The Cleft,

Alfred & Emily  by DORIS LESSING


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In the beginning

Doris Lessing's fictional look at the start of human life on Earth

By Alan Cheuse

August 4, 2007

The Cleft
By Doris Lessing
HarperCollins, 260 pages, $25.95

For nearly 60 years, Doris Lessing has been writing some of the most provocative and important fiction in English, and as she approaches her 88th birthday on Oct. 22, she is still producing superb and daring work. After her radical political decades and her science-fiction decades and her feminist years, the extraordinary Commonwealth novelist, born in Persia, raised in Africa and a long-time resident of London, has taken a long look back over her shoulder -- not to write memoir or autobiography, which she has already done, but to try to fathom the origins of us all.

In "The Cleft" she employs a number of voices and screens, beginning with that of an aging Roman writer, a senator and historian, to carry us back into prehistory. Culling from "ancient scrolls and fragments of scrolls, loose and disordered scraps of paper, . . . old scripts that were the first receptacles of the transfer of 'the mouth to ear' mode of the first histories" and his representations of those early memorized notations of events before the period of writing, this antique narrator presents us with an extraordinary vision of the establishment of human life on Earth that overturns every other way of seeing it.

"The Cleft" presents nothing less than a million-years-ago-or-more telling of the story of a collective Eden, in which the Eves, rather than the Adams, are the original ancestors. And the garden, in this version, has been replaced by a wave-washed island replete with caves and a horde of sea-lion plump females who have, who knows how many millenniums before the story opens, descended from creatures that came up out of the sea.

Meet the Clefts, as they call themselves after their characteristic genital declivity, a female tribe that as far back as memory goes gives birth to females only, fertilized, as they understand it, "by a fertilising wind, or a wave that carried fertility in its substance"

The images of the original Cleft colony are striking:

"They lived on the shore of a warm sea on an island that was in fact very large, but they never went far from home shore. They were of the sea, sea creatures, eating fish and seaweeds and some shore-growing fruits. They used tall caves with sandy floors but they might as easily sleep out on the rocks as under the cave roofs. How long had they lived there? . . . The Clefts did not know when their kind had first crawled from the waves to breathe air on the rocks, and they were incurious."

We can't know, the narrator assures us, just how much time passes before another extraordinary event occurs, the parthenogenetic Clefts giving birth now and then to male offspring, or, as they call them because of their protruding genitalia, defective "Monsters or "Squirts."

At first the females leave these Monsters out on the rocks to die, but prehistoric eagles carry off the helpless males, presumably to feed to their young. Soon they begin depositing them (in exchange for food) in an inland valley where a few of the earliest surviving boys have begun to create their own society. From watching the deer suckle fawns they learn to use the animals to nurse infants. When a stray Cleft wanders over the ridge from the ocean caves, they quickly learn why they are built the way they are.

Lessing's depiction of the first intercourse between Cleft and Monster is brutal and direct. Over the millenniums, we see the formation of family groupings, the discovery of certain essential emotions, the discoveries of fire and play, the first murder, and, given that families arise, the first nagging wife.

The effect of all this is quite powerful, almost like that of having a peephole back in time to the first beats of creation. Some may take it as pure fantasy, others as fascinating speculation on our first ancestors. As a novel "The Cleft" stands as one of the most striking presentations of these questions since William Golding's "The Inheritors," which depicts the shift in consciousness between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon.

But Lessing gives us a world before consciousness arises, and based on shards and scraps of evidence a narrative that does what all good books are supposed to do: carry us off to another place, another space, another way of being in the world, so we may know ourselves that much better when we return. As speculative and outrageous as it is, it is also convincing in the way all fine art is convincing. If this isn't how our species evolved, perhaps it should have been.

What an amazing book, bringing together as it does Lessing's radicalism, her feminism and her propensity for speculative fiction in a marvelous near-birthday gift from one of the great mothers of the contemporary novel.

Alan Cheuse is a book commentator for NPR's "All Things Considered," a writing teacher at George Mason University and the author, most recently, of the short-story collection "Lost and Old Rivers."



Of Woman Born
A legend about an ancient race of females -- and their downfall.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Bear
Sunday, August 19, 2007; BW02



By Doris Lessing

HarperCollins. 260 pp. $25.95


Doris Lessing is a legend. The author of nearly 50 books, she has earned her reputation as a notable prose stylist and a writer whose work defies categorization. Several of her novels are numbered among the modern classics; she has reputedly been considered for the Nobel Prize in literature.

These facts only make The Cleft more mystifying. Because it is not merely a flawed novel or a failed novel. It is an actively bad novel.

The Cleft is a braided narrative, in which a Roman historian of Nero's time tells the story of an earlier, mythic period. Almost all narratives commence with a change; in this case, that inciting incident is the birth of a male baby into a species of parthenogenic, semi-aquatic women. The babe is presumed deformed and exposed upon a rock to die. But soon, more male infants follow (the males are referred to as "Squirts," the females "Clefts," for obvious reasons). After predictable phases of denial, anger, mutilation, murder and reconciliation, the human race as we know it is born.

This seems a promising setup for an exploration of the founding of society, even for a sly satire. I found myself comparing this novel to Kurt Vonnegut's superior Galapagos, to which it forms a sort of mirror-image, and hoping throughout that I was simply missing the point and that some justification would emerge "Rashomon"-like from the narrative's fragments. Instead, The Cleft delivered a moral message, an uncomplicated binary that reduces gender roles and relations to exactly the level of childishness implied by identifying most characters by the shape of their genitals.

Lessing appears to have drawn her background from Elaine Morgan's notorious pseudoscientific tome, The Descent of Woman (1972), which argues that human evolution was shaped by a seal-like return to the sea. Crackpot theories can make for great fiction, but in this case they have produced a novel as static and circular as the placid, bovine society that Lessing assigns to the Clefts. She portrays the denizens of her early matriarchy as Victorian caricatures: passive, incurious, interested in nothing except filling their wombs and maintaining the status quo -- except for occasional bouts of bloodlust. The males, on the other hand, are curious, inventive, exploratory, irresponsible.

