Doris Lessing Revisits — And Rewrites — The Past

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing became the oldest writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007. Getty Images hide caption

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Cover of 'Alfred and Emily'

Lessing imagines an alternate life in which World War I never happens and her parents (pictured above) never meet, in Alfred and Emily. hide caption

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Read an excerpt and Alan Cheuse's review of Alfred and Emily.

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A 1984 photo shows Lessing and her cat in her London flat. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Doris Lessing at home in 1984

A 1984 photo shows Lessing and her cat in her London flat.

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Just shy of her 89th birthday, English writer Doris Lessing has attracted many labels in the past six decades: feminist, Communist, activist, social commentator and — as of last year — Nobel laureate. But the only label she has consistently acknowledged is writer: "I write," she says. "That is what I do."

Now, as she nears the end of her own life, Lessing is attempting to make some sense of her beginnings. Her latest — and, she says, last — book is called Alfred and Emily.

Part memoir, part historical fiction, the book mixes a biography of Lessing's parents (the Alfred and Emily of the title) with an imagined past, in which the two never met.

"She tells one story of her parents which is completely fictionalized, and then she puts that back-to-back with a story of exactly equal length, which is the truth," says literary critic Blake Morrison. "I think what she's actually doing is getting you to reflect on which is ... more true: the imaginary tale of her parents, or the rather grimmer tale of what really happened to them."

Life Under A Harsh Sun

On a gray, drizzly afternoon, Lessing sits surrounded by books and untidy piles of papers in a sprawling second-floor room of the north London house she shares with her invalid son.

Her childhood was spent far from here, in a mud-and-thatch farmhouse in white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). It was hardly idyllic, with her mother's evening gowns decomposing in trunks, her father's dream of farming dying in the harsh African sun.

"[My parents] were badly damaged by World War I. ... They never got over it," she says. "My father actually had a wooden leg and had, what was then called shell shock, but is now called ... post-traumatic ... disorder or something."

Her mother's wounds were less visible, but deeper. Lessing describes her as a talented woman, but a "disastrous mother."

"Once she'd married my father and landed in Africa, she had nothing to use [her talent] on except her children," says Lessing. "She was devoted, you see: 'My life is devoted to my children,' God help us."

Imagining A Past Without World War I

Lessing has returned often to the smothering mother and rebellious daughter in her more than 40 books. But on the cusp of her 10th decade, the author seems, finally, to have laid that demon to rest; in the fictionalized half of Alfred and Emily, Lessing creates a world in which her parents would have been happy.

The novel imagines a century in which World War I never happened, and gives her father fine sons and the English farm he always wanted. As for her mother, Lessing says she gave her a career and "the sort of life she should have had — which doesn't help her at all, but it helps me."

The book also imagines Alfred and Emily with different spouses; in other words, Lessing doesn't just abolish World War I — she abolishes herself. It's a nullification that the Nobel laureate describes as a "great pleasure" to write. ("So what?" she says. "I mean, the world can live without me.")

'I've Written One Or Two Good Books'

This isn't the first time Lessing has dabbled with fractured narratives. The Golden Notebook, published in 1962, was hailed as one of the great and most complex novels of the 20th century.

The novel features a series of parallel notebooks set in postwar London, where the protagonist, a novelist and single mother, battles writer's block; leaves the Communist Party; abandons, or is abandoned by, a series of lovers; and tries to reconcile her political, social and sexual selves. It's been called the first feminist novel — a label Lessing herself emphatically disowns.

"Oh, it's just stupid. ... I mean, there's nothing feminist about The Golden Notebook," she says. The second line is: 'As far as I can see, everything is cracking up.' That is what The Golden Notebook is about!"

Lessing says the book feels pretty dated now — but in a way, she says, that's the point of all her work:

"I have done quite a good job of documenting a lot of our time, I think. I mean, what is The Golden Notebook? It couldn't be written now, could it?" she says. "You know, looking at it objectively, I've written one or two good books."

Lessing's "one or two good books" have led to a degree of fame that she hasn't always welcomed; a decade ago, Lessing declined her majesty's offer to make her a dame of the British Empire because, as she said, "there is no British Empire." And has called winning the Nobel Prize for literature "a disaster" for her writing.

"You know, I've met ... other Nobel Prize winners," she says, "and they all say the same thing: You don't do any work for a year. You just talk."

Lessing, who spends much of her time looking after her son and dealing with doctors, is not certain that she will write again.

"By the time I've done all that, there's very little left over," she says. "I have written quite a lot of books. I don't have to write another one — do I?"

Doris Lessing Mines Gold In 'Alfred And Emily'

'Alfred & Emily'

Dorris Lessing imagines alternate lives for her parents (pictured above) in Alfred & Emily. hide caption

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Read an excerpt.

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In a short explanation included in her latest book, Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing notes that "even alert offspring or children may miss gold" when writing about their parents. But in Alfred And Emily, an idiosyncratic combination of personal history, public history and fiction that focuses on her father and mother, Lessing proves that she hasn't overlooked the gold in her past.

In the first half of the book, Lessing delivers a long and lively novella about her parents' lives in an imaginary England in which World War I does not take place.

"This is a silly, petty, pettifogging little country," Alfred Taylor, Lessing's father, says in this variation on his actual history, "and we're pleased with ourselves because we've kept out of a war. But if you ask me, I think a war would do us all the good in the world."

The actual war did not, as it happens, turn out to do Alfred Taylor "all the good in the world." He lost a leg in battle — but he also met his wife, Emily, in a hospital where she worked as a nurse attending wounded British soldiers. After marrying, the couple emigrated first to Persia, where Taylor worked in a bank, and then to Rhodesia, where they bought a farm.

