WALKING IN THE SHADE: Volume Two of My Autobiography 1949 to 1962.<i> By Doris Lessing</i> . <i> HarperCollins: 406 pp., $27.50</i>
If, like this reviewer, you still believe in the possibility of romantic love--the old-fashioned man-woman, passion plus honesty and understanding kind--"Walking in the Shade” will be a hard book to read. If, like this reviewer, you still believe in the possibility of revolution--the old-fashioned spread the wealth, liberty-equality-fraternity kind--"Walking in the Shade” will be a hard book to read. For in this second volume of her autobiography, Doris Lessing says goodbye to all that: to the very struggles for intimate love and political justice that defined her life and her work for so long. The result is much like watching a lover walk out the door: You may feel sad and betrayed and confused, but you can’t help but admire her independence of thought and feeling and her willingness to overturn all the precepts upon which her very existence had been predicated.
Picking up where “Under My Skin,” Lessing’s previous and far more emotionally accessible autobiography, left off, “Shade” opens with Lessing’s arrival in London, the city on a hill, where she believes her real life as a woman and a writer will begin. She has already left her first husband and abandoned their two young children; now she has in tow her third and youngest child, whose father she will soon divorce. She has written her first novel, “The Grass Is Singing,” set in her native southern Africa, but she has not yet become the Doris Lessing we (think we) know.
“Shade” tells many stories about many things: about Lessing’s life as a single mother; her development as a writer; her social life among the left-wing artist-intellectuals of her time; her problems with money; her psychoanalysis; her lifelong hatred of her mother; her trips to Spain, France, the Soviet Union and Rhodesia. But “Walking in the Shade” is, mainly, the story of Lessing the lover and Lessing the Communist (the two are symbiotically entwined) and of how she comes to regard--and reject--both romantic love and socialist revolution as fatal pathologies.
The central affair of Lessing’s life is with a man whom she pseudonymously calls Jack (though the name recurs so often in her work, one begins to wonder . . .). She was never, she writes, in love with either of her husbands: “these marriages did not count.” Jack does, though: “with this man, it had been all or nothing.” He is the only man with whom she feels connected on all levels--sexual, intellectual, emotional--but most of all emotional, for they shared “a natural disposition towards the grimmest understanding of life and events that in its less severe manifestations is called irony.”
Jack has a lot to be ironic about. The youngest of 13 children, he grew up desperately poor in Czechoslovakia and became a Communist in his early teens. His entire family was murdered in Hitler’s gas chambers; soon thereafter, all his closest friends, who had since become the leaders of postwar Communist Czechoslovakia, were condemned in sham purge trials and executed. “This story is a terrible one,” Lessing observes with typical astringency, " . . . but taken in the context of that time, not worse than many others.”
Lessing lives with Jack for four years, though he is married to another woman. Eager to dispel any notions of feminist heroism, Lessing writes: “Far from being like George Sand . . . I never put writing before love, or before Jack; . . . [I] was like Jane Austen, writing . . . well, if not under the cover of a blotter, then only when he was not around or expected.” When Jack leaves her--for reasons she never explains--Lessing is devastated, but this too she refuses to explicate. “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.” Whether you find Lessing’s reticence admirable or frustrating, she is probably right in assuming that her readers can fill in the blanks. After all, people who haven’t suffered breathtaking loss--people who are either so lucky or so cocooned--probably don’t read Doris Lessing anyway. She has never been the patron saint of smugness or even of mild satisfaction.
Simultaneous with all this, Lessing joins the Communist Party, just when other intellectuals are abandoning it in droves. She describes her joining up as “a tangle of contradictory, lunatic emotions and behaviour.” She hates the party, hates Stalinism, hates meetings, hates groups of all kinds (including families), but she also hates injustice, believes (it seems) in a historical dialectic, and despises fellow travelers, whom she apparently regards as squeamish wimps. Among the many reasons that she will find it hard to quit the party--although, of course, she eventually does--is that she found “so many colourful, extraordinary people in it. Good people, generous, kind, clever.”
The 1956 revelations of Stalin’s crimes, which drive many Communists to depression, breakdowns, even suicide, have a far different effect on Lessing. “Losing faith in communism is exactly paralleled by people in love who cannot let their dream of love go,” she observes. Lessing, who had embarked on an intense affair with the American novelist Clancy Sigal (an “anarchic, spiky” Trotskyist), loathes party politics anyway and is ready, even eager, to let go of the dream(s).
The political earthquake of the 20th Congress shakes her, but she is also, in important ways, liberated, and she increasingly questions what she regards as the sickly sentimentality of both romance and revolution. Of the former, which is closely aligned in her psyche with jazz and blues (to which Sigal had introduced her), she writes: “If the yearning, longing, wanting . . . music of the war years . . . predisposed me, and all of us, to romantic love, whose essence is to be out of reach, then I think jazz, and particularly the blues, inclines us to suffering, the enjoyment of the pain of loss. . . . The richly enjoyable melancholies of adolescence can deepen into something dangerous, a poison.” Eventually, she bids adieu to the “falling-in-love junkie” she believes herself to be; smoke will no longer get in her eyes.