Representatives of both sexes are equally thick, however. The exception is the Roman historian, a thoughtful older man married lovelessly to a younger woman. He could have been a finely drawn character, providing a needed counterpoint to the pseudo-history. But, alas, he too quickly descends to the level of parody.

Additionally, the historical sections of the book are told in an unconvincing manner. I suspect they were meant to have an air of fable, as of antique retold tales too misty to be recalled accurately. Instead, they seem thick and meandering, a kind of narrative oatmeal, and the societies constructed are so naive that they too lack energy. The women in their coastal caves expose the first male babies, mutilate the next few, expose a few more. Eventually, inexplicably, eagles begin to carry the male infants to a nearby valley, where an equally inexplicable friendly doe raises them.

For some reason, the females lose the ability to have babies without male assistance and begin making forays over the dividing mountain to get pregnant. There is a thematic and mystical cleft along the mountain pass, a volcanic vent of sorts, which seems intended to represent the female mysteries, the male attraction to and fear of them, and their eventual shattering as a result of random masculine violence. Unfortunately, since all of this occurs without emotional weight, it fails to provoke insight.

Critic John Clute has said, tongue-in-cheek, that novels have a "real year," which is to say that no matter when a book purports to be set, there are always clues to when it's really set. And this novel is so firmly crystallized in post-WWII social roles of the Valium-housewife-and-unavailable-working-stiff variety that it feels more native to 1954 than to 2007.

The last third or so focuses on two characters, one male and one female, who have inscrutably Celtic or Anglo-Saxon names -- Maronna and Horsa -- for this ostensibly Roman narrative. These two may in fact represent several persons, lines of descent wherein a series of leaders bear the same name. (This is another one of those places where something that should have been brilliant and a bit unnerving wound up feeling pointless.) These two, and their tribes, come into conflict over the sort of things that couples would fight over in a stereotypical 1950s sitcom: The woman thinks the man does not take care with the children, the man can't see what all the fuss is about. The men are shortsighted and careless; the women are able to predict disaster but curiously unable to do anything more useful than lie about on rocks and catch fish.

In the end, these two great leaders come to an epiphany that boils down to "we have nothing in common, but we need each other." Which was not the poignant insight into human nature that this reader, at least, was hoping for. ·

Elizabeth Bear is the author of "Carnival" and other novels.


 The Sydney Morning Herald


The Cleft

Debra Adelaide, reviewer
December 29, 2006

Doris Lessing has imagined a bizarre world where men evolved from women.


Author: Doris Lessing

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Fourth Estate

Pages: 272

RRP: $27.99


The venerated, if reluctant, feminist author Doris Lessing has anticipated critics of her new novel. In a Washington Post interview several months ago, she announced that The Cleft is not politically correct and that some people will hate every word of it.

But it is more likely that a politically correct novel will generate hostility, didacticism being one of the worst crimes in fiction. Conversely, the novel's capacity for human incorrectness - political and every other kind - is one of its greatest strengths. Nevertheless, The Cleft is a strange and controversial sort of novel, though not because of its politics. Readers are unlikely to hate any word of it, but might find themselves puzzled and ultimately disappointed, since the Lessing oeuvre and reputation establish unavoidable expectations.

The Cleft describes the evolutionary and eventual revolutionary changes in an original human community. In this thesis, humans are originally female sea-loving (but not seafaring) creatures who call themselves Clefts. Their land between the mountains and the seas features a huge red cleft, a sort of genito-religious site, home to sacrificial victims. Reproduction is via parthenogenesis, and for countless generations all babies are female until eventually deformed ones appear. These Monsters (later called Squirts) are discarded onto the rocks, or left out for the eagles. But the eagles start taking the Monster babies to the forest, where they are breastfed by deer, and evolve into a community of large Squirts. Eventually, Cleft meets Squirt, and the rest is prehistory. Conflict, however, develops over things such as the Clefts' predilection for cleanliness and order and the Squirts' for exploration.

Even the kindest summary of this story makes it sound risible, but to my mind the novel is problematic because Lessing abandons so many of the fundamentals of fiction: characters are merely types, disembodied voices with no clear identities. There is little drama, no intrigue, minimal action.

The entire novel is narrated by a Roman senator, a historian who has come into possession of ancient legends in manuscript fragments. But the minor story of the senator's domestic life establishes few links between the two timeframes, even though he comments on obvious similarities, such as the mythical founders of Rome being breastfed by a wolf, or the symbolic importance of the eagle in imperial Rome.

The book almost boasts of its portrayal of a mythical world before sexual politics, before sexual intrigue, jealousy and petty rivalries, but that's the problem: these basics of human interaction are the basics of narrative.

An informed friend pointed out to me that Lessing might have been influenced by Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1915 utopian feminist novel, Herland, in which an all-female society similarly reproduces via parthenogenesis. Herland, though, which is politically correct (society has evolved into a superior physical, social and moral entity than that of men), offers a stronger plot and clearer delineation of character.

I vacillated between thinking The Cleft was one of the silliest novels I have read, or terribly radical and that I was far too literal-minded and inclined to miss the point. But I also read it with great interest because Lessing has attempted something quite radical in imagining the evolution of human communities and accounting for the theory that men evolved from women. Only the boldest of novelists would take that on, and Lessing is nothing if not bold.

Debra Adelaide is a writer and editor, whose last book is Acts of Dog (Vintage).  








Women in love

Henrietta Clancy

Published 15 January 2007

The Cleft
Doris Lessing Fourth Estate, 288pp, £16.99


The Cleft rewrites the story of creation through the eyes of a Roman senator. Embarking upon his last ever endeavour, this aged historian must make sense of ancient tales, written in a language only recently deciphered, in order to piece together the very beginnings of the human race.

