Not a Covid-19 Dystopia:  Doris Lessing’s “The Memoirs of a Survivor”

We all remember that time. It was no different for me than for others.  Yet we do tell each other over and over again the particularities of the events we shared, and the repetition, the listening, is as if we are saying, “It was like that for you, too?  Then that confirms it, yes, it was so, it must have been, I wasn’t imagining things.”–Doris Lessing’s “The Memoirs of a Survivor”

This weekend I reread Doris Lessing’s  beautifully-written novel The Memoirs of a Survivor, because I needed to get my bearings in an increasingly unreal world.  I was in need of comfort, in fact in need of a “cozy catastrophe.” After rattling the pages of the daily newspaper and perusing the record number of Covid-19 cases, I was embarrassed by the government’s inability to protect us as numbers spike after a huge number of unwise state reopenings.  I was also embarrassed that we are practically a third-world country in the view of the world now, and banned from traveling to other countries. (Not a good time to travel, but still.)  I longed to escape into an alternate chronicle of the fall of civilization–which is and isn’t happening here and elsewhere.

Lessing gets everything right, on a metaphorical level.  In another way, she gets very little right.  Of course this is fiction, a kind of dream-like fable, in which it is possible to survive the fall of civilization and travel through walls to other times.  There are epidemics, but that is only one cause of the disintegration.

The narrator, a middle-class older woman who lives in a comfortable flat in London, describes the crisis known in her times as “it.” There are food shortages: people get tips from each other on where to get potatoes, imitation meat, and other necessities. Official sources of news are unreliable, though the government still exists in a talking-heads way.   Hardly anybody bothers with electricity, though the narrator has running water. Squatters move into empty hotels and houses in the narrator’s neighborhood, and gangs of young people, some of them cannibals, many of them armed, pass through and camp on the pavements, sometimes for days, finally leaving for the north.  And then the residents of the neighborhood sigh with relief.  But soon they, too, are thinking of joining the gangs and traveling with them.

And into the narrator’s life comes Emily, a 12-year-old girl dropped off at her flat one day by a strange man who says she is now the Emily’s guardian. Emily is inseparable from her pet, Hugo, which looks part dog, part cat, and which is really part of her personality.  Much of the book talks about the rapid coming-of-age of Emily:  soon she is known as “Gerald’s girl,” the girlfriend of one of the gang leaders who has a house in the neighborhood.  But just as easily Emily could have led a gang herself, the narrator muses, as she is the one  with the most information about where to get what.    And the narrator believes the catastrophe has crushed the years of the struggle for women’s rights.  Women are content to be in second place now.

Lessing tries to define the crisis she calls “it.”  She writes,

For ‘it’ is a force, a power, taking the form of an earthquake, a visiting comet whose balefulness hangs closer night by night, distorting all thought by fear–‘it’ can be, has been, pestilence, a war, the alteration of climate, a tyranny that twists men’s minds, the savagery of a religion.

And, much to our surprise, she explains the government is still at work. 

All this time, while ordinary life simply dissolved away, or found new shapes, the structure of government continued, though heavy and cumbersome and becoming all the time more ramified….  What government really did was to adjust itself to events, while pretending, probably even to itself, that it initiated them.

Although Lessing hated people to interpret her books as autobiography, I do recognize some scenes from her Children of Violence (Martha Quest) series  and her autobiography.   

But I agree that is the wrong way to read her books.  I’ve always loved this novel, but this time I was reading for directions.