August Book Club - The Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing

McMaverickMcMaverick Shipmate
edited August 1 in Heaven
Hello to fellow readers! I’m looking forward to sharing this book and discussion. I hope you’ve found a copy in either hard format or ebook. I didn’t manage for the June or July books 😕 but this one is fairly available, I think.

‘A compelling vision of a disorietating and barbaric future from Doris Lessing, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Many years in the future, city life has broken down, communications have failed and food supplies are dwindling. From her window a middle-aged woman - our narrator - watches things fall apart and records what she witnesses’

I chose this book that I first read many years ago, after picking it up in a second hand bookshop. At the time it seemed fanciful and surreal, but over the last few years, it’s been echoing around in my head as human society seems to be unravelling in so many places around the world, and extremism is flourishing. Now it doesn’t seem particularly surreal to me any more. I am looking forward to finding out what others think and feel about it.

It’s available on Amazon but you might find secondhand copies on other sites:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Memoirs-Survivor-Doris-May-Lessing/dp/0006493254/ref=sr_1_1?crid=EHCR3H5E0BBQ&keywords=memoirs+of+a+survivor&qid=1564179646&s=gateway&sprefix=Memoirs+of+a+,aps,385&sr=8-1

About Doris Lessing:
http://www.dorislessing.org/biography.html

About the book (although I’d recommend reading the book before you read this):
http://www.dorislessing.org/thesurvivor.html

I look forward to sharing with you.

Comments

  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Looks interesting - I downloaded a copy yesterday and will start reading later today.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Thanks @McMaverick. The only Lessing I've read was a very depressing short story in a collection of equally depressing stories that my son had to read for GCSE, so I'm looking forward to reading more, though this doesn't sound like it will be more cheerful. Will start on it soon.
  • McMaverickMcMaverick Shipmate
    Andras wrote: »
    Looks interesting - I downloaded a copy yesterday and will start reading later today.
    Great! I will look forward to exploring it with you when we get to the discussion stage 😎
  • McMaverickMcMaverick Shipmate
    Sarasa wrote: »
    Thanks @McMaverick. The only Lessing I've read was a very depressing short story in a collection of equally depressing stories that my son had to read for GCSE, so I'm looking forward to reading more, though this doesn't sound like it will be more cheerful. Will start on it soon.
    Perhaps not cheerful, but insightful. I will be interested to find out how you feel about it 😎
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    I'm in. Picked up copy from campus library yesterday.
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host
    I have missed the last few books and hoped to join in for one soon, but I have recently decided I cannot read dystopias right now ... I can barely deal with the current topia. They all feel too real and plausible and give me nightmares.
  • McMaverickMcMaverick Shipmate
    Caissa wrote: »
    I'm in. Picked up copy from campus library yesterday.

    Great! I look forward to discussing it with you.
  • McMaverickMcMaverick Shipmate
    Trudy wrote: »
    I have missed the last few books and hoped to join in for one soon, but I have recently decided I cannot read dystopias right now ... I can barely deal with the current topia. They all feel too real and plausible and give me nightmares.
    I understand this. Maybe there’ll be another book we’ll enjoy exploring together.
  • ClimacusClimacus Shipmate
    Trudy wrote: »
    I have missed the last few books and hoped to join in for one soon, but I have recently decided I cannot read dystopias right now ... I can barely deal with the current topia. They all feel too real and plausible and give me nightmares.
    {{Trudy}}


    The library has this and I shall swing by and get it. Thanks McMaverick!

  • McMaverickMcMaverick Shipmate
    Climacus wrote: »


    The library has this and I shall swing by and get it. Thanks McMaverick!

    Great! Look forward to discussing it with you.
  • Simon ToadSimon Toad Shipmate
    OMG I am as huge a fan of Doris Lessing as you can be without having read the Martha Quest series. Enjoy this wonderful book!
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    I'm joining in. Hopefully it's not too depressing!
  • McMaverickMcMaverick Shipmate
    Simon Toad wrote: »
    OMG I am as huge a fan of Doris Lessing as you can be without having read the Martha Quest series. Enjoy this wonderful book!

    😎
  • McMaverickMcMaverick Shipmate
    edited August 4
    Mili wrote: »
    I'm joining in. Hopefully it's not too depressing!


