Shades of conviction
Julia Neuberger reads the second part of Doris Lessing's autobiography
Doris Lessing's first volume of autobiography, Under My Skin, was memorable for its sense of place, its smells so vivid the reader could share them, its capturing of long-outgrown emotion, long-abandoned senses of failure and betrayal. Volume two is less successful, for a variety of reasons.
First, the painful honesty of volume one was largely in relation to her parents. Though volume two continues the theme of her flawed relationship with her mother, there is just too much left opaque about her relationships with other people, particularly lovers.
She tries to defend herself by arguing that the readers do not need to know all. That is true, but a writer who has made a virtue out of painful honesty and vivid depiction of emotional pain in her novels, has some difficulty in simply presenting emotional relationships as if they were short patches of troubled history.
Meanwhile, Doris Lessing's palpable dislike of her mother and guilt at not living with her when she returned from Africa are portrayed in equal measure. The guilt remains, to be lifted off the page by the reader, wondering what happened to the poor woman, and then finding out, all too plainly, all too sadly. Her mother was unwanted, and died before her time - in Doris Lessing's view, as a result of being unloved.
Nor is she cold or opaque about her relationship with the man she calls Jack, which lasted years and fell apart when he decided to work abroad for six months. But if some of it burns the page, as it did in volume one, none of it has the raw simplicity of childhood, nor the emotional maturity we might have expected by now.
Yet there is much to fascinate, and much to irritate. She joined the Communist Party, just as she was really beginning to have serious doubts about communism. Why? She does not tell us, although she describes herself as somehow having to do it as a "neurotic act". She was "far from a true believer". She already knew that the reported crimes of Stalin's regime were true, even if at the time she thought them exaggerated. She argues that it was "the most sensitive, compassionate, socially concerned people who became communists" all over Europe. Yet Naomi Mitchison, whom she admires greatly, was not a communist. Nor, of course, were the members of the Labour government who created the welfare state she so admired.
Throughout this volume, we read about her politics. Yet, for me, a child of people who shared many of her views, some it rings false. This book is full of political experiences, of her passion for theatre, and changing the way theatre works, of places and people. She emerges as fascinating, thoughtful, and adventurous.
There is too much confusion, too much unresolved - even now - emotion, for her to portray herself as any kind of heroine. Yet we know she was brave. Although the reader may not agree with her motives, there can be little doubt she was courageous, and sometimes foolhardy, in what she did.
As a result, I was disappointed by this volume. I hope volume three will resolve some of the emotional unease, and that Doris Lessing will find it easier to tell us more of herself, rather than just quoting her writings. Maybe volume three will make me see why she did what she did, and empathise with her.