15 June, 2008Issue 7.3AfricaFictionLiterature

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Stories to Herself

David Sergeant

Doris Lessing
Alfred and Emily
Fourth Estate, 2008
274 pages
ISBN 978-0007233459

Reaching the end of Doris Lessing’s latest—and, apparently, last—book, in which she looks back at her parents’ lives and at her life with them, readers, too, might find themselves looking back and wondering: ‘just where have I been? What exactly was that?’ It is a work that combines a novella-length fictionalised account of the lives of Lessing’s parents, the Alfred and Emily of the title, as they might have been had the war not occurred, with an account of their lives as they actually turned out, raising two children on a scrappy farm in the Rhodesian bush. This amalgam also manages to assimilate, along the way, a foreword and coda to the fiction, an authorial explanation of its basis in fact, a long extract from an encyclopaedia about London, an assortment of grainy photographs, and zigzaggings through time and space touching on everything from prehistoric paintings to African insects, to Mugabe, to the colonial diet and a list of Lessing’s childhood reading. And it works. The novel—or is it biography?—or is it history?—is held together by the unabashed singularity of Lessing’s voice: a voice that, in its flight, sheds the taxonomic shells that normally encase literary works.

The tapping of the non-literary tradition, of oral storytelling, has been a felt force in Lessing’s work since Ben in the World (2000), though its underlying currents extend back further through her career. Lessing herself has stated that it was only with the devolving of the narrative onto a storyteller’s voice that The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five came together, and storytelling weaves an important thread through the whole Canopus In Argos sequence in which that novel appears. Alfred and Emily is most striking for its intensely realised biographic vignettes, and it seems likely that they, in our age of celebrity-oriented curiosity and principled individuality, will determine its immediate reception. However, the work’s impact comes just as much from its willingness to disregard stylistic and generic proprieties as it does from autobiographical revelation. It comes from the twinning of what never actually occurred with what did occur. Alfred and Emily sees an author trying out different ways of writing, as though plucking down different books from a library’s shelves, with the urgency of the problem at hand—to find out what has happened, what is happening—making all the usual rules redundant.

Recognising these varying influences can help in an appreciation of the first (fictional) half of the book. So tangibly vivid is the autobiographical section that there is a danger the first half will fade away from the whole when it comes to be considered, that Alfred and Emily will end up being mined solely for its anecdotal riches. This risk is increased by the fact that in recent years Lessing’s fictional voice has developed a laconic briskness that can sound odd, even thin, to a reader accustomed to the stylistic and psychological curlicues of the average literary novel, with its aspiration towards ‘three-dimensional’ characters. Alfred and Emily, in contrast, relates the fictional characters’ crises, their loving, marrying, ageing, working, and dying, with a minimum of fuss, the narrative voice stringing them efficiently along the same tonal thread.

It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the result as crude, or insubstantial. Rather, it requires a slight retuning of the fictional ear, until it can register the cumulative effect of such incidents and their sequencing, as much as the style in which they are couched. In its lack of metaphor and simile, and favouring of direct statement, Lessing’s prose has chiselled its way back to something resembling the early prose chroniclers: written narrative that seems to be standing just in front of what happened. As with much oral storytelling, incident in Alfred and Emily often seems to constitute its own analysis, through being preceded and succeeded by other incidents; character is determined as much by action, or plain transcription of speech and thought, as it is by the elaboration of appearances and inner life. This has the same impact as Lessing’s explicit authorial questioning, and the questioning undertaken by her characters: the unadorned directness challenges us to credit what substance we receive, and not to go looking for the non-existent trimmings.

This directness is just one facet of Lessing’s oddness, that accumulation of personal kinks which both marks her out as unique, and which seems to have led to much of the criticism of her work. The willingness to incorporate the writerly presence, to contravene the still-potent modernist strictures about authorial invisibility, is characteristic of a writer who also flouted the manners of the literary drawing room by writing a sci-fi sequence, much to the disgust of many (Harold Bloom: ‘I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable … fourth-rate science fiction.’) It is characteristic of the individual strength and distance needed to challenge convention and received truths, on everything from feminism to terrorism (Jeanette Winterson: ‘Is Doris Lessing living on Planet Zog or is it just that she is 81?’) It relates to her sense of urgency, her crediting of function over refinement (John Leonard: ‘She has written tens of thousands of pages, many of them slapdash …’) And in more subtle ways, it marks out the individuality and power of her writing, its view of the world from a perspective that has seemingly required a scaffold to be cobbled precariously out into uncharted air, so remote is it from our conditioned focus on certain kinds of surface.

Perhaps the keynote of Lessing’s artistic character is this propensity to question, to come at whatever boundaries are encountered from unusual angles, and in this respect, Alfred and Emily is a fitting culmination to her literary career. The constant note of interrogation, explicit or implicit, threads the book together. These questions appear most strikingly, at first, in the voice of the fictional Emily as she grows older; and then, through the second half of the book, in the voice of Lessing herself. ‘And now what?’; ‘And her heart ached. Why did it?’; ‘How was that possible?’; ‘Why, suddenly, did she insist on it now?’; ‘What was to blame?’; ‘What were they about?’ For all the differences between the fictional Emily and Lessing, there is an equally obvious consonance between them. Both are old women, both are storytellers—this is made out to be one of Emily’s distinguishing talents—and both are looking back from old age, evaluating what happened, trying to find out why. Increasingly, as the book goes on, blunt authorial comments bookend these questions, placing a topic in perspective by standing back from it or to one side, or changing direction altogether, or simply closing an avenue of inquiry down. ‘Fast forward, then!’; ‘Interesting, watching history being unmade’; ‘This is what a small girl sees, feels’; ‘And so, that was that.’ The urgency behind this, and the unblinking will, are both unnerving and life-affirming. As readers—and the age of individual readers will alter how this load is balanced—we have the strong sense both of time running out, and of what can be achieved in the time that is left. Lessing does not find the solution to all her questions, but that is not the point. Their unanswered return acts as a kind of human echo-location: we can move on from here, having a better idea of where we have been, where we are.