The conflicts between mothers and daughters have long interested Doris Lessing. Growing up on a farm in colonial Rhodesia in the 1920s, the Nobel laureate in literature certainly experienced her fair share of such conflicts. She found herself in combat with a mother whose personal hopes and ambitions had been bitterly crushed by unkind fate and historical circumstance. "I had to get free," she writes. "My battles with my mother were titanic. What were they about? Everything, nothing, but she was going frantic as I escaped her."
Lessing has always been especially interested in the psychological breakdown of individuals and the questioning and collapse of social systems. The silver-haired novelist, who was born in Persia but lived in London for more than 25 years, has made such themes the cornerstone of her prolific career, which consists of more than 50 titles. In her first novel, "The Grass Is Singing," she drew upon her childhood experience in Rhodesia to write about racial injustice and the friction between cultures. In her seminal work "The Golden Notebook," she testified to a woman's struggles with the conflicts of work, love, maternity and politics. And in her visionary "Space Fiction" series "Canopus in Argos," which is partly based on Sufism (Lessing is a convert), she studied the evolution of societies over a long period of time.
Now, in her latest book "Alfred and Emily" (288 pages. Harper), Lessing, 88, turns to the most intimate of spheres: her childhood family. It is her final work, for she admits she no longer has the energy to write. In its intimacy, incisiveness and literary construct, it is also her most powerful book: a bold exorcism of her parents' traumas in the first world war, and a thorough examination of her relationship with them. "The war did them in," she writes. "Here I still am, trying to get out from under that monstrous legacy, trying to get free."
In a brash experiment with form, Lessing divides the book in half. The first part is a fictional account of what might have been if the war had never occurred. She restores Alfred's and Emily's dreams and creates a parallel reality. In the second part she recounts the horrific truth. As a strapping young lad, Alfred dreamed of being a cricket-playing English farmer. Instead, he returns from World War I a one-legged amputee. Emily, who trained as a nurse and could have led a glamorous existence as society wife and benefactor, loses the love of her life—a young doctor—and lives through the horror of nursing battle victims in her care.
As Lessing recounts, the two met in the hospital ward, and found comfort in each other. As a married couple, they moved to Rhodesia, where Alfred, an enfeebled, unsuccessful maize grower, suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder, which slowly eats away at his soul. Meanwhile, Emily barely exists, ravaged by her psychological wounds from witnessing the death and despair of so many young soldiers in her ward.
Lessing was fiercely marked by her parents' ordeals. "I think that my father's rage at the trenches took me over when I was very young and has never left me," she writes. "Do children feel their parents' emotions? Yes we do." As for her mother, Lessing makes no secret of her hatred of Emily's belief that life had cheated her, leading to an attempt to live through Doris and her younger brother, Harry. "In that long decline away from everything she knew herself to be, my mother accepted that her fate was to be a mother and 'that was that!'" Lessing is brutal in her depiction. "No, I won't. Let me go. No, I won't—do whatever it was she had planned for me," she writes.
Above all, "Alfred and Emily" is a clear indictment of war and all its consequences. Lessing has throughout the years been an activist for many causes, never shying away from speaking her mind. Her denouncement of apartheid led to her being banned from South Africa and Zimbabwe. In the same vein, this book carries a clear message. "I had no idea when I was writing that it was such an antiwar book," she says in a rare interview. "Of course now I see it, and it is what I feel. I feel all kinds of terrible despair about the wars—Iraq, Afghanistan. I'm talking about [Prime Minister Tony] Blair here: without any knowledge of what war is like, from any kind of experience, he just figured he'd have a war and lied to get his way." Lessing is astounded that the lessons of fighting are never learned, the repercussions never remembered. "There is so much evidence," she says, "so many books written, so many poems recited about what war is really like."
Lessing speaks fondly of the great solace she has found in literature. As a child it was a means to escape. As a young adult, it served to round out a formal education that ended at the age of 14. It was the foundation for her life's work, and so it seems ironic that her love for books was inculcated by her own mother, who was a great storyteller. Lessing would go on to discover French, American and Russian literature. She recounts her love for Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. "I think the perennial cry, 'The novel is dead' is because none of us has written anything as good as 'War and Peace' [or] 'Anna Karenina'," Lessing writes. "Quite simply, they represent the peak and glory of literature."
With this book, the journey that commenced decades ago with the will to escape the Rhodesian farm seems complete. "Alfred and Emily" is, in the end, a poignant tribute. The novelist chose to pen her last words by returning to her mother in a final act of compassion. Lessing has righted the wrongs of her parents' lives, and in the process, put her own demons to rest.