Walking in the shade of a grand intellect Memoir: Literary giant Doris Lessing's memories lead a reader along the fascinating road of her life.

October 21, 1997|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Like T.S. Eliot's Madame Sosostris, Doris Lessing has a cold.

Unlike Madame Sosostris, though, this does not imply her powers are diminished. Far from it. Now 78, she is razor-sharp, her mind sorting through the questions asked of her like a woman thumping melons in a grocery store. Some apparently are a bit mushy to her taste, others not quite ripe.

Small in stature, Lessing is a towering figure in 20th century letters -- the author of a book, "The Golden Notebook," that has been known as a classic almost since it appeared 35 years ago. "Generally known as my best novel," she writes in "Walking in the Shade" (HarperCollins, $27.50), the just-published second volume of her memoirs. "Perhaps it is, but I have my own ideas."

Does she ever. Lessing's mind virtually teems with ideas, and she has been known to intimidate veteran interviewers. They call her publicist in advance, nervous and deferential, perhaps because they have read in "Shade" her assessment of another journalist's efforts: "Shallow and superficial." What prompted that criticism?

"She [the reporter] complained my heels were too high. I thought, 'What was this doing in an article?' They were these shoes, do you consider them too high?" The heel is a stacked one, perhaps two inches. "Well, then," she sniffs.

OK, so she dislikes the process of promoting books and even disdains the people who buy books because of the requisite newspaper profiles. Then surely this limited tour of New York, Boston and Chicago must be pure torture for her. Wrong again.

"Some of my best friends are journalists," she demurs.

And she is polite in conversation, dryly humorous, even kind. "Doddis is a good little baba," she says of herself in her first memoir, "Under My Skin," about her childhood in Southern Rhodesia. It's a motif repeated in "Walking in the Shade," when Lessing remembers dutifully writing a note of gratitude to Somerset Maugham when she won a literary prize named for him. The award helped her out at a time when her finances were precarious.

"I got a grudging letter back," she writes, "saying that, first, he had nothing to do with the choosing of the prize winners and, two, he had never read anything I had written. ... This letter from Maugham hurt. It was meant to. But I owed him a roof over my head."

"I could have easily entitled this book 'A Roof Over My Head,' " she muses at one point. The phrase is a constant refrain in "Walking the Shade," an account of Lessing's early years in London, from 1949 to 1962.

Instead, she once again turned to popular music for her inspiration. ("Under My Skin" came from Cole Porter, while "Walking in the Shade" recasts a line from "The Sunny Side of the Street" -- "I used to walk in the shade ...")

The book, and her memories, are divided among her several addresses. And for many of these years, she eschewed the sunny side.

"I did at one point see that I was choosing unhappiness rather than happiness and I decided to stop that," she says. " 'Walking in the Shade' describes the preference for choosing -- you know, I had two men, both of whom were extremely damaged men, one by war and one socially." A pause. "Well, I needn't have done that."

But this second volume of her memoirs is about so much more than Lessing's romances. There are her longtime ties to the Communist Party, which she came to disavow; the transformation of post-World War II London; life as a single parent; and, always, her work. For although Lessing is best known for "The Golden Notebook," whose publication comes toward the end of "Walking in the Shade," she has produced a vast body of work, which includes novels, science fiction, short stories, operas and nonfiction.

"The statesmanlike length of [her memoir] is probably justified by the extraordinary variety of her achievements, her exceptional memory and her facility as a writer," Frank Kermode wrote in the New York Times Book Review. However, he also found "passages where you feel she is just typing on to complete a stint, and perhaps not looking it over later."

"Shade" begins in 1949, when Lessing arrived in London with little more than her son, Peter, and a manuscript, "The Grass is Singing." Twice divorced, she had left the two children from her first marriage behind in Africa. Some reviewers were surprised at how little attention she paid to this episode in "Under My Skin," but she shrugs it off again in "Walking in the Shade" when she writes about the difficult end of a love affair.

"It seemed to me obvious that I was bound to be unhappy and any intelligent reader would understand that without ritual beatings of the breast," she writes. "... There is no one who hasn't suffered over love at some time, and so it should be enough to say that being thrown over by this man was bad for me. It was the worst."

Conversely, she doesn't dwell on the details of her domestic routine -- up at 5 every morning with Peter, a "non-sleeper" -- because she says only a single mother can understand what she was going through.

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