A Mixed Lessing

By David Streitfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 29, 1994

Doris Lessing can't understand why she can't make herself understood. She's been talking about how as a young mother she gave up her two toddlers to preserve her sanity. While this isn't quite the same as drowning them in a lake, it's still contrary to the way a mom is supposed to act. Whatever happened to staying together for the sake of the kids?

"I don't think I could have done it," she says flatly.

This happened long ago, in what was then the British colony of Southern Rhodesia during the early days of World War II. Lessing was 23, married to a guy named Frank Wisdom. He wasn't unbearable, he didn't beat her, he seems to have been kind of nice, if dull. Yet Lessing felt she had to get away. She was being smothered. It all seems very clear to her.

"You've never lived this kind of setup, where all the time you have to keep your mouth shut," she says, looking like the grandmother in "Little Red Riding Hood" but showing a trace of the wolf. "Believe me, it's very hard to do."

For some more than others, no doubt. For Lessing -- headstrong, opinionated, spirited -- probably more than anyone. She grew up on a farm in the veld, constantly raging against her weak father and domineering mother. Lessing was the sort of adolescent who easily becomes a juvenile delinquent (in one type of society) or a terrorist (in another).

Warned when she was 12 not to play with matches -- they might set the farmhouse on fire -- Lessing immediately decided to burn the little hut used by the dogs. It had taken only an hour to build; rebuilding, she figured, would take no longer. But the fire spread, and the family storehouse, laden with precious goods, went up in smoke as well. It was a near thing for the house itself.

From the beginning, then, she had the urge to reject and repudiate -- first her parents, later her husband, then her children. "What amazes me now is how clearsighted I must have been," she says. "If I hadn't left Frank Wisdom, I would have gone crazy or taken to drink. Personally, I think I would have become a lush."

Instead, freed from the shackles of motherhood, Lessing's lingering anger led her headlong into communism and the quest for social justice. In one of those impulsive wartime marriages, she took as a second husband a man she didn't particularly like, a communist who was a German refugee. She had a third child with him, prompting accusations from her mother and wonderment from her father -- "Why leave two babies and then have another?"

Lessing took little Peter, although not the husband, to London after the war. She had escaped her assigned destiny, and now she began creating another: author of two dozen works of fiction and 10 of nonfiction charting the emotional and political upheavals of our era. The style is frequently ungainly, but the rage pulls the reader along. It's one of the longest and most impressive shelves of work by any contemporary writer, and one of the very few that can match in ambition the great Victorians.

Perhaps it's too long and impressive. Unlike such equally prolific writers as John Updike or Iris Murdoch or Joyce Carol Oates, the 75-year-old Lessing has sharply varied her output. She started off writing fiction about the relationship between blacks and whites in Africa, following up with a five-volume semi-autobiographical series of novels under the group title "Children of Violence." She wrote nonfiction about Africa, Afghan refugees, the peculiarities of the lower-class English and her cats, and fiction about London, terrorism, madness, moral responsibility and the eternal struggle between men and women. In 1962 she published "The Golden Notebook," which combined many of these elements and quickly became one of the key novels of the feminist movement.

She also wrote five volumes of rather schematic science fiction that dismayed many of her admirers. Typically, that caused Lessing to champion the books all the more.

It's hard for the casual reader to come to grips with such plenitude, or even know where to begin. Her publisher, of course, would be pleased if you started with the new book, "Under My Skin." It's the first volume of Lessing's autobiography, and HarperCollins has brought the writer to Washington to promote it.

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