Andreas Whittam Smith: Life in the long shadow of the First World War

Doris Lessing's newbook is one of the most remarkable she has ever written
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Last week Doris Lessing said that winning the Nobel Prize for Literature had been a "bloody disaster". So much attention, so many interviews to do, no time to write. Yet she has just published Alfred & Emily, one of the most remarkable books she has ever written. For the 88-year-old author finally pays her dues to her parents, or so it seems to me, particularly to her mother of whom she said: "I always in flight from her, she always in pursuit."

The starting point for what she says will be her last book is the First World War, which "did them both in". It isn't as if Lessing experienced the Great War herself. She was born in Persia (now Iran) in 1919, where her father went to work after demobilisation. Six years later the family moved to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) to grow maize from a thousand acres of bush.

But the impact of the war on her parents, Alfred and Emily Tayler, was so powerful that Lessing must have felt that she had also been in the trenches with her father or treating the wounded with her mother. Alfred & Emily is likely to be, therefore, the final witness to what the conflict did to its survivors.

To convey the impact, Lessing has chosen an extraordinary form. The first half of the book is a novella. She imagines what her parents' lives might have been like had there been no war. Austria and Serbia still fight each other for, although Lessing doesn't say so, presumably the Habsburg Grand Duke was still assassinated in 1914 by a Serbian bullet. However England, France and Russia don't get involved.

As a result the plenitude and wealth of Edwardian England goes on for a further generation. Alfred and Emily move in the same circles of family and friends as they had in reality but make separate marriages. Lessing describes their different lives and gives them fictional deaths.

After this there follows a short section entitled "Explanation". She writes that she has relied not only on traits of character that may be extrapolated, or extended, but on tones of voice, sighs, wistful looks, signs as slight as those used by skilful trackers. Then we arrive at Part Two: "Alfred and Emily; two lives". This is the true story.

Each half provides considerable pleasures. In the novella, the idea of "what if there had been no First World War involving the Great Powers but only a regional conflict in South Eastern Europe" is developed in an interesting way. The young English people of this fictional period become known as the frivolous generation. One of them exclaims: 'Oh, how frivolous, yes, you are right. But don't forget, we are the surplus generation; we have to assert ourselves."

Particular shirts became popular because they were army surplus from Vienna. And without a war of their own to fight, young men were signing with recruiters for service in conflicts that were going on in Africa and parts of Asia. Likewise women, without the work that the First World War was to provide them, "everywhere [were] going mad, wanting to work".

The second half of the book is even finer, with its superlative evocation of an English family that had, against the odds, made its home on a hilltop in the African bush. When the "wanted on voyage" trunk is finally opened after years of being ignored in her parents' ramshackle, mud-and-thatch dwelling, couture creations are revealed, full of moth holes. "That's a ball dress," remarked Lessing's mother, "but since I bought it, there hasn't been a ball."

These are the incidental rewards of Alfred & Emily. The serious points, however, are powerful. The writer admits that she only later came to see that her mother's wartime ordeals were ravaging her from within just as her father's experiences in the trenches were eating away at him. As her mother, who nursed the casualties of war, told her: "I remember once we ran out of morphine and that was so terrible. It was terrible, do you see." It must indeed have been a nightmare to hear men screaming for want of a painkiller and be unable to do anything for them.

Lessing sets a passage from D H Lawrence at the head of the second section: "Slowly, slowly the wound to the soul begins to make itself felt, like a bruise which only slowly deepens its terrible ache, till it fills all the psyche. And when we think we have recovered and forgotten, it is then that the terrible after-effects have to be encountered at their worst." Living with her parents, Lessing learnt the truth of that observation.

'Alfred & Emily' by Doris Lessing is published by HarperCollins at £16.99