A Mixed Lessing
At 75, the Author Reveals a Tough and Tender Skin

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.

In recent years she's been doing a fair amount of such touring, but she still seems uncomfortable with it -- dismayed that she has to recite in front of an audience like some sort of vaudeville performer, not to mention answer the same questions over and over from nitwit interviewers. "Our personalities, our history, our lives, belong to the publicity machines," she says disapprovingly at the end of "Under My Skin." When fans have unexpectedly come to call at her home in North London, she has impersonated the gardener to avoid them.

All this makes her sound rather severe and humorless. It's true, she sometimes is, but it's all driven by feelings of inadequacy, not superiority. When she smiles, she looks radiant. She doesn't do it very often. "I'm not a happy person," she says. "Never have been. How could I be? The melancholy is always very close." She tries to outwit it through hard physical labor.

Lunch is served. The Jefferson Hotel's pumpkin soup, she notes, is better than it was two years ago. And her inquisitor, she adds, doesn't have a cold this time around. Clearly, this is not a woman who will have a problem producing a multivolume autobiography.

The Young Woman's Story

"Under My Skin," which has gotten enthusiastic and prominent reviews, details the first 30 years of Lessing's life, dwelling most heavily on her childhood. She originally tackled the subject because she had heard biographers were on her trail, and it was necessary to stake a claim on her own life.

"I've learned to my cost that biographers will make up anything," she says grimly. "At least, I'll get the facts down." And the emotions too: especially the moments when she was so angry at her mother that the passion blazed through her body, leaving room for nothing but fury.

"My mother was an extremely efficient and very energetic woman who was frustrated in every possible way," the writer explains. "This came full blast onto me. We're talking about a generation that had no qualms whatsoever in saying, 'I've sacrificed myself for my children,' which is guaranteed to cause rage and resentment. I heard it several times a week."

Yet not all the members of that generation -- the one that had lost lovers (this happened to Lessing's mother) or limbs (this happened to Lessing's father) in World War I -- produced such rebellious offspring. It's ultimately a mystery why this one woman turned out the way she did. Which doesn't lessen the appeal of "Under My Skin": It's a rich book, with plenty of topics for discussion.

Some interviewers, for instance, want to dwell on Lessing's abandonment of her two children and what happened to them. (John and Jean were raised by their father, who remarried. Jean runs a small school in South Africa; John was a coffee farmer in Zimbabwe before dying recently of a heart attack. "I understand why you had to leave my father, but that doesn't mean I don't resent it," he once told Lessing.) Other journalists have been particularly intrigued by the communist aspect, and some have concentrated on the mother-daughter duel.

Since this is Washington, let's talk about sex.

"Under My Skin" -- the dreamy, erotically charged title comes from a Cole Porter tune -- is in part the frank story of a young woman's sexual awakening:

"I ... suddenly saw my legs as if for the first time, and thought, They are beautiful. Brown slim well-shaped legs. I pulled up my dress and looked at myself as far up as my panties and was filled with pride of body. There is no exultation like it, the moment when a girl knows that this is her body, these her fine smooth shapely limbs."

The photos in the book support her case. One from age 13 shows her on top of a mountain. Her hair is askew, hiding half her face, which nevertheless smiles shyly.

Another photo, from age 30, is more demure. Her dark hair has been pulled back and her arms are crossed. Something above has caught her interest, and she gazes upward with a slightly bemused expression: This had better be good. Even then, she had that formidable no-nonsense attitude.

But maybe not all the time. "Sex hadn't yet become an athletic pursuit, with affection demanded for every act," she says. "Having to be good in bed was much less stressed than it is now."

A second difference: "I think it was freer then. Before us there was syphilis and gonorrhea and all that, and now there's AIDS. But there was this brief period in between ..." She muses, almost smiles.

Speaking of sex, Lessing floats one notion in her book that makes Joycelyn Elders look like Newt Gingrich: "It is my belief that some girls ought to be put to bed, at the age of 14, with a man even as much as 10 years older than they are." This offhand suggestion seemed to have inspired no controversy at all.

Of course, one very famous example of an older man hitching up with a younger woman didn't work out very well. Lessing has been reading about Charles and Diana recently. The London newspapers make the royal couple unavoidable.

"I understand it now. First of all, none of them are very bright, and Charles has been so badly screwed up by his parents that he can't behave normally. As for Diana, she's a very silly little girl. We never knew how stupid they were before."

On to the 'Golden' Age

On the back of the 1959 Prometheus edition of Lessing's early novel "Retreat to Innocence," she is called "one of the first among a rising generation of brilliant young social critics," although the copywriter emphasized she was still "very much an attractive young woman."

This is what she'll deal with in Volume 2 of the autobiography: being a babe in the intensely male London literary scene during the '50s. Things came full circle there. While she had to leave behind her first two children for fear of being smothered (they forgave her, she says, emphasizing that she's not particularly proud of her actions), this time her son Peter saved her.

"This particular subculture was not kind to women," she writes of literary London. "Girls were gobbled up like chocolate drops -- or like gins and tonics." But she couldn't participate; she had a child to raise.

Those years are the ones in which she wrote "The Golden Notebook," described on the cover of an early paperback edition as the "provocative novel of a woman who dared to live with the freedom of a man." A fair enough description.

"The point is," heroine Anna says in the second paragraph, "as far as I can see, everything's cracking up." Things fall apart for Anna, and then, rather amazingly, she recovers. It's one of Lessing's most hopeful books, practically a survival manual.

This might explain its worldwide appeal. "When I go around, it's the book mentioned most often. After a point you think, 'Okay, who am I to argue?' People read it with a passionate identification."

Its author, however, has lost interest, just as she long ago moved on from the feminist movement "The Golden Notebook" helped create. "I think it's a very time-bound book," she says. "I can't imagine it will be of more than historical interest in 50 years' time."

At the moment, at least, she finds her next novel much more appealing.

"It's a very, very abrasive book, all about the sexuality of old age -- a completely taboo subject. So no one is going to give three cheers of delight."

She seems immensely pleased at the thought.

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