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The second volume of Doris Lessing's extraordinary autobiography covers the years 1949-62, from her arrival in war-weary London with her son, Peter, and the manuscript for her first novel, The Grass is Singing, under her arm to the publication of her most famous work of fiction, The Golden Notebook. She describes how communism dominated the intellectual life of the 1950s and how she, like nearly all communists, became disillusioned with extreme and rhetorical politics and left communism behind. Evoking the ...
The second volume of Doris Lessing's extraordinary autobiography covers the years 1949-62, from her arrival in war-weary London with her son, Peter, and the manuscript for her first novel, The Grass is Singing, under her arm to the publication of her most famous work of fiction, The Golden Notebook. She describes how communism dominated the intellectual life of the 1950s and how she, like nearly all communists, became disillusioned with extreme and rhetorical politics and left communism behind. Evoking the bohemian days of a young writer and single mother, Lessing speaks openly about her writing process, her friends and lovers, her involvement in the theater, and her political activities. Walking in the Shade is an invaluable social history as well as Doris Lessing's Sentimental Education.
Denbigh Road W11
High on the side of the tall ship, I held up my little boy and said, 'Look, there's London.' Dockland: muddy creeks and channels, greyish rotting wooden walls and beams, cranes, tugs, big as and little ships.The child was probably thinking, But ships and cranes and water was Cape Town, and now it's called London.As for me, real London was still ahead, like the beginning of my real life, which would have happened years before if the war hadn't stopped me coming to London.A clean slate, a new page--everything still to come.
I was full of confidence and optimism, though my assets were minimal: rather less than 150; the manuscript of my first novel, The Grass Is Singing, already bought by a Johannesburg publisher who had not concealed the fact he would take a long time publishing it, because it was so subversive; and a few short stories.I had a couple of trunkfuls of books, for I would not be parted from them, some clothes, some negligible jewelery.I had refused the pitiful sums of money my mother had offered, because she had so little herself, and besides, the whole sum and essence of this journey was that it was away from her, from the family, and from that dreadful provincial country Southern Rhodesia, where, if there was a serious conversation, then it was--always--about The Colour Bar and the inadequacies of the blacks.I was free.I could at last be wholly myself.I felt myself to be self-created, self-sufficient.Is this an adolescent I am describing? No, I was nearly thirty I had two marriages behind me, but I did not feel I had been really married.
I was also exhausted, because the child,two and a half, had for the month of the voyage woken at five, with shouts of delight for the new day, and had slept reluctantly at ten every night.In between he had never been still, unless I was telling him tales and singing him nursery rhymes, which I had been doing for four or five hours every day.He had had a wonderful time.
I was also having those thoughts--perhaps better say feelings--that disturb every arrival from Southern Africa who has not before seen white men unloading a ship, doing heavy manual labour, for this had been what black people did.A lot of white people, seeing whites work like blacks, had felt uneasy and threatened; for me, it was not so simple.Here they were, the workers, the working class, and at that time I believed that the logic of history would make it inevitable they should inherit the earth.They--those tough, muscled labouring men down there--and, of course, people like me, were the vanguard of the working class.I am not writing this down to ridicule it.That would be dishonest.Millions, if not billions, of people were thinking like that, using this language.
I have far too much material for this second volume.Nothing can be more tedious than a book of memoirs millions of words long.A little book called In Pursuit of the English, written when I was still close to that time, will add depth and detail to those first months in London.At once, problems--literary problems.What I say in it is true enough.A couple of characters were changed for libel reasons and would have to be now.But there is no doubt that while 'true', the book is not as true as what I would write now.It is a question of tone, and that is no simple matter.That little book is more like a novel; it has the shape and the pace of one.It is too well shaped for life.In one thing at least it is accurate: when I was newly in London I was returned to a child's way of seeing and feeling, every person, building, bus, street, striking my senses with the shocking immediacy of a child's life, everything oversized, very bright, very dark, smelly, noisy.I do not experience London like that now.That was a city of Dickensian exaggeration.I am not saying I saw London through a veil of Dickens, but rather that I was sharing the grotesque vision of Dickens, on the verge of the surreal.
