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Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949–1962

de Doris Lessing

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Sèrie: Autobiographie, Doris Lessing (2)

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Walking in the Shade covers the years 1949 to 1962, from Lessing's arrival in London with her son, Peter, and the manuscript of her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, under her arm to the publication of her most famous work of fiction, The Golden Notebook. This was the period of the Cold War, a poisonously political time, but Doris Lessing reminds us - in perhaps the book's most striking achievement - of what has been forgotten: that it was a time also of idealism and hope, of a sense of personal responsibility for the world, and of generosity of the imagination. She describes how communism dominated the intellectual life of the 1950s - it is hard now to appreciate how much - and how she, like nearly all communists, became disillusioned with extreme and rhetorical politics and left communism behind.Walking in the Shade also evokes the bohemian days of a young writer and single mother in 1950s London: her early success as one of the new hopeful postwar writers whose novels and short stories received critical acclaim both in Britain and abroad; her work in the theater where she befriended Kenneth Tynan, John Osborne, Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, and Arnold Wesker; her political activities through which she met such opinion makers of the time as E.P. Thompson, Bertrand Russell, and Henry Kissinger; and her romantic liaisons with men on the Left. Walking in the Shade ends in the winter of 1962-63. By this time, London - indeed Britain and all of Europe - had been rebuilt from ruins and poverty to newness and plenty. To the author it seemed that her life correspondingly climbed up from difficulty and dark.… (més)

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Compared to the first volume of her autobiography, this second one, which concerns Lessing’s first 13 years in London (after leaving Southern Rhodesia), is rambling and long-winded. The book’s main focus is the writer’s time in the Communist Party. She describes her activities, acquaintances, delusions, rationalization, and eventual “awakening” as to what was actually going on in the Soviet Union. In a nutshell: Hitler had nothing on Stalin. Lessing’s experiences as a communist left her wary of any political or religious mass movement. As a reader in 2019, I found many of her remarks about the United States— its tendency to extremes, for example—to be particularly astute and even prescient, given what we see unfolding in that country these days.

Lessing also very briefly discusses her writing routine, which apparently involved a good deal of wool-gathering and late-night walks through the city (which struck me as incredibly foolish and dangerous). Her son, Peter—the product of her second “political” marriage—was frequently sent off to the English countryside to stay with acquaintances who had a large family. This was so that Lessing could write. An aside: I recall reading a piece (in the London Review of Books) in which Jenny Diski (who, as a teenager, lived with Lessing) intimated that Peter was the unluckiest of Lessing’s three children. The two from the first marriage had more or less been abandoned, but that may have been a good thing for them. Peter, the one she (sort of) raised, did not fare well.

Lessing does go on and on about her many famous acquaintances. Some of them were writers who fled Hollywood during the McCarthy era; others, playwrights and theatre people. I found reading about them tiresome after a while, a catalogue of names and not-very-compelling details.

Lessing’s great love, a married (expat) Czechoslovakian Jewish psychiatrist traumatized by World War II, figures prominently in the autobiography. “Jack” (a pseudonym) was a womanizer unwilling to commit to her. Their affair lasted several years, and they frequently travelled abroad together. Peter, of course, was being cared for by the country acquaintances.

At times, Lessing’s novelistic talents take centre stage. There are some wonderful vignettes in the book about people she bumped into along the way. One, a fellow hospital patient, the too-lavishly-loved British wife of an affluent Greek businessman, regaled Lessing with details of her amorous husband’s attentions. Another, an elderly neighbour, could’ve walked straight out of a Dickens novel.

