Doris Lessing likens memory to a shut door – the one that Alice desperately seeks to open though she is too small reach the doorknob. The access she has to her own past is unsure, arbitrary, selective. She describes as “creepy” the phenomenon that, “what I was told and what I remember were not the same.” She seemed to debate with herself, in the presence of a rapt audience at the British Council, the very nature of autobiography.
“The best part of being a writer,” the novelist confided, “is when you sit down to write the next book and you ask yourself, now what am I going to learn this time…and you have no idea at all.” Lessing, former feminist guru to young women of the ’60s and acclaimed author of over 20 novels, was at the British Council to promote the French translation of her autobiography, “Under My Skin” (Dans Ma Peau).
Now writing the second half of her autobiography, Lessing has obviously been deeply marked by the learning process she described. The process of plumbing the depths of her memory, she said, has brought her face to face with the act of writing itself.
Lessing was born in 1919 of British parents in what is now Iran, and was taken to what is now Zimbabwe when she was 5. She spent her childhood on a large farm there, and after leaving school at 14, worked in a variety of jobs, including typist, au pair and telephonist, maintaining her interest in writing all the while. She went to England in 1949, bringing with her the manuscript of her first novel, “The Grass is Singing” – published in 1950 with outstanding success, and filmed in 1981. The French translation of “The Golden Notebook” (1962) won the Prix Medici in 1976. Today, Lessing lives and writes in London.
Lessing says of “Under My Skin”: “It was there before I even started. I never asked myself if it was true.” For Lessing, the writer is “an unconscious creature that becomes a persona who makes decisions that the author knows nothing about.” And while she feels that the nature of autobiography is to tell the “truth” about one’s past, she compares it to the novel, inasmuch as personal history is still a story, no matter what one chooses to call it.
This real-life story, like the novel, according to Lessing, is “an artifice…that is not personal, but something else…a sexless, ageless, limitless story, that is not culture-bound.” It responds to the same desire that every reader has, the “need to know what’s coming next.” It responds to the reader’s desire to identify.
“Yet why write a book at all, when you could dance it?” she mused. Lessing noted that for centuries stories were lived through the oral tradition. Epics were relayed and acted out in song and dance. With the advent of printing, a new way of telling stories came into existence. Writers began “psychologizing” as the experience of storytelling became a silent inner voyage that is committed to the page before it can be shared.
“Suddenly,” she says, “there is a book that has nothing to do with the experience…our memories are fluid, and it is hard to match one’s memory or life to what’s written down. I feel like some kind of cheat.”
Lessing confesses to some “disquiet” about her representation of her past: “I left so much out.” Yet she maintains that the subjectivity of memory is “a product of one’s psyche, is representative of personality, and is thus valid.”
“Why an autobiography?” one listener asked.
“Because biographies are always riddled with inaccuracies…. And besides, I always considered it rude [of other authors] to write about someone before their death,” Lessing answered lightly.
When asked if the “feeling of sadness and weariness” that she once described as being “the backdrop” to all her writing was still present, she responded guardedly that, yes, the sensation is always there, but that “talking about ‘the enemy’ only makes you more aware of it.”
She quickly added: “Why should you get rid of it? What’s wrong with viewing the world with a jaundiced eye – I think it deserves it.”