The Memoirs of a Survivor, p.1Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing was born in Persia in 1919, and spent her childhood on a farm in Rhodesia. In 1949 she arrived in England with the manuscript of her first novel, The Grass is Singing. Other novels by Doris Lessing are The Golden Notebook, the Children of Violence sequence (Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, A Ripple from the Storm, Landlocked and The Four-Gated City), Briefing for a Descent into Hell and The Summer Before the Dark. Her collections of short stories include This Was the Old Chiefs Country, The Sun Between Their Feet, Five, The Habit of Loving, A Man and Two Women and The Story of a Non-Marrying Man.
‘An attempt at autobiography’, says Doris Lessing, describing The Memoirs of a Survivor, which has qualities that make it seem like a fable or a magical tale, but is square in that ancient tradition where the storyteller’s leap into the fantastic has, by the rules, to be made from a ground of the most solid reality. Here, though, reality is the everyday of a few years hence, when barbarism is what is normal, and each of us has to fight for survival - men, women, and even little children who are so brutalized by necessity they are more frightening than the ferocious adults. From her windows the narrator watches things fall apart, sees the migrating hordes seethe past in search of the safety, the shelter, the good life that is always somewhere else - far from the anarchy of this emptying city where people huddle together in tribes for self-defense, where plants and animals are taking over deserted streets and houses. She also watches over the child Emily, brought into her care by a stranger who instructs: ‘Look after her, she is your responsibility,’ before vanishing. Emily - who, by the time the story is told, has become a beautiful world-worn young woman not yet sixteen - is also guarded by Hugo, half cat and half dog, ‘Emily’s animal’, the bizarre and lovable beast whose presence dominates this tale.
Inside the room whose windows look out on savagery is the entrance to ‘the place behind the wall’ where ordinary time can unexpectedly dissolve in the phantasmagoric scenes which may be painful evocations of the helplessness of a very small child, or imaginative reshapings of autobiographical experience, or the strong, sweet, powerful intimations of presences and beings not human who watch over us. This is a world that changes and dissolves as you watch, like clouds or like dreams… but what is it? Where? The author does not say, but while civilization crumbles to its end in the visible world, something very different is being made, being brought to a conclusion there, in that hidden place, the hinterland to our daylight lives where, some people believe, our other selves also live, breathe, grow…
This darkly visionary metaphor of a book seems at first not what we might have expected from an author whose strength is her painstaking grasp of the commonplace, the acknowledgement of the lessons of the ordinary, but as we read on and recognize the Leasing landscape that lies so solidly under these spinning soap-bubbles reflecting the fragments of a collapsing world we have to say: Yes! Of course! - for The Memoirs of a Survivor develops themes already familiar from The Four-Gated City, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, The Summer Before the Dark, and parts of The Golden Notebook, This book is being described as the quintessence of Doris Lessing.
First published 1974 by the Octagon Press Ltd
This Picador edition published 1976 by Pan Books Lid,
Cavaye Place, London SW10 9PG
6th printing 1981
© The Octagon Press 1974
isbn 0 330 24623 2
Set, printed and bound in Great Britain by
Cox & Wyman Ltd, Reading
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This book is for my son Peter
We all remember that time. It was no different for me than for others. Yet we do tell each other over and over again the particularities of the events we shared, and the repetition, the listening, is as if we are saying: ‘It was like that for you, too? Then that confirms it, yes, it was so, it must have been, I wasn’t imagining things.’ We match or dispute like people who have seen remarkable creatures on a journey: ‘Did you see that big blue fish? Oh, the one you saw was yellow!’ But the sea we travelled over was the same, the protracted period of unease and tension before the end was the same for everybody, everywhere; in the smaller units of our cities - streets, a cluster of tall blocks of flats, a hotel, as in cities, nations, a continent … yes, I agree that this is pretty highflown imagery considering the nature of events in question: bizarre fish, oceans, and so forth. But perhaps it wouldn’t be out of place here to comment on the way we -everyone - will look back over a period in life, over a sequence of events, and find much more there than they did at the time. This is true even of events as dispiriting as the litter left on a common after a public holiday. People will compare notes, as if wishing or hoping for confirmation of something the events themselves had not licensed - far from it, something they had seemed to exclude altogether. Happiness? That’s a word I have taken up from time to time in my life, looked at - but I never did find that it held its shape. A meaning, then; a purpose? At any rate, the past, looked back on in this frame of mind, seems steeped in a substance that had seemed foreign to it, was extraneous to the experiencing of it. Is it possible that this is the stuff of real memory? Nostalgia, no; I’m not talking of that, the craving, the regret - not that poisoned itch. Nor is it a question of the importance each one of us tries to add to our not very significant pasts: ‘I was there, you know. I saw that.’