Doris Lessing asks us to imagine the Clefts, a primitive community of women who live in a coastal wilderness, free from the need, knowledge or complication of men. The Clefts exist in harmony: impregnated by the tides of the moon and bearing only female children, they are spared the implications of gender that permeate modern existence. But one day a "Monster", a male, is born and the onset of sexual intrigue brings untold problems as restlessness, curiosity and jealousy upturn this sleepy community.

In this fable, Lessing satirises the unchanging behavioural patterns of men and women. When the primitive sexes integrate, the women cannot comprehend the carelessness of the men who "don’t listen"; the men in turn are aggravated by the women who "nag, chide and are critical". But despite the eternal complaints of each gender, neither can exist alone. Lessing’s engaging tale is told with the simplicity of an aural history committed to memory.





 Sunday 14 January 2007


The Cleft



Doris Lessing
Fourth Estate, £16.99


LESSING'S latest novel begins at the very beginning. On a beach loll the Clefts, large, torpid, self-fertilising women, as unthinking as early evolutionary amoeba. To their horror they give birth first to one male, then many. They mutilate the baby boys and leave them to die, but these males are rescued and nurtured by eagles and deer. With time a few Clefts travel inland to find this tribe of monstrous men and soon begin to experiment physically. But it takes many generations before an erupting volcano forces the men and women to set up homes together.

This mythical history is told to us by an elderly Roman, who interrupts his scholarly account with personal observation and memoirs which echo his themes. He also gives our early humans a childish vocabulary, challenging civilised prudery, in the way unconstrained children always will. This distaste is effective. It made me feel disturbed and sad for my small son - no doubt just what Lessing intended.

Our narrator is one of the few designated keepers of this secret history, deemed too explicit and controversial for the public. He nevertheless has a young, sexy wife, Julia, given to adultery, orgies and drinking. Julia is an appealing, sophisticated character in a book of primitive peoples, and basic language, and I couldn't help wishing we'd been able to hang out with her rather longer. There might have been a bit more fun in the offing if we had. Which must be the male in me coming out.

It is also a shame more flesh isn't put on the scholar's old bones, as the myth within can feel a lengthy way to illustrate something we already know. Men, our Roman says, find women's nagging emotionality suffocating. Women find men's erratic physicality immature. There's plenty of truth to this, of course, and The Cleft is a book of bold, dramatic story-telling, but at times it feels heavy handed.

The descriptions of urges and squirting and poking soon become repetitious, although I did enjoy a description of young boys showing off their 'cocky tricks'. But sometimes Lessing's word choices are plain odd. Why would two little boys named Big Bear and Runner have a friend called Brian? Or am I missing the joke?

The core of The Cleft is the idea of men as a 'cosmic afterthought.' But Lessing, who has often commented on feminism's limits, ensures men come off rather better than women within the history - certainly, they provide more fun.

Other themes within The Cleft are perhaps more interesting; the way our narrator prods endlessly at the impenetrability of the past and creativity of historians. He asks complex questions on why nature suddenly shifts and how instinct works.

Our ageing narrator is like the novelist herself, trying to interpret individual and collective human behaviour. Musing as to when these early humans began to form one-on-one attachments, he says that he is sure they did not use the word love for he cannot hear it in his head. Which is just how writing fiction works. The Cleft offers more insight as an exploration of telling, than as a comment on gender difference.



August 5, 2008

Lessing Looks Back on Shadows and Parents




Doris Lessing

Illustrated. 274 pages. Harper. $25.95.


Doris Lessing once declared that “fiction makes a better job of the truth” than straightforward reminiscence, and while that might well be true of her celebrated and semi-autobiographical Martha Quest novels, it’s an observation that doesn’t apply at all to her latest book, “Alfred & Emily,” an intriguing work that is half fiction, half memoir. The sketchy, insubstantial first half of the book imagines what her parents’ lives might have been like if World War I had never occurred. The potent and harrowing second half recounts the real life story of her parents, and the incalculable ways in which the war fractured their dreams and psyches and left them stranded in the bush in Africa, eking out a meager existence on a tiny farm in Rhodesia.

This portrait of her parents is familiar in outline from Ms. Lessing’s 1994 autobiography, “Under My Skin,” but whereas the author adopted a detached, matter-of-fact tone in that volume, she writes here with a visceral immediacy, conjuring the awful, unrelieved hardship of her parents’ lives in Rhodesia, and the aching disappointment that shrouded their daily existence.

Her father, Alfred, had lost a leg in the war and remained haunted by the horror of the trenches, where so many of his comrades had died. Her mother, Emily, a wartime nurse, remained haunted by her wounded patients’ cries for morphine and by the loss of the great love of her life, a doctor, who drowned in the English Channel.

At a sort of world’s fair called the Empire Exhibition, Alfred and Emily were taken in by the Southern Rhodesian stall, which promised “Get rich on maize,” and so had ended up in Africa, spending Alfred’s capital of a thousand pounds on farming equipment for a small patch of land. Alfred dreamed of making enough money there to return to England and fulfill his longtime dream of buying a farm in Essex or Suffolk or Norfolk, but it was not to be.

The Rhodesian farm was “too small to achieve anything in the way of serious profit,” Ms. Lessing writes, and while her father tried hard to live as if he did not have a wooden leg, he grew increasingly incapacitated, especially after developing diabetes.

“Soon the family would leave the farm,” Ms. Lessing recalls. “It would be impossible to keep my father alive there: for one thing there were more comas and crises and rushed visits into town — if you can use the word ‘rushed’ for a deadly five-hour trip sliding from rut to rut over the difficult roads.” They were not able to move back to England but ended up in “a horrid little bungalow” in the suburbs of the capital.

