There are two short prefaces to my edition of This was the Old Chief's Country: Volume One of Doris Lessing's Collecting African Stories (which was published in 1973). The first is from the 1964 edition (which was itself a reprint of the 1951 edition); the second is from 1973. Both seem to reveal important things about Lessing as a writer, and particularly as a writer about Africa. I'm beginning to suspect that it is in this guise that I most admire her - the desperate longing for the veld, and the burning injustice of the 'colour bar' (as she calls it) are the life's blood of the early work I've enjoyed so far. In the 1964 preface she says:
Writers brought up in Africa have many advantages - being at the centre of a modern battlefield; part of a society in rapid dramatic change. But in the long run it can also be a handicap: to wake up every morning with one's eyes on a fresh evidence of inhumanity; to be reminded twenty times a day of injustice,. and always the same brand of it, can be limiting. There are other things in living besides injustice, even for the victims of it.
You can see this conflict very clearly in Martha Quest and in the short stories in This was the Old Chief's Country. Martha, for example, is an essentially divided figure: half of her is utterly repelled and emotionally provoked by the racial injustice of the colonial world she lives in, but the other half is hard to it, ambivalent, even accepting. It is this dual nature that leads her to attend radical political meetings one evening, and go dancing at the Sports Club the next. Every time she works herself up into an idealogical frenzy, she is overwhelmed by the enormous horror of the reality and the smallness of her personal actions. This leads her to stagnate, smug in her convictions but unmotivated to act upon them. I can imagine a similar effect upon Lessing's psyche. Perhaps it goes a little way to explaining why her writing is both raging - blistering, angry, unforgiving - and lethargic with brutal cynicism. She is tired of the horror; her imagination is overloaded with suffering.
I have been particularly struck by one story in the collection thus far, A Sunrise on the Veld. This was one of those originally published in 1951 and, according to Lessing, largely ignored by contemporary critics. In hindsight though I think it gives enormous insight into her writing mind, or her writing persona if you prefer. It is very short and very simple. A white teenage boy, giddy on his own power, wakes up each morning at 4.30am. He dresses, collects his gun, calls his dogs and sets out to hunt on his father's African farm. Each morning he follows the same ritual routine, holding his glorious young body in check until eventually, inevitably, it becomes too much and he bursts:
Suddenly it all rose in him: it was unbearable. He leapt up into the air, shouting and yelling wild, unrecognizable noises. Then he began to run, not carefully, as he had before, but madly, like a wild thing. He was clean crazy, yelling mad with the joy of living and a superfluity of youth. He rushed down the vlei under a tumult of crimson and gold, while all the birds of the world sang about him. He ran in great leaping strides, and shouted as he ran, feeling his body rise into the crisp rushing air and fall back surely on to sure feet; and thought briefly, not believing that such a thing could happen to him, that he could break his ankle at any moment in the thick tangled grass. He cleared bushes like a duiker, leaped over rocks; and finally came to a dead stop at a place where the ground fell abruptly away below him to the river. It had been a two mile long dash through waist-high growth, and he was breathing hoarsely and could no longer sing. But he poised on a rock and looked down at stretches of water that gleamed through stooping trees and thought suddenly, I am fifteen! Fifteen! The words came new to him; so that he kept repeating them wonderingly, with swelling excitement; and he felt the years of his life with his hands, as if he were counting marbles, each one hard and seperate and compact, each one a wonderful shining thing. That was what he was: fifteen years of this rich soil, and this slow-moving water, and air that smelt like a challenge whether it was warm and sultry at noon, or as brisk as cold water, like it was now.
I hope you'll forgive the long quote - I wanted to write it out in full. First, because I think its a lovely piece of writing (I'm a punctuation fiend, as you may know, and I love the way Lessing punctuates); second, because I think it captures something of Lessing's feelings about Africa. Not the haunted, prejudicial, brutal colonies that she writes about elsewhere, but the country itself, as it would be in its purity. The boy's tumult of joy, of raw energy, is bound up with the land he's running through, the air he's breathing. Again, in the preface of 1963, Lessing writes:
I believe that the chief gift from Africa to writers, white and black, is the continent itself, its presence which for some people is like an old fever, latent always in their blood; or like an old wound throbbing in the bones as the air changes. That is not a place to visit unless one chooses to be an exile ever afterwards from an inexplicable, majestic silence lying just over the border of memory or of thought. Africa gives you the knowledge that man is a small creature, among other creatures, in a large landscape.
I love that: like an old fever. Only Doris Lessing could describe something she loves as being 'like an old wound throbbing'. But that is what makes it so powerful. When Lessing talks about loving Africa, she is not talking about a sentiment or an affinity. She is talking about a possession, a sort of corruption of her being, by something crushing in its intensity. It is not always pleasant. In some ways it is downright damaging. A Sunrise on the Veld ends with the death of a buck, although it is killed by nature rather than by the boy's shotgun. He comes across it screaming in pain, a broken leg having left it vulnerable to attack by a colony of black ants. They swarm over it, tearing it slowly, piece by miniscule piece. It is a horrifying death, and the boy watches it. It comes into his mind that he should shoot it, to end its pain, but he doesn't. He is overcome again:
It was a swelling feeling of rage and misery and protest that expressed itself in the thought: if I had not come it would have died like this: so why should I interfere? All over the bush things like this happen; they happen all the time; this is how life goes on, by living things dying in anguish. He gripped the gun between his knees and felt in his own limbs the myriad swarming pain of the twitching animal, and set his teeth, and said over and over again under his breath: I can't stop it. I can't stop it. There is nothing I can do... The knowledge of fatality, of what has to be, had gripped him and for the first time in his life; and he was left unable to make any movement of brain or body, except to say: 'Yes, yes. That is what living is.' It had entered into his flesh and his bones and grown into the farthest corners of his brain and would never leave him. And at that moment he could not have performed the smallest action of mercy, knowing as he did, having lived on it all his life, the vast unalterable, cruel veld, where at any moment one might stumble over a skull or crush the skeleton of some small creature.
He 'could not have committed the smallest action of mercy'. It is a shocking thing to write, and a shocking thing to think: that cruelty is inevitable and that pain is a given. You can see how such a realisation could shape a person, if they could come to accept it as truth. I am forced to recall a passage from Walking in the Shade, the second volume of Lessing's autobiography. She is describing her feelings after the death of her mother, with whom she had always had a difficult relationship. I'm paraphrasing from memory, so forgive any inaccuracy, but she writes about how she was filled with a terrible, pressing grief that verged on rage (it is always rage, with Lessing) - at the waste of her mother's life, at her own actions . And then she writes about how brutally and quickly she suppressed it. She doesn't quite say: C'est la vie. People die. What is the point in crying over it? But she almost does. It was one of those moments in the book, and there were several of them, when I was forced to look into the heart and mind of someone whose workings are so radically different from my own and face up to their difference. Perhaps these African stories give some explanation of it. Perhaps it is Africa, in both its guises, as colonial nightmare and as terrifying landscape, that shapes Lessing's work more than anything else. This is a new idea for me, because I have always thought of her very much as a 'Western feminist writer', but more and more I think that is a misguided assumption. At least in her early work, and in her autobiography, she is very much a writer from and about Africa.