But it is because of this propensity of ours that perhaps I may be permitted the fancy metaphors. I did see fish in that sea, as if whales and dolphins had chosen to show themselves coloured scarlet and green, but did not understand at the time what it was I was seeing, and certainly did not know how much my own personal experience was common, was shared: this is what, looking back, we acknowledge first - our similarities, not our differences.
One of the things we now know was true for everybody, but which each of us privately thought was evidence of a stubbornly preserved originality of mind, was that we apprehended what was going on in ways that were not official. Not respectable. Newscasts and newspapers and pronouncements were what we were used to, what we by no means despised: without them we would have become despondent, anxious, for of course one must have the stamp of the official, particularly in a time when nothing is going according to expectation. But the truth was that every one of us became aware at some point that it was not from official sources we were getting the facts which were building up into a very different picture from the publicized one. Sequences of words were crystallizing events into a picture, almost a story: And then this happened, and so-and-so said ... but more and more often these were words dropped during a casual conversation, and perhaps even by oneself. ‘Yes, of course!’ one would think. That’s it. I’ve known that for some time. It’s just that I haven’t actually heard it put like that, I hadn’t grasped it…’
Attitudes towards authority, towards Them and They, were increasingly contradictory, and we all believed that we were living in a peculiarly anarchistic community. Of course not. Everywhere was the same. But perhaps it would be better to develop this later, stopping only to remark that the use of the word ‘it’ is always a sign of crisis, of public anxiety. There is a gulf between: ‘Why the hell do they have to be so incompetent!’ and ‘God, things are awful!’ just as ‘Things are awful’ is a different matter again from ‘It is starting here too,’ or ‘Have you heard any more about i
I shall begin this account at a time before we were talking about ‘it’. We were still in the stage of generalized unease. Things weren’t too good, they were even pretty bad. A great many things were bad, breaking down, giving up, or ‘giving cause for alarm’, as the newscasts might put it. But ‘it’, in the sense of something felt as an immediate threat which could not be averted, no.
I was living in a block of flats, which was one of several such blocks. I was on the ground floor, at earth-level; not as it were in some aerial village with invisible paths beaten from window to window by the inquisitive or the speculative eye among birds following their roads, while traffic and human affairs were far below. No, I was one of those who looked up, imagining how things might be up there in higher regions where windows admitted a finer air, and where front doors led to the public lifts and so down, down, to the sound of traffic, the smells of chemicals and of plant life … the street. These were not flats built by a town council, the walls scribbled with graffiti, the lifts stained with urine, the walls of lobbies smeared with excrement: these were not the vertical streets of the poor, but were built by private money, and were heavy, were settled widely over the valuable soil - the formerly valuable soil. The walls were thick, for families who could afford to pay for privacy. At the entrance was a largish hall, carpeted; and there were even stands of flowers, artificial but handsome enough. There was a caretaker. These blocks were models of what such buildings should be for solidity and decency.