Emily had arrived in Africa with trunks crammed full of clothes and furnishings from Liberty’s and Harrods. She’d dreamed of a colonial social whirl, and had taken along garden-party frocks, dinner frocks and black lace frocks, along with feather boas, brocade shoes and satin evening cloaks — none of which she would ever wear in the bush. The dresses would be eaten away by moths, as they sat year after year in a trunk hidden behind a curtain in the bedroom — and they would come to represent, for young Doris, “all the glamour of Never Never Land,” a life as far away as possible from anything in Banket, Southern Rhodesia.

While Ms. Lessing’s mother would see birds in front of their mud-and-thatch house and mourn: “Oh, the swallows will be in England soon. They’ll get there before us,” her father would try to put a brave face on things. Marveling at the clarity of the stars in the African night, he would say: “You’d never see anything like this in Piccadilly, old girl. Sometimes I think it’s all worth it, these nights.”

Writing with the incandescent clarity of her 88 years, Ms. Lessing — the 2007 Nobel laureate — conveys the appreciation she now feels for the hardship of her parents’ lives, and the anger she often felt as a young girl in rebellion against her mother. She also writes about her father and mother’s memories of the war, and how those memories affected her own apprehension of the world:

“I think my father’s rage at the Trenches took me over, when I was very young, and has never left me. Do children feel their parents’ emotions? Yes, we do, and it is a legacy I could have done without. What is the use of it? It is as if that old war is in my own memory, my own consciousness.”

In the first half of this book Ms. Lessing tries to give her parents the lives they might have had in a world without that awful war. Alfred becomes the English farmer he dreamed of becoming, marries a woman named Betsy — instead of Emily — and becomes a father not to Doris but to twin sons.

Emily, meanwhile, marries the doctor she thought she loved, but finds this marriage cold and unfulfilling; she never has any children. After her unloved husband dies, she uses the tidy fortune he has left her to establish a charity that sets up schools in impoverished neighborhoods and counties. Although she does not find personal happiness, this Emily goes on to become a beloved figure in society, renowned for her good works.

This fictional portion of the book lacks all the beautiful specificity of the memoir part of the volume, which shimmers with precisely remembered details about the African countryside, Ms. Lessing’s parents’ house in the bush and her own difficulties negotiating the rocky ground of her girlhood.

The fictional Alfred and Emily are curiously abstract figures, fleshed out with few psychological specifics; like the people in the author’s weaker recent books like “The Sweetest Dream,” they are spindly line drawings, assigned a single quality or two and sent on generic social peregrinations. These characters suggest that Ms. Lessing has a hard time imagining her mother and father as people other than her parents, or, for that matter, imagining a reality in which she herself did not exist.


 San Francisco Chronicle



Lessing imagines alternate world for parents

Alan Cheuse

Sunday, August 17, 2008


Alfred & Emily

By Doris Lessing

Harper; 274 pages; $25.95

Where does the past reside? Is it written in stone or painted on cave walls only?

No - it lies in our minds, in our imaginations, and we make sense of the facts that we recall by shaping them into coherent narratives. The public one we call history, and the private we denote as "family history" or autobiography or memoir. Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing wields one of the most prodigious imaginations in contemporary letters, and she recognizes few boundaries when it comes to time or space. She has gone into the past in fiction and autobiography, into the future in a mind-shaking science fiction series, down into the realms of the psyche, and recently, in her astonishing novel "The Cleft," into prehistory, where few writers have trod.

In her latest work, "Alfred & Emily," published on the verge of her 89th birthday, she has made another foray into her own past and the past of the British Empire into which she was born. In fact, she finds a geographical metaphor in order as she describes, midway through the book, her undertaking. "You can be with old people ...," she writes, "and never suspect that whole continents of experience are there, just behind those ordinary faces. Best to be old yourself to understand."

"Alfred & Emily" combines, in a most idiosyncratic fashion, personal history, public history and imagination. In the first half of the book, Lessing delivers what is in effect a long and lively speculative fiction about her parents' lives in a place where World War I did not occur.

"This is a silly, petty, pettifogging little country," says her father, Alfred Taylor, in this alternative to his actual history, "and we're pleased with ourselves because we've kept out of a war. But if you ask me I think a war would do us all the good in the world. We're soft and rotten, like a pear that's gone past its best."

The war did not, in fact, do him all the good in the world. It took one of his legs. But after he married Emily, who met him in the hospital where she was nursing wounded British soldiers, they immigrated with great hopes for their future, first to Persia, where Taylor worked in a bank, and then to Rhodesia, where the couple bought a farm.

When writing about parents, Lessing notes, "even alert offspring or children may miss gold." In the second half of the book, she reconstructs her childhood in relation to her parents' adult lives in Africa, giving us the gestures and mores of that time in her life and of the period. She finds much that is gold in those years on the floundering farm, marked on the landscape by its old mawonga tree, which she remembers as "always full of birds."

"We'll never get off the farm," she reports her parents saying, "and they'll bury us under the mawonga tree."

But when Lessing returned to the old African home ground in the early 1980s, the tree was gone, and she wondered, "Did someone cut down the old mawonga tree? Was it really old? Did it fall down? These trees are studded among the lower-growing trees of the highveld; they are taller than the other trees, whitish-trunked."

Will this odd and powerful excursion into lost time last, or will it go the way of that old mawonga tree? For now it serves as a marker of an older day, and a powerful reminder not only of her past but also of how each of us can return to our own and come back with something precious.


Alan Cheuse is a book commentator for National Public Radio. His new novel, "To Catch the Lightning" (Sourcebooks), comes out in October.




A Separate Peace
The Nobel Prize winner imagines her parents' lives without World War I.