That London of the late 1940s, the early 1950s, has vanished, and now it is hard to believe it existed.It was unpainted, buildings were stained and cracked and dull and grey; it was war-damaged, some areas all ruins, and under them holes full of dirty water, once cellars, and it was subject to sudden dark fogs--that was before the Clean Air Act.No one who has known only today's London of self-respecting clean buildings, crowded cares and restaurants, good food and coffee, streets full until after midnight with mostly young people having a good time, can believe what London was like then.No cares.No good restaurants.Clothes were still 'austerity' from the war, dismal and ugly.Everyone was indoors by ten, and the streets were empty.The Dining Rooms, subsidised during the war, were often the only places to eat in a whole area of streets.They served good meat, terrible vegetables, nursery puddings.Lyons restaurants were the high point of eating for ordinary people--I remember fish and chips and poached eggs on toast.There were fine restaurants for the well-off, and they tended to hide themselves away out of embarrassment, because in them, during the war, the rigours of rationing had been so ameliorated.You could not get a decent cup of coffee anywhere in the British Isles.The sole civilised amenity was the pubs, but they closed at eleven, and you have to have the right temperament for pubs.Or, I should say, had to have, for they have changed so much, no longer give the impression to an outsider of being like clubs, each with its members, or 'regulars', where outsiders go on sufferance.Rationing was still on.The war still lingered, not only in the bombed places but in people's minds and behaviour.Any conversation tended to drift towards the war, like an animal licking a sore place.There was a wariness, a weariness.
On New Year's Eve, 1950, I was telephoned by an American from the publishing scene to ask if I would share the revels with him.I met him in my best dress at six o'clock in Leicester Square.We expected cheerful crowds, but there was no one on the streets.For an hour or so we were in a pub but felt out of place.Then we looked for a restaurant.There were the expensive restaurants, which we could not afford, but nothing of what we now take for granted--the Chinese, Indian, Italian restaurants, and dozens of other nationalities.The big hotels were all booked up.We walked up and down and back and forth through Soho and around Piccadilly.Everything was dark and blank.Then he said, To hell with it, let's live it up.A taxi driver took us to a club in Mayfair, and there we watched the successors of the Bright Young Things getting drunk and throwing bread at each other.
But by the end of the decade, there were coffee bars and good ice cream, by courtesy of the Italians, and, good cheap Indian restaurants.Clothes were bright and cheap and irreverent.London was painted again and was cheerful. Most of the bomb damage was gone.Above all, there was a new generation who had not been made tired by the war.They did not talk about the war, or think about it.
The first place where I lived was in Bayswater, which was then rather seedy and hard to associate with the grandeur of its earlier days. Prostitutes lined the streets every evening.I was supposed to be sharing a flat with a South African woman and her child: I wrote about this somewhat unsatisfactory experience in In Pursuit Of the English.The flat we were in was large and, well furnished.Two rooms were let to prostitutes.When I discovered this I did not realise at once who these smartly dressed girls were who tripped up and down the stairs with men--and tackled the South African woman, because I did not think this was good for the two small children, she burst into tears and said I was unkind.
I spent six weeks looking for a place that would take a small child.There was a heat wave, and I couldn't understand why people complained about the English weather.My feet gave in on the hot pavements, and my morale almost did, but then a household of Italians welcomed the child and me, and my main problem was solved.This was Denbigh Road.Peter had been accepted by a council nursery.Circumstances had taught him from his very first days to be sociable, and he loved going there.When he came back from the nursery he disappeared at once into the basement, where there was a little girl his age.The house, dispiriting to me, because it was so grim and dirty and war-damaged, was a happy place for him.
We were at the beginning--but literally--in a garret, which was too small for me even to unpack a typewriter.I sent some short stories to the agent Curtis Brown, chosen at random from the Writers & Artists Yearbook, and Juliet O'Hea wrote back what I later knew was a form letter: Yes, but did I have a novel or was I thinking of writing one?
Walking in the Shade opens in 1949 with Doris Lessing's resolute good-bye to Africa and her hopeful hello to England. In the second volume of her memoirs, Lessing traces her journey as a twice married mother of three in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia to her struggles as a writer and single parent in post-war London. If Under My Skin focuses on her childhood and various attempts to differentiate herself from her parents and the values and sacrifices they symbolized, then Walking in the Shade marks Lessing's development as a promising writer, cast in the shadow of her vexed relationship to the Communist Party in particular and organized politics in general. In fact, Lessing considered separating the description of her political life into a single chapter, so that disinterested readers could simply skip the section. However, Lessing soon realized that politics permeated her experience of these years so thoroughly that compartmentalization would not only be impossible, but inadvisable given her dedication to representing truthfully the age through which she lived and was shaped. Lessing devotes much of the second volume to the evocation of her creative process, her interactions with the literati of London and the many changes--economic, social and cultural--that occurred in England throughout the 1950s. Walking in the Shade concludes in 1962, the year she published her most famous and most influential work to date: The Golden Notebook.