But by that time, with so many people gone from the city, the families who lived in these blocks were not all the class for whom the buildings had been put up. Just as, for years, all through the eroding streets of the poor, empty houses had been taken over by squatters settling in families or groups of families, so that for a long time it had been impossible to say: This is a working class area, this is homogeneous - so, too, in these great buildings once tenanted only by the well-to-do, by the professional and business people, were now families or clans of poor people. What it amounted to was that a flat, a house, belonged to the people who had the enterprise to move into it. So, in the corridors and halls of the building I lived in you could meet, as in a street or a market, every sort of person.
A professor and his wife and his daughter lived in the twin set of rooms to mine down the corridor; immediately above me was a family of Indians with many relatives and dependants. I mention these two sets of people because they were closest to me, and because I want to make the point that it is not as if an awareness of what went on behind walls and ceilings had been lacking before the start of -what? Here I do find difficulty, because there is nothing I can pinpoint, make definite … now I am talking not about the public pressures and events we encapsulate in words like ‘They’, ‘Them’, ‘It’ and so on, but my own private discoveries which became so urgent and which were making such a claim on me at the time. I can’t say: ‘On such and such a day I knew that behind the wall a certain quality of life was being lived.’ Not even: ‘It was in the spring of that year that …’ No, the consciousness of that other life, developing there so close to me, hidden from me, was a slow thing, coming precisely into the category of understanding we describe in the word realize, with its connotation of a gradual opening into comprehension. Such an opening, a growing, may be an affair of weeks, months, years. And of course one can ‘know’ something and not ‘know’ it. (One can also know something and then forget it!) Looking back I can say definitely that the growth of that other life or form of being behind that wall had been at the back of my mind for a long time before I realized what it was I had been listening to, listening for. But I can’t set down a date or a rime. Certainly this inner preoccupation predated the other, public, concern to which I’ve given, I hope it is not thought frivolously, the word ‘it’.
Even at my dimmest and thickest I did know that what I was becoming conscious of, what I was on the edge of realizing, was different in quality from what in fact went on around me: above my head, the lively, busy, warming family life of the Indians, who came, I believe, from Kenya; and different again from what I heard from the rooms inhabited by Professor White and his family - the wall of whose kitchen was also the wall of mine, through which, although it was a thick wall, we had news of each other.
Not realizing, or allowing myself to take in, the full implications of the fact that something was going on behind the wall of my living-room was because beyond it was a corridor. To be precise about it, what I was hearing was impossible. The sounds that come from a corridor, even a much-used one, are limited. It is for getting from one place to another: people walk along corridors singly, in pairs, in groups, talking or not talking. This corridor led from the front hall of the building, past the door into my flat, then on to the Whites’ front door, and so around to the flats on the east side of the ground floor of the building. Along that corridor went the Professor and the members of his family and their visitors, myself and my visitors, the two families from the east side and their visitors. So it was used a good deal. Often one had to be aware of feet and voices, distanced by the solidity of that wall, but I would say to myself: ‘That must be the Professor, surely he is early today?’ Or: ‘That sounds like Janet back from school.’
Yet there did come that moment when I had to admit that there was a room behind that wall, perhaps more than one, even a set of rooms, occupying the same space as, or rather overlapping with, the corridor. The realization of what I was hearing, the knowledge that I had been aware of something of the kind for a long time, became strong in me, at the time that I knew I would almost certainly have to leave this city. Of course by now everyone had a sense of this: knowing that we would have to leave was not confined to me. This is an example of something I have already mentioned: an idea coming into everyone’s mind at the same time and without intervention from the authorities. That is to say, it was not announced through the loudspeakers, or on public platforms, in the newspapers, on the radio, the television. God knows that announcements of all kinds were continually being made: yet these were not absorbed by the populace as was this other information. On the whole people tended to disregard what the authorities said - no, that is not quite true. The public information was discussed and argued and complained about, but it had a different impact. Suppose I said it was regarded almost as an entertainment? - no, that is not right either. People did not act on what they heard, that is the point: not unless they were forced to. But this other information, coming from no one knew where, the news that was ‘in the air’, put everyone into action. For instance, weeks before the official announcement that a certain basic foodstuff was to be rationed, I ran into Mr Mehta and his wife in the hall - the old couple, the grandparents. They were dragging between them a sack of potatoes; I, too, had a supply. We nodded and smiled, mutually commending our foresight. Similarly I remember Mrs White and myself exchanging good mornings on the paved area in front of the main entrance. She said, quite casually: ‘We shouldn’t leave things too long.’ And I replied: ‘We’ve got some months yet, but we ought to be making preparations, I agree.’ We were talking about what everyone was, the need to leave this city. There had been no public intimation that people should leave. Nor, for that matter, was there ever any recognition on the part of the authorities that the city was emptying. It might be mentioned in passing, as a symptom of something else, as a temporary phenomenon, but not as the big fact in our lives.