    I didn’t find it depressing, unsettling and challenging but not depressing. I look forward to discussing it with you.
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    Started last night about 15% through. Not depressing but certainly unsettling.
  • McMaverickMcMaverick Shipmate
    Yes, unsettling to a great level than I found it years ago.
    Caissa wrote: »
    Started last night about 15% through. Not depressing but certainly unsettling.

  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I'm about 15% of the way through too, and yes it is unsettling.
  • McMaverickMcMaverick Shipmate
    Sarasa wrote: »
    I'm about 15% of the way through too, and yes it is unsettling.
    Sadly feels all too pertinent, I fear.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I finished this yesterday and am looking forward to the discussion. I see there was a film made in the 1980s with Julie Christie and Nigel Hawthorne. Has anyone seen it, and is it worth seeking out?
  • I haven’t seen it, I wondered about seeing whether it’s on Prime.
  • I wonder whether a film could capture the narrative, though...
  • McMaverickMcMaverick Shipmate
    edited August 18
    I think we’ve reached the point in the month when the discussion about our book might start, so I’m going to post some areas here that we may (or may not) want to explore.

    *Resonance with our own time: does the description of decline touch our lives, our fears? If so, how, where, why?
    *The remoteness of the political class, those in authority.
    *They are barely real, except for the one family in the apartment block. I wonder what makes that family stay in the neighbourhood, despite being so separate?
    *The absence of any religious or charitable groups, who you might expect to be present and active in such circumstances.
    *Two Worlds. Dream/Unconscious/Subconscious vs Reality? I was reminded of the film ‘Inception’ : which is ‘real’? Are either ‘real’? What is reality? What is perception?
    *Following on from this: Hugo and his place in the story. A hybrid creature who appears to signal myth or dream...who becomes his true self in the ‘other world’ that we might consider ‘unreal’?
    *Hugo, the narrator, Emily - are they 3 people?
    *Lessing described this book as autobiographical, how do we see this, both literally and metaphorically?
  • Gee DGee D Shipmate
    Simon Toad wrote: »
    OMG I am as huge a fan of Doris Lessing as you can be without having read the Martha Quest series. Enjoy this wonderful book!

    One of the few works I gave up on. I got through the first 3 volumes, and enjoyed them. But the last defeated me and I stopped about a third of the way through. That was 45-50 years ago and I've not had any wish to return.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    McMaverick wrote: »
    *Two Worlds. Dream/Unconscious/Subconscious vs Reality? I was reminded of the film ‘Inception’ : which is ‘real’? Are either ‘real’? What is reality? What is perception?

    I'll come back to some of the other questions later, but this one interests me. I must admit I found the book a struggle to read, I felt I was skimming the surface of it somehow and couldn't really engage with it.
    The whole walls disappearing thing and the 'personal' that the narrator found there seemed to me to be some sort of fever dreams. Certainly the description of Emily's childhood seemed more likely to be the narrator's own. I wasn't sure what the 'non-personal' scenes were meant to represent and wasn't engaged enough with the story to delve into them in more detail. I wondered if Hugo was somehow the younger brother.


  • Thanks Sarasa. It is certainly not an easy read, and the lack of chapters and normal structure means it takes a while to adapt to, I found. I hadn’t considered Hugo as the younger brother, that’s really interesting.
    I experienced the world behind the wall as a dream sequence, and it seemed to have the nature of a dream state, especially as it could be so easily forgotten in every day life. Yet, Hugo in the ‘normal’ world is more akin to a dream creature. I wondered whether he was there to raise the questions ‘what is truth’ & ‘what is real’.
    The disturbing scenes behind the wall appear to be descriptions of Lesser’s childhood, where she is synonymous with Emily. Although, at times, I wondered how this might have reflected her life as a mother to her own children, particularly from her first marriage, but I’m probably barking up the wrong tree here. I didn’t feel she and Emily were the same person in the ‘real’ world but she did seem to fade into an observer at the end, suggesting they were one person.
    It reminded me of the process of psychotherapy, to be honest: it appears to hold the process of integration within its tale.
  • I last read Lessing in college, 35+ years ago. I didn’t particularly enjoy her books, but later I came to think I just didn’t have enough life experience to understand or appreciate them. So reading and joining in this discussion will give me a chance to test this theory.
  • McMaverickMcMaverick Shipmate
    edited August 20

    I last read Lessing in college, 35+ years ago. I didn’t particularly enjoy her books, but later I came to think I just didn’t have enough life experience to understand or appreciate them. So reading and joining in this discussion will give me a chance to test this theory.
    I look forward to hearing how you find it!
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    McMaverick wrote: »
    *Resonance with our own time: does the description of decline touch our lives, our fears? If so, how, where, why?
    *The remoteness of the political class, those in authority.
    *They are barely real, except for the one family in the apartment block. I wonder what makes that family stay in the neighbourhood, despite being so separate?
    *The absence of any religious or charitable groups, who you might expect to be present and active in such circumstances.

