Doris Lessing | Critical Review by William H. Pritchard

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of Doris Lessing.
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(approx. 13 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by William H. Pritchard

SOURCE: "Looking Back at Lessing," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVIII, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 317-24.

Pritchard is an American educator and critic. In the following review, he remarks on the theme and style of Under My Skin and summarizes Lessing's development throughout her literary career.

A little over two decades ago when Doris Lessing published her ninth novel, The Summer Before the Dark (1973), she could lay claim to consideration as the foremost female writer of fiction then working in English. The women's movement was in full swing and among many of the more literarily inclined Lessing occupied a position of respect second only to Virginia Woolf. And she was contemporary in a way Woolf, thirty and more years dead, couldn't be. The Golden Notebook (1962), which met with some puzzlement when first published, had become increasingly cited and talked about (if not always read through) by those aspiring toward being what, in the core section of the book, Lessing titled "Free Women." She had also completed the five-volume series, Children of Violence (more familiarly the "Martha Quest" novels) in which a woman who shared much of Lessing's biography was tracked, in her quest, from her days as a young woman in Southern Rhodesia, through marriages, pregnancies, divorces, to her eventual death in London. By 1973, Lessing had also published—in addition to many volumes of short fiction—a novel (her first) of Africa, The Grass is Singing; two autobiographical prose works; and Briefing for a Descent into Hell, a dark, dystopian vision of the future. In The Summer Before the Dark, a woman approaching middle age, married and with children, embarks on an affair with a man significantly younger than herself. The novel was given a front-page review by Elizabeth Hardwick in the New York Times Book Review, and in the course of her interesting account of it Hardwick identified the "rather flat, puzzling, aching anguish" that she found characteristic of Lessing's fiction, including her latest. "Enormous sadness and depression," was the particular tone Hardwick heard, and she thought it not wholly to the advantage of The Summer Before the Dark as a novel.

At present, Lessing's work is a good deal further away from the central concerns of most serious readers of fiction. Nothing in the writing she has published in the last two decades comes even close to challenging these readers, whether female or male, the way The Golden Notebook and the Martha Quest novels—especially the concluding, most disturbing one, The Four-Gated City—challenged them. She has become a respected and respectable figure to be surveyed in accounts of post-Second War novelists, viewed dispassionately along with Iris Murdoch and Margaret Drabble. So it is a good time for her to weigh in with this enlivening and substantial first volume of autobiography [Under My Skin], taking her from childhood up to her move from Africa to London in 1949. Lessing says early in the book that she admires certain people who have chosen to keep their mouths shut; but with rumors of five American biographers at work in one way or another on her life, the motive of self-defense came to the fore. Few people are left who can be hurt by what she has to say, at least in writing about her first thirty years. She can tell the truth, as she sees it, "without snags and blocks of conscience." Thus she prepares us for the leisurely, extremely detailed narrative that unfolds in the effort to tell us exactly what it is she's "got" under her skin.

The easiest answer, and the one Lessing more than hints at in the book, is her mother, Emily Maude McVeagh, a nurse who cared for Lessing's father, Alfred Tayler, in London's Royal Free Hospital where he was suffering from shell shock, depression, and an amputated leg. After the First World War the Taylers went out to Kermanshah, in Persia, where Alfred worked in the Imperial Bank and where Doris and her brother were born; later, after a sojourn in England, the family settled on a farm in Southern Rhodesia, the country in which Lessing spent her young life. She tells us that she now sees her mother as a "tragic figure, living out her disappointing years with courage and with dignity," but there's not much of this sympathetic figure in the book. Rather we're given the woman who, conforming to procedures back then, refused to feed the infant Doris when she cried; the woman who toilet trained her, who was "a vibrating column of efficiency and ruthless energy," who while Doris leaned against her father's knee (the real one, not the metal-and-wood replacement) went on and on to some visitor about how her children were sapping her strength, how her talents were withering, "how the little girl in particular (she was so difficult, so naughty!) made her life a total misery." When the family traveled home to England from Persia in 1924, Lessing's mother decided they should go via Moscow so as not to expose the children to the heat of the Red Sea. The horrendous journey that ensured, across the Caspian Sea in an oil tanker full of lice, then on a foodless train to Moscow where they subsisted on hard-boiled eggs and bread, bought by the mother at stations from peasant women (with typhoid and typhus everywhere, swarms of beggars and homeless children)—all this formed the substance of stories her mother would tell in future years. Lessing says she doesn't remember these events, nor does she remember how, at the Russian frontier, her mother browbeat a Russian official to let them in even though their passports were imperfectly stamped. Since Doris was only five at the time, one can't blame her for remembering things other than what her mother emphasized afterwards. But the "nervous flight" from her mother Lessing says she was engaged in as far back as she could remember, may have been in play here; at any rate by age fourteen she was "obdurately against" everything that Emily Tayler represented.

