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Critical Review by J. M. Coetzee
SOURCE: "The Heart of Me," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 41, No. 21, December 22, 1994, pp. 51-4.
Coetzee is a South African novelist, critic, essayist, and translator. In the review below, he offers a summary of Lessing's life and career, remarking on Lessing's thoughts concerning feminism, politics, sexuality, and her mother.
Presented with snapshots of the Tayler family and asked to pick out the artist or artist-to-be among them, one might at a pinch settle on the father, rather stiff and military but clearly not unintelligent; certainly not on the daughter, pleasant enough but ordinary as a loaf of bread. Yet the daughter had it in her not only to escape a future that one can almost read in her face—marriage to a decent young chap and life on a farm in Rhodesia managing servants and having babies—but also to become one of the great visionary novelists of our time.
Alfred Cook Tayler, Doris's sad-eyed father, having lost a leg in the trenches of World War I, married the nurse tending him and quit a native country he could no longer bear. His wife, already in her mid-thirties, had to sacrifice a career in order to have a family. Their daughter Doris—later Doris Wisdom, then Doris Lessing—was born in Persia in 1919.
Following ideas about child-rearing fashionable at the time, Emily Maude Tayler imposed on her two children a rigid schedule of feeding times and bowel movements, reproducing upon them by new means her own upbringing by a cold stepmother. Doris responded with deep anger against a mother who on principle refused to feed her when she cried and who later made it clear that she preferred her son to her daughter. "For years I lived in a state of accusation against [her], at first hot, then cold and hard." There is no need to seek out instances of "'abuse,' cruelty and the rest" when memories persist of how her mother "chatted on and on in her social voice" about "how the little girl in particular (she was so difficult, so naughty!) made her life a total misery." No child could have stood up to such an "assault on [her] very existence."
Since her mother would not love her, she turned to her father. "The smell of maleness, tobacco, sweat, the smell of father, enveloped her in safety." But there was a darker side to his love. The "scarred pitiful shrunken stump" of his amputated leg poked out at her from his dressing gown, an obscenity "with a life of its own." There was also the tickling game, "when Daddy captures his little daughter and her face is forced down into his lap or crotch, into the unwashed smell…. His great hands go to work on my ribs. My screams, helpless, hysterical, desperate." For years afterward she had dreams in which she screamed and struggled while brutal male faces loomed over her. "I wonder how many women who submit to physical suffering at the hands of their men were taught by 'games,' by 'tickling.'"
After Persia the Taylers moved to Rhodesia—a colony then only thirty-five years old—drawn by the lure of quick fortunes to be made in maize farming. But their thousand-acre farm ("It would not have occurred to [my parents] that the land belonged to the blacks") was not large enough to be economically viable. Though her mother adapted well, her father lacked the doggedness needed for farming; they were always in debt.
For the children, however, growing up in the bush was a wonderful, formative experience. From their parents they learned about geology and natural history; bedtime stories fed their imagination (Lessing acknowledges that her mother had a genius for teaching). Books were ordered from London, and devoured. (Books were cheap enough in the 1920s for a struggling colonial family to buy them in quantities; no Zimbabwean child of today, and certainly no rural child, can afford the wealth of reading matter that Lessing had available to her.) By the age of twelve Doris knew
how to set a hen, look after chickens and rabbits, worm dogs and cats, pan for gold, take samples from reefs, cook, sew, use the milk separator and churn butter, go down a mine shaft in a bucket, make cream cheese and ginger beer, paint stencilled patterns on materials, make papier mâché, walk on stilts …, drive the car, shoot pigeons and guineafowl for the pot, preserve eggs—and a lot else….
That is real happiness, a child's happiness: being enabled to do and to make, above all to know you are contributing to the family, you are valuable and valued.
Later Lessing would indict settler society for its "coldness [and] stinginess of the heart" toward blacks; the charge would be fleshed out in The Grass is Singing (1950), an astonishingly accomplished debut, though perhaps too wedded to romantic stereotypes of the African for present-day tastes, as well as in African Stories (1964). Yet Rhodesia was not a wholly bad environment in which to grow up. Aside from the restorative power of the natural world (about which Lessing is unabashedly Wordsworthian), there reigned among the children of the settlers a strongly egalitarian spirit that helped her escape the class obsessions of her parents. And among the 10,000 whites in Salisbury, the capital, she would discover a sizable contingent of refugees from Europe, most of them left-leaning, many of them Jewish, who would exert a decisive intellectual and political influence on her.
