Lessing the Ex-Patriot by Dan Souder

This is the article I have put off writing for two months. Since Doris Lessing died in November at age 94, there has been at the back of my mind a general malaise, which is in some respects the limit of continual emotion I’m able to muster now in middle age, with all the vagaries of life having leveled me out. Still that the malaise has lingered is proof the world hasn’t run the humanity out of me. (That I still turn to books for fun and solace is more.)

Lessing was raised by her English parents in Africa. She absorbed first the local culture and later the expat traits in her nurturing. Thus the English culture of her parents was foreign to her. At the start of In Pursuit of the English, Lessing’s memoir of her first years in England, she realizes her father had gone mad. An undervalued cause of it is her family’s life on an isolated farm. Away from people, with a wife whose states were only either emotional extremes or emotional distance, with a strange daughter already more intelligent than his wife and he, the rich soil of her father’s crack up was his loneliness. A legless war vet with PTSD (the proximal cause), at some point in her rearing he cracked up. She observed him, the letters he’d write to the newspapers but never mail, that attributed the power of whites to how they washed their vegetables, whereas the blacks didn’t, and the like. One can see English culture operating here, the stringent politeness in the composition of a letter, the quiet issue-taking of the theme, the lip-biting defeatism of the filing of the letter in a drawer, which is to say the not-making-trouble of it all, with the justification that was the saving of a stamp.

All this Lessing would come to learn as she arrived in England a single mother, child in tow. She suspected, and had it confirmed, that being from a colony was not the same as being from the homeland. She would grapple with adapting, things like the compounded hopelessness when things go wrong in a foreign land, the difficulty connecting with others when she misses the social cues, and the painful silence of confusion that a foreign sense of humor brings. She had some contacts there in post-war London, but for the large part she was on her own, and much of this memoir concerns the finding and holding onto of housing for her little family.

She probes her new world, trying to understand the English and their “inward, intestine-twisting prideful melancholy.” Though she doesn’t mention it after the first pages, it’s a way, now that she is free of them, to understand her broken parents. On foot she navigates the streetplan maze, answering ads, asking at the coffee counter, searching for a place to live. What she can afford is a boarding house, that is, a room to herself in a multi-floor home, with other families in the other rooms, sharing meals and facilities. Immediately she falls into foreign office politics, only after 5 pm she can’t escape to home for she is there already. Food is still scarce in England, adding to the tenants’ grumpiness. At her first meal as a boarder she smiles at her hosts, but “they stiffened and merely nodded back.” She writes later,

“As far as I was concerned the evening had passed without any of that vital communication essential to real human relationships.”

It takes another foreigner, her friend Piet the Afrikaaner, to show her how to crack the English reserve. The air in this boarding house was like a library. Visitor Piet was however a boisterous Zorba-type. His loud stories and raucous laughter disturbs her neighbor, Mrs. Barnes.

“He took two large soundless strides to the door, opened it with a jerk, and there was Mrs. Barnes in the passage. She frowned. He smiled. Slowly, unwillingly, and hating every second of it, she smiled. Then, furious, she went dark plum colour, glared at us both, and went into her room, slamming the door hard.

“‘It is a terrible thing,’ said Piet sentimentally. ‘A bad-tempered woman. It is all the fault of her husband.'”

When Mrs. Barnes says she will “complain to the management,” Piet charms the landlady, keeping Lessing out of trouble. She goes on to room with another single mother, a foreigner like her. She tells Lessing, “‘I do hope your child is sensitive. My Daphne is very sensitive. A highly-strung child.’ I knew then that the whole thing was doomed.”

What I love about this passage is how Lessing captures human intuition. There is that moment when we see that our hopes have blinded us. All it takes is one remark to reveal that what we’ve made a bad mistake. For Lessing, she sees it is inevitable, she will have to move again. At this time she’s sticking to expat circles, not by choice, trying to make inroads into the new culture, for her understanding and to feel accepted, and having difficulty.

She meets an English con artist, Mr. MacNamara. His talent was getting people to do something for him. Lessing’s curiosity sends her into his company. Since she can see through him, she thinks that she is safe. But he does her like the rest, and she gives him money, ten percent of all she has in the world, and after wonders how for a time she could fall under his spell.

