Friday, October 16, 2009

Nigel Cox on Doris Lessing

The ninth in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is a February 1995 interview by novelist Nigel Cox with Doris Lessing, who had recently published Under My Skin, the first volume of her autobiography. The interview was recorded for the TV show The Edge, but was never screened.

What started you writing your autobiography?
Well, the worthy reason is that I was part of that colonial experience, the experience has now totally vanished, that’s the end of the Raj in Southern Rhodesia, 90 years of British occupation – which is nothing. People have forgotten what it was like, so a lot of information is in there. And the other thing, the unworthy reason, is that people are writing biographies – I thought I’d get in first.

You’ve said that one thing about the writers you know, that they have in common, is that they had stressed childhoods. Is this a recording of the stresses in your childhood that made you a writer?
Yes it is. There’s a lot of discussion of that, and some unanswered questions because I don’t know, at least certain things, at all – probably I never will. But it is interesting that practically every writer will say that they had a complicated childhood, though not necessarily an unhappy one. I think that if children travel a lot or have a complicated family background, it makes them observers because they’re so used to watching their parents’ faces all the time for reactions, for survival. It’s a good training for writers.

Autobiographers seem to find it easy to write about their childhoods, but then they get into terrible knots when they come up to the period of their life when they’re adults and they have to justify their actions. Have you found that a problem?
No, because I don’t really feel very good about myself as a young woman. I was a pretty graceless creature. I think that some people are going to be rather disappointed; because you become a kind of sacred cow, you know, you’re old and respectable and all that, and they don’t really want to know about that graceless youth that I’ve been writing about.
But the real problem wasn’t that at all. The problem was, I remember far too much to go into that kind of space, so you have to choose. And when you start selecting, that’s not very far off a novel, right? So you think okay, so how does this differ from a novel?
The other thing is, if you use dialogue which I do, to cheer things up a bit, that’s the same thing. So I’ve come to the conclusion that the difference between fiction and autobiography, which is very narrow, is the autobiography is very messy and doesn’t have any shape. Whereas a novel has shape, you cut a lot out, make things new.

You’ve often been an innovator in the genres you’ve used. How did you approach writing an autobiography?
Oh, very conventional. I started at the beginning and went on to 1949, which is before most of the people in this room were born, very likely. So I have been saying to myself, why should anyone care about a country that they probably haven’t heard of, Zimbabwe, Southern Rhodesia, and about people and events long since dead?

And do you see it as a particularly different form of writing from the other forms?
Well, you spend much more time trying to get it right. It’s not easy to know what’s true and what isn’t, because I can say about myself at least that I’ve seen my life differently at different times. When I was a young woman I was extremely belligerent about what had happened to me; and then I went through a phase when I was wallowing around in guilt: how have I done that? Why did I do that? And now I’m extremely detached and curious. You very often see old people looking back into their past, they’re curious: how did that happen? Why did that happen?

Are you coming up with any answers?
Well, I think we’re much less free than we think we are in our choices, which is not a very comforting conclusion to come to.

You’ve always seemed a writer determined to remember accurately. Did writing this book bring back memories even you had forgotten?
Yes it did. And people I’d completely forgotten. Then you ask, were they really so unimportant to you that you’ve forgotten about them? Why are some people important and others not? I was trying to remember a group of people I was associated with in the early 50s, it was a Communist Party writers’ group in Britain – there was somebody doing some research. I couldn’t remember two of the people that attended that group regularly, whereas I remember all the others in the greatest possible detail. How do you account for that? I had to ring up friends and say, “What have I forgotten?”

People writing books of this sort always seem to have to steer around the worry of offending those who are still alive. Have you run into that problem yet?
Well, this first volume, you see, is easy because nearly everyone’s dead, I don’t think they care. But volume two will be very difficult because since I came to London I’ve known an awful lot of well-known people, and I’m not one of those who think you should “spill the dirt”. I think I shall leave out all the personal stuff, and write about the politics, which is fair game, because some of the things I was involved with are completely unlike the myth that has grown up about this or that – so that’ll be interesting.

In future volumes, how close to the present do you intend to come?
I might write the third volume and leave it for publication after I’m dead, and the people who might be hurt by it. Because there are people close to me who would be terribly hurt, so perhaps that’s what I’ll do. I’ll write volume two and leave all the painful stuff to volume three, and lock it up.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The really sad aspect of the interview is that young Nigel is dead and aged Doris is still alive (I think).

Graeme Lay