By Reviewed by Valerie Sayers
Sunday, August 3, 2008
ALFRED & EMILY
By Doris Lessing
Harper. 274 pp. $25.95
Last year, Doris Lessing, almost 88 and the outspoken, iconoclastic author of more than 50 books -- novels, story collections, poetry and nonfiction -- became the oldest writer to receive the Nobel Prize in literature. This year, she has published yet another volume, a clever, moving coupling of fiction and nonfiction. Alfred & Emily is a culmination of Lessing's ongoing interest in formal experimentation and the relationship between reality and imagination. It's also a testament to her ongoing literary vitality.
The real Alfred and Emily were Lessing's parents: he a clerk and veteran of the Great War, in which he lost a leg as well as dear friends; she a nurse to desperately suffering soldiers. In the aftermath of that war's horrors, they ventured from England first to Persia, where Lessing was born, and then to Rhodesia, where she spent her childhood. They hoped to improve their fortunes by farming, but like so many pioneers before them, they had a rough go of it. Emily suffered a breakdown that sent her to bed for a year, and Alfred was stricken with diabetes, which led them finally to abandon the farm.
Lessing tells their stories -- pieces of which she has previously recounted in her autobiographies -- in two ingenious forms: The first is a novel that imagines her parents' lives in an England that never entered World War I; the second is a true, rueful accounting of all the ways their wartime scars shaped their futures. What is most intriguing about the imaginary lives that she gives her peacetime parents is her own erasure. In this version, Alfred and Emily, though they are friends, do not marry each other. The fictional Emily, a nurse like her biographical counterpart, marries a doctor and remains childless; Alfred, a mild and playful family man, farms in rural England.
Despite the breadth of her literary interests, Lessing has often been narrowly defined or dismissed as a feminist writer. Readers who do not know her work or were not impressed by her previous forays into science fiction may be delighted to discover the Lessing of Alfred & Emily. She tells her parents' imagined lives in a gently ironic voice that uses concision and elision to sweep through time. The narrative's old-fashioned cadences call to mind many of the authors so central to its plot: Alfred & Emily is filled with books, classical and popular. Even the fictional Alfred, a sportsman and not a bookworm, admits, "I always did fancy Zane Grey." The novel's attention to how consciences and sensibilities are formed through reading is an echo of Lessing's ringing Nobel Prize call for support of the struggling teachers, librarians and readers in Zimbabwe. (Lessing herself left school at the age of 14 but was able to rely on her childhood delight in reading to sustain her intellectual development.)
Emily, with her gradual recognition of the power of books and literacy, dominates the first half of Alfred & Emily. When the fictional Emily loses her independence in marriage, the results are as constraining as they must have been for the real Emily isolated on a Rhodesian farm: "Her household allowance was generous, and so was her dress allowance: he liked her to be well dressed. But it was bitter, that moment when he handed her the money in its separate envelopes. She had earned her own living since she was eighteen, and perhaps of the by now many things that dismayed her about her marriage, it was that moment, that money, handed her with a smile, that dismayed her most."
Widowed, she struggles to regain the intellectual energy that was stilled in the doldrums of a conventional marriage. Alfred is a simpler soul who flourishes modestly in peacetime, saved from his wartime nightmares, but England without war is no Utopia. Beyond the need for women to claim their autonomy, there's class struggle to be engaged.
Indeed, in the second, nonfictional half of this book, Lessing makes clear that her own well-known Marxism and eventual split from the Communist Party were both born of her evolving understanding of her parents' and Rhodesia's sorrows. In the evocative photographs accompanying the text, her father is a handsome soldier gazing soulfully at the camera; in real life, we learn, this empathetic man gracefully endured a steady downward slide.
In nonfiction, Lessing's famous ferocity also returns: "I hated my mother," she says, the words not so much shocking as jarring, after the lengths she has gone to make the fictional Emily a moral heroine. The miracle is the transformation that fiction achieves, the way that imagining a different life for her mother allows Lessing to forgive and honor a trying but vibrant woman. Lessing's fiction, from the autobiographically inspired The Golden Notebook and the Martha Quest novels to the Sufi-inspired speculative fiction of her "Canopus in Argos" series, has always implicitly explored the links between her own and her characters' political, philosophical and spiritual ideas. It is fascinating to see her, at the apex of her career, explore those connections explicitly here. By imagining fairer, more decent lives for her parents, Lessing affirms that even in their failures they were worthy of attention and respect. By allowing her readers this insight into the connection between autobiography and fiction, between form and content, she reaffirms fiction's powers and possibilities. ·
Valerie Sayers, professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, writes novels, stories and essays.