Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Alfred & Emily
Reviewed by David F. Beer

Alfred & Emily

By Doris Lessing
Published by Harper Collins, 2008

That war, the Great War, the war that would end all war, squatted over my childhood. The trenches were as present to me as anything I actually saw around me. And here I still am, trying to get out from that monstrous legacy, trying to get free. [Alfred & Emily, viii]

Doris Lessing died this year on 16 November, the same day I finished reading her curious part-novel, part-memoir Alfred & Emily. She was 94 and died at her home in London. During her long life she wrote a score of novels (including science fiction), half a dozen volumes of short stories, two operas, several poems, nine works of non-fiction, and two autobiographies. Some of her work was considered a handbook for her times, openly dealing as it did with such subjects as emotional breakdown, sex, marriage, race, politics, psychoanalysis, mysticism, and the child-parent relationship.

Much of her younger life was spent growing up on a farm in the old British colony of Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. She wrote her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, which focused on settlers in Rhodesia, in 1950 just after moving to England. During her career she won several literary honors culminating in the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007. One of her best-known novels, The Golden Notebook (1962), has been described as "one of the most important works of fiction in modern literature." [Paul Schlueter, Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, 1983]

Alfred & Emily is overshadowed by the First World War, although it was written long after the catastrophe. It's in two parts, the first being fiction and the second autobiographical. If Lessing's parents were haunted by the war, she herself struggled mightily with both of them as she grew up in Africa, especially her highly talented mother. Part Two of the book details much of this psychological conflict with her mother, who, like Lessing's father, might have been and done so much more if there had been no war. It is this loss that Lessing attempts to atone for in the first part of the book, where she imagines the kind of idyllic life both parents might have had in a peaceful world.

Order Now
The difference between the ideal and reality is tragic, of course. In the fictional first part, both Alfred and Emily grow up in bucolic conditions and have pleasant enough lives. Significantly, they do not marry each other, and both have successful careers. Of these fictional lives Lessing writes in her introduction: If I could meet Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeagh now, as I have written them, as they might have been had the Great War not happened, I hope they would approve the lives I have given them. [p. viii]

But neither was happy in the lives reality gave them. As Lessing observes, The First World War did them both in. Shrapnel shattered my father's leg, and thereafter he had to wear a wooden one. He never recovered from the trenches. He died at sixty-two, an old man. On the death certificate should have been written, as cause of death, the Great War. [p. vii]

The life of a soldier who lost a leg in WWI was usually one of ongoing pain and discomfort, the false leg — far from the advanced prosthetics we now have — actually being made of wood with a bucket-like receptacle into which the stump was strapped, with knitted stump socks only partially cushioning the friction and getting uncomfortably itchy in warm weather. For Albert the result was both diabetes and depression, the latter being seen much later in the century by the author as untreated post-traumatic stress disorder.

Just as Albert could not escape his wooden leg, he was also captive to his memories of the war, and the whole family, especially his wife, suffered with him. She moreover had her own experiences as a nurse in a hospital for the badly wounded to weigh on her:

. . . there was this load of suffering deep inside my mother, as there was inside my father, and please don't tell me that this kind of pain, borne for years, doesn't take its dreadful toll. It took me years – and years – and years to see it: my mother had no visible scars, no wounds, but she was as much a victim of the war as my poor father. [p. 172]

Click on Image to Expand

Mutilated British Soldiers Playing Croquet

At the end of his life Lessing's father returned more and more to the causes of his lifelong anguish, and although by then the Second World War was in full furor with constant bulletins coming over the family radio, his thoughts could not escape his own war:

'If you had only known them,' he said, holding my hand hard. 'Such good men. I keep thinking of them.' And my father, crying an old man's tears, his eyes wide and childlike-an old man's eyes (but he not yet sixty)-and he was murmuring the names of those fine chaps, his men, who died in the mud at Passchendaele. . . [ p. 258]

Near the end of the book, which contains some touching family photographs, Doris Lessing states what could well be the theme of her work and which succinctly reveals her reasons for having written Alfred & Emily, making it the fascinating historical and psychologically insightful book that it is:

I think my father's rage at the Trenches took me over, when I was very young, and has never left me. Do children feel their parents' emotions? Yes, we do, and it is a legacy I could have done without. What is the use of it? It is as if that old war is in my own memory, my own consciousness. [pp. 257-258]

This book stands as a testament to the aftermath of the Great War and more widely to the suffering, both seen and unseen, that inevitably results from any war. Lessing treats her topic without subtlety and leaves us with no doubt about her message. She also embellishes her central theme with insights about colonial Africa, the life of expatriate farmers, and war in general. One comment she makes is most telling, pointing out as it does a sad fact that the history of war does not let us deny:

When pacifists, or people trying to limit war, decide to forget that some men thoroughly enjoy war, they are making a bad mistake. p. 252]

David F. Beer

No comments:

Post a Comment