This "state of accusation" Lessing identifies is painful to read about, since next to blaming the father, blaming the mother is always something a daughter can indulge in. Of course Lessing doesn't want to indulge herself—she's too severely moral for that—and at certain moments in the book she speaks of herself as marked out for trouble in a way more powerful than can be blamed on her luckless mother or father. For example, later on when she decides to abandon not only her first husband, Frank Wisdom, but also the two children she bore him, it is a delicate moment for the autobiographer to handle. Lessing rationalizes a bit, saying the children would be looked after by loving people who would do the job more efficiently than she. She knew this, not because she hadn't up to that point performed the task just like the other women she saw around her, "but because of this secret doom that was inside me—and which had brought my parents to their pitiful condition." Near the end of the book she speaks of still not understanding, when she settled in London, the fact that she had been "conditioned for tears." These phrases seem to me attempts at naming what is finally beyond understanding, and what no talk about one's father or mother will explain: namely, the demon that drove this intensely gifted, perennially dissatisfied—sometimes to the point of despair and breakdown—young and older woman. "I've got you under my skin / I've got you deep in the heart of me": Cole Porter's lines furnish the book's title and act as one of its epigraphs. But we're asked to ignore the jaunty tone of the song and perhaps not to think of its concluding advice: "Use your mentality, / Wake up to reality," the sort of advice you give only when you've determined that you "never can win"—advice Lessing has never been about to take to heart. [In a footnote, the critic adds: "For someone who makes as much, in the autobiography, of popular lyrics, Lessing time and again gets their words wrong. She does okay with Porter's 'Under My Skin,' but messes up 'Night and Day' ('Night and day / I think of you'). 'It's a Sin to Tell a Lie' doesn't begin 'I love you, yes I do, I love you,' and 'Swinging on a Star' doesn't say 'Do you want to be better off than you are / Carry moonbeams home in a jar …' Yeats's little poem 'The Scholars' does not end 'O God, what would they say, if their Catullus came their way.' This probably doesn't matter but if she likes them enough to quote them, why not get the words right?"]

It must be said that the young, extremely attractive girl featured in the excellent photographs in this book, seems unaware that her "secret doom" has already conditioned her to tears. Aware of this odd disparity, Lessing names this healthy resilient animal—proud of her body, able to make others laugh—"Tigger," and the nickname survived through two marriages. (When she became a Communist she was called "Comrade Tigger.") It's Tigger who has pillow-fights with her mother or undergoes her father's tickling so as to play the game.

It's Tigger, the "healthy bouncing beast," who manages to survive the four years in a convent school to which she was sent. It's Tigger who marries Frank Wisdom, a young civil servant, who drinks and dances with the other young marrieds, has children without disaster, says at one point that she could have made a good veterinarian, or a doctor, or a matron, or a farmer. The vitality of Lessing's prose, especially in the first half of the book, testifies to Tigger's claim. What a wonderful place to grow up, her writing convinces us, as she and her brother sit under the telephone lines stretching from the Mandor Mine across a grass field to the Taylers' farm:

Our ears to the metal pole we listened to the thrumming, drumming, deep-singing of the wind in the wires where we watched, as we listened, the birds, hundreds of birds, alighting, balancing, taking off again, big birds and little birds and plain birds and birds coloured like rainbows or sunsets, the most glamorous of them, the rollers, mauve and grey and pink, like large kingfishers.

As with The Grass is Singing, this writing has some of the delicate sensuous life of early D. H. Lawrence. Speaking at one point of the "intense physicality" of Lawrence's prose, she admits that he "must have influenced me." No doubt about it: a memorable Lawrentian passage describes her looking after a brood of hatching chicks when her mother has taken her father to the hospital in Salisbury. As Doris sits up in a cold room and watches the eggs, there appears in one of them a "little rough place" that meant birth was imminent:

I held the egg to my ear, and heard the tap tap tap of the hidden chick, and wept with excitement and relief. Out flopped that hideous chick, dried at once into adorableness, out flopped another … soon all over the cracking eggs lay and sprawled the wet monstrous creatures, and between the eggs trembled the pretty dried-out chicks. I ran out, found the oldest and most experienced hen, and put her into a pen where the nest box was already lined with straw and feathers, and when I brought out a couple of dozen little chicks and put them one by one into the nest she seemed not to know her own mind. Then, her brain switched gear, she clucked, and delicately trod her way among them and became their mother.

