Where has Doris Lessing Been All My Life?
by Frank Thomas Smith
Outside of my consciousness span, that for sure. I don’t know why I never read anything by her, I knew her name but maybe I confused her with someone else, don’t know. But after she won the Nobel Prize last year, her speech came to my attention, I liked it and put it in SCR. A week or two later I was in Córdoba, the capital city of the province, browsing in the modest English books section of a local bookstore, and saw a Lessing title. It was a book of short stories, entitled The Grandmothers. If it weren’t for the Nobel lecture, I’d never in a million years have bought a book with that title, which may grab grandmothers, but not me, despite being a grandfather.
I started reading it in a café near the bookstore and was so, so presently pleasantly surprised: Yeah, I thought, these stories are worthy of a Nobel Prize winner. Once home, I ordered a novel by Lessing from Amazon. (More about Amazon below.) The title (maybe that’s why I’d never delved into Doris Lessing previously: the titles) is The Sweetest Dream. Lovely.
I found myself gradually falling in love with Doris Lessing. Oh Doris, if you read this (fat chance) please give me a ring; I’ll fly to London immediately for tea. So I ordered the first volume of her autobiography: “Under My Skin – to 1949”. You’ll never guess where this title comes from:
I’ve got you under my skin
I’ve got you deep in the heart of me
So deep in your heart you’re really a part of me,
I’ve got you under my skin.
I’ve tried so not to give in…”
Doris was born in Iran, where her father was a British bank employee. But he and her mother opted to migrate to Southern Rhodesia and become farmers when Doris was five years old, and she didn’t leave for England until she was almost thirty. So this first volume of her autobiography is about her life growing up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). She offers us the opportunity to get under her skin, for the self-serving elements characterizing most autobiographies seem absent here. Mapping her growth and the development of her consciousness, her sexuality and her politics (communism), we obtain an inkling of the forces which enabled her later to become one of the most distinguished writers of our times.
Non-fictional autobiography tends to be careful and dry, but this one is a page-turner of events liberally sprinkled with philosophical nuggets: After Doris’s little brother almost sent their tent on fire when they first arrived in Rhodesia, her mother said, “ ‘Why? How could anyone in their senses do such a thing?’ I have never forgotten her incredulity. Capable people do not understand incapacity; clever people do not understand stupidity.”
They were colonialists of course, but dreams of wealth never came true. They were poor and scrabbled hard and mostly unsuccessfully to make the earth produce enough for their needs. And Doris’s parents, like most other whites treated the blacks like animals. There is much here to explain the bloody wars of emancipation which later took place in Africa – and the human misery which is still rampant there. Her attraction to communism was mostly due to that movement’s insistence on equality, at least in theory. And it took her decades to become disillusioned. But when she did, her condemnation of communism is factual and vigorous – especially in Volume 2.
More philosophy: “When scientists try to get us to understand the real importance of the human race, they say something like, ‘If the story of the earth is twenty-four hours long, then humanity’s part in it occupies the last minute of that day.’ Similarly, in the story of a life, if it is being told true to time as actually experienced, then I’d say seventy per cent of the book would take you to age ten. At eighty per cent you would have reached fifteen. At ninety-five per cent, you get to about thirty. The rest is a rush – towards eternity
“It occurs to me to wonder about the infant in the womb. The fetus repeats evolution: fish, bird, beast, then human. Does it experience the time of evolution? Is it possible that poor creature is submerged in near eternities? This is so terrible a thought it can scarcely be borne.”
Pure writing with a dash of sex: “A scene. I am wearing a black velvet evening dress I had made that afternoon. It was cotton velvet: within a year I would finger it once, forget it. The dress was a classic shape for that time, the back bare to the waist with a halter neck, low in front, fitted to the thighs and flaring gently. A man much older than the boys of the Sports Club is sitting on the arm of a chair, examining me with a smile which I am too young to know holds all the regrets of an aging lover of women. The dance music is throbbing from the dance room and I am restless, already half dancing, wanting to abandon myself to it."
Heaven, I’m in heaven
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak.
And I seem to find the happiness I seek,
When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek…
“He says: ‘Who’s taking you to the dance?’ I say, ‘So and so.’ ‘That dress is wasted on a little boy like him,” he says, smiling, his mouth bitter. He turns me about with the authority of male sexuality, and then becomes, in a breath, a different person. ‘Are you wearing a brassiere?’ ‘No.’ ‘Panties?’ ‘Of course’ I say indignantly. ‘Well,’ he pronounces, ‘you have a perfect figure. But it is a pity your left breast is a third of an inch lower than the right.’ ‘I daresay I’ll manage to live with it.’ ‘I daresay you will.’"
This volume is 418 pages, extraordinary, eloquent ones. Lessing wrote it and Volume 2 because, she says, she heard of five biographers writing about her, people who had never been in Rhodesia. So she got the jump on them. I am now in the middle of Volume two, title: Walking in the Shade - until 1962. That leaves 46 years uncovered. But Doris Lessing is ninety years old and writes in the foreword to the novel The Sweetest Dream “I am not writing volume three of my autobiography because of possible hurt to vulnerable people.” She also insists that she is not novelizing biography. The Sweetest Dream covers the period from the sixties to the eighties when Doris was in England.
I have also read the novel Mara and Dann, something completely different, almost science fiction, taking place thousands of years in the future during a new ice age – a beautiful fantasy in which the human condition is very much alive.
So now I am dedicated to eventually reading the complete Lessing oeuvre, but it will take a while. Twenty three novels (including some science fiction), five volumes of short stories, two operas (I may skip them), poetry, and eleven volumes of non-fiction. I am happy to have finally found you, Doris Lessing.
Amazon: Last week I began to order a $10 book from Amazon – I order at least one a week from them. It sometimes takes up to a month for them to arrive here in Argentina, but they do arrive. But before clicking on the “order now” button, I luckily noticed that they were about to charge me $35 for shipping. I protested by email and they informed me that since books take so long to get to Argentina and are frequently lost, they are now only sending via courier – “for our customers’ security”. Goodbye Amazon, hello Barnes & Noble, whom I’d already quit a few years back because of poor service. A friend recommended that I try “AbeBooks”. I ordered Lessing’s The Golden Book from them, so we’ll see what happens.