The long shadow of the 'Great War'

2009-04-15 00:00

AS a young adolescent growing up in twenties Southern Rhodesia, author Doris Lessing found it difficult to escape the long shadow cast by the World War 1.

Like many of his generation, her father had returned from the Front a damaged man. Not only did he lose a leg in the trenches (Lessing gives a beautiful description of him being lowered down a mine shaft with “his wooden leg sticking out and banging against its rocky sides”), but he found it hard to come to terms with the harrowing images of war and the horrors he had seen, and was plagued by flashbacks and nightmares for the rest of his life. Nowadays he would probably have been diagnosed as suffering from post-combat stress syndrome, a version of what was then called shell shock.

As a nurse who had attended to the wounded and watched soldiers dying without morphine, her mother carried her own battle scars and also experienced problems readjusting.

Perhaps hardly surprisingly the war was a recurring topic of conversation at the dinner table and, surrounded by her parents’ painful memories, the young Lessing found herself suffering from her own form of combat fatigue. “The trenches were as present to me as anything I actually saw around me,” she writes, in what she claims will be her last book. “And here I still am, trying to get out from that monstrous legacy, trying to get free.”

Financial pressure heightened the strain. The farm her father had chosen to settle on was situated in the wrong part of the district and despite his best efforts was never a success. Money was also a problem.

Despite the many failures and set-backs, her father coped as positively as he could (towards the end he suffered terribly from diabetes), but her mother — for whom life in Africa had proved one huge disappointmen —grew increasingly depressed and despondent as her dreams of returning to England dissipated into the dust. Eventually, she suffered a nervous breakdown and retreated to her bed.

Lessing was always irritated by her mother with her self-pity and her put-on airs. Long after she had escaped the stultifying household atmosphere, Lessing continued to harbour feelings of resentment towards her. Their differences were never to be resolved in her mother’s lifetime.

Part memoir, part fiction, Alfred and Emily is an unusual book in that it is divided into two halves. In the first half, Lessing tries to imagine what her parents lives might have been like had there been no Great War to disrupt it and they had remained in England. In the second, and to my mind more moving, section she describes how their lives actually unfolded, living in genteel poverty among the snakes and scorpions in a pole ’n daga house on a remote fringe of the British Empire.

Written by an elderly woman —Lessing is now approaching her 90th year with a cold eye for reality and no time for sentimental lies — it is a sad story, told with dignity and a scrupulously honesty, of blighted hopes and unrealised dreams. In writing it, one also suspects, the book must have served as a form of catharsis for Lessing, an act of restrospective forgiveness and a final attempt to heal some very old and very deep wounds.

Anthony Stidolph

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