This is beyond praise, an example of moments when her writings gets under the alert reader's skin.

In fact I found myself appreciating and admiring passages where the grim spirit in the heart of Lessing isn't wholly allowed to upstage superficial Tigger. Something like an older version of the latter can be heard when, from time to time in the book, Lessing addresses contemporary women out of the wisdom of age seventy-five. Gynecologically speaking she compares herself to the fabled peasant woman who never had anything wrong with her—no "pre-menstrual tension," three normal births, easy periods which ended in her early forties, no unpleasant menopause. So she wants to hold out some hope for young women who are prepared only for "womb troubles":

When I—my generation—looked forward to our lives as females, we were not full of fear and foreboding. We felt confident, we felt in control. We were not bombarded with bleak information from television, radio, newspapers, women's magazines. If girls were told, from very young, that they can expect bad times of every sort from pre-menstrual tension to menopausal miseries, is it not possible they are attracting bad times?

"I became a Communist because of the spirit of the times, because of the Zeitgeist"—so Lessing explains her being recruited into the dissident "progressive" band of believers she discovered in Rhodesia. Typically, she makes her decision an accession to the inevitable, rather than a moral action (she writes in a similar vein about abandoning her husband and children). Whether or not one is convinced by such rationalizations, the latter stages of this autobiography, filled with the names of a great many people we have never heard of and are given no reason to have interest in, are rather heavy going. Never one to have second thoughts about a paragraph or a page she's written, Lessing exercises little stylistic shaping of her outpouring of anecdote, character, and situation. Her hope may be that it's enough merely for her to recount them, but this seems to me very much not the case. Certainly she's right to give as a reason for writing the book the fact that she was part of "an extraordinary time, the end of the British Empire in Africa." It may take a more than ordinary care with sentences and paragraphs to make that time come strongly alive to us.

Critical accounts of Lessing's contribution and stature as a writer of fiction mainly bypass her style by acting as if she didn't have one, or at least that it is of not much account, since the substance of what she says is so important. I do not think she would be pleased by this form of condescension, and there is no reason to avoid the question of what difference style makes in her work, since The Grass is Singing and the early "African" stories are written in a direct, unadorned, intelligently observant prose to be admired. D. H. Lawrence's presence is felt, but in a less fevered and rhetorical way. It's with the Martha Quest novels that questions of style and compositional procedure arise. The first four novels of Children of Violence, three of which were published before The Golden Notebook, are written in the leisurely, extremely conventional novelese Lessing inherited from her realist predecessors; the narrative terms are basically those within which Arnold Bennett, say, worked in The Old Wives' Tale and the Clay-hanger trilogy. It is expected that we will care about the "story" of this young woman as she deals with her parents and her marriages, and though it's easy enough to caution that Martha Quest is not Doris Lessing, I would guess nobody reads these books without having some interest in Lessing's biography and how it felt to be acting out one's life in the late days of the British Empire in Africa. Yet readers with an appetite for interesting happenings in fiction may be slightly disappointed as they move through the many pages of these novels. Reviewing the second of them, the ironically titled A Proper Marriage, Kingsley Amis—whom one wouldn't suspect of being a devoted reader of Lessing—praised various excellent things in it and confided that "Mrs. Lessing is a whole network of streets ahead of the 'average' novelist." But in trying to summarize the story he apologized for implying that almost nothing happens, "especially when, as here, almost nothing happens." Amis doesn't point out what seems to me the case, that these novels also lack a density of psychological speculation that might fill in for the absence of "action." Lessing pretty much stays inside her heroine—unlike, say, the George Eliot of Middlemarch—and takes on a neutral tone of presentation that can, cumulatively, provoke exasperation. [In a footnote, the critic adds: "As it evidently did in a reader who scrawled in the margin of our library's copy of A Proper Marriage, apropos of Martha Quest's troubles, 'Bitch, bitch, bitch. Why doesn't she do something? I don't feel sorry for her.'"]

