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BOOK REVIEW / AUTOBIOGRAPHY : Storytelling By Reluctant Extraction : UNDER MY SKIN: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949 by Doris Lessing ; HarperCollins : $25, 419 pages


In the first volume of her autobiography, Doris Lessing writes that in 1947 and 1948 she went through the worst time in her life. Living in Salisbury in what then was Southern Rhodesia, she had left her first husband and two small children and moved into a leftist bohemian circle, where she met and married a German Communist refugee named Gottfried Lessing.

It was an "unhappy though kindly marriage" and it would not last; meanwhile she supported herself by working for a lawyer, sold short stories to South African magazines, and struggled with a first novel.

This could perfectly well add up to wretchedness. The trouble is that Lessing proclaims but does not convey the wretchedness; or just where and how things hurt. Indeed, her tone--detached and grimly buoyant--is no different than the one she uses to recount her childhood and growing up.

None of it was happy in her recollecting; the problem for the reader is not the quality of the unhappiness but of the recollecting.

Asserting the particular horror of 1947-1948, for example, she writes: "I hinted at the dreadfulness in 'Going Home' (one of her three dozen previously published works)." Over and over, as she gets to some crucial part of her early life, she refers the reader to one or another of her novels. Lessing is a remarkable novelist; the good stuff is there. It is not here.

"And now, sex," she announces at one point, and proceeds with a few mildly graphic and pleasureless details of a relationship or two. This is autobiography by reluctant extraction. No wonder. There is not much left for it. It is the slurry after the gold is panned; a clothes closet containing hangers, most of the garments having been taken out and worn out. She narrates with frequent elegance and pervading emptiness.

Certainly there is material, and once in a while a phrase or a passage lights it up. Lessing was born in Persia, where her father worked for a British-owned bank. It was a life of some luxury, followed by a far more rigorous struggle homesteading on a Rhodesian farm. Lessing's father was a witty, depressive, restless man; broken in World War I, where he lost a leg and was hospitalized for months. He married his nurse, an expansive woman with a love of books and music.

She abandoned a promising career in the London hospital system to follow her husband's unhappiness abroad, and cultivate her own in the process.

The shadow of her parents' discontent darkens the memoir; even the pleasures are under gray light. Mr. Lessing wore himself out trying to make the farm pay; in a society of hard-bitten settlers, his wife missed the gentilities of the English middle class. She had brought engraved calling cards; there was nobody to call on.

Lessing evokes a dismal epiphany at age 12: seeing her parents sitting in the evening, silently smoking and bowed in defeat. Her reaction was not sympathy but a furious determination never to fall into their trap.

Visiting the past is revisiting the trap, one that she found herself so nearly caught by. And she shrinks away from its walls even as she recalls them. Shrinking away is not the best artistic posture; she is much better now and then when she bursts into full-throated rage.

Otherwise, there are a few moments of unclouded evocation--the beauty and freedom of the African back lands, the quiet rhythm of a farm day--but they quickly cloud over. She attempts to portray the neighboring families they knew, but she wards them off by naming them.

Her boarding schools are recounted at a numb distance; so is her marriage to a young and rising civil servant. She played the competent, cheerfully quirky young colonial wife and mother to the point of madness. "Tigger," she recalls with frozen horror, was her nickname--because of the bounciness.

Her husband and children are present but impalpable, as if the scandal and pain of walking out, moving across a stuffy little colonial capital and going to live with artists and leftists were the exchange of matter for anti-matter, with no connection between them, even that of memory.

Only imagination--in her fiction--would make a bridge. Toward the end, before she emigrates to England and her literary career, she, Gottfried Lessing and their baby would occasionally picnic with her first family, but she tells it as if two sets of ghosts were sharing the tea cakes.

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