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Under My Skin: Volume One of My…

Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949 (1994)

by Doris Lessing

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Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
I don't agree with Lessing about everything, nor do I like everything she has written. With that disclaimer, I feel free to say that this is a great memoir. From her early life as a child of white immigrants to "Northern Rhodesia" to her life in South Africa first as a fairly conventional wife and mother and later as a divorced, remarried communist activist, Lessing is honest, witty and thoughtful. Interesting insights into the time period and also into the life of an extraordinary woman. ( )
1 vote kaitanya64 | Jan 3, 2017 |
Why would an author wish to write her autobiography? Lessing asks this question of herself at a time (1992) when she was aware that at least five writers were engaged in searching out aspects of her life in order to write her biography. She admits that it was an attempt, in a way, to claim her own life; to set the record straight as it were. She also says that writers might protest as much as they like, "but our lives do not belong to us." What emerges then is a wiser, older woman (she was 75 when it was published) looking back on her early life with a critical, but proud eye at what she did and what she achieved. She writes what she believes to be factually correct, while acknowledging that she cannot remember everything, but perhaps writing it down will help her to understand what happened a little better. The reader then is invited to accompany her on a kind of voyage of discovery and one could not wish for better company than this superbly written account of a life lived by a free spirit struggling against a society that seemed bent on holding her down.

Part one of her autobiography covers her early childhood in Iran and her formative years when her parents moved the family to Southern Rhodesia, up to her escape to England in 1949 clutching the manuscript of her first novel. She had to fight for her freedom, she had to fight her mother; a dominating presence, she had to fight a rigid colonial society that frowned on divorce and her sexual independence, she had to fight her own deep maternal instincts, she had to control her impetuosity while living under a system of apartheid that she abhorred. It goes without saying that she had to continually prove herself in a male dominated milieu and her involvement with the communist party increasingly made her an enemy of the state. She is not tempted to portray herself as a super hero fighting against the odds nor as a victim of forces beyond her control; she comes across as an intelligent woman searching for ways to express herself, while suffering inevitable knocks from a world in which she was palpably out of step. In the end she won her freedom by getting herself on a boat to England with the expectation that she would have more chance of success in a freer society.

There are several good reasons why the reader might be interested in her story (apart from those people that enjoy reading biographies of famous authors). She was an adventurous and sensitive child living on a Southern Rhodesian farm, way out in the bush. Her appreciation of the sights, sounds, smells of the countryside are remembered with a vivid intensity as she tells of explorations undertaken with her younger brother. The liberty that she felt on these adventures contrasts with the claustrophobic relationship with her mother and an increasingly beaten and invalid father. Like many young women she sought escape in marriage and on moving to Salisbury she married an older professional; a man whose life centred round the rugby club. They had two children but Doris felt trapped again and eased herself out of the household, leaving her two children to be looked after by her husband and his new girlfriend. Her descriptions of life as a young colonial wife are told with honesty and no regret. Both her and her husband, to some extent, are ashamed at the treatment of black people and do what they can to alleviate it, knowing that they will upset their neighbours. Prising herself free she immediately enters into a relationship and marriage to a leading communist intellectual and the need for another baby cannot be denied, even though she and Gottfreid agree that they will separate soon. Doris now enters the circle of left wing intellectuals, some of whom are attempting to make overtures to black leaders. Increasingly dangerous games are played as the Lessing's flout the racial laws as far as they can. Doris is able to explore her own sexual needs outside of her open marriage with Gottfried, where both partners remain loyal to each other. The couple come across increasingly as people trapped by their environment, Gottfried cannot achieve his political ambitions and Doris cannot get her first novel published and so another important theme of talented individuals being stifled by an unjust political system is played out.