As for The Golden Notebook the consensus seems to be that after writing the first three Martha Quest novels, Lessing felt dissatisfied with her conventional narrative and proceeded to deconstruct, interrogate and elaborately play around with the novel form. Ten years after Notebook was published she wrote a rather tendentious preface to a revised edition, claiming that most of the criticism the novel received on its appearance has been "too silly to be true." Perhaps so (I haven't made a comparative study), but Irving Howe's review of it in The New Republic was anything but silly. He called it "a work of high seriousness," "the most absorbing and exciting piece of new fiction I have read in a decade." Howe, back there thirty-four years ago, was bowled over by the fact that the center of the novel's action was concerned with Anna Wulf, "a mature intellectual woman." This, Howe said, was a rarity in modern fiction, as was Lessing's ability to insist upon connections between the mind of her heroine and the larger social and political events of the 1950s. But there were of course other attractions of the book, especially to those women who made and still make up the bulk of its readership (900,000 hardcover copies sold). Here was a book in which a man is described as looking at every woman by "imagining her as she would be when he had fucked her into insensibility." A novel in which a character goes to bat for the vaginal ("real") as opposed to the clitoral orgasm and in which the "free women," Molly and Anna, ruthlessly satirize Molly's ex-husband, the successful businessman Richard. All strong stuff for 1962, though it seems doubtful whether the book can now be read by either sex with the fresh excitement it once provoked. At any rate, it's canonized, the subject of many articles, dissertations, published books, and is certainly the most highly structured of Lessing's books, probably for better rather than worse.

But as the sixties wore on and the world in general became (even) more violent, fragmented and unhappy, so did Lessing's fiction. Her engagement with the irrational, with drugs, with the Sufi mystics and the unsavory psychology of R. D. Laing, made the monstrously overlong novel that concludes Children of Violence (The Four-Gated City, 1969) a book that at least for this reader provided no pleasure, to put it mildly. And things did not improve with the toneless solemn inner journeys in Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and Memoirs of a Survivor (1974). Even the more available, previously mentioned, Summer Before the Dark, turns at its end into a tale of woe, unrelieved by any humor or irony. As for Canopus in Argos, the four-volume science-fiction series that followed (1979–82), there must be those who read it with some interest, though no one I know of did.

After this prolonged stretch of disenchantment with the novel as "bright book of life" (D. H. Lawrence), Lessing published, under the name of Jane Somers, two novels about a woman writer: written in diary form, easy to read, unencumbered by much "thought," they were published pseudonymously, so Lessing said afterwards, to see whether the public that would buy books signed Doris Lessing would do the same for Jane Somers. (They sold only modestly, and were later republished under Lessing's name.) What exactly this little experiment demonstrated I don't really see. Maybe the public and the critics were right not to rave about these books, even though they were "really" authentic products. Maybe the real test would have been, as Jonathan Yardley astutely suggested, for Lessing to have kept on publishing novels under the pseudonym—that would have been a bold experiment. But she didn't, and followed them instead in 1985 with The Good Terrorist, about a group of young people in a London "squat," whose animating figure is Alice, the "good" girl of the title. Reviewing it, Alison Lurie unfathomably called it the most interesting political novel since Conrad's The Secret Agent. In fact The Good Terrorist (unlike Conrad) is shapeless, to the extent of having no chapter breaks in its nearly 400 pages. In Under My Skin Lessing refers to her monomaniacal heroine as "quite mad," but evidently still thought it worthwhile to trace her and her dismal companions' fortunes in a detached voice of narrative reportage. Finally, more or less winding up the eighties, appeared The Fifth Child, a short and shocking account of what happens to a family when a mother's fifth child turns out to be a "wild" child, more incorrigible animal than human.

I would trade the last twenty years' worth of Lessing's novels for the stories and sketches she published three years ago—in an appropriately named book—The Real Thing. The focus here is no more nor less than London, from its restaurants, to Regent's Park and Hampstead Heath, to (in an especially attractive sketch) the London Underground as observed by the author riding on the Jubilee Line:

Charing Cross and everyone gets out. At the exit machine a girl appears running up from the deeper levels, and she is chirping like a fire alarm. Now she has drawn our attention to it, in fact a steady bleeping is going on, and for all we know, it is a fire alarm. These days there are so many electronic bleeps, cheeps, buzzes, blurps, that we don't hear them. The girl is a fey creature, blonde locks flying around a flushed face. She is laughing dizzily, and racing a flight or flock of young things coming into the West End for an evening's adventure, all of them already crazed with pleasure, and in another dimension of speed and lightness, like sparks speeding up and out.

Who knows, maybe one of these girls was nicknamed Tigger. At any rate Lessing's prose here has the kind of relaxed power and delicacy, making it all look easy and casual, that is evident in many of the pages of Under My Skin and that has been so absent from the anguished, hard-driving, monumentally solemn world of her longer fictions. Cole Porter would not have wanted to live there, but he might have found a spot just under the skin of a writer discovering new things about herself and the world as she moves through her eighth decade.

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