In love with fun, France, men (and hats), the young Doris Lessing was an enfant terrible before she turned into a grande dame, as Michele Roberts discovers
If Doris Lessing has been popularly imagined - or marketed - in recent years as a serene sibyl dispensing Sufi wisdom from on high, then the second volume of her memoirs tweaks that image into place. Walking in the Shade (HarperCollins, pounds 20) throws off the oracle's dark veil and reveals the frivolous layers underneath.

There are marvellous treasures in her new book. Recently arrived in England from what was then Rhodesia in 1949, she rejoices in postwar efforts to abandon austerity and invent new kinds of sensual fun. She tells us how all right-thinking (which included left-thinking) young women made regular trips to Paris: "There is no way now of telling how powerful a dream France was then... Now that our cooking and our coffee and our clothes are good, it is hard to remember how people yearned for France as for civilisation itself. And there was another emotion, too, among women. French men loved women and showed it, but in Britain the most women could hope for was to be whistled at by workmen in the street... Adorable France, which loves its women, gives them confidence in their femininity."

If you don't want to be gazed at all the time, then it makes sense to nip over to Paris occasionally, buy a hat (as Lessing did), and then return to the invisibility which is the pre-condition for writing novels. This anecdote encapsulates a Lessing theme which has fascinated generations of her readers: the contradictions that women struggle with about love and friendship with men, wanting to be loved and appreciated - but on whose terms? The 1950s version of the Real Woman, all nipped-in waists and simultaneous orgasms (vaginal not clitoral, of course, for the woman), dramatised those conflicts around fear and desire, dependence and independence. As an intellectual who loved men, cherished their company, earned her living and was a single mother to boot, Lessing was a rare creature in those days. She was the exception who proved the rule.

Even in Paris, those women-loving men might, sooner or later, have started demanding lunch at one o'clock sharp and left her to mind the baby. One of the strongest threads in this long and sometimes rambling account of the 1950s concerns what is now called the sex war, but could then have been characterised as a quest: Childe Doris to the Dark Tower came. She discovered quickly that the men who praised your frocks did not necessarily stick around after drinks and bed to discuss your soul - let alone your novels.

Luckily, Lessing found a good agent, Juliet O'Hea, who sold her first novel, The Grass Is Singing (1950), to Michael Joseph and gave her emotional support and good advice. She is delightful on the mean ways of publishers. But Michael Joseph was a sweetie who took her to lunch at the Caprice - all pink tablecloths and glittering silver - and talked charmingly of Larry and Viv. He admired her cool about sales figures, whereas she didn't realise that the rushes into re-prints were astonishing.

In Paris, Lessing stayed in the very room in the shabby hotel where Oscar Wilde had died. She does not report whether the infamous wallpaper was still in place (Wilde said "either it goes or I do", and expired). But she sketches a picture of la patronne, as voluptuous and radiant as anything in Degas: "There was Madame, in an armchair, flesh bulging over her pink corset, her fat feet in a basin of water. The maid, a young girl, was brushing her rusty old hair, while Madame tossed it back as if it were a treasure."

This kind of delight in perception, language and humanity for their own sakes is strikingly absent from the novels. Why? Well, Lessing wrote out of a passionate need to tell the truth, a conviction that realism could do the job. Although she was depicting scenes never before considered by English audiences - such as the horrors of apartheid - she emulated her great 19th-century English forebears. Sometimes, in her mocking interjections, she can sound like Trollope or Thackeray. Sometimes, she teeters towards caricature and pantomime, like Dickens. Sometimes, she is a wise owl like George Eliot, slipping in moral asides.

What she's not, in most of her fiction, is a modernist. Lessing delights in reporting the ins and outs of conversations, as Henry James did. Unlike James, whose meandering sentences built a bridge towards the streams of thought explored by Woolf and Joyce, she settles with her omniscient narrators who know what's going on in every mind.

That style of writing maybe went with her socialism, which insisted that the vanguard knew what was best for everybody else. Even though, in the early "Martha Quest" books of the 1950s, we ostensibly view the world of wartime left-wing politics in southern Africa through the mind of one young woman, we're often aware that Lessing the omniscient narrator keeps breaking in.

Perhaps the consciousness of one young woman just isn't adequate for understanding 20th-century politics. If Lessing felt that she had to bolster it with a more objective point of view, then that just shows the difficulty of her project. You do notice, reading the early novels, how they sometimes seem to be written from a super-ego that eschews humour in favour of scorn - an emotion Lessing admits came easily to her.

Indeed, there doesn't seem to have been much to make jokes about if you were not a satirist such as Muriel Spark. Lessing was writing about the failures and betrayals of the Stalinist attempt at socialism, and very bleak it sounds too. Those of us who were on the left or the leftish branch of the women's movement - then, or later - can sympathise with the difficulties of being an artist at that time. To want just to make things was seen as a bourgeois self-indulgence, while telling the truth meant dealing with disinformation and paranoia. Lessing gets all that off her chest, at length, and you do feel her raw pain.

Her personal account adds fascinating footnotes to the novels. Though the newest wave of feminism arrived just too late to be of use - an irritating blip at the edge of her screen - The Golden Notebook (1962) has been consistently read as a women's book. In this most experimental of her novels, Lessing exploded integrated form and consistent viewpoint to demonstrate that postwar women were flying apart, falling apart among bombs, orgasms and breakdowns. Men, as well as politics, were involved. Here, in the memoir, she names names - and what pleasure we get from hearing them.

That novel made her a foremother to those of us who came after her. She asked whether the artist was androgynous; whether a woman author had to keep her femininity apart from her writing and wear it in her life like a sort of disguise; whether you could perfect both the life and the work. As for me, I love the Lessing who appreciated the Colette-like landlady in her seedy backroom, with her shameless and knowledgeable body.