Doris Lessing born in 1919 was a war baby, because after the first world war there was a need for repopulation. Her father who suffered in the trenches and came out with a leg amputated could not forget the horrors. Doris while a young wife in Salisbury had to stand by her husband and his friends who were keen to enlist for the second world war. The RAF had bases in Rhodesia and for women like Doris their social and sexual lives revolved around the men who could get leave from the war. Doris and Gottfried were trapped in Rhodesia during, and for a four year period after the war ended. As communists they were ostracised by the cold war. War then dominated thoughts and actions during this time and Lessing's autobiography brings home the fact that the war years affected everybody, even if they were not directly involved; to an extent that it is difficult to imagine today. Lessing from her vantage point of 1992 can reflect on those times, trying to understand the madness of war, how everyone was caught up in it, how you always had to think of the war. She also reflects on the feelings of optimism that those early left wing intellectuals felt, how they had convinced themselves that socialism or communism would lead to a fairer society, would end the need for war and how these hopes were dashed by the cold war: paranoia replaces optimism as intellectuals cling to false ideals.

Doris Lessing's honesty in recounting her early life becomes too difficult for her at times and she invents an alter ego "Tigger" who says and does those things that the older Doris acknowledges but cannot condone without some acute embarrassment. It is an interesting ploy and alerts the reader as to how difficult it must be to account for ones actions when they were younger. She says:

"When you write about anything - in a novel, in an article - you learn a lot you did not know before. I learned a good deal writing this. Again and again I have had to say, 'That was the reason was it? Why didn't I think of that before?' Or even, 'Wait..... it wasn't like that'. Memory is a careless and lazy organ, not only a self flattering one. And not only self flattering. More than once I have said 'No, I wasn't as bad as I have always been thinking,' as well as discovering I was worse."

Doris Lessing's early life was eventful and interesting and she lived through a time that benefits from her faithful recollections of just how things were. They are times that are fading from memory and to have Lessing's own intensely personal thoughts are a real bonus to understanding her early novels and short stories. They are also the thoughts of a woman who does not flinch from setting those thoughts into print, bravely and courageously at times. She deserves to be read. 4.5 stars. ( )
2 vote baswood | Jul 12, 2014 |
This is a great autobiography, brilliantly written, endlessly fascinating and absorbing. I did come out of it, however, feeling rather overwhelmed by Lessing's very gloomy view of humanity, and the general tone of pessimism that pervades the book. ( )
  janglen | Jan 14, 2014 |
The writing in Lessing's autobiographies is not so different from the writing in her fiction. Her attention to detail in both the emotional lives of her characters, as well as in their physical environments, is here. It becomes evident that the five novels in her Children of Violence series is heavily autobiographical. Deserting her husband and children to become a social activist, marrying a German refugee to save him from an African concentration camp, having another child (almost as something to do with her time) are all fleshed out here, so near (but not identical) to the experiences of her fictional character, Martha. The novels, however, project into the future, predicting what could happen in a thoughtless society that does not mend its ways. I often see Lessing as being blind to her own motives, but that does not mean that she is kind to herself. Like her "feminist" masterpiece, The Golden Notebook, which she claims was never about feminism, perhaps her memoirs are exactly what she says they are, and not what the reader imagines them to be. Lessing's autobiographies are as engrossing as her fiction. (October 1999) ( )
  bookcrazed | Jan 11, 2012 |
A great book from my favourite author. It is interesting to read an autobiography from Doris Lessing after reading Children of Violence. ( )
  MinnaH | Apr 29, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060926643, Paperback)

"I was born with skins too few. Or they were scrubbed off me by...robust and efficient hands."

The experiences absorbed through these "skins too few" are evoked in this memoir of Doris Lessing's childhood and youth as the daughter of a British colonial family in Persia and Southern Rhodesia Honestly and with overwhelming immediacy, Lessing maps the growth of her consciousness, her sexuality, and her politics, offering a rare opportunity to get under her skin and discover the forces that made her one of the most distinguished writers of our time.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:00:58 -0400)

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"Volume one of my autobiography, to 1949". Volume 2: Walking in the shade.

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