Meanwhile, to the confusing signals that her parents sent out, Doris responded with behavior typical of the unloved child calling for love. She stole, lied, cut up her mother's clothes, set fires; she had fantasies that the Taylers were not her real parents.
At the age of seven, "a frightened and miserable little girl," she was packed off to a convent boarding school where the nuns—themselves the unwanted daughters of German peasants—frightened their charges with hellfire stories. Here she spent four wretched years. After a further stretch in an all-girls high school in Salisbury, with weekly letters from her mother blaming her for the money she was costing them, she dropped out of the education system definitively. She was thirteen.
Yet she had never been a poor student. On the contrary, if only to please her mother, she made sure she always came first in class. She was popular with the other girls, inhabiting a false self she calls "Tigger" (after the A. A. Milne character), "fat and bouncy,… brash, jokey, clumsy, and always ready to be a good sport, that is, to laugh at myself, apologize, clown, confess inability." When later she gravitated into Communist circles, she was known as "Comrade Tigger." She repudiated the nickname once she left Rhodesia in 1949; but, refusing to go away, the Tigger self mutated into what Lessing calls the Hostess self, "bright, helpful, attentive, receptive," and disturbingly reminiscent of her mother.
Is this a clue to the title of the first volume of her autobiography: Under My Skin? In isolation the title makes a fairly conventional self-revelatory promise. But an epigraph reminds us of its context in Cole Porter: "I've got you under my skin / I've got you deep in the heart of me / So deep in my heart you're really a part of me, / I've got you under my skin. / I've tried so not to give in …" The hidden addressee of the book, the "you" deep in Lessing's heart, under her skin, emerges all too plausibly as her long-dead mother.
Averse to any display of emotion, her mother had expressed tenderness by persuading her children they were ill and then nursing them to health. Doris played along, using illness as an excuse to spend days in bed reading. But at home she could not find the privacy she craved. When she began to menstruate, her mother trumpeted the news to the males of the household. When she tried to diet, her mother piled her plate. Her fourteenth year was spent "fighting for my life" against a mother who, as she had tried to control her infant bowel movements, now seemed to be asserting ownership over her body.
To escape an unendurable situation, she took a job as a nursemaid. Guided by her employer, she began to read books on politics and sociology, while nightly the same employer's brother-in-law crept into her bed and ineptly toyed with her. Characteristically, Lessing does not pretend she was a passive victim. She "[fought] the virginity of [her] placid suitor … in a fever of erotic longing." "It is my belief," she writes, that some girls—among whom she clearly includes herself—"ought to be put to bed, at the age of fourteen" with an older man as a form of "apprentice love."
Lessing's precocious preschool reading had included Scott, Stevenson, Kipling, the Lambs' versions of Shakespeare, Dickens. (In her time, she notes tartly, "children were not patronized" but on the contrary encouraged to try things that were beyond them.) Now she began to read contemporary fiction, D. H. Lawrence in particular, as well as the great Russians. By the age of eighteen she had written two apprentice novels herself. She was also selling stories to South African magazines. She had, in fact, slipped into being a writer.
Of the three best-known writers southern Africa has produced—Olive Schreiner, Nadine Gordimer, and Lessing (who, though reluctant to accept the label "African writer," freely acknowledges that her sensibility was formed in and by Africa)—none completed high school. All were substantially self-educated, all became formidable intellectuals. This says something about the fierceness with which isolated adolescents on the margins of empire hungered for a life they felt cut off from, the life of the mind—far more fiercely, it turned out, than most of their metropolitan cousins. It also says something about how desultory the pressure was on girls to proceed all the way through the educational mill, domesticity being their ultimate lot.
Intermittent visits home only confirmed to Lessing that she had done well to escape when she did. Her mother was beginning to conform to the worst of colonial stereotypes, complaining about the servants in a "scolding, insistent, nagging voice full of dislike," while her father slowly wasted away from diabetes, a "self-pitying, peevish, dream-sodden old man, talking about his war." When he eventually died, she had an urge to scratch out the words "heart failure" under Cause of Death on the death certificate and write instead "First World War."
