A better bio would have less of Lessing

October 13, 1994|By Anne Whitehouse | Anne Whitehouse,Special to The Sun

The first volume of this projected autobiography takes the author from her birth to British parents in Persia in 1919, to her childhood on a farm in the African bush of Southern Rhodesia, and her young adulthood in Salisbury, its provincial capital, during World War II.

Ms. Lessing depicts herself as molded by war -- not only the second but the first world war, which devastated her parents. Her father lost a leg and never recovered from his experiences of the trenches, languishing in a permanent sense of grievance. Her mother, whose first love was killed, gave up a brilliant nursing career to marry her depressed patient and left England with him because he could not bear to live there.

In these pages, Ms. Lessing emerges as an affection-starved girl and an embattled young woman, a survivor of the miseries of an unhappy family life and boarding school. Like many an adolescent, she cultivated a jokey, easy-going persona, whom she calls "Tigger" after the A. A. Milne character, under which she hid feelings of isolation, vulnerability and anxiety.

As the backdrop to her coming-of-age, Ms. Lessing chronicles the decline of the British Empire in its African variant and "the sometimes paternalistic, sometimes brutal relations between white and black." She describes immigrants to Rhodesia from Depression-era England in the '30s and refugees from war-torn Europe in the '40s who augmented colonial society.

One of the great historical movements of the 20th century is the rise and fall of communism as an ideology and a political system. Ms. Lessing's experience typifies the attraction communism had for at least two generations of idealistic youth.

Ms. Lessing became a Communist upon the failure of her first marriage in 1942. Communism gave her a surrogate family, a study group of like-minded people, one of whom became her second husband, as well as a sense of serious purpose and commitment. It was an ideology imported to Southern Rhodesia by European refugees. And although Ms. Lessing does not explicitly say so, one of its attractions to an African colonial must have been its internationalism, being a "fellow traveller," belonging to such a self-chosen elite.

While these themes are illuminating, the autobiography as a whole suffers from a general shapelessness and a tendency for the commentary to overwhelm the narrative. The style is often ponderous and repetitive; Ms. Lessing belabors her points.

The most problematic section of the book concerns her divorce from her first husband, Frank Wisdom. She does not explain why leaving her marriage also meant abandoning their two children, then toddlers. Later, remarried, with a new baby, she criticizes herself for succumbing to pressure to see the children from the first marriage: "Certainly it would be hard to think of a more puzzling situation for the two little children: there, inexplicably and suddenly, was their own real mother, but in her arms was a new baby, and she had a new husband not their father." It would have been preferable, Ms. Lessing claims, "to make a clean break" from the children.

Today, when divorce is prevalent and patched-together families commonplace, this statement is hard to accept. Rather, it seems that since Ms. Lessing was -- as she says -- "so deeply in the wrong," she cannot allow herself to speculate as to what lay behind her attitude.

Ms. Lessing is more courageous and sympathetic when she candidly reveals that behind her decision to have a tubal ligation after her third child was her realization that she was destined to fall in love several more times before she reached menopause and that with each lover she would wish to bear a child. In having the ligation, she claims, "a deeply buried instinct for self-preservation was working for my good," for she could not be mother to so many children and still realize her ambition of becoming a writer.

"I was always waking with lines of verse on my tongue. What a pity I am not a real poet," Ms. Lessing confesses. "If I were, that filter or sieve through which sounds must fall from the sea of sound to become words would be set finer and subtler. I used to think, If I am going to dream sequences of words, then why not much better ones? Now this is really looking a gift horse in the mouth."

This passage demonstrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of this autobiography. Ruefully acknowledging her artistic limitations, Ms. Lessing transcends them in her beautifully stated, plaintive metaphor. Yet the last sentence, with its dull cliche and "stiff upper lip" mentality, trivializes the admission that comes before it. This autobiography would have been a "finer and subtler" book had Ms. Lessing edited out such unnecessary commentary.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer who lives in New York.


Title: "Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949"

Author: Doris Lessing

Publisher: HarperCollins

Length, price: 416 pages, $25

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