    I was thinking (while swimming lengths this morning) how the book works, if you strip out the scenes behind the walls, as a dystopian future novel. Like all dystopian futures this world seems solidly based in the time it was written, world of the 1960s/1970s. All the stuff about communes and free love for instance. I thought it was realistic, the way that society breaks down so slowly that you don't really notice it, specially if you still have water and electricity and presumably some money to buy things. I also liked the way she didn't try to explain what was happening outside the narrators field of vision. Yes I thought it was credible, and it does resonate with our own times, certainly in the UK where I feel that we haven't been properly governed since 2015.
    Did anyone think Pelican paperbacks, the ones with blue covers when she described the Ryan family. I read a few about that time and looking at the titles of some of the books The Violent Gang for instance, I guess Lessing did too. As a Catholic I was slightly irked that the only mention of religion was that the Ryan's were Catholics and that's why they had so many children.
  • Yes, the absence of religion in any other mention is odd to the UK mind, and surely reflective of her own upbringing and bias.
    I wondered whether she’d spent time in a commune herself. It is set in a very specific time, but as you say, there is a resonance with our current political climate, and also of the fragility of our society. It doesn’t take a great flight of fancy to see things breaking down, now.
    I think the best forms of dystopia have their foundation firmly in the present, as you say. Echoes of prophetic and apocalyptic accounts in the Bible in this.
    I wondered whether each of the main characters were a facet of Lessing herself, and that the end (her end? Was the final scene her death?) was an integrative process. Of course, June is absent in that last scene, but perhaps she’d finished her role by leading to an acknowledgement about self worth, or absence of it. So her absence could be a positive banishing.
    I’m not sure how clear that is!
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    Here is the Wikipaedia page for what it is worth.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memoirs_of_a_Survivor

    Just returned from vacation. I will have some of my own thoughts soon.
  • Yes, I steered away from it and went for her website when I started the thread because it has a tendency to affect my thinking.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    McMaverick wrote: »
    *Two Worlds. Dream/Unconscious/Subconscious vs Reality? I was reminded of the film ‘Inception’ : which is ‘real’? Are either ‘real’? What is reality? What is perception?
    Actually the 'other' world reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out around the time this book was written. I wonder if that had any influence on Lessing?

    I read the Wikipedia article when I was trying (and failing to get into the book. I haven't looked at her website. I'll do that now.
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    *Resonance with our own time: does the description of decline touch our lives, our fears? If so, how, where, why?

    I have read a good deal of dystopia so the setting did not resonate for me with our time period. It just fits generally into the post-apocalyptic genre.

    *The remoteness of the political class, those in authority.

    Again, the remoteness of the political class fits into post-apocalyptic situations where authority has broken down.

    *They are barely real, except for the one family in the apartment block. I wonder what makes that family stay in the neighbourhood, despite being so separate?

    The family seemed to be in denial. As long as they stayed in their warm cocoon the outside world’s deterioration could be ignored.

    *The absence of any religious or charitable groups, who you might expect to be present and active in such circumstances.

    It probably represented that another institution had deteriorated.

    *Two Worlds. Dream/Unconscious/Subconscious vs Reality? I was reminded of the film ‘Inception’ : which is ‘real’? Are either ‘real’? What is reality? What is perception?

    I found that dream sections harder to read. They were very ephemeral.

    *Following on from this: Hugo and his place in the story. A hybrid creature who appears to signal myth or dream...who becomes his true self in the ‘other world’ that we might consider ‘unreal’?

    Calling the animal “Hugo” in a science fiction book was quite humorous.

    *Hugo, the narrator, Emily - are they 3 people?

    2 people and an animal. Although I suppose a thesis could be put forth that Emily was the narrator’s younger persona. It would provide a very different reading experience.

    *Lessing described this book as autobiographical, how do we see this, both literally and metaphorically?