Becalmed in what felt more and more like a backwater (the period is evoked in Landlocked, 1965), she wrote and rewrote The Grass is Singing, the novel that would bring her recognition and, more importantly, a precarious financial independence. "I was waiting for my future, my real life, to begin." Rhodesians still spoke of England as "Home." As for her, "I was not going home … I was fleeing from it."
Lessing's first marriage, at the age of nineteen, had been to a man much older than herself—a marriage involving not the real woman but the Tigger self, the "jolly young matron." Not yet ready for motherhood, she gave birth to a son, then neglected him. He responded with anger and bewilderment uncannily like that of the young Doris.
A second child followed. She was drinking more and more, having affairs, treating her husband badly (much of this experience went into A Proper Marriage, 1954, the second of the Martha Quest novels and the most directly autobiographical). The situation was clearly untenable. Vowing that her children would one day inherit "a beautiful and perfect world where there would be no race hatred, injustice, and so forth," she gave them into the care of relatives and began to make plans to leave the country without them. She bore within her, she felt, the same "secret doom" that had ruined her parents' lives and would ruin her children's too if she stayed with them. "I was absolutely sincere," she records dryly. "There isn't much to be said for sincerity, in itself."
In the wake of the battle of Stalingrad, with the glory it brought to Russian arms, Lessing was converted to communism. In her account of her Communist years a certain defensiveness is still detectable. In truth, she writes, "I was never committed with all of myself to Communism." By the time the cold war broke out and she and her comrades suddenly become "pariahs" to white Rhodesian society, she was already beginning to have doubts. By 1954 she was no longer a Communist, though for years she felt "residual tugs of loyalty."
The activities of the Salisbury Communists, their loves and hates, take up much of the first three Martha Quest novels. Lessing justifies the extended treatment she gives—in both autobiography and these early novels—to this politically insignificant clique on the grounds that it exhibited "the same group dynamics, that made and unmade the Communist Party of the Soviet Union."
Recruits, as her books suggest, tended to be people with unhappy childhoods behind them, looking for a substitute family; their own children they shrugged off as unwanted nuisances. As an enthusiastic newcomer (and as a woman), Lessing was assigned the task of peddling The Guardian, organ of the South African Communist Party, in the poorer districts of Salisbury. Of all her Party activities, this may in fact have been the most useful to her as a writer; it enabled her to meet working-class people and see something of working-class life (A Ripple from the Storm, 1958, gives a fuller and livelier account than we get [in Under My Skin]).
One consequence of joining the Communists was that Doris met Gottfried Lessing, whom she married in 1943. Gottfried came from a prosperous Russian family of assimilated German Jewish descent, turned back into Germans by the 1917 revolution and then back into Jews by the Nuremberg laws. He was also, in his wife's words, "the embodiment of cold, cutting, Marxist logic," a "cold, silent man" of whom everyone was afraid.
Gottfried does not figure directly in the Martha Quest novels because he was still alive when she wrote them (he ended his life as East German ambassador to Uganda, where he was shot during the coup against Idi Amin). Lessing does her best to explain and portray sympathetically this unappealing man, with whom she describes her sexual life as "sad." What he really needed, she writes, was a woman kind enough to "treat her man as a baby, even for a few hours of the dark."
Gottfried encouraged her writing, though he did not approve of what she wrote. "What I liked best about myself, what I held fast to, he liked least." She had married him to save him from internment as an enemy alien; to strengthen his application for British citizenship she remained in an "unhappy but kindly marriage" long after it should have ended. Only in 1948, when his application was approved (and she, as his wife, could regain her original citizenship), did they feel free to divorce.
Lessing has never been a great stylist—she writes too fast and prunes too lightly for that. The first three Martha Quest novels, or at least long stretches of them, are bent under the burden not only of prosaic language but of an uninventive conception of novelistic form. The problem is compounded by Lessing's passive heroine, dissatisfied with life but unable to take control of her destiny in any meaningful way. But if these novels have not lasted well, they at least attest to ambition on a large scale: the ambition of writing a Bildungsroman in which individual development will be traced within an entire social and historical context.
