INTERVIEW / The golden journey: After a lifetime of novels, Doris Lessing has written her autobiography. Natasha Walter met her

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IN A light-filled, graceful room tumbled with cushions, rugs and sofas, Doris Lessing is talking. Even though her conversation flits and strays, there is - as there is in her writing - an immense concentration of energy in every word. You lean forward, waiting for the revelation that always seems to sit just out of reach.

Behind all Lessing's words, for those who meet her now, is the weight of her great oeuvre and her extraordinary life. Nineteen novels, three plays, 10 volumes of stories and eight works of non-fiction are listed in the front of Under My Skin (HarperCollins, pounds 20), the first volume of her autobiography. Books such as The Grass is Singing (1950), her first novel, that shone a light on the vicious reality of life in Southern Rhodesia and helped to change Britain's view of its colony, and The Golden Notebook (1962), the blistering novel that was hailed as a feminist breakthrough, have achieved the rare status of classics, books that are so much on the wavelength of our times we cannot be sure whether they defined society or society defined them.

Lessing hates interviews, almost as much as she hates most biographers. 'I always meant to write my autobiography at some point, and then I heard there were these other people beginning, and my experience is - inaccuracy is putting it mildly.' This is her characteristic voice: the uncompromising thought ending in an audible shrug. 'Only a few days ago,' she adds. 'I saw the first few pages of a biography that said my maiden name was Cook. Where did that come from?' This book, then, is Lessing's attempt to put the record straight. There is a raw candour and a harshness of light playing over the book that makes it as unforgettable as her novels.

In most of her most well-known books, Lessing has played with events and ideas from her own life. Some of the Children of Violence series of novels, especially, were modelled closely on her youth in Africa. The bleak fantasy, The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974), subtitled An Attempt at an Autobiography, was both more direct and more oblique in its look at her own past. Travelling through the pages of her autobiography, readers will feel strange shocks of deja vu. And Under My Skin is notably like a Lessing novel. We flick from scenes described with all the impossible, dreamlike detail of fiction to the high-handed analysis that characterises the Lessing world view.

But although it may look like the culmination of a lifetime's exploration, it doesn't feel like the last word, to her. 'If I had written this when I was 50 it would have been a completely different book. No doubt if I were writing this in 10 years time, it would be different again.'

This volume of the autobiography deals only with the years Lessing spent in Persia (now Iran), where she was born, and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where she lived until she was 30. In 1949 she left Africa for England, with her small son, Peter, and published her first novel.

In the first chapters, Lessing describes her life as a child, longing for love from a depressed, disillusioned mother and a father obsessed with the war that left him a cripple. Her hypnotic ability to recall the sensations of childhood is so intense I wonder if she has been helped by analysis, but no. 'I once had a very mild therapy which I now see more as - I needed a friend so desperately,' she says, remembering years after those dealt with in this volume. 'I was buying someone to be on my side. I was very much under attack at the time - one was my lover - he was an enormously aggressive person, and my mother was arriving in England, where she had no business to be, as far as I could see. This was so appalling that I couldn't cope any more.'

From the stifling disciplines of childhood, both at home and at school, Lessing moves to the struggles of adolescence, and then to an escape that led her into another prison, of marriage to a conventional civil servant at the age of 19. The flavour of life as a young, intelligent liberal trapped in an unjust, decadent society is resonantly familiar from Martha Quest (1952) and its sequels. When this marriage, to Frank Wisdom, broke up, she left not just her husband but also her two children, John and Jean.

The slight awkwardness of some of the passages that deal with those events seems to spring not so much from coldness as from the heat of love Lessing still feels for the children she had to leave: 'The reason I found that difficult to write is because those children are there. I don't really want to go into depth about them. I shall talk about it again later on, in the second volume, about my attitudes, I'm not going to talk about their attitudes. We became friends later on in life.' Lessing pauses, and then abruptly begins again. 'My son John is dead. He died three years ago. He had a heart attack, not unexpectedly. It's still that very hard drinking lifestyle, in certain parts of Zimbabwe, and there was the drought. He was a coffee farmer. I went out to see him, really as a support for hard times. I never want to see anything like that again.' Her voice rises, is plangent in its pain. 'Well, you know, he was of the stiff upper lip school. You survey dying trees, dying animals, dying everything and say, god, I am so sorry, and he says, oh well, it's what you expect. It's all bottled up. And then he had a heart attack. I think the drought killed him. So what am I to say about John?' She tries, later, to talk about him again. 'We were very good friends, me and John, we got on, we really got on.'

