Doris Lessing | Critical Review by Michiko Kakutani

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Doris Lessing.
This section contains 913 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Michiko Kakutani

SOURCE: "Reality's Chaos, Translated Into Art," in The New York Times, November 1, 1994, p. C17.

In the following review, Kakutani praises Lessing's evocation of Africa and colonial life but laments that the author's self-portrait is "an incomplete one, filled with rationalizations and evasions."

A third of the way through this intriguing memoir [Under My Skin], Doris Lessing describes herself as a young girl, watching her parents sitting side by side in front of their house in the Rhodesian countryside, their faces anxious, tense and full of worry: "There they are, together, stuck together, held there by poverty and—much worse—secret and inadmissible needs that come from deep in their two so different histories. They seem to me intolerable, pathetic, unbearable, it is their helplessness that I can't bear."

Young Doris tells herself to remember this moment always: "Don't let yourself forget it. Don't be like them."

"Meaning," she adds, "never let yourself be trapped. In other words, I was rejecting the human condition, which is to be trapped by circumstances."

As she recounts it in Under My Skin, the first volume of her autobiography, Ms. Lessing would do her best to live up to this imperative, angrily defying all her parents' injunctions of caution. She dropped out of school at 14, left home a year or so later, had a succession of jobs as a nursemaid and a telephone operator, and began dreaming of escape to some glamorous far-off land. To the world, she presented the face of a clever, amusing and highly competent young woman, who was known to her friends as Tigger, after the bouncy tiger in Winnie-the-Pooh. It was an image, she says, that belied a troubled, lonely nature: over-sensitive, judgmental and defiant.

Although Ms. Lessing's detachment as a writer would aid her in the pursuit of the freedom she so coveted, this liberation would also come at a price. By the time this volume ends and Ms. Lessing is leaving Africa for good, she has not only jettisoned one husband and more or less abandoned a second, but has also left behind two young children. Of this decision, Ms. Lessing writes simply that the unhappiness she felt in her first marriage would have made her "a liability" to her husband and children if she had stayed.

"Perhaps it is not possible to abandon one's children without moral and mental contortions," she writes. "But I was not exactly abandoning mine to an early death. Our house was full of concerned and loving people, and the children would be admirably looked after—much better than by me, not because I did not perform this task exactly like every other woman around me, but because of this secret doom that was inside me—and which had brought my parents to their pitiful condition."

This matter-of-fact tone informs much of this volume, leaving us with a vivid, if somewhat chilling picture of the author as a self-absorbed and heedless young woman. Ms. Lessing tells us that she was not in love with her first husband, or her second, and that her maternal instincts temporarily "switched off" after the birth of her second child. Again and again, she describes her actions as a mere reflection of the Zeitgeist, a point of view that may illuminate the social dynamic animating so many of her novels, but that also suggests a certain reluctance to assume responsibility for personal choices.

Of one lover, Ms. Lessing writes, "I was not in love with him nor he with me, but it was the spirit of the times." Of her embrace of Communism, she similarly observes, "I became a Communist because of the spirit of the times, because of the Zeitgeist." Her decision to have a third child (this one with her second husband, Gottfried Lessing) is also explained in terms of larger, impersonal forces, in this case the ravages of World War II: "I believe it was Mother Nature making up for the millions of the dead."

Certainly many of the events recounted in this volume will be familiar to readers of Ms. Lessing's Martha Quest novels: a lonely childhood in the African bush, quarrels with a difficult mother, escape to the big city, an early marriage and immersion in the world of left wing politics. Indeed, this volume not only underscores just how autobiographical the Children of Violence novels really were, but also sheds new light on the process whereby Ms. Lessing transmuted the chaotic events of her own life into the hard, bright stillness of art.

One need not be acquainted with any of Ms. Lessing's earlier works, however, to become absorbed in reading this memoir. Set down in quick, fluent prose, Under My Skin offers the reader a beautifully observed portrait of the African landscape that's often as sensually resonant as the one Isak Dinesen created in Out of Africa. The book gives us a sad, unsentimental portrait of British expatriates like Ms. Lessing's parents, living on daydreams of repatriation and imagined wealth, and a fierce, sometimes very funny portrait of colonial Communists and their hangers-on.

As for the portrait Ms. Lessing draws of herself, it's an incomplete one, filled with rationalizations and evasions, and at the same time is energized by the author's groping efforts to come to terms with her past. Perhaps the next volume of her autobiography, which is to take up the story of her move to London and her determination to become a writer, will more fully address the emotional consequences of her actions and the legacy of her willful youth.

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This section contains 913 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Michiko Kakutani
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