Sunday, 19 April 2009

Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing

Several memories from my childhood stick in my mind. One of them was watching a film on TV with my mum called Memoirs of a Survivor. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082733/) I recall a few scenes from the film. It opens with a shot of people searching wrecked cars in a scrapyard or dump. One woman finds some cigarettes and says: “Cigarettes! Thank God!” A woman is breaking open eggs and one's shell splits to reveal a dead baby chick inside; the woman recoils in disgust. A young girl enters her house and jumps on a bed. She is followed by a bulldog. “This is Hugo.” she says. I remember the woman, played by Julie Christie, finding a secret room in her house full of old velvet furniture. I asked my mum what was wrong and she replied: “This is about when society has broken down.” I think I went to bed before the film finished.

It was this memory that drew me to read the book on which the film was based. Memoirs of a Survivor is a fairly short novel by Doris Lessing, a British and Zimbabwean author who’s been writing for almost 60 years. In 2007 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s a dystopian story. “Dystopian” literally means “set in a bad place”, but this book’s is a dystopian setting with a twist! It is written in plain first-person prose, as if it really is someone dictating a memoir or being interviewed. There are no chapters, just marked textual breaks. The narrator is not named, as if the person she’s addressing already knows her name, as in an interview. She’s a middle-aged woman who lives alone in a flat in a large city in England. We later find out that it’s London because it has an underground railway and a “River Fleet” running through it. As I knew from the film, society is breaking down. Services, transport, food supplies, communications, finance, transport, healthcare and all the other amenities that make up the infrastructure of civilized urban life are slowly decaying. It takes a couple of years, the duration of the story’s setting. At first things seem almost normal, with busses, TV broadcasts and shops etc, but by the end of the book the city is almost deserted, buildings are crumbling, wild animals wander the streets and plant life is breaking through the pavements. The interesting thing about this catastrophe is that it has no obvious cause. I get the feeling that the narrator doesn’t know why all this is happening to her world and she just observes it developing in a somewhat confused way. The book was published in 1974. At that time a lot of books and films were coming out under the genre “post-apocalyptic”, but this was almost invariably a setting after a future nuclear holocaust. At the time, in the heart of the Cold War, this is what people feared the most. Since the threat of global nuclear exchange has eased other scenarios have risen to take its place, making Memoirs of a Survivor way ahead of its time. Lessing was deliberately avoiding what she probably saw as a cliché. I finished the book almost as baffled about this apocalypse’s cause as when I started. It couldn’t have been a plague because then the characters would have been reacting to risk of infection. If it had been a super-volcanic eruption or a meteor impact then again this would have been manifest in the character’s behavior and also the world around them. The same goes for any other kind of environmental disaster; besides which it seems to be only humans that are affected. The plants and animal world is not affected; in fact, as I’ve said, nature takes over the city after the humans have left, in the same way it has many real deserted cities like Grozny or Beirut. All we know is that it is striking the whole world at the same time and yet it is spreading like a wave of malaise. We read of how it’s worse in the south and east England and that there are “refugees from the southern and eastern counties” coming to London. The narrator thought of moving to her friend’s farm in North Wales to try to escape it. But what was it? Later on in the book the narrator refers mystically to something she simply describes as “It”. She describes it as something that has been hanging over humankind for always. It is “helpless ignorance or helpless awareness. It is a word for man’s inadequacy.” I interpreted this as best I can. I think that the social atrophy in the story is a kind of “suicide of civilization”. Without an exterior cause the reader is led to see the disaster as inescapable, but yet voluntary. This is like personal suicide. In the past I’ve suffered from serious depression and at one time considered ending it all; thankfully I didn’t! But I remember feeling that although my death would have been by my own hand, it was something I couldn’t escape, any more than I could if I was tied up and someone fired a gun at my head from three inches away. In the book it’s the same thing, only this time it’s human society rather than human life itself which downs the bottle of pills. We simply agree in our collective unconscious to give up on civilization and return to barbarism. As I've said, it happens slowly. The narrator remarks on how some areas remain almost normal and yet in others there is total destruction. Sometimes civilization temporarily returns to the destroyed areas only to be reclaimed by chaos later. And even at the very end of the book there is not total social collapse; the government still works, the law courts, prisons and executions, the occasional plane flies from the airport and a bus or train runs every now and again; although, as one of the characters has to do, you need to bribe your way onboard.

