Doris Lessing is now saying she finds it more of a nuisance than a pleasure to have won the Nobel Prize. Considering the scope of her achievements it seems that a convergence of the twain – Lessing and the prize, the Titanic and the iceberg – was fated, but it is understandable that the impact has been disagreeable; she cannot think celebrity is her business. Intent on exploring her own life and the state of the world in which she has lived it, her ambition is of the kind proper to an artist. In The Golden Notebook and elsewhere, she mentions her admiration for Thomas Mann and for the idea of the philosophical novel, now, she believes, an impossibility; but even so she thinks one can still claim to be serious. Her right to make that claim is supported by her permanent interest in the world’s wickedness and injustice, which compel her to be a writer on the heroic scale. Only thus could fiction be a form of political action more effective than canvassing for a party, though she has done that in her time.
In sixty years of writing she has acquired an inexhaustible store of skill and experience; she knows it, and is decently certain of her own worth and of the worthlessness of hostile critics. Of them she complained, for instance, that they stupidly ignored the technical inventiveness of The Golden Notebook. They might have claimed by way of excuse to have been dazzled by the originality of the book’s messages, the manifest importance of its social and ethical purposes; attention might well have been diverted from critical considerations of ‘structure’ when so many readers found their lives immediately altered by the truth and force of what the book accessibly said. But they didn’t. She herself would argue, reasonably, that her technical innovations are of importance only in so far as they serve the story and its truths.
She has not, over the long haul, repeatedly troubled her readers with complexities of design or of language; on the whole she prefers transparency. The claim on ordinary readers is not that they should wonder at her virtuosity but that they should consider the truth of what she says. For example, she holds that in Martha Quest she offered the first useful study of the vexatious relationship between mothers and daughters. She returns to that relationship in this new book, seeing here a common source of suffering that, like so much else we for so long contrived to ignore, needs to be honestly examined. The prime instrument of the examiner is realist fiction.
This transparency doesn’t entail preaching or forfeiting the pleasures of storytelling and ‘structure’. Alfred and Emily is a clever book and the reader is required to do his or her fair share of the work, even though the share isn’t, as Henry James said it should be, ‘quite half’. It consists of two separate narratives, the first fictional, the second autobiographical. Common to both is a preoccupation with the destructive impact of war on ordinary happiness. The first part is a counterfactual imagining of the lives of Lessing’s parents ‘as they might have been had the Great War not happened. I hope they would approve the lives I have given them.’ That war, the general killing, her own father’s wounds and his memories of the trenches, have long haunted Lessing, and this novella is partly an experiment designed to dislodge it from her thoughts. It is striking that she claims to have suffered herself the pain of a conflict which in different ways so drastically reduced the lives of both her parents. (‘The First World War did them both in.’) She herself was born barely a month before the Armistice, and spent the years of the Second World War in the safety of Southern Rhodesia, but in old age she remains, like all her contemporaries, a victim of wars, great and small, of which most of the living know nothing, but which ‘squatted over’ her childhood and her youth, and can’t, even in forgetful old age, be dismissed.
With the war cancelled, removed from their lives and history, Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeagh, Lessing’s parents, do not marry. Alfred, an athletic young man happy to be a farmer, has no war to go to. Emily is determined, in the teeth of family and neighbourly opposition, to have a career in nursing. She enjoys much success and happiness in that career, but it ends when, in 1916, she marries a successful surgeon. Her choice is a bad one, leaving her rich but frustrated. (Here part of the other narrative intrudes, to remind us of what 1916 meant in the real world. Alfred escaped Passchendaele with a shrapnel wound in the leg, thereafter replaced by a wooden one. ‘“A pretty lucky thing,” he might say. But, later, “That is, if you set much store on being alive.”’)
Back in the novella Alfred marries sensible, maternal Betsy. Emily’s chilly, snobbish husband dies suddenly and she competently fends off his predatory family and ensures that her inheritance is put to excellent use by setting up a large educational project. Even in this charitable fantasy Lessing could not bestow on her mother a satisfactory marriage. Asserting the author’s right to moments of omniscience, she remarks that ‘nature does not seem to care much about the happiness of her children when making matches.’ This may be cherished along with some other unflinching obiter dicta: ‘many a widow, thinking that the funeral, if not the reading of the will, would mark the end of all that could be expected from her in the way of public griefs, has found that some problems are just beginning.’