    She described it as an “attempt at autobiography”. Is she alluding to her transformation from Marxism to Sufism?
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    I've taken a while to absorb this book - time well spent, I think, and at last I think I know what I make of it. I make no claim that what I write here is 'the answer,' it's just my own understanding of it.

    I begin with Hugo, who I suppose is a chimera - that is, a hybrid creature with the body parts of more than one species. But the term is also used to describe an unrealistic expectation or hope, and perhaps he represents that as well.

    Theodor Adorno, who died in 1969, famously remarked Nach Auschwiz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch, usually mistranslated as After Auschwitz, no poetry, but really To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.

    The narrator is daily faced with the slow collapse of civilisation - that is, the growth of barbarism - and begins to realise that 'behind the wall' is some other reality. This is not always a pleasant one, and it has the dreamlike quality of changing even while she is immersed in it. Approaching this from a writer's perspective I would say that that alternative reality is to be understood as any creative work of the imagination, which she explores, tentatively at first, only at last to return to the barbarism of the world beyond the other wall.

    Most writers - most creative people - will have been here: we make a world which isn't always 'nice' but which is nonetheless 'ours' and into which we can at times invite others. And so at the end Lessing seems to me to be saying that Adorno got it wrong: when barbarism reigns, it isn't writing poetry or anything else, which is barbaric; far from it - indeed, the creation of art is the only proper response to barbarism.

    And so for Lessing the book is indeed autobiographical, depicting her acceptance that she is a writer, creating her own reality and boldly refusing to apologise for it.
  • McMaverickMcMaverick Shipmate
    edited August 28
    Thanks both for these interpretations. Interesting takes!

    I approached it in a more Jungian fashion, and saw the disturbing scenes behind ‘the wall’ (significant in itself, and could only sometimes be accessed) as being from Lessing’s childhood. Gerald, the character who needed to save others, Emily the strong woman who did everything for everyone, and Hugo the faithful, ‘ugly’ beast who was stuck in a situation over which he had no control, a victim of the situation. These all seemed to me to be part of her own identity and experience. As the narrative progressed and the past trauma found its way out, the degrading of social life followed in tandem - internal and external breakdown. Yet, in spite of this, there is unity and integration finally, as life is finally reconciled behind the wall.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    McMaverick wrote: »
    Thanks both for these interpretations. Interesting takes!

    I approached it in a more Jungian fashion, and saw the disturbing scenes behind ‘the wall’ (significant in itself, and could only sometimes be accessed) as being from Lessing’s childhood. Gerald, the character who needed to save others, Emily the strong woman who did everything for everyone, and Hugo the faithful, ‘ugly’ beast who was stuck in a situation over which he had no control, a victim of the situation. These all seemed to me to be part of her own identity and experience. As the narrative progressed and the past trauma found its way out, the degrading of social life followed in tandem - internal and external breakdown. Yet, in spite of this, there is unity and integration finally, as life is finally reconciled behind the wall.

    I can certainly follow the Jungian view, though I don't think the cat-dog Hugo is quite an archetype in the usual Jungian sense. I think we'd probably both agree that it's all 'about' the interaction of internal and external factors? stimuli? Either way, a good read.
  • McMaverickMcMaverick Shipmate
    edited August 29
    Yes, we would. No I don’t see Hugo as an archetype, but I think Jung’s work on dreams is relevant here. The two worlds either side of that wall, only being able to access the one behind when it was willing to show itself, ‘real’ life taking on dream like qualities that need considering (hence Hugo being a beast of dream like nature) ...all chime with the Jungian therapeutic model and the modern process, I think.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    McMaverick wrote: »
    Yes, we would. No I don’t see Hugo as an archetype, but I think Jung’s work on dreams is relevant here. The two worlds either side of that wall, only being able to access the one behind when it was willing to show itself, ‘real’ life taking on dream like qualities that need considering (hence Hugo being a beast of dream like nature) ...all chime with the Jungian therapeutic model and the modern process, I think.

    I suspect many writers are 'into' Jung on some level; I know I am. The 'place' I go to when I'm writing has a lot of the qualities of the world behind the wall - I can sort of control it, but it throws up constant surprises in the way it way it shifts and changes around me, and creates the story even as I'm putting it down.