In the second half of the book, Lessing reconstructs her childhood on that farm in Africa, describing the gestures and mores of that particular time in her life and of the period.

The land around the farm, Lessing writes, was marked by an an old mawonga tree that was "always full of birds." At one point in the novel, Lessing's mother says, "We'll never get off the farm and they'll bury us under the mawonga tree." But when Lessing returned to the old African home in the early 1980s, she tells us, the tree was gone.

Will this odd and powerful excursion into lost time last, or will it go the way of that mawonga tree? For now, it serves as a marker of an older day and a powerful reminder not only about Lessing's past but about how each of us can return to our own family histories — and, if we pay close attention, come back with something gold.

Excerpt: 'Alfred And Emily'

'Alfred & Emily'
Alfred & Emily
By Doris Lessing
Hardcover, 288 pages
Harper
List Price: $25.95

1902

The suns of the long summers at the beginning of the last century promised only peace and plenty, not to mention prosperity and happiness. No one remembered anything like those summer days when the sun always shone. A thousand memoirs and novels averred that this was so, and that is why I may confidently assert that on that Saturday afternoon in August 1902, in the village of Longerfield, it was a splendid afternoon. The occasion was the annual celebration of the Allied Essex and Suffolk Banks, and the place was a vast field lent every year by Farmer Redway who usually kept cows in it.

There were different focuses of activity. At the end of the field, excited cries and shouts told that here were the children's games. A long trestle table laden with every kind of foodstuff stood under some oaks. The main arena of attention was the cricket match, and around the white-clad figures clus-tered most of the spectators. The whole scene was about to be absorbed by the shadows from the big elms that divided this field from the next where the expelled cows watched the proceedings, while their jaws moved reminiscently like those of gossips. The players in their fresh whites, which were a bit dusty after a day of play, knew their importance in this summer festival, conscious that every eye was on them, including those of a group of townspeople leaning over a fence, who were determined not to be left out.

Not far from the cricket pitch there were, sitting on the grass with cushions, a large, fair woman, whose reddened face said she did not enjoy the heat, a tiny shred of a girl, her daughter, and a girl who had just leaned forward, her eyes on Mrs Lane's face to hear what she was saying. 'It is a very serious thing, my dear, quarrelling with your father.'

At this moment, a youth was coming forward to stand with his bat at the stumps, and the fair woman leaned to send him a wave, which he acknowledged with a smile and a nod. He was strik-ingly good-looking, dark and well built, and that there was something especial about his standing there was shown by a sudden silence. The bowler sent down a ball and the batsman easily knocked it well away.

'Sssh,' said Mary Lane. 'Just a minute, I want to see ...' Daisy, the little girl, was already leaning forward to watch, and now Emily McVeagh, the other girl, watched too, though she was certainly not seeing much. She was flushed with excitement and determination, and kept glancing sideways at the older woman, hoping for her attention.

Another ball sped down towards the handsome youth, another prompt rebuff, and now there was a ripple of applause.

'Well done,' said Mrs Lane, and was ready to clap, but the bowler had begun his run forward.

Again ... again ... a ball came close to where they sat and the fieldsman ran to retrieve it. The innings went on, there were several scatters of applause, and then a burst of clapping when the youth sent a ball almost as far as the children's games.

It was time for tea. The long trestle table was besieged, while a woman stood by the urn and handed out cups. 'I could do with one, Daisy,' said her mother, and the girl ran to join the queue.

Now Mrs Lane remembered that very much more was being expected of her by the girl Emily, so she turned her attention to her and said, 'I don't really think you know yet what you are in for.'

Mrs Lane was a woman with influence, friends in useful places, and she had been finding out from a dozen different sources just what Emily McVeagh was in for.

The girl had defied her father, and said to him that, no, she would not go to university, she would be a nurse. 'She'll be a skivvy among skivvies,' Mrs Lane had said to herself, shocked at the girl's decision.

She knew John McVeagh well, knew the family, had watched Emily's triumphant schooldays with admiration tinged with regret that her daughter was not as clever and with as much presence and attack. The girls were friends, had always caused people to marvel at their unlikeness. One was retiring, easily overlooked, apparently frail, the other immediately mistress of herself and of circumstances, always first in everything, head girl at school, carrying off prizes: Emily McVeagh, friend and champion of little Daisy.

'I know I can do it,' said Emily, calmly.

'But why, why?' Mrs Lane was wanting to ask, and perhaps would have done, except that the youth who had been earning applause came up to her and she leaned up to kiss him and say, 'Well done. Oh, well done.'

There was a little history here.

He accepted a cup of tea from Daisy, and a vast piece of cake, and sat down by his friend, Mrs Lane. She had known him all his life.

Two brothers: the older one, Harry, was adored by his mother. She was known to be discontented because her husband, the boys' father, a bank clerk and hating it, spent every moment of his spare time playing the organ in the church. Instead, it was clear, she felt, of trying 'to get on'. He was unambitious, but the elder son had been offered a job, much more than most schoolboys could expect, before he had even finished school. He, too, had been the clever one, easily passing exams, winning prizes. But this mother had not liked her second son, Alfred, or behaved as if she didn't.

Beating children in those days meant no more than an intention to listen to the wishes of God. 'Spare the rod and spoil the child.' But Mrs Lane, observing, had been shocked. She, too, was the wife of a bank clerk, a senior one, but her husband was a pillar of the Church, and involved with local activities.

Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins.

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