Walking in the Shade was interesting enough for me to want to complete it, but I think the book could have (easily and beneficially) been trimmed by a good 100 pages or so. In the end, it lacks the intensity and emotional power of the first volume. ( )
  fountainoverflows | Jan 3, 2020 |
[Walking in the Shade] by Doris Lessing
Subtitled Part two of my autobiography 1949 - 1962. Part one had covered Lessing’s early years in Zimbabwe and this second part starts with her arrival by boat to England when she was 30 years old accompanied by her 2 and a half year old son Peter and 150 pounds sterling. Her first novel [The Grass is Singing ] had been sold to a publishing firm in South Africa along with a number of short stories. London was to become her adopted home and she had the feeling that her life was just starting.

Walking in the Shade was published in 1997 when Lessing was 78 years old and so there is very much the feel of an elderly woman looking back on the life of her younger self with the advantage of the wisdom of years. The early years in London were a struggle, but with the success of her novels (the first three volumes of her Children of Violence series were published in 1952, 1954 and 1958) by 1962 with the event of [The Golden Notebook] she was an established literary star. She combines world events with issues that effected her life as a writer and because she was a very political person her views both then and when she was writing her autobiography are always cogent and interesting. She re-joined the communist party in the early fifties and that put her in touch with a variety of left wing intellectuals and artists, this did not harm her career as a writer or her standing in public life, but it harmed her emotionally when Khrushchev the leader of the Soviet Union came clean over the Stalin era and later ordered the invasion of Budapest. Any lingering idealism was shattered and a cause that she had flirted with through most of her adult life was no longer tenable.

The book is certainly not all politics, she tells us of the life of a writer and the discipline necessary to produce a volume of work, she had an active and eventful love life being a ‘child of the sixties’ a decade earlier than most women, she name drops about many of the celebrities from the political left who were active in the world of literature and art, her large flat became a safe haven for African exiles, some of whom would later go on to become leaders of their countries, others would be imprisoned or assassinated. She tells of her involvement with the Aldermaston Marches and the formation of the committee of one hundred, of being an honorary figure in the writing group that were known as ‘the Angry Young Men and her involvement in setting up projects for New Theatre Groups. Doris certainly got around, but there is no hint of self congratulation; rather we get the nitty gritty of trying to get things moving, of personality clashes, or of fighting against the establishment.

My reading of Lessing’s work (I have read 20 of her novels and most of her short stories) has led me to believe that she is a writer who wears her heart on her sleeve. She is honest with her characters and she is honest with herself. Many of her non science fiction books are semi autobiographical and so it is interesting to see how events in her life have shaped her stories. She helps the reader in some instances by making the connections obvious. If you didn’t already know, then her autobiography makes it clear where she stands on certain issues; her disillusionment with politics, her thoroughly modern approach to love and sex, her ambivalence to male chauvinism and to the feminist movement, her fear and dislike of Nationalism, and her integrity as a writer and an artist. When she was struggling to make a living in those early years in London and she had offers from the gutter press to write for them she says:

‘But I did linger sometimes in an editors office out of curiosity. I could not believe that this was happening, that people could be so low, so unscrupulous. But surely they can’t believe writers would write against their own beliefs, their consciences? Write less than their best for money.’

Her most strident invective is against the stirrers-up of mass political movements (she would have hated Trump and Brexit and maybe the hysteria over Harvey Weinstein):

‘The other day a group of women on one television channel were complaining about men’s rudeness to them, and on another a woman was saying that all men are slimebags.
Could we have foreseen this efflorescence of crude stupidity? Yes, because every mass political movement unleashes the worst in human behaviour and admires it. For a time at least.”


Whether Lessing is describing London in the late 1950’s, or telling us about influential figures in the arts world, her career as an activist or as a writer, her own personal and private life, or her disillusionment with the political world, then her thoughts come through fresh and clear in some excellent prose. Having lived for half of my life in London and as a very young teenager been aware of the issues that sparked Lessing then I found her account of events fascinating. A friend of mine from my now defunct book club said that the writer he would most like to spend the night with was [[Colette]]. Me I am torn between D H Lawrence or Doris Lessing, but as Lessing said of Lawrence that:

“For if he knew very little about sex, he did know a lot about love”

