Under My Skin, by Doris Lessing

A friend loaned me this first volume of Lessing's two-volume autobiography. The Nobel Prize winner passed away November 2013 at the age of 94, and reading the articles about her reminded me that I hadn't read any of her books for a long time. Back in the 1970s I gobbled up books like The Golden Notebook and the Children of Violence series. They were a huge influence on my emerging understanding of myself as a person and of women's roles in society. The Golden Notebook also influenced me as a writer, one who was just beginning to appreciate experiments in form.

I decided to reread these books and also catch some of the books I'd missed. Then, much to my delight, this autobiography fell into my hands. Now I almost wish it hadn't, or at least not until I'd reread the books.

Don't get me wrong: it's beautifully written. I raced through it, intrigued by her early life in Persia and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), thoroughly enjoying the beautifully detailed descriptions of life in the bush, such as this when she hears a rustling at night:

It is as if the thatch is whispering. All at once, as I understand, my ears fill with the sound of the frogs and toads down in the vlei. It is raining. The sound is the dry thatch filling with water, swelling, and the frogs are exulting with the rain.

I was also captivated by her later involvement in politics. Lately I've found myself more and more interested in the communist and socialist movements of the 1930s and 1940s, so I was fascinated by her description of a now-lost (“killed by television”) culture of working men's colleges, political study classes and lectures. I paid close attention to the workings of the groups and shifting attitudes she describes, so familiar to me from my activist days, yet tempered by her looking back from old age (77 when this book came out).

. . . why do we expect so much? Why are we so bitterly surprised when we—our country—the world—lurches into yet another muddle or catastrophe? Who promised us better? When were we promised better? Why is it that so many people in our time have felt all the emotions of betrayed children?

Her description of how things changed with the advent of the Cold War is chilling: “From one week to the next, we became pariahs.” What makes this especially harsh is the thought that (as I now believe) the Cold War was cynically manufactured by those in power not only to sell more guns and missiles, but also to create a false sense of emergency to use as a weapon against labor organizers and others attempting to help the working class.

Lessing's parents are richly presented, their courage and limitations, their dreams and the harsh reality. They met during WWI when he was in hospital recovering from having his leg amputated, and she was his nurse. I marveled continuously at his wrestling a farm out of the bush with his wooden leg, and sympathised with her making the best of a rough isolation after her gay social life in London. I look forward to reading Alfred and Emily, Lessing's novel based on them.

Why do I wish I'd waited? In the autobiography Lessing is quite open about using her own life and friends as material for her novels. Now that I've plunged into The Golden Notebook, I find it hard to distance myself from the so-similar autobiographical details and encounter the story ingenuously. Of course, as a writer, I find interest in what she's done with real life to create fiction. But as a reader, I miss the immersion experience I had expected. Still, I look forward to reading the second volume, which begins as she leaves Africa for London.

Does knowing about the life of an author change your perception of his or her novels?

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