Reviewed by Valerie Sayers

Sunday, August 3, 2008



By Doris Lessing

Harper. 274 pp. $25.95


Last year, Doris Lessing, almost 88 and the outspoken, iconoclastic author of more than 50 books -- novels, story collections, poetry and nonfiction -- became the oldest writer to receive the Nobel Prize in literature. This year, she has published yet another volume, a clever, moving coupling of fiction and nonfiction. Alfred & Emily is a culmination of Lessing's ongoing interest in formal experimentation and the relationship between reality and imagination. It's also a testament to her ongoing literary vitality.

The real Alfred and Emily were Lessing's parents: he a clerk and veteran of the Great War, in which he lost a leg as well as dear friends; she a nurse to desperately suffering soldiers. In the aftermath of that war's horrors, they ventured from England first to Persia, where Lessing was born, and then to Rhodesia, where she spent her childhood. They hoped to improve their fortunes by farming, but like so many pioneers before them, they had a rough go of it. Emily suffered a breakdown that sent her to bed for a year, and Alfred was stricken with diabetes, which led them finally to abandon the farm.

Lessing tells their stories -- pieces of which she has previously recounted in her autobiographies -- in two ingenious forms: The first is a novel that imagines her parents' lives in an England that never entered World War I; the second is a true, rueful accounting of all the ways their wartime scars shaped their futures. What is most intriguing about the imaginary lives that she gives her peacetime parents is her own erasure. In this version, Alfred and Emily, though they are friends, do not marry each other. The fictional Emily, a nurse like her biographical counterpart, marries a doctor and remains childless; Alfred, a mild and playful family man, farms in rural England.

Despite the breadth of her literary interests, Lessing has often been narrowly defined or dismissed as a feminist writer. Readers who do not know her work or were not impressed by her previous forays into science fiction may be delighted to discover the Lessing of Alfred & Emily. She tells her parents' imagined lives in a gently ironic voice that uses concision and elision to sweep through time. The narrative's old-fashioned cadences call to mind many of the authors so central to its plot: Alfred & Emily is filled with books, classical and popular. Even the fictional Alfred, a sportsman and not a bookworm, admits, "I always did fancy Zane Grey." The novel's attention to how consciences and sensibilities are formed through reading is an echo of Lessing's ringing Nobel Prize call for support of the struggling teachers, librarians and readers in Zimbabwe. (Lessing herself left school at the age of 14 but was able to rely on her childhood delight in reading to sustain her intellectual development.)

Emily, with her gradual recognition of the power of books and literacy, dominates the first half of Alfred & Emily. When the fictional Emily loses her independence in marriage, the results are as constraining as they must have been for the real Emily isolated on a Rhodesian farm: "Her household allowance was generous, and so was her dress allowance: he liked her to be well dressed. But it was bitter, that moment when he handed her the money in its separate envelopes. She had earned her own living since she was eighteen, and perhaps of the by now many things that dismayed her about her marriage, it was that moment, that money, handed her with a smile, that dismayed her most."

Widowed, she struggles to regain the intellectual energy that was stilled in the doldrums of a conventional marriage. Alfred is a simpler soul who flourishes modestly in peacetime, saved from his wartime nightmares, but England without war is no Utopia. Beyond the need for women to claim their autonomy, there's class struggle to be engaged.

Indeed, in the second, nonfictional half of this book, Lessing makes clear that her own well-known Marxism and eventual split from the Communist Party were both born of her evolving understanding of her parents' and Rhodesia's sorrows. In the evocative photographs accompanying the text, her father is a handsome soldier gazing soulfully at the camera; in real life, we learn, this empathetic man gracefully endured a steady downward slide.

In nonfiction, Lessing's famous ferocity also returns: "I hated my mother," she says, the words not so much shocking as jarring, after the lengths she has gone to make the fictional Emily a moral heroine. The miracle is the transformation that fiction achieves, the way that imagining a different life for her mother allows Lessing to forgive and honor a trying but vibrant woman. Lessing's fiction, from the autobiographically inspired The Golden Notebook and the Martha Quest novels to the Sufi-inspired speculative fiction of her "Canopus in Argos" series, has always implicitly explored the links between her own and her characters' political, philosophical and spiritual ideas. It is fascinating to see her, at the apex of her career, explore those connections explicitly here. By imagining fairer, more decent lives for her parents, Lessing affirms that even in their failures they were worthy of attention and respect. By allowing her readers this insight into the connection between autobiography and fiction, between form and content, she reaffirms fiction's powers and possibilities. ·

Valerie Sayers, professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, writes novels, stories and essays.


Los Angeles Times




'Alfred & Emily' by Doris Lessing

The Nobel Prize-winning novelist re-imagines the lives of her parents.

By Heller McAlpin
July 27, 2008

Alfred & Emily

Doris Lessing

HarperCollins: 276 pp., $25.95

Doris Lessing has never been one to shy from bold moves. She married early to escape her overbearing mother, then left her husband and two children, wedding a German Communist classed as an enemy alien during World War II. Her most famous novel, "The Golden Notebook" (1962), was considered boldly feminist and structurally daring. In the 1980s, Lessing upset many of her readers by turning to science fiction. During the same period, she made headlines by submitting a novel to her longtime British publisher, Jonathan Cape, under a pseudonym -- demonstrating, with its rejection, how hard it is for unknown writers to break into print. Last year, when told she'd won the Nobel Prize for literature, she seemed more exasperated than exhilarated by the attention. "Oh, Christ! . . . It's a royal flush," she said.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that, nearing the end of her ninth decade, in what she declares is her last book, Lessing has pushed the boundaries of the memoir form. She does this by splitting "Alfred & Emily" between fiction and personal reminiscence, in order to attack from multiple angles material she's still struggling to understand.

