Author Doris Lessing Turns A Writer's Spotlight on Herself

After Doris Lessing de-scribes her experiences as a young Communist recruit in wartime Southern Rhodesia, her marriage to her second husband, Gottfried Lessing, and the impact made by the influx of British pilots sent to train in Southern Africa, she refers the reader, at the end of a chapter in the first volume of her autobiography, ``Under My Skin,'' back to the world of her fiction:

``This period, when the Cambridge RAF [Royal Air Force] were with us, a time with its own flavour and taste, went to make up the Mashopi parts of The Golden Notebook, which I have just re-read. There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.''

If, indeed, many novelists, to one degree or another, draw heavily on their own life histories in creating their novels, and if fiction allows the writer to present a deeper truth than a bald recapitulation of facts, why write one's autobiography at all?

Lessing, with her characteristic abrupt candor, has one fairly obvious answer, which she admits at the outset: self-defense. Knowing that a number of would-be biographers are already waiting in the wings to write your life story can be a strong incentive at least to try to set the record straight from your own point of view.

But, as Lessing also recognizes, a writer's memory of the past may sometimes be no more reliable than her novelistic imagination when it comes to truth or objectivity. And what seemed true at one point in one's life may no longer seem a certainty with the passage of time.

``Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949'' covers the first 30 years of Doris Lessing's life, from her birth to British expatriate parents then living in Persia, through her girlhood growing up on a farm in Southern Rhodesia, up until 1949, the year she departed for England.

Readers familiar with her somewhat autobiographical novels, such as ``The Memoirs of a Survivor'' (1974), ``The Golden Notebook'' (1962), and the earlier books of the ``Children of Violence'' series, will find themselves shuttling back and forth between ``fact'' and ``fiction'' which supplement, enhance, and subtly revise each other.

Born Doris Tayler in 1919, Lessing spent the first five years of her life in Persia (as Iran was then known), where her father worked for a bank. Her father was a veteran of World War I, and her mother had been a nurse before marrying him. Like others of their generation unhappy with the limited opportunities in their native England, the Taylers looked abroad for answers, to the outposts of the British empire.

In what was probably a rather rash move for a man with no agricultural training or experience, Lessing's father decided to become a farmer in what was then known as Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Her memories of growing up on this particular African farm are exceptionally vivid, filled with the smells, tastes, sights, sounds, and sensations of the settlers' life:

``On the telephone wires the birds twittered and sang, sometimes it seemed in competition with the droning metal poles, and from the far trees came the clinking of hidden guineafowl flocks. The wind sang not only in the wires, but through the grasses....''

She also discusses and evokes the special intensity with which children perceive the world: ``What a child notices, visiting a new house, creates a picture of it the adults living in it would not recognize. The loose green weave of a linen sleeve is like a smile, the curls hanging from the ear of a dog say, I love you, sweat filling the crease in a red neck is almost too much to bear, while the sprightly ranks of china vegetable dishes around a dinner table seem to be ordering you to behave in a certain way.''

Mixed in with these vibrant recollections of girlhood, adolescence, first love affairs, involvement in left-wing circles, two marriages, and the births of three children, we also hear the insistent, questioning voice of the older Doris Lessing, measuring the distance between who she was then and what she feels she has come to know by now.

``For years I lived in a state of accusation against my mother,'' she muses. ``Now I see her as a tragic figure, living out her disappointing years with courage and with dignity. I saw her then as tragic, certainly, but was not able to be kind.'' Or, she asks, ``Why is it I have lived my whole life with people who are automatically against authority...? So deep-rooted is this set of mind that it is only when you begin to climb out of it you see how much of your life has been determined by it.''

Lessing deals directly with difficult and uncomfortable issues in her past, such as her decision to leave her first husband and their two young children; her activities in a sort of Communist cell in Southern Rhodesia, and her ill-fated marriage to Gottfried Lessing, who ended up as East Germany's ambassador to Idi Amin's Uganda.

She finds herself wondering, whether she might have been one of those who went along with perpetrating atrocities in the name of justice had she gone to live in a communist country, or whether she might have been among the few ``pure souls'' who resisted.

Intriguing as these questions may be, in posing them and others like them over the course of her narrative, Lessing falls into a disconcerting pattern of leaving them unresolved. ``Under My Skin'' is sprinkled with provocative, often contradictory, sides on topics from abortion, sexual attraction, and parent-child bonding, to race relations, left-wing zealots, and the colonial legacy. But few of these questions are fully aired.

Some of this may perhaps be attributed to a certain healthy skepticism in a woman who has learned to distrust ideologies, but for the most part, this reluctance to ponder the implications of conflicting ideas seems based on a kind of impatience with the heavier demands of thought.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.