The novella, though on the whole less interesting than the book’s second part, offers all the detail of domestic and farm life that one could hope for. Personal relations are expertly sketched: a drunken young farmer and his worried father, the various wives and mothers, and, significantly in the centre of the picture, a benign mother-figure, Mary Lane. ‘Emily did not realise that what she wanted was to be that child, rocked in Mary’s arms.’ There are some intimate domestic moments: another woman, breastfeeding her baby, notices that the cat nearby is jealous. ‘Fiona deftly picked up a saucer near it, allowed some milk to fall into it and put it down by the cat, which, like the baby, seemed pleased.’ This is a characteristic little scene. The cat had earlier jumped up and licked Fiona’s breast, so acquiring a taste for her milk. But just as the cat had a right to be there, so Fiona had a duty to protect the baby from leaping cats. Later on, Emily, who witnessed the scene, tells this little story but censors it, substituting cow’s milk for human. Very neat: it illuminates both Fiona and Emily. In the novella Emily has her troubles, but is not reduced to the self-pitying, hated figure she becomes in the second half, in which her daughter remorselessly hates her.
The war, hitherto excluded, is central to the second half. A brief biography of the real Alfred Tayler: ‘a vigorous and healthy man, was wounded badly in the First World War, tried to live as if he were not incapacitated, illnesses defeated him, and at the end of a shortened life he was begging, “You put a sick old dog out of its misery, why not me?”’ That an additional cause of his misery was diabetes allows Lessing to remark, as she does more than once, that the few genuine advances of civilisation over her lifetime have been in medicine. She dwells on the vast improvements in prosthetics, comparing her father’s wooden leg with the ingenious instruments now commonplace, and on the improved treatment of diabetes. Another sadness was that in her father’s day there was little that could be done about what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. There was no pill for it, and no help either for deep grief. In one of those wise sayings she occasionally voices, Lessing remarks that ‘people who have experienced grief will testify that it is felt in the heart, like a weight of cold pain.’
She was born in Persia, where her father worked in a bank. Then the family moved via London from Tehran to Cape Town and Southern Rhodesia, where Tayler planned to farm maize. The venture was not a success. His wife hated the makeshift house and the domestic chores; in this situation she was ‘not herself’, and to be oneself is for Lessing an important spiritual and ethical requirement. Her mother’s behaviour alienated her children, and only much later did her daughter understand that this energetic and intelligent woman – a senior nurse, an excellent pianist and yet a tiresome self-indulgent whimperer – was ill, was having a breakdown, was no longer herself.
The story of the Taylers’ lives in Southern Rhodesia has been told before. Lessing is a persistently autobiographical author, and her memories of that period are abundant. In telling of them she rarely has to repeat herself. Like everyone else’s, these lives were changed by war, the catastrophe that ruined one generation while opening the way to another at least equally destructive. Yet as we learn from her formal autobiographies, Under My Skin and Walking in the Shade, there were moments of which the memory was happy, and of those moments, remembered and intense childhood perceptions, she writes best. But the emphasis here is more on the traditional consolation of books than on the sounds and scents of Africa.
The social and agricultural aspirations of the family failed. There was too little money and too little water. As they struggled Mrs Tayler ran a clinic for the workers and their families and tried to cope with the ‘elemental rivalry’ of the daughter who hated her. In the end they had to retreat from the bush into Salisbury (Harare). There one could make some intelligent acquaintance, enjoy some of the spare pleasures the city offered, and try to understand the problems of race and language. A principal cause of unhappiness was that women like Emily should have had jobs, important jobs. As it was, the daughter married to get away from her.
During the Second World War Salisbury was an imperial outpost, far from the main centres of action, but there was no shortage of suffering elsewhere. Harry Tayler, the novelist’s brother, was serving on the battleship Repulse when it was sunk, along with the Prince of Wales, by Japanese bombers. This disaster, which probably ought to have been avoided, cost a great many lives. Tayler saved himself as the great ship went down and later served in the Mediterranean. Already a bit deaf, he was rendered deafer still by the guns of his own ship. What made his story important was his observation that the near-death experience on the Repulse, followed by a knock on the head in a car accident, restored a lost normality. ‘I was suddenly my real self, you see, I was suddenly myself.’ Evidently he resembled his sister in regarding being oneself as a goal worthy of much effort.
When the war was over Salisbury was still full of RAF personnel, as in The Golden Notebook, but now they had no purpose and were simply wanting and waiting to go home. More permanent residents did what they could to amuse them, but there were no troopships available to take them away. They were in the unsatisfactory position of waiting, it seemed without hope, ‘for their real lives to begin’. Lessing correctly but heartlessly remarks that these men had been away from England so long that their girls at home had long since moved on, while for one reason or another Salisbury offered little in the way of sex. It is a melancholy little epilogue. A mass of now useless conscripts, young men in their twenties, hung around, hooked on sentimental songs like ‘We’ll Meet Again’, having little or no idea what would befall them when they made it home and began their ‘real lives’.
Not long after that Lessing made her own way ‘home’ to the bleak London of 1949 with her son Peter, little money, a head full of ideas and a diary soon energetically full of dates. She admitted that Walking in the Shade, the second volume of her autobiography, which covers the period 1949-62, was harder to write than the first: ‘The older I get,’ she says, ‘the more secrets I have.’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.