Like Vikram Seth's "Two Lives," a joint portrait of his Indian-born great-uncle and German-born great-aunt, "Alfred & Emily" is about a couple derailed by war. But it is not a dual biography, nor is it simply an imagined history based on the interaction of two real people, like Julian Barnes' novel "Arthur & George." Although experimental in form, it does not seek to offer the sustained "exploration of an egoism" of H.G. Wells' 1934 "Experiment in Autobiography." Rather, "Alfred & Emily" recalls the fractured narrative structure -- with its compartmentalized notebooks and fiction embedded within the larger fiction -- of "The Golden Notebook." In juxtaposing fiction and nonfiction in one volume and clearly delineating which is which, "Alfred & Emily" raises questions about our changing attitudes toward memories as we age; about the different strengths of fiction and nonfiction when it comes to exploring character; and about the inherently subjective nature of memoir. As is usual in Lessing's fluidly conversational prose, ideas take precedence over stylistic perfection: "Alfred & Emily" may be more an exercise than a polished tour de force, but what a thought-provoking exercise it is.

This is hardly the first time Lessing has written about her parents. Her autobiographical second novel, "Martha Quest" (1952), is a brutal portrait of an adolescent daughter's contempt for her mother. In "Alfred & Emily" she writes, "It was cruel, that book. Would I do it now? But what I was doing was part of the trying to get free." Lessing introduced two themes in her depiction of the Quests that have remained central throughout her long literary career: the antagonism between mothers and daughters and the importance -- to women, their families and society at large -- of women's work outside the home.

Lessing wrote about her family more directly and expansively in the first volume of her autobiography, "Under My Skin" (1994). That book spans her first 30 years, from 1919 to 1949, when she left her girlhood home of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for England. In it, she presents the facts: her parents' unhappy schisms with their own parents; their meeting in the Royal Free Hospital in East London at the end of World War I, where Sister Emily McVeagh nursed Alfred Tayler after the loss of his right leg, shell shock and depression; their marriage and departure for Persia (now Iran), where Doris and her younger brother, Harry, were born; and their move to a farm in Rhodesia in 1924, where they hoped to "get rich on maize" so they could afford to buy a farm back home in England.

"Alfred & Emily" reveals that Lessing's memories remain essentially unaltered, yet it is not redundant. What has changed is her attitude toward those memories. She's already told us, in earlier books, what her parents were like and how it made her feel at the time -- trapped, desperate. Now she wants to figure out why her parents were the way they were and what they might have been like "if there had been no World War One."

The war, she writes, changed her parents irrevocably. "It took me years -- and years -- and years -- to see it: my mother had no visible scars, no wounds, but she was as much a victim of the war as my poor father." She explains in her wonderfully forthright preface: "That war, the Great War, the war that would end all war, squatted over my childhood. The trenches were as present to me as anything I actually saw around me. And here I still am, trying to get out from under that monstrous legacy, trying to get free."

A novelist to the core, Lessing writes her way toward freedom. Although the novella that comprises the first half of "Alfred & Emily" is richer than the meandering, fragmentary commentary on her parents' ill-fated, stifling attempts at Edwardian colonial life that follows, the combination is greater than the sum of its parts. In the novella, Lessing imagines not so much a fictionalized account of her parents' lives as a counterfactual version: She posits a world in which they meet but never marry, World War I never happens, and the British economy flourishes. Intriguingly, it is also a world in which their only daughter is never born. In creating these alternative trajectories, she attempts to explore the essences of her parents, thereby suggesting that fiction can sometimes reach deeper than fact. And in so doing, Lessing also reveals quite a bit about herself.

The novella opens at a village cricket match in 1902 in which 16-year-old Alfred Tayler is a star and 18-year-old Emily McVeagh is an emotional spectator, having just broken with her father over her decision to pursue a nursing career, wiping people's bottoms. Lessing's narrative skips ahead in two- and three-year increments and then fast-forwards to 1916. In having her parents meet but not marry, Lessing suggests that their connection was solely based on adversity. She grants Alfred "his heart's desire" -- a life of farming, cricket, dancing, a nurturing wife named Betsy, twin sons and death at a ripe old age instead of the precipitous early decline and death at 62 from diabetes that he suffered in reality.

Emily's fictional fate is less happy. She marries a cold-hearted cardiologist, whom Lessing bases on the beau her mother lost in the war. They have no children, but at her husband's insistence Emily gives up her work, as she does in real life -- Lessing's surefire recipe for unhappiness. Only after her husband's early death does Emily discover her calling as an educator and find an outlet for her formidable energy and organizational skills. In real life, Lessing notes, this impulse found its most positive expression in introducing her daughter to the joys of literature.

The real Emily spent her last years playing bridge with other widows in Salisbury (now Harare), dying at 73. In the novella, Lessing gives her mother a less peaceful death, also at 73: Emily suffers heart failure after being attacked by boys who turn on her when she remonstrates with them for tormenting a dog. War or no war, Lessing implies, her mother was irritatingly meddlesome, even when in the right. And one way or another, poor Emily always gets her comeuppance in her daughter's books. *

Heller McAlpin reviews books for a variety of publications, including Newsday and the Boston Globe


A family at war

In Alfred and Emily, a vital reimagining of the lot of her parents, Doris Lessing finally makes her peace, says Tim Adams


Tim Adams, The Observer

Sunday May 11 2008


Alfred and Emily

by Doris Lessing

4th Estate £16.99, pp274


Has childhood happiness ever produced a Nobel laureate? Doris Lessing, you might say, has spent a lifetime restlessly discovering the answer to that question. Forty-two books of fiction, seven collections of essays, two memorable memoirs have led her to this, another examination of the writer's DNA, another decisive distillation of all that has gone before.

Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeagh are the writer's parents and this is a book of two halves - the first section is a novelist's game of might-have-beens: Lessing removes all the frustrations that circumscribed her growing up in Rhodesia, and gives Alfred and Emily the lives they wanted for themselves. The second section is another honest excavation of the lives they were all actually dealt. The gap is the one in which the writer has always lived.

