Lizzie's Reviews > Alfred and Emily

Alfred and Emily by Doris Lessing
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really liked it
bookshelves: nonfiction, memoir, 2013, own, used-book

I've put off reviewing this one a bit, because I'm not entirely sure what to say. This book was really, really important to me — but this book is wacko, and probably you should read everybody else's reviews of it instead.

It makes very little sense, I will say that much. Objectively, it's a weird read and really fragmented and even inside each of the fragments there is tons of narrative hopping around like it's normal. Doris Lessing won a Nobel Prize ("Oh, Christ"), wrote this book not long after, and not all that long after that, she has died. Obviously this book couldn't exist if it hadn't been written by her, but I suppose what I mean is… maybe it wouldn't have been published, if it hadn't been written by her.

But that's okay, actually. She is a person we are grateful for, as a culture. That thing they say about actors reading the phone book, it's true of some writers — give us your grocery lists and post-it notes, we don't care, they belong to us, they're our canon. You're our literature. And this is her last book.

(I don't think it really is accurate to term this her last novel, as Wikipedia does — it honestly isn't one, and people will be even more confused if that's what they expect. That real distinction seems to belong to 2007's The Cleft , which looks… perhaps even stranger than this, but at least thoroughly fictional.)

What it really is more like is reading her journal. I'm reviewing backwards, apparently, because this is what the last sections of the book are like. But in the idea that there is merit in publishing whatever some writers write, that's what I was thinking while I read it. It is more like a notebook than a real book: names of neighbors get dropped in without being introduced, there are mentions of events without any context, and most significantly, she skips through the timeline without any thoroughness or transition whatsoever. A normal person planning a book wouldn't really write it this way, but I think Lessing was just writing whatever she wanted. So, it is what it is.

This second half of the book is Lessing's nonfiction account of her parents, but really it is more of these unstructured impressions than a true report. (Some chapters are not even to do with her parents at all, but are reminisces on a certain topic, e.g. "Provisions," about what they ate.) This is a bit disappointing because it's a story worth telling in her own words, but I'm hopeful that her actual memoirs include more of a front-to-back explanation of her life, including her parents' background. Lessing's childhood really demands rather a lot of context — though inexorably English, she was born in colonial Iran (Persia) and raised in colonial Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), where she lived until the end of her second marriage. She doesn't really explain, in this book, what her parents were even doing in these parts of the world. They picked up a pamphlet, it sounds like. But there's clearly more to it than that.

It is the novella in the beginning of the book that is its most attention-worthy portion, but it is not free from these odd traits either. In particular, the timeline issue is… weird. She kind of wafts in and out, describing something going on in the characters' lives that you think is important… and then in a new paragraph, years have apparently passed. It could drive you crazy, or you could just go with it, which is what I did, because I just wanted to see.

This novella is the "important" part of this book. Lessing has written an alternate history of her parents, in which they did not marry or ever leave Britain, during a fantasy alternate history in which the First World War did not happen. (Or rather, there is some talk of the Turks and the Serbs, but their conflicts have not touched Western Europe or elsewhere.) Objectively, this is a bit interesting as an experiment, although I would venture to say that its execution is probably not universally appealing. It's not eventful, and does not speak very much to the subject of war. (She does suggest that Britain's youth "needed" a war of some kind, and indeed the fictional next generation shoots off to parts of the world where there is important soldiering and nursing to do — which I suppose we could debate, though it was not especially convincing or significant to me.) Probably, Literature-with-a-capital-L was hoping that Doris Lessing would really write this book about war and its fingers through generations of history, rather than what she did write, which is more about the cricket playing of parents-that-weren't. Why did she write it, then? What was the point?

The answer to this is what gets me. The fact that Doris Lessing felt, before she stopped writing forever — her final book — that she needed to write a life for her parents without each other, chills me to my heart. To me, it explains itself: she is unwriting her life, offering it to history, less for the greater good of the world (and remember, she unwrote a war) than for the debt of a child to its parents. It's a proposal for an existential truce in which she acknowledges that not only did such a war devastate these individuals, but the marriage that resulted from it did them worse.

