When Doris Lessing brought out the first two volumes of her autobiography, Under My Skin (1994) and Walking in the Shade (1997), she did so, as she explained, partly in 'self-defence', aware that at least 'five American biographers' were then writing their versions of her life. Some had been in touch and had been given short shrift; others she had never met. 'Yet another can only be concocting a book out of supposedly autobiographical material in novels and from two short monographs about my parents.' The soufflé-ish quality of Carole Klein's Life of Lessing irresistibly suggests that Klein, who approached the forbiddingly private author in 1992 only to be sent packing, was that unfortunate person. Sure enough, the essays 'My Father' and 'Impertinent Daughters' (Lessing's memoir of her mother, Maude Tayler) are both reheated here, trimmed and blanched but still instantly recognisable: signature flavours in the bland biographical mix. Inevitably, too, the autobiographies themselves have been cannibalised to bulk out the fare, supplemented by conversations with journalists who have interviewed Lessing, and with her former personal assistants, former political and literary acquaintances, and a voluble ex-lover. Many of these contributors spilled the beans only after insisting on anonymity. Why did they bother? Presumably it is Lessing's wrath they want to avert, and Lessing will be perfectly capable of remembering the name, for instance, of 'the young woman' who worked for her in 1997 and recalls how 'pissed' her employer was at the poor critical reception of the Canopus novels.
LRB 22 March 2001 | PDF Download