on September 2, 2001
I loved every moment of reading this book.
It begins with the story of how Doris Taylor's parents' met in the aftermath of World War I, in the hospital where her mother was a nurse and her father was recovering from the loss of a leg. With remarkable vividness she describes her earliest experiences, first in a country house in the mountains of Persia (now Iran) and then in the city of Teheran.
The Taylors then moved to a farm in Southern Africa. Except the farm wasn't actually there yet - when they got there, the land had to be cleared and the house built. Doris describes her father sitting and smoking with the native African foreman of the crew that was building the house, talking with great profundity but just a few words, while the little Doris played nearby. This scene stood out for me, because it seemed to explain why the young Doris always took it for granted that the indigenous people were human beings deserving of equal rights, when the society she was growing up in was based on the premise that they were not. Yet she never mentions her father, whom she also describes as criticizing her mother for speaking disrespectfully to the servants, as a positive influence in this area.
I loved the book's evocation of landscape; the plants, animals, earth and sky of southern Africa. The girl whose story this is seems a part of that landscape, a creature of bush and veld and vlei. She struck me as unflappable, irrepressible, sensual, and somehow larger than life. When she describes the first money she earned, by shooting some birds and selling them to the local butcher, I imagined her a bronzed Artemis, striding through the bush with a rifle over her shoulder. It seems this was her true home, which she loved passionately, yet where she could not live, because the exploitation of the indigenous people was intolerable and would have driven her insane if she'd stayed. She hasn't exactly described the loss, in so many words, but I feel it, poignantly.
This autobiography is also a remarkable piece of history, vividly documenting British colonialism in Southern Rhodesia during this period, as well as World War I and its effects on an entire generation, World War II, and the influence of colonial racism in pushing whites who couldn't stand the injustice into communism.
If you are a Doris Lessing fan, you must read this book. If you'd like a first-hand history of the first half of the 20th century, read it. If you're not a Lessing fan because you've tried to read her work and found it too wordy or intellectual, you might really enjoy this one. Loved it!
on February 7, 2003
Under My Skin
Doris Lessing's autobiography traces her political and emotional development from her earliest childhood memories to her growing, overwhelming, disenchantment with provincial (as she saw it) small town life. "Small town" life for her was pre-WWII Salisbury in the (then) British colony of Southern Rhodesia. Salisbury was a complacent capital city of 10,000 white settlers in a country the size of Spain.
Lessing is quick to debunk the myth of the prosperous, close knit, white farming community - poverty was a real fact of life both for blacks and whites. Her most vivid childhood memories are of escaping from the family home and off into the limitless veld. The emptiness of the veld parallels her youthful emptiness and her growing convictions that the communist party represents a real hope for the world.
The book, a masterpiece of autobiographical writing, is brutally honest in parts and wilfully obscure in others. Some of her emotional mistakes are hardly glanced at (leaving her first two children, for example) but others (the joys of being part of a fast, hard drinking sect, embracing radical politics) are wonderfully engaging. Reading her thoughts you could be forgiven for thinking that the "party" was the only opposition to conservative white rule in Salisbury. This is what makes her book so appealing, her supreme skill as a novelist allowing us to enter the heady world of rushed meetings, leftist newspaper deliveries, drinks on the sports club verandah and back in time to find the cook still waiting to prepare supper. Naturally it couldn't last and Lessing is far too intelligent to think that that is all there is to life. The book ends in 1949 as she arrives in London, apprehensive and hopeful in the capital city of her parents.
This is more than a 'who-did-what' from a long time ago, times and dates are (probably deliberately) rarely mentioned. It is the personalities and the ideas - most of all the ideas - sliding from youthful enthusiasm to mature realism which fuse the book with life and vitality. 'Under My Skin', published in 1992, is that rare thing, a candid autobiography written by a consummate novelist with skills to spare. Doris Lessing is a national treasure.
on October 9, 1998
Early on in Under My Skin, Doris Lessing discusses the nearly lost art of the biography - once rich in historical as well as personal perspective and value. If this first volume is any indication, her autobiography restores that wonder. As a young reader, I felt my awareness of 20th century British colonialism, the two World Wars, pre- Cold War Communism, and much else, filled out in a way that history texts have not managed- and was furthermore struck by Lessing's gift as one who argues for independent education ("we have not yet developed a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination.") , for reading what one is gripped by at whatever moment one is compelled to: she offers history to those who are inspired to search beyond the traditional sources, and does it well. Still, this is only half the story. Her insight into herself, afforded by an astoundingly acute memory as well as by a familiarity with psychology, organizational and individual politics (i could go on!) is as impressive here as always (when i first read Martha Quest after a reccomendation by a bookstore salesperson, I was overwhelmed by her articulation of the inside of a young woman's mind- and have remained so in all readings of Lessing's work). Lessing possesses an acuity and breadth of perspective that transcends ideological identification, fluctuating popular sentiment, and all other pretense. I strongly reccomend this book to all, for its value is variegated enough to compel readers of all interests and inclinations.
on December 11, 2002
This is a candid autobiography with as main themes love, sex (good sex, as Doris Lessing calls it, is a right for everybody) and politics in South-Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) ruled by a blank minority.
It is a gripping, moving and realistic picture, wherein the author tries to find answers to personal and more general human questions: why was she so outspoken rebellious and, on the contrary, so strictly loyal to the communist movement?
Why are people fighting relentlessly each other, and on the other hand, striving for happiness?
Are the people of her generation all children of World War I? Why was her father a freemason?
This book is written like an irresistible waterfall. Not to be missed.
on October 26, 1997
As befits this marvelous writer's lifetime work, the autobiography tells all -- love affairs, difficult relationship with parents and children, disillusion with communism, a clear denouncing of the stupid fad of "politically correctness". Best biography of the year.