Walking in the Shade by Doris Lessing
Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography
by Doris Lessing
HarperCollins. 404 pp. $27.50
It would be interesting to know how many of those who purchase Doris Lessing’s turgid novels actually get all the way through them, but there is no doubting that she herself is a cultural icon. Practically with the appearance in 1962 of The Golden Notebook, whose protagonist, Anna Wulf, was presented as a “completely new type of woman” living “the kind of life [women] never lived before,” a certain confluence was felt to exist between the ideals of the women’s movement and the works of this Rhodesian-born writer.
The trouble with icons is that they require reverence. Though The Golden Notebook actually got a mixed reception from reviewers, its author’s subsequent status has ensured a kind of critical meltdown with regard to her subsequent work There are now twenty-plus Lessing novels in print, and each time another rolls off the presses, the obfuscating platitudes take on a life of their own. In 1969, Joyce Carol Oates called one such indigestible effort “an experimental work in the very best sense”; in 1996, Maureen Corrigan lauded another for its “trademark gravity.” Similar pieties have likewise greeted this, the latest volume of her autobiography.
In a previous installment, Under My Skin (1994), Lessing revealed the striking correspondence between her own life and the “life” of Martha Quest, the central figure of three novels she wrote in the 1950’s. The essential elements in common include her girlhood on a farm in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia; her poisonous relationship with her mother; her rebellion against the attitudes of her British-born parents; her involvement with the small Communist party in Salisbury before World War II; her requisite intellectual awakening; her loveless early marriage; and her abandonment of her offspring (one under a year old) in order to join her comrades in the struggle to transform the world.
Walking in the Shade takes up the story with Lessing’s arrival in London from southern Africa in 1949, and ends in the year 1962. In terms of her literary work, it thus covers the period from the publication of The Grass Is Singing, her first novel, in 1950, to the appearance of The Golden Notebook. On its surface, however, the book lacks the strong nexus between literature and life that characterized Under My Skin. Rather, in the pages of Walking in the Shade the writer’s life seems to take a back seat to what is essentially a chronicle of the British Left, accompanied by the breast-beating of one who now regards her involvement in its passions as, at best, neurotic.
Lessing was a friend of many prominent leftists in England, from literary figures like Kenneth Tynan and John Osborne, to African political exiles like Joshua Nkomo, to eccentrics like Naomi Mitchison, the free-loving sister of the eminent geneticist and Marxist, J.B.S. Haldane. Besides being a member of the Communist party’s Writers Group, she participated in various events and causes of the moment, and her invariably caustic accounts of a number of these affairs—including a 1954 trip to the Soviet Union with a delegation of dotty British writers and a meeting with Bertrand Russell—suggest that she possesses a neglected satiric gift.
The meeting with Russell, for example, occurred at the philosopher’s castle in Wales, where Lessing and another writer had been dispatched to mediate among the various factions of the nuclear-disarmament movement. Russell, by now a willing pawn in a movement hijacked by the far Left, was decidedly unwelcoming:
Russell said he saw no point in continuing the discussion and that he was sure we must be tired. He would not be seeing us in the morning, but he would instruct the housekeeper to give us breakfast. Lady Russell and he escorted us to the bedroom, and the atmosphere was such that we would not have been surprised to find we were locked in. It was nine o’clock.
Unfortunately, the disjointed sequence of memories, events, and personalities that fill these pages, and the remarkably banal analysis to which they are subjected, combine to make Walking in the Shade a failure as a portrait of intellectual life in Britain during the cold war. Nor does it satisfy as a memoir of a writer’s gradual abandonment of false youthful ideals. People and events are brought on stage without introduction, as if the reader knows without being reminded what the Aldermaston marches or the Committee of a Hundred were all about. A typical anecdote begins: “Reuben Ship was now married to Elaine Grand.” Even the structure of the book—four chapters, organized according to the four London neighborhoods in which Lessing happened to live from 1949 through 1962—is an evasion, turning the successive stages of her life into mere accidents of geography.
Within this undifferentiated and oddly impersonal narrative, one thing that is unmistakable is Lessing’s present loathing for Marxism, which she has come to consider an evil doctrine. Welcome though this recognition is, however, one cannot help noticing that the particular qualities embodied in the Marxist mindset, the same qualities that drew her to the movement in the first place, are with her still. One such quality is the refusal to recognize individuals as individuals, rather than as historical counters. The mental habits this gives rise to are evident on every page of Walking in the Shade. Thus, about joining the Communist party, Lessing writes: “We were playing a role. The play had been written by ‘History.’ ” And about sex:
I would say that in the 50’s, in the way of love, or sex, the most obvious thing . . . is that people were going to bed because it was expected of them. (The Zeitgeist demanded.)
But not everyone did join the party—a choice was involved—and not everyone went “to bed because it was expected of them.” These are facts Lessing still appears reluctant to acknowledge, taking refuge instead in the bromide that, in love as in politics, “it is impossible to distance oneself from the strong currents of one’s time.”
Lessing’s portraits of her fellow leftists are tainted by another legacy of Communism: a dark, ungenerous, unforgiving view of human nature. When it comes to herself, moreover, and certain of her own actions—like her abandonment of her first two children, or her treatment of her aged mother—she again displays an attitude not infrequently associated with those who love humanity at large, namely, a callous indifference to humanity in the small. Here is how she records her response to a request by a childhood friend of her mother’s for help in securing a place in a “good old people’s home”:
I was still so much on the edge of life in London, just clinging on with my fingertips. . . . How was it that Aunt Daisy, who had been in my life since I was born, could not see that she was asking too much of me? . . . Now I said to her, or blurted out, my voice not only shocked but incredulous, meaning, How can you put this onto me when I am so burdened already? “I’m sorry, Aunt Daisy. I can’t. I don’t know how to begin.”
This painful scene is sandwiched between accounts of visits to the Soviet Union, to Naomi Mitchison’s castle in Scotland, and to the psychoanalyst who would appear in The Golden Notebook as Mother Sugar.
As all these examples suggest, perhaps the most striking aspect of Walking in the Shade is its sedulous avoidance of exactly the most crucial task of autobiography: self-scrutiny. But here is where the nexus between Lessing’s life and her work does manifest itself after all. For in her reluctance to investigate the meaning of her own experience, Lessing resembles no one so much as her fictional creation, Anna Wulf. Like Anna, another disillusioned Communist, Lessing bestowed more favors on men than they had any right to. In addition to her two legal marriages and her four-year affair with an East European Communist she calls Jack, she was involved, she tells us here, with a string of Americans, Englishmen, and Africans, most of whom left much to be desired. But in the autobiography as in the novel, there is no suggestion that recurring patterns like these signify anything whatsoever about the person experiencing them.
In The Golden Notebook, Anna Wulf simply renames reality, calling herself not an emotionally scarred woman but a free one. Lessing, from the evidence of Walking in the Shade, has gone beyond that position. Indeed, she is quite harsh on those who would make The Golden Notebook into a liberationist tract. Yet, aside from endlessly restating her conviction that humankind is a sorry lot, she gives no indication that she has attained any insight into her own life, or wishes to. From Marxism to a fling with Sufism and other Eastern religions to her frequent animadversions of late on the deplorable state of Western pop culture, the one thing Doris Lessing has not done, in life or in art, is to get under her own skin.