Oddly, though, it is a proposal that she seems to say is inherently silly. Because it isn't quite as simple as "My parents would have been better off if they'd never married." Both the fictional Alfred and Emily endure a good amount of life's inescapable angst, which (she concludes) takes you up no matter what you do with yourself. That is part of what's hard about her outlook on them as individuals, and is typically brutal of Lessing's writing to suggest that avoiding the most painful time of their lives here only decreased the sum total of their pain by a portion. (You can get a taste of the sort of thing she says about them in this rough and hilarious interview.) It is the final act of a child's passive-aggression: "Have it your way, see how great it would be!"

But the pain that she probes, in their alternate life, is immensely interesting. This is where she is unpacking who these people were. What is at the core of them? She knows, because they carried it into their true lives in which they raised her. In another light, what happened to it? Interestingly, in the pretend story of her parents' alternate lives, after seeing them both into good marriages (to other people) she does not spend very much time on Alfred. The lesson, perhaps, is that her father's pain did come from the war only — in their real life he lost a limb and his health, he married and brought his wife to parts of the world they didn't belong. Avoiding these obvious disasters (undoubtedly it is a preferable alternative to keep all one's limbs, at least), his life turns out pretty average.

Emily is the heart and soul of the novella. It is crystal clear that the problem to solve, the knot really at the heart of Lessing's childhood was not her father, but the mother that she says she hated. In their real life, her mother suffered a "breakdown" in Africa, when she realized they would not go home again. In Emily's fictional life, she is actually not spared a breakdown at all — but what she gets is, perhaps, a more honest one. If, in Africa, her outward complaints were for her superficial dreams (the scene with the ruined ballgowns!), then in fiction Emily's daughter has managed to write for her the real catharsis to her life story. Because Emily's backstory does not change, from version to version. The climax of her youth was, always, her father's renunciation, his rejecting her forever when she chose her career. Surprisingly, it is Emily's parents that need to be resolved, as well.

(view spoiler)

Lessing seems to write novels inevitably to stab them in the heart. She draws conclusions so blunt as to almost be silly, which they would be if they weren't so simply devastating. Here, Emily's self-discovery comes during and after her (fictional!) badly chosen marriage, through which she fights to orient her goals and her identity. This is a Lessing story all the way, and the great grace of it is that the author does the job with generosity, performing the surgery and sewing her back up. Emily is never well understood, and she is never very happy, but she finds her road to heroism and carries on with strength. At the end of the book, she is raw with discovery: she can't stop crying lately, and she is ravaged by revelation after watching a nursing newborn — a conclusion so harsh it cannot be maudlin. The questions to her life are not resolved, but at last she asks them.

Maybe this doesn't seem important to everyone? Maybe it doesn't universally answer the "why" of this book. But it is very important to me. My own life's major theme, the "why"s of me, will always be the link of debts paid between generations. Lessing's mission to write about parental love's lambent cruelty might tear the fabric of the world apart, but it is a needful sacrifice for us. She asks our questions, and shows us whether they are answerable.

The more I read of Doris Lessing (and it's not really been so much) the more I see her to be one of the authors who has written directly upon my life. She wrote as if she knew me, or so it feels. And that is the most important feeling that readers ever receive; it is the real gift of books, and the part of literature that is religion. I wish she did know me, though I fear what she'd say. And perhaps I hope for it, too. To be understood by the person who understands. I need writers like her. This book will always be important for me, and I guess it's just as well that it doesn't need to make sense to do so.
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Reading Progress

