The Memoirs of a Survivor

Doris Lessing’s 1974 novel The Memoirs of a Survivor follows directly from The Summer Before the Dark and shares many of the same preoccupations, particularly of the previous novel’s second half when Kate is living in London with Maureen. Here, too, Lessing explores the ‘generation gap’, a term first used in the previous decade, by placing an older narrator with a girl, Emily, whose transition from child to young woman is explicitly discussed. (It’s interesting that in both cases Lessing chooses mother and daughter figures who are not actually mother and daughter placing the emphasis on generational rather than family relationships). Kate’s dreams in The Summer Before the Dark are replaced by the more mysterious life beyond the wall which similarly echoes events in the real world.

The Memoirs of a Survivor also has a claim as Lessing’s first science fiction novel, a genre she had used elements of towards the end of her Children of Violence series and in Briefing for a Descent into Hell. Here, though, we have, from the beginning, a dystopian vision of a future Britain. The picture she paints is of a country which is slowly deteriorating into anarchy while at the same time presenting a facade of life as it was:

“I played the game of complicity like everyone else. I renewed my lease during this period and it was for seven years: of course I knew that we didn’t have anything like that time left.”

Yet at the same time the narrator is well aware that the rules of property, as with the other rules that held the society she is used to together, no longer apply as they once did:

“What it amounted to was that a flat, a house, belonged to the people who had the enterprise to move into it.”

Behind this lies the knowledge that eventually she will have to leave the city. The reason for this is never explained: Lessing is more interested in the shared sense of ‘it’ (as she calls it) not as a rational cause but as a feeling:

“I’m sure that ever since there were men on earth ‘it’ has been talked of in this way precisely in times of crisis since it is in crisis ‘it’ becomes visible… ‘it’ can be, or has been, pestilence, a war, the alteration of climate, a tyranny that twists mean’s minds, the savagery of a religion.”

The dilemma of when to leave is complicated when the narrator is brought a twelve-year-old child, by a man she does not know, to look after, a situation she accepts having “abandoned all expectations of the ordinary.” Emily comes with little but her pet, Hugo, “shaped more like a dog than a cat, but its face was that of a cat.” Emily is also described as being between, “in that halfway place where she would soon be a girl”, ‘girl’ being used to signify the time after childhood when she will become visibly female. (Lessing avoids the use of ‘adolescent’ or ‘teenager’, though, as we shall see, in a changed society there is little space between childhood and adulthood).

Much of the novel charts Emily’s growth, as witnessed by the narrator. We see her attempt to be accepted by the roaming gangs of young people that come through the city from time to time, and initially rejected. We see her establish a variety of identities using her clothing, and also her body shape: “chrysalis after chrysalis was outgrown,” the narrator tells us, until eventually:

“She came back with some secondhand clothes that in one giant’s step took her from being a child with fantastic visons of herself to being a girl – a woman, rather.”

This includes Emily, now thirteen, falling in love, a relationship which is both “the ‘first love’ of tradition” but also complicated by changing social rules:

“But these young people’s lives were communal, and mating was far from being the focus or pivot of a relationship when they chose each other.”

(The use of ‘mating’ rather giving away Lessing’s tendency towards anthropology). Her boyfriend, Gerald, attempts to establish a commune but struggles both to overcome some aspects of human relationships (“It’s impossible not to have a pecking order”) and the increasingly feral nature of children left to fend for themselves.

The dystopian narrative is only one facet of the novel, however, as from the opening the narrator finds herself able to move through the wall of her flat into another place:

“I looked at the glow and the pulse of the yellow, looked as if I were listening, thinking how, as the seasons changed, so did the shape and extent and position of this patch of morning light – and then I was through the wall and I knew what was there.”

What she sees in the house which lies behind the wall seems to connect to her life on the other side. When she first goes there – before Emily arrives – she finds the rooms are empty and have been disused for years. Later a family move in and she is soon certain that “the small child was of course the Emily who had been given into my care.” During the turbulent period when Emily is attempting to establish her identity beyond childhood, the narrator finds the rooms “disordered or damaged”. There are also echoes of Emily’s relationship with Gerald in the child Emily’s relationship with her father.

The Memoirs of a Survivor is an unsettling book: its picture of a society disintegrating slowly and uncertainly, but unassailably, is echoed in the powerlessness of adults before the next generation. The room beyond the wall remains ambiguous: does it represent hope for the future or simply a retreat into the past? Another reminder that Lessing is a writer who will always offer us more questions than answers.

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2 Responses to “The Memoirs of a Survivor”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I must admit, I’ve skirted round Lessing’s sci fi books. Her ‘ordinary’ fiction can be challenging enough, and so I’m not really sure if I’m ready for her dystiopian visions!

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