My Word-Untangling Machine

Jenny Diski

I am not writing volume three of my autobiography because of possible hurt to vulnerable people. Which does not mean I have novelised autobiography. There are no parallels here to actual people, except for one, a very minor character.

Doris Lessing, The Sweetest Dream

I can’t get away from that paragraph. It feels like a well, bottomless; time to hold your breath before you hear the distant splash of a coin somewhere down there. It’s the careful donation of kindness. The passage is a kind of labyrinth. Not to hurt ‘vulnerable’ people. They must be real, they must be alive, or why bother with it? So we know that what follows is a sort of non-fiction. That wouldn’t surprise us: Doris often used people and situations in her writing without feeling the need to alert readers. Even those not particularly vulnerable might still have cause to feel upset, since no one is named yet anyone could be implicated. Doris is protecting some people but giving them due warning, and warning others who are real and might take it that they are included. Could there be a more a simple way to warn certain people, and cause many blameless others distress, than these three sentences?

What judgments are being made about whom? Here is a sticky business. She is protecting some (real-world) people by not writing about them. But by saying that she is not writing autobiography she is telling us that something happened. (What kind of something? What is she telling us about? Sex, politics, her version of some truth that has been confabulated?) Only when they are dead are the letters allowed to be read. That is the meaning, the weight of having the last word. Something happened, or someone did something – and those of us who are innocent will have to remain in ignorance, never knowing who did what. The accusation doesn’t go away. Nor can the magnitude of the ‘truth’ contained here now be known, or checked and then questioned.

I can’t help comparing the author’s note in The Sweetest Dream to the letter I found on the table that morning, for me, furiously accusing me of emotional blackmail for wondering whether she liked me, or even wanted me in her house. But what is to be done? If fear or abandonment are arresting your heart, can you forever live without an answer, pretending it doesn’t matter? Or in a multiple blindness, can both parties know the question and the need but never speak of them? Apparently they can. That is what’s so odd about the author’s note. For one particular person it has only one meaning. But its tentacles of worry reach out to include everyone. When a child is accused of something they haven’t done a fountain of guilt springs instantly from the vastly overstocked pressure cooker – god, the relief and terror – and whether or not you are guilty (and sometimes I was), the spume rises up from the passive wicked place inside you. There’s always more, of course, the dark deep place being fathomless, but this release is some lightening of the load both for the genuinely guilty and for those merely with free-floating anxiety that longs to be locked within the innumerable tentacles. Who did it?

Another ‘sufi’ story comes to mind that Doris used often. A bowl of rice has been stolen and the possible culprits are made to stand in a line. ‘We shall see who took the rice.’ There is a silence and then the Mullah speaks and points to the villain. ‘It was you.’ But Master, how did you know? Only you touched your beard for fear that some rice might have stuck to it. Not a really convincing story. All the components must be in place already: rice, thief, beards, knowledgeable Mullah. Good thieves would not touch their beards. It’s a poker story: watch out for the tell. But those loaded with free-floating guilt will touch their beards too. Injustice is written into the story. Someone stole the rice, someone was hungry, they all had beards. A wisdom story must do better than that. Doris’s author’s note declares: I will tell the world who the guilty ones are, but not until they are safely dead and cannot answer back. And then there is that single ‘very minor’ character. Why? Why does such minorness get his or her reality mentioned? Are we to scour the pages? Is it worse to be a minor character than to be an important one protected both by sound and silence?

I feel as if there ought to be a machine perhaps made of paperclips, or rubber bands, that this piece of prose could be put through and come out at the other end making simple, complete sense. We are supposed to have one (I call it a brain, although some care to call it a mind) but it is always going wrong. When I read those lines, the less sense they make, and the more my word-untangling machine seems to tangle words and everything else in sight. Yes, that, and that, and even this. So I give it another go. Read it fast, read it shallow, read it deep, don’t read it at all but keep it under the pillow on my bed; doesn’t matter. Shut the book and think of something else, hope for a sweet dream, but anything would do.

More and more I hear Alice moaning along with her dream and her mirror companions, Humpty Dumpty, the Red Queen, the vanishing cat: all that terrible caterwauling from most of them extracting every last drop of juice from the words readers have forced them to speak. They speak the puzzles a new language presents to them. They are easily distracted by etymologies, rhymes, and the lack of precision of the language that Alice was once so sure of. Alice, of course, is somewhere else, in Wonderland or the Looking-Glass world, and both she and the others explain just what she means by the words she has used all her life, words which have consistently been responded to as if there were no problem with them. If that author’s note were an Alice character, she would have the same problems as the others do with language and the White Queen does with hair pins. Here comes Alice’s entourage again – and again – to tell us that some things make nonsense, or at any rate make sense only to the teller and the story. And that, I’m afraid, we just have to put up with.

