Book Review

The Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing

a doris lessing dystopia

Written November 14th, evening/night

Back on my Doris, bitch.

I’m on a train now, a sleeper train.

My lover and I have a tiny little compact sleeping cabin, with a tiny little private ensuite train toilet with a shower built into the wall. It’s somehow both very squalid and quite luxuriant: the fanciest way to travel from Montreal to Halifax (something I only agreed to do because until 11th November, I did not have formal permission to leave and re-enter the country). A manner of travel that is both fancy, but also involves being locked in a room barely larger than the closet in our v grimy, v budget Toronto apartment with much less physical and olfactory distance from where we sleep to where we poo. It’s strange, though I imagine ideal for anyone who truly, truly, loves the scent of their own excrement.

///

This 1974 novel from Doris Lessing postdates most of the texts of hers I’ve read in the last year/eighteen months or so, during which I’ve read a lot of Doris Lessing.

The Memoirs of a Survivor is most similar – considering my knowledge of all of the varied texts she produced (only a fraction of which I have so far read) – to Briefing for A Descent into Hell, in that it is non-naturalistic and it is inexplicable, though it is different from that novel in more ways than it is similar.

This novel is set in a possible future (maybe?), it is a tenuously collapsing capitalistic state. It’s very similar to Grievers in that it is ambient apocalyptic writing: the end of the world is happening and though no one feels fine, they keep going.

There is cannibalism and the attempt by the middle classes to be nevertheless persisting, there are roving gangs of street children who eat rats, there are indoor farms springing up in blocks of flats (both pastoral and arable1), there is mass migration with no news or communication ever coming back to the city from those who departed, and there is also state brutality the purpose of which is to maintain the fractious status quo and ensure no political movements rise to question and rebel against the sociological collapse.

People are ill – or are they?

People are desperate and dangerous – but why?

In the centre of all this is a middle aged, middle class woman who is visited by a mysterious and never-explained individual who gives her a child to “take care of”, which she kinda does, until eventually the child becomes pretty high up in one of the local child criminal gangs and the child begins looking after the adult.

As well as slowly observing the apocalypse, the protagonist also regularly slips through her living room wall into a parallel, dreamlike dimension where she can wander backwards and forwards through time, where she can be a floating ghost in the homes of others, where she can visit the younger childhood of the child who comes to live with her; she can see impossible futures and witness incompatible presents… it is escaping from her own reality, but not really, not very far, but this is exactly what which we all do (except for those who are in positions of power and privilege and enjoying themselves), with art and intoxication and sex and everything else that pulls us out of a direct and unrelenting contemplation of our own lived experience.

///

Overall, this is a strange, mesmerising novel, but it is clear and unambiguous in its depiction of very gentle horror… by no means can the characters deny they are in a collapsed society where every day their lives are at risk… there is nothing keeping people safe except for caprice… there is no longer even the pretence of a benevolent state… there is no longer a pretend society of peers who we must work with and beside to exist… everything has broken down, and every adaptation to this new, changing, world eventually becomes a liability, as things continue to change and habits are, as they have always been, addictive…

Memoirs of a Survivor isn’t a great Doris Lessing novel, though it’s definitely a good novel by general standards. One thing that has changed in the forty-five years since its publication is that its depiction of the collapse of capitalism is far less pertinent now, given that we have lived through multiple triggers that could (should?) have caused a massive irl collapse, yet everything is still, structurally, essentially the same…

I also don’t think people would be as resourceful, as adaptable, as stolid, as the everyday average person in this novel. I think a bleak end of the world will contain more apathy than this, more giving up, like in Grievers

///

I didn’t plan my reading for this trip to be apocalyptic, but it is – maybe due to COP26 happening during the days I spent selecting which books to bring. COP26, for anyone reading this more than a week after I typed it, was a “major” climate convention of world leaders that happened in Glasgow in early November 2021 and fixed nothing. The world’s a-burning, baybe! And as someone talking a domestic holiday by train, you know ol’ scott manley hadley is part of the solution (as well as part of the problem).

More soon!


1. Learning these two different terms for types of farming was about the only knowledge I left my provincial high school with. What an absolute waste of time.


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Humour ‘n’ Full Frontal Nudes in Because Earth Is Flat (with Sean Preston)

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