Topics For Discussion
1. In the middle of Walking in the Shade, Lessing remarks that "comingevents cast their shadows before. But looking back from the perspective of those events, it is easy to be dishonest. Some tiny passing shade of feeling, a mere cloud shadow, may ten years later become a storm of revelation: about yourself, about others, about a time. Or may have dissolved and gone." Does this metaphoric reflection relate to the title of Lessing's second autobiographical volume? If so, how?
2. Lessing punctuates the second volume of her autobiography with commentary on "The Zeitgeist: How We Were Thinking." These sections, which include reflections on politics, class warfare, and feminism, seem to promote a common theme in Lessing's work: people cannot act outside the parameters of their particular histories, of which they are a direct product. Yet, Lessing also insists that "if acceptance of social ills is a sign of maturity, what becomes of progress?" Are these philosophical positions in conflict or do they represent a productive paradox about history and change?
3. Throughout the book, Lessing suggests that all formally organized social groups, regardless of original intention, eventually become religious and frequently turn into their polar opposite. What does religion mean in the context of this hypothesis? How does Lessing describe this process of group transformation in relation to her experience with the Communist Party?
4. In England, Lessing became involved with many Americans. She concludes that "Americans are a people of extremes." Although the British and the Americans share the English language, Lessing says their "national temperaments" form a barrier to substantive communication and understanding, a contention that "may hardly be said aloud in the United States, because of political correctness." What characterizes these "national temperaments" in Lessing's opinion? How do these different dispositions manifest themselves in Walking in the Shade?
5. In England, Lessing became involved with many Americans. She concludes that "Americans are a people of extremes." Although the British and the Americans share the English language, Lessing says their "national temperaments" form a barrier to substantive communication and understanding, a contention that "may hardly be said aloud in the United States, because of political correctness." What characterizes these "national temperaments" in Lessing's opinion? How do these different dispositions manifest themselves in Walking in the Shade?
About the Author
Doris Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran) in 1919. Lessing has described her childhood as an uneven mix of some pleasure and much pain. Her mother, obsessed with raising a proper daughter, enforced a rigid system of rules, then installed Doris in a convent school and, later, an all-girls high school in Salisbury, from which she soon dropped out at the age of thirteen. Lessing, however, made herself into a self-educated intellectual, reading Dickens, Kipling, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. Doris's early years were spent absorbing her father's bitter memories of World War I, taken in as a kind of "poison." "We are all of us made by war," Lessing has written, "twisted and warped by war, but we seem to forget it." Lessing left home when she was fifteen and took a job as a nursemaid. Her employer gave her books on politics and sociology; she was also writing stories, and sold two to magazines in South Africa.
In 1937, she moved to Salisbury (Southern Rhodesia), where she worked as a telephone operator and, at nineteen, married Frank Wisdom and had two children. A few years later, feeling trapped in a persona she feared would destroy her, she left her family, remaining in Salisbury. She was drawn to the members of the Left Book Club, a group of Communists. Gottfried Lessing was a central member of the group; shortly after she joined, they married and had a son. During the postwar years, Lessing became increasingly disillusioned with the Communist movement, which she left altogether in 1954. By 1949, Lessing had moved to London with her young son and published The Grass is Singing, beginning her career as a professional writer. After writing the Children of Violence series, about the growth in consciousness of her heroine, Martha Quest, Lessing broke new ground with The Golden Notebook (1962), a daring narrative experiment. Her most recent works include two volumes of autobiography, Under My Skin (1994) and Walking in the Shade (1997), and a novel, Love, Again (1995).
Posted June 30, 2011
I was 15 yrs old when I first encountered Doris Lessing. Her books teach a sophisticated type of compassion. She is a very intelligent and up front storyteller. Its been 47 years and her stories are still with me.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 16, 2003
The title refers to Lessing's ability to use words with both intelligence and sensitivity. In this book we know about her struggles ( quite alike her heroines') as a young single mother eager to be a good writer. I suggest the readers to read as many books by Lessing they can, and, if possible, order the reading in some sense. either chronological, by theme, or other, as she can be read several times and you will always find something new. She is one of the contemporary master of language.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.