THE BLOG
08/04/2014 05:02 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2014

Doris Lessing's Post-Mortems: Depositing Memories of the War to End All War

Emotionally, a daughter became "a casualty-clearing station" for her parents.

"That War - the Great War, the war that would end all war - squatted over my childhood. The Trenches were as present to me as anything I actually saw around me."

In a final effort to "get out from under that monstrous legacy," Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing assembled recollections and revelations about her parents, both of whom were irrevocably damaged by World War One.

The effort - titled Alfred and Emily - was her last book. Published in May of 2008, when she was almost 89 years old - just months following her being celebrated as the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature - the catharsis was clearly a struggle for her. Unhoned and disjointed, it is a struggle for any reader. Delicately, literary observers suggest that Lessing did not have the time, energy or focus to reorganize and polish the work. Still, one can pick out the poignancy.

With patience amid disappointment, combined with respectful effort, the reader can come away with an appreciation for what a daughter had to witness, hear, and endure.

Wishful thinking: Those who would escalate the destabilization and carnage in the Ukraine cease their fire to consider Lessing's autobiographical "counterattack" - and their own legacies.

The Fiction - the Imagined Lives

Alfred and Emily has two distinct components: The first half of the book is a work of fiction. Lessing imagined the lives (the longings, aspirations, pursuits and passions - the happiness) her parents might have had if there had been no World War One. She gave "life" to what her parents might have done, and who might they have become, were it not for the Great War.

"Percipient watchfulness" was Lessing's passport to "whole continents of experience" in her parents' faces, and voices. To provision them with lives they might have had, she explained, "I have relied not only on traits of character that may be extrapolated or extended, but on tones of voice, sighs, wistful looks, signs as slight as those used by skillful trackers."

One wishes she had had the stamina to be as skillful in delivering the accounts of her parents' actual lives - their engagements, disengagements, their real battles.

The Non-Fiction - "the Monstrous Legacy"

Lessing took aim at the psychological wounds and emotional upheavals that diminished her parents, both of whom had been "remarkably energetic." The First World War "did them both in."

Her father nearly died in the operation that took off his leg.
"Shrapnel shattered my father's leg, and thereafter he had to wear a wooden one. He never recovered from the Trenches. He died at sixty-two, an old man (from a long-lived family). On the death certificate should have been written, as cause of death, the Great War."

Lessing is not sparing in describing her father's arduous prosthetic alignment: "My father's wooden leg consisted of a bucket shaped in wood, into which the poor wasted stump was put." The bucket was attached to a metal leg and foot; "heavy straps held the device in place." To steady the emplacement, "the stump was fitted with stump socks, in knitted wool, up to ten of them, according to the weather and the condition of the stump. If the weather was hot, the socks were itchy and uncomfortable."

Her father's depression (what now would be classified as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) was compounded by diabetes. In later times, someone similarly afflicted "would be medicated out of the worst of it." But in those times, his despair "infected" his daughter's life unremittingly.

The Non-Fiction - the Mother's Unfulfillment

Lessing's mother spent four war years nursing the wounded in the Royal Free Hospital - and was unalterably spent by the experience.

While she "had no visible scars, no [visible] wounds," Lessing explained that her mother (socially aspirational) was as much a victim of the War as her poor father:

"She had nursed men wounded in the Trenches. The wounded who could be saved went to local dressing stations and then were eventually put on trains to London or other British cities.

"After the great battles, all the London hospitals were on alert for the influx of men, who would arrive in ambulances, lorries, even carts, to be put along the corridors and in any space available."

In aged agitation, her mother would recall, "We didn't have enough beds.... We would make wards for them out of the corridors. But they died, you see, and often we could do nothing. That was the awful thing. Sometimes there was nothing we could do.... I remember once we ran out of morphine and that was so terrible."

The barrage of incoming wounded never abated for long: "It went on, the awfulness, one year and into the next, and then another year.... We were sometimes so tired you'd see a nurse keel over, asleep, as she was attending to a patient."

"We'd finish doing our best after one battle, like Passchendaele, and then there was another battle and they came pouring in again."

What children pick up on and are left with

Of special significance to me, is Lessing's observation that "There are two kinds of old soldiers: those who cannot stop talking about their war, and those who never say a word."

My parents were in the latter category: my father was 34 years old when he was inducted into the Army Air Corps in March of 1941. Four years, four months, and 26 days later he received his most honorable discharge; three days later he married the woman who would be my mother.

He never spoke of his duties and encounters at Normandy, in Northern France, and the Rhineland. There was no regaling; he was interested in new ground - mine. He was keen on learning about my work advancements, my career campaigns. Self-absorbed, I very rarely inquired about his history. When I did, I got only a solemn nod about June 6, 1944.

A short time after his passing, I had to move my mother to a congregate living community for she was in descending into dementia. In the bottom drawer of a dresser, beneath abandoned balls of yarn and knitting needles, abandoned needlepoint scrims and skeins of yarn, was a "Certificate of Honorable Service from 1 Fighter Command of the Army Air Forces Aircraft Warning Service," dated May 1944. What was a Philadelphia girl (all her life) doing for the Ground Observer Corps seemingly headquartered at Mitchel Field, New York?

By contrast, Doris Lessing's parents were obsessed with their war memories. They felt an uncontrollable urge and need to impose their despair.

By writing about her parents' disappointments and despair Lessing sought to alleviate some of the imposed burden, even though the burdening by her parents' did not seem to unburden them. Was their daughter a kind of bank or vault or file cabinet into which her parents meant to deposit their troubles and crushing feelings? Did they believe that with the child's maturity, such "deposits" might accrue in interest and appreciation?

Lessing - at the home-front, a front-line observer
Lessing wrote of the burden deposited with her by her father: "I think my father's rage at the Trenches took me over, when I was very young, and has never left me.... Even as a child I knew his obsessive talking about the Trenches was a way of ridding himself of the horrors. So I had the full force of the Trenches, tanks, star-shells, shrapnel, howitzers - the lot - through my childhood, and felt as if the black cloud he talked about was there, pressing down on me."

Lessing came to realize that her mother's "wartime ordeals were ravaging her from within" just as her father's "Trenches were eating away at him."

Alfred and Emily's outpourings, recalled in their daughter's rutted 2008 memoir, amounted to an unwelcome bequest: "a legacy." Lessing wrote, "It is a legacy I could have done without."

For those who would escalate the destabilization and carnage in the Ukraine, another world war is a legacy we could all do without. Assuming there would be any legacy to be left.

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