    In the current work-in-progress (really the work-I've-just-finished-editing-and-am-ready-to-send-to-my-publisher) that world of the artist's imagination is explicitly linked to the Celtic Tir na'm Beo, the Land of the Living. More Jung there, for anyone who cares to spot it!
  • McMaverickMcMaverick Shipmate
    edited August 30
    Yes. I’m a writer, too and I find other worlds grow and develop in another dimension during writing, and so I identify with what you describe. As this is what she claims to be her attempt at ‘autobiography’, though, I am inclined to think that she is attempting to talk about her own life and using the two dimensions to tell part of her own, sometimes traumatic, story. She has interwoven it in this author’s process, possibly to protect herself and for fear that the reader won’t engage otherwise - self doubt creeping in? - but I fear that Emily behind the wall is Lessing as a child. The Emily this side of the wall may well be too, and she needs to be integrated, also.
  • I’m guessing that people struggled with this book. If I offer to facilitate another book, I’ll endeavour to make it more accessible! Thanks to everyone for giving it a go and for those who made it to the end and shared their insight.
  • McMaverickMcMaverick Shipmate
    edited August 31
    There is a series of interviews with Lessing on YouTube if anyone is interested. I thought this one was particularly interesting ( @Andras I think you might like it particularly) https://youtu.be/VDZSjMEUiF4
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    The thing to remember when an author talks about a book they've written is that writers of fiction are, by definition, professional liars.

    Do they ever tell the truth about what they've done? Not often, in my experience!
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Yep I struggled with this book. I think I'm getting old and finding engaging with the challenging - well a challenge! I write too and I could see that a lot of it was about the creative process, but I guess I like a good yarn and that wasn't really that. The scenes in the Edwardian nursery did remind me of the 1950s. When did people stop drying things on open fires?
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Sarasa wrote: »
    Yep I struggled with this book. I think I'm getting old and finding engaging with the challenging - well a challenge! I write too and I could see that a lot of it was about the creative process, but I guess I like a good yarn and that wasn't really that. The scenes in the Edwardian nursery did remind me of the 1950s. When did people stop drying things on open fires?

    My parents-in-law were still doing it in the early 1970s, and I'm sure others kept up the tradition for a lot longer - not drying so much as airing, I suppose; drying was done on the line.

    I struggle to see how the Edwardian scenes could plausibly relate to Lessing's childhood in Iran or Rhodesia; that's one of the reasons why I suspect that she was fibbing when she claimed the book was autobiographical. But then as I've said already, most (all?) authors lie about their own work, possibly because they can't explain it any other way.
  • Sarasa wrote: »
    Yep I struggled with this book. I think I'm getting old and finding engaging with the challenging - well a challenge! I write too and I could see that a lot of it was about the creative process, but I guess I like a good yarn and that wasn't really that. The scenes in the Edwardian nursery did remind me of the 1950s. When did people stop drying things on open fires?
    We used to dry things in front of an open fire in my childhood in the 60s until we got a gas fire. We were dirt poor, though.
    Sorry it was a challenge! 😳
  • McMaverickMcMaverick Shipmate
    edited September 3
    Andras wrote: »

    I struggle to see how the Edwardian scenes could plausibly relate to Lessing's childhood in Iran or Rhodesia; that's one of the reasons why I suspect that she was fibbing when she claimed the book was autobiographical. But then as I've said already, most (all?) authors lie about their own work, possibly because they can't explain it any other way.

    I find this a bit literal. Why on Earth refer to it as lying? Fiction writers are telling stories. All stories are true, and some of them actually happened.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    McMaverick wrote: »
    Andras wrote: »

    I struggle to see how the Edwardian scenes could plausibly relate to Lessing's childhood in Iran or Rhodesia; that's one of the reasons why I suspect that she was fibbing when she claimed the book was autobiographical. But then as I've said already, most (all?) authors lie about their own work, possibly because they can't explain it any other way.

    I find this a bit literal. Why on Earth refer to it as lying? Fiction writers are telling stories. All stories are true, and some of them actually happened.

    Literal? Perhaps so, but I've borrowed the term from the sainted Ursula K Le Guin, who uses it quite unashamedly both of herself and of other writers of fiction.

    And Terry Pratchett has no shame about calling teachers Professional liars because they inevitably have to simplify things for the benefit of their pupils. He also says that teaching is an honourable profession, so his use of the term carries no stigma.

    Personally I'm delighted to be thought of as a professional liar: I can make you see things that never happened and feel for people who never existed, and I'm proud of being able to do so.
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