Given such currents of maternal love that also run through, say, The Golden Notebook, it comes as a shock when she reports someone saying of her during that first marriage: 'You were not maternal.' Lessing comments, 'I think I switched all that off. As a child and adolescent I was quite famous for being in love with any small child or baby. But when I married I was an extremely brisk, efficient and matter-of-fact young woman. The maternal person arrived later, with my third child. It's because my first marriage was . . . I don't think marriages are like that now. It's when you walk into a role. The life was all laid down, what you ate, everything you did, and I went through it all as if it were a role in a play, really, and I hated it bitterly. I can't tell you. I hated it.'

When Lessing managed to escape it was to enter another world that subsequently seemed false to her; that of Communism, and marriage to Gottfried Lessing, a German refugee. Her exploration of her involvement with Communism in Southern Rhodesia is honest to a startling degree: 'I have to face the fact that I and all my dear high-minded comrades, both those in that chimerical Communist Party in Southern Rhodesia, and many I have met since. . . all were of the stuff of those murderers with a clear conscience. We were lucky, that's all.' She admits that it didn't come easy: 'The day I made myself stop and ask, what did we actually believe? That was painful, because most of it was absolute rubbish, and yet there we were, rushing about, working ourselves to a frazzle, we hardly slept, marriages broke up, god knows what didn't happen, and for what? Some kind of mass illusion.'

She has put Communism totally behind her now. 'Gorbachev said, Communism doesn't work and capitalism doesn't work, and we have to find something in between. We obviously do.' Although Lessing has now drifted away from political life, she has found a workable new philosophy, she says, in studying Sufism, 'one of the old mystical disciplines'.

Lessing has also been seen as a feminist heroine, and she is, but of an unusual kind. Her books take the female viewpoint as central, and they not only deal lucidly with real inequalities; they also celebrate 'femininity' - sensuality, sexuality and motherhood - with amazing relish. I suggest to her that the combination, of straightforward feminism with unabashed femininity, is rare. 'Let's take Simone de Beauvoir, who started writing this way roughly the same time I did. She didn't like being a woman, you see. She talks with real dislike and disgust about her body. Well, I don't think that's typical, do you? I think most women, given half a chance and not being shouted at all the time for being the wrong shape or weight or something, thoroughly enjoy being a woman.' In Under My Skin, Lessing looks back with joy and nostalgia to the beautiful young woman she was: 'I am conscious every minute of my delicious body, that fits me like a new and longed- for dress,' and the shocking sensual experience of pregnancy and motherhood.

The next two volumes of her autobiography will deal with her life as a writer in London. Although Lessing seemed to be in such dire straits on arrival, her first novel, The Grass is Singing, was an immediate success. And even having no money and bringing up a small child alone Lessing sees as a kind of boon. 'All the time people were saying to me, why don't you go to Paris, to New York, and I kept saying, look, I've got this small child. They said, it would have been much easier if you hadn't had one, and I'd say, oh yes, perhaps. But in order to write I have to be bored, flat, unstimulated, but I have a great social side, and without something to keep me down I don't think I would have written.'

Lessing contemplates the idea of a non-writing life with odd equanimity, saying that she could have enjoyed being, say, a farmer or a doctor: 'Above all, I would have loved to have been one of these physicists, but that's just daydreaming.' As it is, she is already working on her next novel and her next volume of autobiography. And despite her disillusionment with mass movements and her understandable desire for privacy, she goes on writing about the international issues that touch her from Zimbabwe to Afghanistan; goes on reading and reviewing contemporary writing and remains full of outrage about the 'slow poisoning of our world'. So Doris Lessing forges backwards and forwards through the ideas and events of our times, and in everything she says or does she remains about twice the size of most other writers.

(Photograph omitted)