There was no single reason for people leaving. We knew that all public services had stopped to the south and to the east, and that this state of affairs was spreading our way. We knew that everyone had left that part of the country, except for bands of people, mostly youngsters, who lived on what they could find: crops left ungathered in the fields, animals that had escaped slaughter before everything had broken down. These bands, or gangs, had not, to begin with, been particularly violent or harmful to the few people who had refused to leave. They even ‘cooperated with the forces of law and order’, as the newscasts put
This had been going on for months. Warnings, first by rumour, then through the news-sources, that gangs were moving through such and such an area where the inhabitants had gone behind their locked doors until the danger had passed; that new gangs were approaching this or that area, where people would be well advised to look after then-lives, and their property; that another district, formerly dangerous, was now safe again - such alarms were part of our lives.
Where I lived, on the north side of the city, the streets were not roadways for the migrating gangs until a long time after the southern suburbs had become accustomed to them. Even when parts of our own town took anarchy for granted, we in the north talked and thought of ourselves as immune. The trouble would vanish, dissolve, take itself off… Such is the strength of what we are used to, the first two or three appearances of gangs in our northern suburbs seemed to us isolated incidents, not likely to be repeated. Slowly, we came to understand that it was our periods of peace, of normality, and not the days of looting and fighting, which were going to be unusual now.
And so - we would have to move. Yes, we would go. Not quite yet. But it would soon be necessary, and we knew it… and all this time my ordinary life was the foreground, the lit area - if I can put it like that - of a mystery that was taking place, had been going on for a long time, ‘somewhere else’. I was feeling more and more that my ordinary daytime life was irrelevant. Unimportant. That wall had become to me - but how can I put it? -I was going to say, an obsession. That word implies that I am ready to betray the wall, what it stood for, am prepared to resign it to the regions of the pathological? Or that I felt uneasy then or now about my interest in it? No, I was feeling as if the centre of gravity of my life had moved, balances had shifted somewhere, and I was beginning to believe - uncomfortably, still - that what went on behind the wall might be every bit as important as my ordinary life in that neat and comfortable, if shabby, flat. I would stand in my living-room -the colours were predominantly cream, yellow, white, or at least enough of these to make it seem that walking into the room was walking into sunlight - I would wait there, and look quietly at the wall. Solid. Ordinary. A wall without a door or a window in it: the door from the lobby of the flat was in the room’s side wall. There was a fireplace, not in the middle of it but rather to one side, so that there was a large expanse of this wall quite empty: I had not put up pictures or hangings. The ‘white’ of the walls had darkened and did not give off much light unless the sunlight lay on it. Once there had been wallpaper. It had been painted over, but under the paint outlines of flowers, leaves, birds were still visible. When in the mornings the sun did fall on part of that wall, the half-obliterated pattern showed so clearly that the mind followed suggestions of trees and a garden into a belief that the wash of light was making colour - greens, yellow, a certain shade of clear shell pink. It was not a high wall: the ceilings of the room were a comfortable height.
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