Lessing was not blind to her basic problem, namely that her nineteenth-century models were exhausted. After the third volume she interrupted the series, breaking entirely new ground with the formally adventurous Golden Notebook, in which entries from the main character's notebooks are intermingled in a conventional narrative. Landlocked, with which the series resumes after a seven-year gap, reflects in its stylistic experiments not only Martha's impatience with a life without a future but Lessing's own impatience with her medium; while The Four-Gated City, 1969, with which the series closes, points forward toward Briefing for a Descent into Hell, 1971 (which Lessing called "inner-space fiction"), Memoirs of a Survivor, 1974, and the speculative fiction of the Canopus in Argos series rather than backward to the early books. What Lessing was looking for, and to a degree found, was a more inward, more fully modern conception not only of character but of the self and of the self's experience of time (including historical time). Once this had been arrived at, the nineteenth-century trappings fell away of themselves.
Since the publication of The Golden Notebook in 1962, Lessing has had an uneasy relationship with the women's movement—which claimed the book as a founding document—and a positively hostile relationship with academic commentators, who claimed it as a prototypical postmodern novel. Between herself and her most enthusiastic feminist disciples she has maintained a wary distance, while dismissing literary critics as fleas on the backs of writers. She has in turn been criticized by feminists (for example, Adrienne Rich) for failing to imagine an autonomous feminist politics, and by literary critics for trying to control the interpretation of her books rather than allowing them to spin off into textual space.
In her autobiography she does not hesitate to let fly at "correct" political attitudes, which she sees as little different from what in the heyday of the Party was called "the line." Thus—despite her father's tickling game—she labels the present concern with the sexual abuse of children a "hysterical mass movement." She condemns "the avaricious or vindictive divorce terms so often demanded by feminists." Ever since adolescence, she records, she has been more interested in the "amazing possibilities" of the vagina than in the "secondary and inferior pleasure" of the clitoris. "If I had been told that clitoral and vaginal orgasms would within a few decades become ideological enemies … I'd have thought it a joke." As for the social construction of gender, she recalls the "ruthlessness" with which she stole her first husband from another woman, a "basic female ruthlessness … [that] comes from a much older time than Christianity or any other softener of savage moralities. It is my right. When I've seen this creature emerge in myself, or in other women, I have felt awe."
On Western breast-beating about the colonial past, she comments: "[It cannot] be said too often that it is a mistake to exclaim over past wrong-thinking before at least wondering how our present thinking will seem to posterity." A Nigerian writer found one of her stories about African life good enough to plagiarize and publish under his own name, she recalls: so much for the politically correct line that whites should not write about black experience. Her own fiction explores male experience, including male sexual experience, without reserve.
As someone whose life has been substantially involved with public and political matters, Lessing confesses a certain respect for people who don't write memoirs, who "have chosen to keep their mouths shut." Why then her own autobiography? Her answer is candid: "Self-defense." At least five biographers are already at work on her. "You try and claim your own life by writing an autobiography."
But one suspects larger reasons too. Besides the epigraph from Cole Porter, her book bears another from Idries Shah, whose writings on Sufism have been important to her since the 1960s. Shah links individual fate to the fate of society by suggesting that society cannot be reformed until people can individually identify the forces and institutions that have dictated the course of their lives. Self-exploration and social evolution thus go together.
The two epigraphs also cohere in a surprising way. Through the music her generation danced to, such as the music of Cole Porter, says Lessing, pulsed a deep rhythm promising sex and salvation. When this subliminal promise of the Zeitgeist was not fulfilled, the whole generation, including herself, reacted as if cheated of its birthright. "I feel I have been part of some mass illusion or delusion"—the illusion that everyone is entitled to happiness. (In contrast, she suggests, the deep rhythm of today's cacophonous popular music sends people out to torture, kill, and maim.)
As a child born in the aftermath of World War I, Lessing is convinced that she, like her parents, vibrated to the basso ostinato of that disastrous epoch. "I wonder now how many of the children brought up in families crippled by war had the same poison running in their veins from before they could even speak."
The idea that the ship of history is guided by currents deeper than consciousness—an idea of which her deep-rhythm hypothesis is a slightly batty example—keeps coming back in Lessing's autobiography. In fact, the turn away from a Marxist, materialist conception of history had already been hinted at in A Ripple from the Storm, in which Martha Quest dreams of a huge saurian, fossilized yet still alive, staring dolefully at her from an earth-pit, an archaic power that will not die. One of the problems with the present project—a problem of which she is well aware—is that fiction has better resources for dealing with unconscious forces than discursive autobiography. Her previously most successful explorations of the historically embedded psyche have been in such works as The Golden Notebook and the visionary symbolic-allegorical narrative Memoirs of a Survivor (in which, incidentally, she attempts to reconceive herself as mother of a daughter rather than daughter of a mother). It is as novelist rather than as memoirist, therefore, that, three quarters of the way through the present project, she pronounces her succinct verdict on it: "There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth."
