Baby Brothers

Dinah Birch

  • Love, Again by Doris Lessing
    HarperCollins, 345 pp, £15.99, April 1996, ISBN 0 00 223936 1
  • Playing the Game by Doris Lessing, illustrated by Charlie Adlard
    HarperCollins, 64 pp, £6.99, December 1995, ISBN 0 586 21689 8

How does someone of Doris Lessing’s uncompromising intelligence turn into a little old lady? Not easily, especially if body conspires with mind in refusing to retire gracefully. ‘Most men and more women – young women afraid for themselves – punish older women with derision, punish them with cruelty, when they show inappropriate signs of sexuality.’ Having scorned maiden timidities sixty years ago. Lessing finds the discretions of age just as constraining. Love, Again is a novel about feelings – irrepressible love and paralysing grief – but it is still more about the analysis of feeling.

Sarah Durham (‘a good sensible name for a sensible woman’) is a theatrical producer, 65 years old. Calm, reasonable and successful, she imagines that the storms of adolescence and middle age are behind her. A voice from the past disturbs this cultivated equilibrium. Sarah reads the journals of Julie Vairon, a beautiful quadroon (‘like Napoleon’s Josephine’) brought up in Martinique towards the end of the 19th century, who travelled to Provence with her lover and became a bohemian artist and musician. Turning down the chance of marriage and respectability, Julie killed herself in 1912. Sarah adapts her music and journals for the stage, and soon finds herself haunted and oppressed by the story of a woman who chose not to grow old. ‘I care too much. I am altogether too much involved in this business ... What is it about that bloody Julie: she gets under people’s skin; she’s under mine.’ Under My Skin is the title of Lessing’s brilliant autobiography, published in 1994. ‘I learned a good deal writing this,’ she remarked of Under My Skin, and this novel has much to do with what she learned. Thinking about her own childhood and first loves has led to a sustained examination of the way that in all our lives early circumstances irrevocably shape the needs of maturity and age. Shaken by Julie’s resolve, possessed by her insistent music, Sarah finds to her shame and dismay that she has not after all passed beyond the claims of love. She falls vulnerably in love, or lust (she is not sure which), with two men in succession: first with Bill, the seductive bisexual actor who takes the part of Paul, Julie’s first lover, and then more deeply with Henry, the American who directs the play that Sarah makes out of Julie’s life. Neither Bill nor Henry is responsible for what Sarah sees as a calamity. She loves them because the disturbing thoughts occasioned by Julie’s story have made her ready for love, in want of love, desolate to the point of illness when love is lost.

Why? The answer that emerges, incomplete and forceful, has been buried for decades in the remotest gulfs of childhood. In Under My Skin, Lessing remembers her ambivalent love for her brother, the child her mother preferred. ‘I knew from the beginning that she loved my little brother unconditionally, and she did not love me.’ Lessing’s mother had demanded that Doris, too, should love her baby brother. The need for love was converted to the need to love:

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