The puzzling path from Marx to mysticism

Doris Lessing by Carole Klein (Duckworth, £18.99, 283pp)
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The Independent Culture

Doris Lessing by Carole Klein (Duckworth, £18.99, 283pp)

24 March 2000

At the age of 80, Doris Lessing is a fascinating, enigmatic figure. She has already published two volumes of memoirs, as well as the autobiographical fragments of her fiction, yet many questions remain. She does not welcome outsiders' analysis, whether from journalists, academics or readers. She is impatient with admirers of her literary novels who regard her science fiction as either an aberration or an indulgence, or who express astonishment about her intellectual journey from communism to Sufism, a branch of Islam.

Whether Lessing likes it or not, the contradictions and disjunctions in her life are bound to attract the attention of biographers. She has chosen not to cooperate with Carole Klein, an American academic who is an early runner in the field. Lessing's own account of her life ends in 1962, and she apparently changed her mind about writing a third volume of memoirs because of the effect it might have on people close to her at that time. So Klein's book stands, for the moment, as the chief written source for the second half of Lessing's life.

This is the period in which Lessing consolidated her success, building on her reputation and establishing herself as one of the most important novelists of the second half of the 20th century. She also became known as a "prickly" interviewee, to use Klein's word; many authors loathe what they see as intrusion into their private selves but in Lessing's case the intensity of her reaction is striking. Interviews seem to be an ordeal, and on several occasions the published product has made her furious. This in itself creates more interest, bringing the result she least wants - and will no longer be able to control when she dies.

The basic facts of Lessing's life are already known from her memoirs. Her English parents met in a London hospital, after the First World War, her father a patient and her mother a nurse. They married and moved to Persia, where Lessing's father found a job in a bank, seeking a new existence after the horrors they had witnessed. In a pattern of self-reinvention that would be repeated in their daughter's life, the Taylers turned up in Kermanshah with new first names, ditching Alfred and Emily in favour of Michael and Maude.

When their first child was born, they were so convinced they were expecting a boy that they had no names ready for a daughter; Lessing claims the problem was left to the doctor who delivered her. Doris Tayler certainly seems to have been neglected by parents whose disappointments would in time overwhelm them both. Klein suggests that the absence of love and security in her childhood has had repercussions throughout her adult life.

Lessing was five when the family moved to what was then Southern Rhodesia. She loved the land, with its wide skies, but left home at 15 to take a series of jobs in Salisbury. Two marriages followed, and Doris Tayler became first Mrs Wisdom, then Mrs Lessing. She decided to leave her two children by her first husband, she told a journalist years later, because otherwise "I would have had a very bad breakdown, or I would have become an alcoholic". She kept Gottfried Lessing's name when her second marriage ended and took their son, Peter, with her to London after the Second World War.

Because she was unable to talk to Lessing, Klein has diligently trawled her way through interviews, profiles and reviews. This inevitably gives the book a second-hand feel, as though her inability to engage in the flesh has somehow inhibited her on the page. She also conveys the impression that she does not like Lessing, much as she admires her work, and that there are many things she cannot express.

This sense of something not quite said makes the book seem provisional - perhaps even the prelude to a fuller work. Yet this may be to infer mysteries in Lessing's life which do not necessarily exist. Her apparently abrupt choices, her marriages and embrace of different ideologies, suggests someone in search of identity, but this is hardly uncommon in a novelist. It may also be that they would appear less exceptional if Lessing were a man.

The problem with Klein's book, apart from the fact that it has been atrociously edited, is that it does not do justice either to the novels or what has clearly been an extraordinary existence. Lessing may not want a biographer, but she deserves better than this.