The narrator’s life gets steadily harder and harder. Groups of her neighbours keep forming walking caravans and heading northwest out of the city, and the remaining residents wonder how long it will be before they have to do the same. The streets are slowly being taken over by gangs of roaming children, mostly orphans, who steal and loot to survive. In the end they resort to eating dogs, rats and even cannibalize dead bodies to eat; in the winter they hunt people like wolves for food. The narrator is constantly concerned that she or her lodger, and her lodger’s pet, might end up on the menu. Some of the population however formed stable settled tribal groups who create farms in the empty houses and gardens. They imaginatively adapt abandoned hardware from rubbish tips into useful tools and comforts. An alternative barter-economy emerges in the block of flats where the narrator lives. However they have to arm themselves to avoid their hard work being pillaged by the roaming children. Another group of people seem to be in denial of what has happened and continue to lead a pretense at a normal life. A family in the next flat to our narrator do so; and in the end have to abandon their home, but do it while dressing up and carrying suitcases as if they’re off on holiday!

There’s another aspect to the narrator’s life though. The narrator discovers that a blank area on her lounge wall can magically open up and reveal a hidden world beyond it. This world is different every time she enters it. Sometimes it is bare rooms, sometimes furnished interiors like in the film, sometimes beautiful gardens and landscapes. At times she is shown scenes of her lodger’s life when she was a child. This aspect I find fascinating. At first we wonder if it’s all simply in the narrator’s imagination, but later on it becomes clear that this really is some kind of parallel dimension or reality-shift encroaching on our own universe. You see, such occurrences are actually reported in real life, for instance at Skinwalker Ranch in Utah (http://www.theblackvault.com/wiki/index.php/Skinwalker_Ranch). It is also the basis for the horror film The Mist, which I review here: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2008/11/mist.html . The narrator tries to keep her paranormal experiences with the wall in perspective, but soon seems to see them as significant and directly related to her life in the “normal” world, especially in her relationship with Emily her lodger, a teenage girl who becomes almost a step-daughter to her. At the end of the book the other characters also see the stargate in the lounge wall and they all escape together from the terrors of the apocalyptic Earth into a happy life in the dimensions beyond. This is done in a slightly intrusive Deus ex Machina way and I’d like to have seen more of a build-up, but it’s still an enthralling touch to the book. It’s as if another world links up with ours to save the people from its terrors. I’ve been reading some old second-hand books by an author called Lyall Watson. They are books on the paranormal written in the early 70’s, just when Doris Lessing was writing Memoirs. On the back on one of Watson's titles she is quoted from her book review of it in The Guardian. I suspect from this, together with her own book, that Lessing has an interest in the esoteric and supernatural. She may well have known Watson (he died in 2008), as she is from Zimbabwe and he is from South Africa. I’ll have to read more of her books and see if I can pick up any more occultist themes.

Here’s Doris Lessing’s website: http://www.dorislessing.org/

(Latest HPANWO Voice stories: http://hpanwo-voice.blogspot.com/2009/04/area-51-disclosed.html and
http://hpanwo-voice.blogspot.com/2009/04/britons-more-fearful-than-ever.html)

70 comments:

Sub Specie Aeternitatis said...

Sounds a very interesting book. Thanks for the tip there, I'll be onto it soon.

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Hope you enjoy it, SSA. Thanks for your comment.

Tabatinga said...

Hi Ben, ...long-time reader (actually only a couple months) first time caller... For me, the reference to the 'blank area on her lounge wall' resonates with the work of Stuart Wilde and his writings on the Morph. His stuff is really cool, maybe you aready know it.

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Hi Tabatinga.

Thanks for your comment. Welcome to the wacky but wonderful world of HPANWO!

I've heard of Stuart Wilde, but not yet looked as his work closely. Based on what you said I'll make an effort. I'm fascinated by the concept of the stargate presented in "Memoirs".

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I hi check this, it was this memory that drew me to read the book (is one of the principals books about it), and also the memories of a survivor is a fairly short novel by Doris Lessing, and everyone kwos about the novels of a British girls, they're fantastic! I really recommend a a reading time!

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