The best parts of Lessing's autobiography are about her early childhood. To most of us, early experience comes as such a shock that we remember nothing of it—an amnesia, Lessing suggests, that may be a necessary protective mechanism for the species. Her own powerful (and powerfully rendered) first memories revolve with distaste around the ugliness and loudness and smelliness of the world she has been born into—the "loose bulging breasts [and] whiskers of hair under arms" of adults in a swimming pool in Persia, the "cold stuffy metallic stink … of lice" in a Russian train.
In their clarity of recall (or of imaginative construction—it makes no difference) and cleanness of articulation, these first five chapters belong among the great pieces of writing about childhood:
It is as if the thatch is whispering. All at once I understand, my ears fill with the sound of the frogs and toads down in the vlei. It is raining. The sound is the dry thatch filling with water, swelling, and the frogs are exulting with the rain. Because I understand, everything falls into its proper place about me, the thatch of the roof soaking up its wet from the sky, the frogs sounding as loud as if they are down the hill, but they are a couple of miles off, the soft fall of the rain on the earth and the leaves, and the lightning, still far away. And then, confirming the order of the night, there is a sudden bang of thunder. I lie back, content, under the net, listening, and slowly sink back into a sleep full of the sounds of rain.
Passages like this celebrate special moments, Wordsworthian "spots of time," in which the child is intensely open to experience and also aware of heightened openness, aware that the moment is privileged. As Lessing observes, if we give time its due phenomenological weight, then most of our life is over by the time we are ten.
There are also fine passages later in the book where Lessing candidly reinhabits her youthful narcissism. She pedals her bicycle "with long brown smooth legs she is conscious of as if a lover were stroking them." "I pulled up my dress and looked at myself as far up as my panties and was filled with pride of body. There is no exultation like it, the moment when a girl knows that this is her body, these her fine smooth shapely limbs."
There are also leisurely recollections of pregnancy, childbirth (trouble-free), and nursing, including reports on her babies' feeding habits and stools, written from one of the personae she has now embraced: that of wise mother or grandmother instructing younger women.
It is clear that more effort went into the early chapters than into the rest of the book, in which Lessing all too often slips into the mode of casual reminiscence. Too many of the personages in the later chapters will matter little even to Lessing's more dedicated readers, despite halfhearted attempts to claim relevance for them.
In the end, the book is dominated by the figure of Lessing's mother, who has been present either openly or in disguised form in much of what she has written during a career now into its fifth decade. In this latest round, Lessing does her best to be fair to her opponent. For a page or two she goes so far as to hand over the narration to her—an experiment soon abandoned. "There was never a woman who enjoyed parties and good times more than she did, enjoyed being popular and a hostess and a good sort, the mother of two pretty, well-behaved, well-brought up, clean children." (The hidden barb here, the barb Lessing cannot resist, is the code-word "clean," which in the Tayler household referred to potty-training.) The trunks that accompanied them from Tehran to their mud-walled home in Rhodesia held silver tea trays, watercolors, Persian carpets, scarves, hats, evening dresses—finery that her mother would never have a chance to show off. On the farm this "handsome, well-dressed, dryly humorous woman, efficient, practical, and full of energy," found no outlet adequate to her ambitions. Her affections were transferred from her husband to her son as soon as he was born; he remained bound to her till he went off to boarding school, where, somehow, he learned to say No. "Now I see her as a tragic figure," Lessing writes; during her lifetime, "I saw her as tragic certainly, but was not able to be kind."
Yet despite a determined attempt to appreciate her parents in their historical setting, [Under My Skin] repeats the pattern of blaming the mother, familiar from Lessing's earlier writings, and thus, I fear, dooms us to the return of the mother and a rerun of the mother-daughter quarrel in the next volume. There is something depressing in the spectacle of a woman in her seventies still wrestling with an unsubjugated ghost from the past. On the other hand, there is no denying the grandeur of the spectacle when the protagonist is as mordantly honest and as passionately desirous of salvation as Doris Lessing.
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