Far more controversial, and questionable, is her analysis of revolutionary politics as a form of “mass lunacy, mass psychosis.” Like love affairs, Lessing insists, revolution is--must be--based on “a dark and greedy need for pain. The root of communism--a love of revolution--is, I believe, masochism, pleasure in pain, satisfaction in suffering, identification with the redeeming blood. The Cross, in fact.”
The irony here is that one cannot argue with a loss of faith any more than one can argue with faith itself: Both exist outside of reason. To insist that revolution is a form of religious madness closes off, rather than opens up, any serious discussion of 20th century history. A far more perceptive, compelling and bravely clarifying explanation for what went so hideously wrong in the Soviet Union (and elsewhere) can be found in a letter Lessing wrote to her friend E.P. Thompson, the path-breaking Marxist historian, in 1956: “What was bad is not that one man was a tyrant, but that hundreds and thousands of party members . . . let go their individual consciences and allowed him to become a tyrant. . . . There is no set of rules that can set us free from the necessity of making fresh decisions, every day. The safeguard against tyranny, now, as it always has been, is to sharpen individuality, to strengthen individual responsibility, and not to delegate it.”
Lessing’s radical shift in perspective--her rejection of what she calls “the package” of science, materialism, progress, atheism, romance--led her to write “The Golden Notebook” in 1962, which many critics and readers regard as her greatest work, though she considers it a failure. She describes her state of mind at the time: “I really was at a crossroads, a turning point; I was in the melting pot and ready to be remade.” The book was not, she explains, a feminist manifesto but was based, rather, on “the thought . . . that to divide off and compartmentalise living was dangerous and led to nothing but trouble. Old, young; black, white; men, women; capitalism, socialism; these great dichotomies undo us. . . .” As readers of the “Notebook” (and other Lessing works) know, she believes that such compartmentalizations stem from a fear of--but can also result in--madness.
Conversely, madness may function as a sort of cleansing wave that breaks down the compartments’ nefarious walls although, Lessing stresses, “I do not believe that ultimate truths come from being crazy.” Nonetheless, she recalls a time “when I deliberately drove myself crazy by not eating and not sleeping, out of curiosity. I did learn quite a bit, though I would not recommend it, for it is a dangerous little experiment. . . . Again and again, I have written about people mad, half mad, and in breakdown. I have never personally been mad or broken down, but I feel as if I have.”
Since Lessing has not become a neocon, a capitalist or a prude, it is not exactly clear what she thinks should replace romance or revolution. She mocks the “heroic imaginations” of the left (enough of Rosa Luxemburg and La Pasionara!) and its lurid identification with pain. But she also rues the fact that we live today “in a grudging, cold, cautious time” and notes acidly, “Now there have been a couple of generations who never talk anything but shopping or gossip, and when I am with them I wonder how they can bear it, this tiny, self-enclosed world they inhabit.” Perhaps this is what you get when the heroic imagination dies. In any case, it seems clear that a stupid obliviousness to the suffering of others--rather than an indulgent drowning in it--characterizes the present age, and that we are none the better for it.
The greatest surprise of this book may be how Lessing’s view of herself will, in all likelihood, contradict that of her readers’. Of course, we often encounter such dissonance in our personal relations: We all know of the outspoken woman who views herself as painfully shy, or the adulterous husband who tirelessly boasts of his family values. Nonetheless, it’s a bit of shock to hear Lessing, who so courageously turned her back on the conventions and privileges of her class, her country, her family and her race, repeatedly assail herself for what she regards as her sheep-like passivity, her refusal of personal agency, her craven obedience. “I did know it was a neurotic decision,” she writes of joining the Communist Party, “for it was characterised by that dragging helpless feeling, as if I had been drugged or hypnotised--like getting married the first time . . . or having babies when I had decided not to--pulled by the nose like a fish on a line.”
The shady side of the street is where--as no less an expert than Ella Fitzgerald taught us--we parade the blues, and there is heartbreak galore in this book (although there is much that is exciting and good too). Still, I think its title is misleading. Although Lessing adopts an almost infuriatingly dispassionate tone here--this may be the most Brechtian memoir ever written--she did not, in fact, dwell in a cool, safe, protected, shady realm. If anything, as a true child of the 20th century, she was burnt, again and again, by the suns of romance and revolution. “There is a dinginess, a smallness, a tameness, a deep, instinctive, perennial refusal to admit danger, or even the unfamiliar: a reluctance to understand extreme experience,” Lessing writes of the British. But Lessing herself, of course, was never “really” a Brit, and who could accuse her of shirking life?