October 31, 2012 – Shelved
June 20, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read-off-my-shelf
November 20, 2013 – Started Reading
November 21, 2013 –
page 55
20.0% "The formidable machine of that energy of hers was behind that I. It was rescuing her."
November 21, 2013 –
page 55
20.0% "This is a weird, abrupt book -- I can tell why people don't really like it -- but I think we've gotten rolling now. I think I could gobble it up in a day if I wanted to."
November 21, 2013 –
page 70
December 12, 2013 –
page 87
31.64% "So, with the chill of that ancient rupture from her father still on her, she left, while at the same time blessing him: Thank you.\n \n /\n \n "A girl doesn't need a mother if she has a friend like you."\n \n The two wept in each other's arms, but for very different reasons."
December 13, 2013 –
page 137
49.82% "And there's the Lessing stab in the heart."
December 13, 2013 –
page 145
52.73% "he found a young woman dying on the steps of St. Andrew's Church in Holborn and was unable to get admission for her at any of the London hospitals which all then demanded letters of recommendation from a subscriber. You whaaat"
December 13, 2013 –
page 146
53.09% "the introduction of women medical students in 1877:"
December 13, 2013 –
page 151
54.91% "Now, the nonfiction. (This is just a quote from Lawrence, and I'm already devastated.)"
December 31, 2013 –
page 156
56.73% "Nothing that she ever told … matches up with what my mother became. Nothing fits, as if she were not one woman but several."
December 31, 2013 –
page 158
57.45% "She called her little children to her, and she said, 'Poor Mummy, poor, poor Mummy.' To this day I can feel the outrage i felt then ... She was ill, all right. And not herself. That was the point. And what were we supposed to do? Kiss her? Give her a good hug? But she did not only demand our pity with tears to match hers. That was not all she did."
December 31, 2013 –
page 158
57.45% "She was saying goodbye to everything she had expected for her life in this colony, which must have been something like Happy Valley in Kenya."
December 31, 2013 –
page 163
59.27% "So many people, events, dramas, the malaria, watching the house-building. I learned to read off a cigarette packet. 'Look, I can read.'"
December 31, 2013 –
page 183
66.55% "My mother was ill all the time. She had 'neuralgia', 'sick headaches', 'a heart'."
December 31, 2013 –
page 258
93.82% "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."
December 31, 2013 –
page 260
94.55% "My eyes were shut, and I was praying, if curses can be called a prayer."
December 31, 2013 –
page 275
100.0% "This awful cold's done great things for my year-end read count."
December 31, 2013 – Finished Reading
January 9, 2014 – Shelved as: nonfiction
January 9, 2014 – Shelved as: memoir
January 9, 2014 – Shelved as: 2013
February 11, 2014 – Shelved as: own
April 21, 2014 – Shelved as: used-book

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Shannon (new)

Shannon I feel like unliking this review so that I can like it again. This is one of my favorite reviews that you've ever written.

Lizzie Aw Shannon!

I have THE FEELINGS to write about here. THANKS DORIS!

Do you know anything about her autobiography(ies)?

message 3: by Shannon (new)

Shannon I don't. It's been so long since I read any Lessing. I should give it a try again.

Lizzie Did you ever read any of the "Children of Violence" ones? She references the first one later in this book while she's trying to explain the way she's always attempted to work out her mother-daughter issues.

Actually I'm going to copy it out because it was interesting, and I want to remember it later:

So much has been written about mothers and daughters, and some of it by me. That nothing has ever much changed is illustrated by the old saying, 'She married to get away from her mother.' Martha Quest was, I think, the first no-holds-barred account of a mother-and-daughter battle. It was cruel, that book. Would I do it now? But what I was doing was part of the trying to get free. I would say Martha Quest was my first novel, being autobiographical and direct. My first novel, The Grass Is Singing was the first of my real novels.

message 5: by Shannon (new)

Shannon No, I haven't read any of those. There's so much Lessing to read! I'm always slightly afraid of her. The Golden Notebook was rough, in a good way, but still. Her vision is so direct and wide at the same time. She doesn't let you ignore anything important, no matter how difficult it is.

It might be good for me to try some of her autobiographical writing. I'm in a biography sort of mood right now anyway, thanks to T. H. White.

Zanna The need to be seen, the need to be known... is intense, deep. Sometimes only books give us that. I think

Lizzie Well said! I think it's one of my favorite themes in books because it feels profound to recognize you aren't the only person seeking it. It always surprises me. If it isn't entirely universal, it's at least universal to like-minded people, and it's good to remember them.

Zanna I think... it is a widespread need, but the ability to see another depends on a certain likeness of mind. But reading and other ways of extending empathy make it possible to see more, so there is a possibility of training, extension

message 9: by C.koltzenburg (new)

C.koltzenburg Hi Lizzy, have another look at Wikipedia ;-)

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