The might-have-beens remove at a stroke the first obstacle to all of the last century's unhappiness. Lessing imagines a world without the Great War; Alfred, her father, lost a leg to shrapnel in the trenches and, in her mind, and probably his, that fact hobbled everything that went after. What if his leg had never received that shrapnel, what if a generation had not been destroyed, what if Edwardian prosperity had gone on and Britain had remained at peace?

For a start, Alfred would not have stopped playing cricket with the farmers' boys on the green in Essex. It's there that Lessing begins - the idyll, Alfred at the crease, 16 years old, a gifted boy among men, Emily watching from the boundary, the long, hot summer of 1902 and all their lives laid out before them. Lessing knows those lives, as she knows her own. And she knows the germ of insatiable defiance that would, in any case, have formed each of them.

Alfred and Emily began, as she began, perhaps as all children begin, by letting their parents down. Alfred was determined, against his family's wishes, to become a farmer; we meet Emily at the point of her first defiance - she has told her father she will not, as he wants, go to university but, instead, she will become a nurse at the Royal Free Hospital in London and 'wipe the bottoms of the poor'. This book could have been titled 'Be careful what you wish for'.

And so they go on, in this version of events, meeting but never marrying - she to wed unhappily the man she always thought might have been the love of her life, a doctor who dies suddenly at 50; he settled on a smallholding, embroiled in the life of the village. Contentment is the least interesting of all human states and Lessing will not countenance it for long. In removing the regrets of her parents' lives, she quickly furnishes them with others; character is always fate.

As she goes on, she interrogates what she imagines for them, unpicks her alternative stitching of things and finds it arises from those moments of wistfulness her parents allowed themselves, those troubling hints to Lessing and her brother that life could have been better. As she observes, most of the time 'small children live in a world that excludes the mad fantasies of adults'.

At the heart of this quietly extraordinary meditation on family is Lessing's hard knowledge of two things. The first is the fact that she 'hated her mother ... those bundling, rough, unkind, impatient hands'; the second, and this one took her 'years and years and years' to understand, is that her 'mother had no visible scars, no wounds, but she was as much a victim of the war as my poor father'. That growing knowledge never stopped her from tearing up her mother's letters unopened or from beginning her own life of bad decision and regret. Her parents were defined by the ways they chose to escape from the lives they grew up into. Lessing chose her own cliché of escape: 'Well of course I got married to get away from my mother.'

There is another story here, though; a little personal war reparation - both the carnage that shapes nations and families. Emily McVeagh was, above all, an educator. In the life Lessing imagines for her mother, she devotes herself to a foundation that brings books and enlightenment to the East End poor. In reality, for all her frustrations, she brought those things to her daughter. This perfectly crafted book is, as Lessing knows, the latest instalment of a remarkable payback.



Wednesday, 21st May 2008


Real and imagined parents


Philip Hensher on Doris Lessing's account of her parents' lives


There are now two full columns of entries on the ‘Also by Doris Lessing’ page — 58 separate books. Along with work of an entirely fantastical, invented variety there is a good body of her work which shades off, in calibrated degrees, from the realist and directly observed novel, towards the autobiographical fiction, and into autobiography proper.

The urge to give an account of her own life has been a constant incentive from the Children of Violence sequence which begins with Martha Quest. There are, too, novels such as the recent, excellent The Sweetest Dream where we are invited to consider an autobiographical component, as well as two volumes of formal autobiography. All the same, she has never written a book much like Alfred and Emily. I can’t think of anyone else who has, either.

It is an account of her parents’ lives, divided into two. In the first half, billed as ‘a novella’, Alfred and Emily meet but do not marry. Emily’s husband, William, a rich doctor, dies early, leaving her to good works; Alfred lives on into old age. There is a dreamlike quality to the novella which the reader may initially find it hard to put his finger on, without the demure sentence on the introductory page: ‘I have tried to give them lives as they might have been if there had been no World War One.’

In reality, Alfred and Emily’s lives were torn apart by the Great War. Alfred lost a leg in the trenches and developed diabetes, towards the end of his life begging to be put down like a sick horse. Emily’s doctor drowned in the Channel. There is one curious, inevitable missing fact about the account of their lives in the first half which seems almost too obvious to point out; there is no Doris. The second half introduces Doris into a fragmented, furious account of her family’s real life in Persia and Rhodesia after the war. If the first half is speculative and disconcertingly dreamlike, the second is like a bomb going off. ‘I hated my mother,’ she says. ‘I can remember that emotion from the start.’

It seems an extraordinary, almost inconceivable life now. Probably nowhere in the world is now as remote and cut off as rural Rhodesia was in Lessing’s childhood. In her account, her parents went there for no better reason than, on leave from Persia in London, they visited the Empire Exhibition at Wembley.

And the Southern Rhodesian stall had great mealie cobs, and the invitation ‘Get rich on maize.’ Do you mean to say those idiots believed a slogan on a stall at an exhibition? But many idiots did . . .

Utterly unprepared, their life is beautifully caught in a series of novelistic images; the trunk full of evening dresses, garden- party dresses, tea gowns which, decades later, Emily’s daughter Doris unpacks, every one unworn and wrecked by moths, or the pet cow which Doris raises, like her own talent, until it takes to forcing its way from the veldt into her bedroom, half-grown. It is — an odd, Lessing- like combination — both furious and relaxed, like a recorded rant by a masterly talker.

The second half is worth the price of admission, though the first, speculative half shows some flagging of energy. I don’t think the consequences, both for Europe and for the characters, of there being no Great War are quite sufficiently explored. The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires are still said to fall on cue, and there is no Spanish influenza outbreak. Whether the political upheavals of the 1920s, particularly the emancipation of women, would have proceeded in anything like the same way is difficult to envisage. Perhaps Lessing’s point, merely adumbrated, is that the long Edwardian afternoon would have entailed a continuation of the great Edwardian philanthropy, otherwise brutally curtailed.