Lessing finally makes an English friend, Rose the shopgirl, who helps her get into a new boarding house. MacNamara turns up again. Rose knows all about him, the whole neighborhood does, and she’s horrified that Lessing wants to spend time with him again after he cheated her. For me this is the best part of the book. Lessing explains to Rose,

“‘Well, it’s because I’ve never met anyone like him before.’ When she didn’t reply, I said: ‘Why don’t you like that?’

“She thought. The she said: ‘You talk like he’s an animal in a zoo.'”

This passage marks a triumph of literature. One of literature’s great feats is to make the reader feel accepted regardless of society, because there are other people in the world who think the same. You may not know any in your life, maybe you never will, but someone once had a mind like yours, and saw things as you do. Personally this passage concisely sums how I’ve seen the world since I was a child. An example: I preferred to watch other kids play with dolls and action figures, and didn’t understand how to play with such toys myself. A great human emotion is the feeling when one’s foreignness slips away.

But there is something more to this passage, an undercurrent that will affect Lessing in her new home: society’s want of control. It’s universal, not only an English trait. It’s the marching hammers of The Wall. There are so many rules for the expat Lessing to learn, what guests she can bring home, and when. There are the neighbors in the upstairs room who will ignore her if she asks them to tea, but who respond graciously when she writes the invitation in a note and slips it under their door.

There is everyone in the house’s business. She is all up in it and they are up in hers. The doors and walls could be paper screens. The Skeffingtons, a married couple, fights, and the whole house hears. They hear as well when the couple makes up making love. They hear the husband try again in the middle of the night, and the wife plead with him no, she’s tired, not again. And the whole house knows why Mrs. Skeffington fights against it: the couple can’t afford another child. They know that Mr. got someone pregnant once before and left her. Rose tells him to his face that he’s a dirty beast, and to leave his wife in peace.

That people can comment such to one another, that they feel they can, that their lives are lived in public, and their warts and all, while behind doors, may as well not be, as the whole house knows all their darker sides, all bespeaks of an English oddity. As long as outward appearances are sane, everything is fine. If Mrs. Skeffington hadn’t come distraught to Rose and Lessing, they would not have stuck their noses in. Had the wife been formal and proper, even after a long night of sex and recrimination, they would have carried on, in line with firm society. It is much for a foreigner to learn, but people are adaptive.

Lessing has been an influence on Rose. When Mrs. Skeffington, who did have a stillborn child, was moving out, Rose saw it through Lessing’s eyes.

“‘Can you beat it?’ said Rose. ‘There she was, and we holding her hands while she was rolling and screaming with half her insides gone, and now she says: Goodbye, good gracious me, but it was nice knowing you. Some people.'”

Through all the dramas Lessing is admirable. She possesses a rare determination, a reserve of strength that allows her to write even as the neighbors come into her room at their leisure, as the other children of the house are whipped by their parents, as the landlord’s war with his stepson turns to fisticuffs, even through Rose’s all-hours beside chats about her man and their relationship that’s plainly going nowhere. Not much mentioned is Lessing’s raising of her son, whom she would again live with in her old age. For a writer for whom everyone she met turned into a character, his story was left out of her work perhaps at his request.

The final row in the house is the eviction of the elderly downstairs. The landlords, it seems, bought the house after the war with tenants already in it. An elderly couple had lived in the house for much of their lives. Now that they were too old to take care of themselves, and their room had gone to squalor, the landlords go to court to try to evict them. Lessing and the rest are caught up in the case. The landlords are underhanded, but the couple’s senility works against them, and the judge rules in the landlords’ favor. This leaves a bad taste in Lessing’s mouth. Though she refused to lie on the stand like the landlords asked her, she feels culpable.

And then there was her falling out with Rose. She ended their friendship when Lessing began spending time with a prostitute who moved into the house. All Lessing wanted was to find a way into a new culture, talk to everyone she could, and write about the world. But for Rose this friendliness with a prostitute is a personal affront, the final taboo, a broken social contract. Lessing regrets the loss of Rose’s friendship but knows that given the choice to take it back, she still would not have limited herself.



Dan Souder is an American living with his family in O Distrito Federal. He’s been published by The Missouri Review and X-Ray Magazine, among others.