Perhaps I should swing with Doris and give her autobiography 5 stars. ( )
  baswood | Jan 10, 2018 |
This is the second volume of Lessing's autobiography, covering 1949 to 1962' during the time Lessing moved to London, became heavily involved in the communist cause and then, shocked and disillusioned by the revelations of Stalin's atrocities, moved on. This was also the period during which she wrote The Golden Notebook. Lessing is candid, witty and intriguing.
( )
  kaitanya64 | Jan 3, 2017 |
More casually written and organized than Under My Skin, the second volume of Doris Lessing's autobiography boasts the same acute, brutally frank insights. She begins with her 1949 arrival in London as a 30-year-old single mother from Rhodesia who is searching for a place and the means to write freely; Lessing closes in 1962 with the publication of her most famous novel, The Golden Notebook. In between, she covers love affairs, years of psychotherapy, and her increasingly disenchanted involvement with the Communist Party. Walking in the Shade is essential reading for anyone interested in mid-century British culture.
  edella | Jul 13, 2009 |
This second volume doesn't have the vivacity of the first, and that's to be expected. Lessing wonders in the first volume how to be open and honest about events and encounters that are bound to be remembered differently by others; the players in the first volume are not now around to take offense, but the second volume is more circumspect. ( )
  bexaplex | Oct 16, 2008 |
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Nom de l'autorCàrrecTipus d'autorObra?Estat
Lessing, DorisAutorautor primaritotes les edicionsconfirmat
Rabinovitch, AnneTraductionautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat

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Now, on the little table that has been cleared of breakfast things, replaced by scattered sheets of paper, is the typewriter, waiting for me. Work begins. I do not sit down but wander about the room. I think on my feet, while I wash up a cup, tidy a drawer, drink a cup of tea, but my mind is not on these activities. I find myself in the chair by the machine. I write a sentence—will it stand? But never mind, look at it later, just get on with it, get the flow started. And so it goes on. I walk and I prowl, my hands busy with this and that. You’d think I was a paragon of concern for housekeeping if you judged by what you saw. I drop off into sleep for a few minutes, because I have wrought myself into a state of uncomfortable electric tension. I walk, I write. If the telephone rings I try to answer it without breaking the concentration. And so it goes on, all day, until it is time to fetch the child from school or until he arrives at the door.
The business of the physical as a road into concentration: you see painters doing it. They wander about the studio, apparently at random. They clean a brush. They throw away another. They prepare a canvas, but you can see their minds are elsewhere. They stare out of the window. They make a cup of coffee. They stand for a long time in front of the canvas, the brush on the alert in their hands. At last, it begins: the work.
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Walking in the Shade covers the years 1949 to 1962, from Lessing's arrival in London with her son, Peter, and the manuscript of her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, under her arm to the publication of her most famous work of fiction, The Golden Notebook. This was the period of the Cold War, a poisonously political time, but Doris Lessing reminds us - in perhaps the book's most striking achievement - of what has been forgotten: that it was a time also of idealism and hope, of a sense of personal responsibility for the world, and of generosity of the imagination. She describes how communism dominated the intellectual life of the 1950s - it is hard now to appreciate how much - and how she, like nearly all communists, became disillusioned with extreme and rhetorical politics and left communism behind.Walking in the Shade also evokes the bohemian days of a young writer and single mother in 1950s London: her early success as one of the new hopeful postwar writers whose novels and short stories received critical acclaim both in Britain and abroad; her work in the theater where she befriended Kenneth Tynan, John Osborne, Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, and Arnold Wesker; her political activities through which she met such opinion makers of the time as E.P. Thompson, Bertrand Russell, and Henry Kissinger; and her romantic liaisons with men on the Left. Walking in the Shade ends in the winter of 1962-63. By this time, London - indeed Britain and all of Europe - had been rebuilt from ruins and poverty to newness and plenty. To the author it seemed that her life correspondingly climbed up from difficulty and dark.

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