against him the angelic Teresa becomes a front for Lessing’s side-salvoes against animal testing (‘she could see now only too clearly the little paws stretched out to her for help’). Too often the fictional world is stale and obviously contrived. The description of the groundbreaking film in which Alex plans to cast Ben simply sounds like a precis of Quest for Fire. The passport which Johnston forges for Ben states that he is an actor, even though the bearer’s occupation has not been given in British passports for at least ten years. When Ben has a craving for flesh he goes to McDonald’s, where he buys ‘a fat juicy lump of meat’. When did Lessing last eat fast food?
None of this will do. The real purpose of the book, of course, and Lessing’s choice of maladjusted, mistreated Ben as its anti-hero, is to reveal ‘that hell which is multiplied all over the world, everywhere human beings make our civilisation’. This theme is not new: in 1967, Lessing’s contemporary and friend R.D. Laing ventured his notorious analysis of the ills of social and cultural conditioning in The Politics of Experience, using an uncannily similar central metaphor. ‘The initial act of brutality against the average child,’ Laing wrote, ‘is the mother’s first kiss’:
From the moment of birth, when the Stone Age baby confronts the 20th-century mother, the baby is subjected to these forces of violence, called love, as its mother and father, and their parents and their parents before them, have been. These forces are mainly concerned with destroying most of its potentialities, and on the whole this enterprise is successful. By the time the new human being is fifteen or so, we are left with a being like ourselves, a half-crazed creature more or less adjusted to a mad world. This is normality.
Lessing’s decision to jettison her original conception of Ben between the publication of The Fifth Child and its sequel, in favour of a Laingian meditation on the corrosiveness of the modern world, was a miscalculation. To Doris Tayler, left at birth in Kermanshah to the mercies of a loving mother, these violent forces are doubtless everywhere apparent, but her thumpingly methodical account of them in Ben, in the World has resulted in a stilted and disappointingly dated piece of work.