Weighing what might have been

Lessing blends fiction, memoir in portraying parents

By Porter Shreve
September 7, 2008
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Alfred and Emily
By Doris Lessing
Harper, 274 pp., illustrated, $25.95

A year ago Harvey Blume interviewed Doris Lessing for the Globe's Ideas section, and in hindsight two parts stand out as ironic. When asked why she thought she hadn't won a Nobel Prize, Lessing said that "a little gray chap" from the Nobel Committee had once told her she didn't stand a chance: "I've never found out why they don't like me." Two months later she was named, at 87, the oldest literature laureate ever. Blume also quoted Lessing as saying that past the age of 60, "you float away from the personal. You have received the great gift of getting older - detachment, impersonality."

But Lessing's first book after capturing the Nobel is one of the most personal of her more than 50 volumes, and far from letting go of the past she grapples directly with her fraught relationship with her parents and their troubled bond with each other. Lessing is a famously close-to-the-bone writer, author of two autobiographies, "Under My Skin" and "Walking in the Shade," and of the five-volume "Children of Violence" series, featuring the autobiographical heroine Martha Quest. In Lessing's classic "Golden Notebook," the protagonist, Anna Wulf, is a writer in the midst of a breakdown who resolves her crisis by fusing her disparate roles - woman, artist, companion, activist - into one unified self.

Like "The Golden Notebook," "Alfred and Emily" explores the boundary where reality and imagination meet, through the use of a formally innovative structure. The first half of the book is fiction as alternate history: the lives Lessing's parents might have led if World War I had never taken place. The second half is memoir and tells the story of what really happened to her mother and father. Both sections are wonderfully evocative, though the task of telling two life stories in two separate genres, all in fewer than 300 pages, does make the narrative episodic at times. But in several key places, particularly where the book transitions to memoir, Lessing shows how she extrapolated from photographs and family stories to imagine whom her parents might have become. These glimpses into the creative process of one of the world's most gifted and socially engaged writers make "Alfred and Emily" a valuable addition to the Lessing oeuvre.

In real life, her father, Alfred Tayler, was a spirited and athletic man who lost his leg to a shrapnel wound. During his recovery he missed the Battle of Passchendaele, in which his entire company was killed, and for the rest of his days he suffered physical complications from his injury and deep, pervasive survivor guilt. "Even as a child I knew his obsessive talking about the Trenches was a way of ridding himself of the horrors," Lessing writes. "So I had the full force of the Trenches, tanks, star-shells, shrapnel, howitzers - the lot - through my childhood, and felt as if the black cloud he talked about was there, pressing down on me."

This same cloud weighed even more heavily on Lessing's mother. Emily McVeagh was a headstrong nurse at the Royal Free Hospital in London when she met Alfred and helped him through his convalescence. The couple enjoyed some good years of marriage in Persia, but at the Southern Rhodesia stall of the Empire Exhibition Alfred saw an advertisement - "Get rich on maize" - and cast his family's lot on the African bush, where their dream died quickly. They found themselves living in a thatched-roof mud hut, fighting off insects and malaria, and enduring year after year of failed crops, racial and social unrest, and the inescapable legacy of the Great War.

Lessing saves the memoir part of her story for the second half of the book and presents the fiction first. This decision might seem counterintuitive, but it underscores how she resists the happy ending in favor of a happy beginning. In fiction, Alfred is physically and emotionally whole because there is no World War I. He fulfills his dream of working the land but in fertile England, not arid Africa; he's a gentleman farmer who plays cricket on the weekends and marries a probationer from Emily's ward.

The fictional Emily is a nurse in London, but instead of meeting a haunted invalid she marries a successful cardiologist and gives up her job. Though it seems for a time as if she might become like the real Emily McVeagh and so many Lessing heroines, "women who should have been working, should have worked, should have interests in their lives," her husband has a heart attack at 50 and leaves Emily a fortune. She sets up a trust to help the poor of the East End, and her philanthropy extends to opening more than a dozen successful schools. She does harbor some regret at never having children and never remarrying, but it can't be denied that she's had a fulfilling life.

So why does Lessing begin with a sunny fiction and end with a bitter truth? Because youth fades and dreams wither, because beginnings are a long horizon and endings a narrowing corridor. And one can fantasize about a world without war and its consequences, but in the end the weight of history is too profound to avoid.

Porter Shreve's third novel, "When the White House Was Ours," will be published this month.

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