Not many of Lessing’s books are anything but instantly engaging, in the political as well as the buttonholing sense. In this one, she explores the conviction that ‘between the clever, foresightful people of this world and the ones without imagination there is a gulf into which perhaps we will all fall one day.’ When there is no alternative there to be worth imagining, Alfred and Emily sadly suggests, the unshadowed result in lives may be usefulness, and perhaps even happiness.




The roads Lessing travelled




September 13, 2008



By Doris Lessing

HarperCollins, 274 pages, $27.95


This curious hybrid of memoir and fiction doesn't have the brutality of its author's representation of her mother in Under My Skin (1994), an autobiography that spanned the first 30 years of Doris Lessing's life, from 1919 to 1949, when she left her girlhood home of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for England. There is brutality in Alfred & Emily, but it derives from the rage Lessing feels about the traumatic effects of the First World War on her parents and herself, as the unrelieved hardships of their lives in Rhodesia and the disappointments in their inner lives affect Lessing's own reality.

The rage and brutality are experienced viscerally in the book's second part - the memoir that manages to be intimately revelatory as well as piercingly powerful. However, before we get to this extraordinary exploration of personality and circumstance, we have to deal with the inventive but pedestrian novella of the first part, in which Lessing reimagines and reinvents her parents' lives.

Lessing writes in her foreword: "That war, the Great War, the war that would end all war, squatted over my childhood. The trenches were as present to me as anything I actually saw around me. And here I still am, trying to get out from under that monstrous legacy, trying to get free." Shrapnel shattered one of her father's legs (he would wear a wooden one), sending him eventually into severe depression (compounded later by diabetes) and to an early death at 62.

Her mother, who had nursed the wounded crying out for morphine, had to cope with these facts, as well as the earlier loss of her great love, a doctor, who had drowned in the English Channel. Both parents, Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeagh, could have had better lives, and Lessing tries to fictionalize what these might have been, but her attempt at this sort of tender honour lacks the authoritative vividness that is shown in the memoir.

Beginning with a cricket match on a sunny afternoon in rural Essex, 1902, Lessing (the 2007 Nobel laureate for literature) creates a pastoral in which Alfred and Emily meet but do not marry. Lessing, in effect, writes herself out of their lives. Alfred disappoints his parents by opting to work for a feckless, alcoholic local farmer rather than joining a bank; Emily defies hers by deciding to train as a nurse. She is disowned but finds a surrogate mother in Mrs. Lane, whose daughter Daisy is Emily's friend.

In 1916, kind, sentimental Alfred, good cricketer and dancer, suffers a burst appendix and then marries Betsy, a nurse, with whom he produces twin boys. Then the focus shifts strongly to Emily, who marries a cardiologist, is forced to give up nursing and becomes deeply discontented as a middle-class wife.

When her husband succumbs to a heart attack at 50, she feels herself torn loose and floating. However, she discovers a talent for telling stories to children, and so, with her widow's inheritance and helpful contacts, she establishes a charity and opens a number of schools, hoping to remedy poverty and ignorance in the East End. She has a brief affair with a Scottish poet, who dies suddenly. She is often tearfully unhappy, never marries again and dies from heart failure following head injuries inflicted by boys with whom she had tried to remonstrate for tormenting a dog. Nevertheless, she gets to fulfill some of her ambitions that the real Emily never did.

Lessing briefly explains the real-life sources for her characters in the fiction. Alfred's wife, for instance, is based on a "large, laughing, ruddy-faced" anonymous Danish woman who had visited Rhodesia and nestled young Doris in her lap. Emily's husband comes from "the little picture of my mother's great love that lived on her dressing-table."

However, these revelations don't revive the limp fiction. Though interesting in small angular perspectives (such as the gap between the prosperous and poor in England, the untested "surplus generation" with the latest Turkish and Serbian coiffures in Mayfair and Belgravia, and the "fierce moralities" of the time), this tale hardly casts a spell. Laden with dull, bland sentences ("And now Emily and Alfred were at the top of their lives, their fortunes - of everything"), tired turns of phrase ("Yes, his dancing days were over, and he did so love to dance"), and Hallmark card sentimentality, it never reads like the work of a great writer. Nearly 90, Lessing may really be too old to write fiction.

Fortunately, this novella doesn't get to leave the last impression. The memoir takes over, establishing Lessing's gift for charged writing that is spun out of turbulent fact rather than wish-fulfilment fantasy. True, this part is loosely structured by a sequence of short themes, scenes, descants and digressions (on tyrannical Mugabe, AIDS, feminism etc.), but it has palpable authenticity, understandable ferocity and an urgent clarity.

In it, Alfred and Emily are both broken by the war, and Lessing assembles scenes from their biographies, without trying to camouflage the difficulty of making the pieces fit together. Her father goes stomping through the African brush, his wooden leg a burden, trying to make a go of farming so that he can return to England and retire on a county farm. Suffering from major depression, he sleeps badly all his life and grows increasingly incapacitated, especially when stricken by diabetes.

Emily, however, is rendered with more ambiguity because she is several women in one, having had an amazingly busy girlhood, full of achievement, a nursing career during which she administered to Alfred, marriage and departure for Persia (Iran), where Lessing and her younger brother were born, and where Emily's life as a social butterfly proves pleasurable, and their move to Rhodesia where, unable to have her dream of a colonial social whirl, she takes to her bed, suffering the inner ravages of the war that take Lessing years to see.

Particularities are fascinating: drought-racked cattle, the thatched house with mud walls, childhood reading, the food, the trunk with her mother's beautiful but wasted dresses. Although Lessing still writes about the lifelong friction with her mother, she does make Emily rather sympathetic as an "unused" or underused person: "I look back at my mother and know that what she really was, the real Emily, died in the breakdown she had soon after she landed on the farm. ... The real Emily McVeagh [who played bridge all day in her old age] was an educator, who told stories and brought me books. That is how I want to remember her."

Keith Garebian is the author of Blue: The Derek Jarman Poems.