The author’s note in The Sweetest Dream is more than a metafictional trick, like John Ray Jr, PhD’s foreword to Nabokov’s Lolita, the outsider’s perspective on the mad and repellent Humbert Humbert, telling us it’s all right to sit back and enjoy the perversions of others. This is Doris Lessing: not playful, not one for fun, the writer, knowing how her book is going to be received, instructing her readers how to read what has been written by her in the following pages about the atmosphere and events of the middle years of the 20th century, although there is the further warning: ‘Some events described as taking place at the end of the Seventies and early Eighties in fact happened later, by a decade.’ So the book is fictional – it’s The Sweetest Dream – although at least one of its characters might, if they read it, recognise themselves: it’s not too hard, even given a hair colour change or the fact they wear high heels rather than trainers. But it’s non-fiction, too, in her use of timings. It’s OK, apparently, to make events that occurred in the month of May 1962 happen, after all, in 1982. She doesn’t explain very clearly. The 1980s have their own problems, their own pleasures; decades have their own time and feel. But for Doris, not wanting to hurt feelings or wanting events to make more sense for her ‘novel’ means reorganising time.

In one way she is setting up the reading of the book as a roman à clef, or throwing a cloak of visibility over her fictional characters, who we should suppose ghostlike, unnamed, not creatures of flesh and blood. It is not the third volume of her autobiography although I can’t remember anyone ever suggesting it was. But it isn’t a history book either because placing events a decade earlier or later makes the ‘events’ she speaks of things which like bubbles drift along and burst here or there, having no particular moment or effect in their reality, or in ‘Doris’s’ reality. Nothing is affected when they burst. The more I read it, the more this author’s note perplexes me with its triviality, like the trail of sweets to the witch who wants to cook and eat the children for supper: witches get hungry too, but are devious in their method.

Novels, you can pretty much do what you like with them. That’s what they’re for. Who’s going to tell Melville what he has to do in Moby-Dick? But author’s notes I take very seriously. I imagine, for example, those vulnerable people she speaks of, now more or less my age, those of us who undoubtedly did sit around Doris’s table in the mid-1960s, reading the author’s note and then the book itself. ‘Phew, it’s not about me, then.’ ‘No, that dress was as black as a starless night and she’s ruined it by making it an idiotic green.’ Or: ‘Is that what she really thought of me, back then?’ Or: ‘I’m glad I’m not one of those vulnerable people who isn’t in the book.’ Or: ‘Fuck! That minor character is me. Me, a very minor character.’ Ceci n’est pas une pipe. It’s not even clear if we can rely on the author of the author’s note being the author of the book. Someone has to take responsibility for the written object I hold in my hand. And with that, Alice and I set about looking for a garden with a tea shop nearby – we’ve been assured a tea party is going on somewhere – and lie down to have a nap.

And Doris herself, who I take to be the author who has written the book and the note, what to make of her? There’s a bouquet of nuances in those two brief paragraphs. There are some quite threatening tones, written by someone who knows the power of words – words she can choose either to speak or keep to herself – because of the way they can hurt, distress or disturb others. Watch out, keep your place, or I’ll have the world – or at least a lot of people’s lives – thrown into the flames. But there’s generosity too, because – knowing the hurt she could cause – she has forsworn writing the dreaded third autobiography. And then again, that generosity comes with a reminder and perhaps a warning to some of the ‘vulnerable’ that she has such power over them. After all, the simplest way not to hurt people is not to talk about the words she might, if she wanted, be writing but won’t be. Or perhaps all this is a form of apology to the vast majority of her readers who must be disappointed if they really were waiting for Volume 3 of her autobiography. She is explaining why. Or she is explaining herself to those who, knowing her those fifty years or so of hearing the gossip around the table, enjoyed the tales and stories as much as anyone. Those who could point out which of her friends the characters were, though they have been developed for the purposes of the story. Nothing was straightforward about Doris, as writer or gossip. It doesn’t make her very different from other writers who take what they need for their fiction from people and events.

I can remember several vulnerable people in the 1960s, some of whom sat around Doris’s table, friends of Peter and friends of mine. Others were continents away. Some of them I still know. Some of them are still vulnerable. Two of them were Peter and me. Doris knew that writers, some more than others, never keep things to themselves: they take a morsel of her, make his eye colour different, turn a her into a him.

You can read the next instalment of Jenny Diski's memoir here (and the first one here).