Why We Don’t Want to Be Characters in Other People’s Books

Doris Lessing and Jenny Diski

Doris Lessing and Jenny Diski

Someone kindly gave me a subscription to the London Review of Books this year.

It is a very male-oriented publication. I read an appallingly misogynistic article about Hillary Clinton. (They might respect her if they did not call her “Hillary.”)   But I have read with great interest Jenny Diski’s column, particularly her memoirs of Doris Lessing.

Diski, a brilliant memoirist and novelist, lived with Doris Lessing for several months in 1963 after she was expelled from boarding school. There were good times and bad times–she met many famous writers–but how did she know Doris would not kick her out?  Everyone else did.

Doris Lessing memoirs-of-a-survivor-my-copy

Eleven years later,  Diski had the disconcerting experience of finding herself a character in Lessing’s  The Memoirs of a Survivor.

Let me say here that Lessing is my favorite writer. The Golden Notebook and the Martha Quest books influenced the course of my life.  These books are oxygen to me.  I also love her dystopian fable, The Memoirs of a Survivor.

In The Memoirs of a Survivor, the narrator describes the disintegration of society by food shortages and power outages. The “memoir” describes a future  of regression and barbarism, but it is also a reminder of techniques of off-the-grid survival. (Gangs, barter, and flea markets are important.) The future may be most difficult for those of us who remember civilization, Lessing hints.

I also read Memoirs as Lessing’s psychological memoir, and the character Emily as a doppelganger of the narrator’s younger self.

Diski says Emily is based on her..

Diski writes,

Memoirs of a Survivor was published in 1974, 11 years after I began to live with Doris. She gave me a copy of the novel, as she did every one she wrote. It was inscribed ‘To Jenny love Doris 25/11/74’. It made familiar and disturbing reading. I could see Emily in me, just as I could see my elderly neighbour’s description of me aged three. It is as accurate a reading of me as Emily’s harsh commentary on others. It is true, but it is, of course, a doubly edited version, a view of me from the narrator’s point of view, which itself has been taken and worked for fiction’s purpose from Doris’s point of view. If there is pity in the narrator’s response to Emily, it is strained for. I discovered after a while that Doris had a habit of describing people in fiction and in life as, for example, ‘heartbreaking’ in her most distant, coolest tone, as if to mitigate her dislike of them. She saw it as being fair, I think.

The truth of the matter is, no one wants to be a character in someone else’s novel. I do feel sympathy for Diski, who was hurt by Lessing’s portrayal.   But perhaps Lessing was also writing about herself as Emily.   And I myself thought the portrait of Emily was compassionate.

Living with Lessing sounds relatively heavenly to me. When I was a  teenager, a lesbian teacher installed me in her house and seduced me.  I was always having to pretend I was 18 so she wouldn’t be arrested.  When I moved out, she stood on the curb outside the house where I had a room and yelled, “I hope it hurts like hell when you screw.”

There are observant writers; there are distorting writers.  There are kind writers; there are sociopathic writers.

Of course I’m fascinated by Diski’s memoirs (I  loved Skating to Antarctica), but Lessing’s are more fascinating.  I look forward to the third volume of Lessing’s autobiography, if she ever wrote it and if it is published.


Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing

8 thoughts on “Why We Don’t Want to Be Characters in Other People’s Books

  1. I have read far too little Lessing. This is probably because the first book I read was ‘The Fifth Child’ and it scared me too much I have only attempted her again when one of my book clubs has selected a work by her. Diski is also a writer I seem to have missed out on. Where do I start with both of them?


  2. I have only read The Grass is singing by Lessing which I enjoyed but although I do want to read more by her I can’t say I much fancy The Golden Notebook. I rather like the sound of this book though.


    • Lessing evolved as a writer in the sixties; The Golden Notebook was her first experimental novel. Some of my favorites are The Memoirs of a Survivor, The Summer Before the Dark, and The Sweetest Dream. These are truly classics, and have stood the test of time. But I actually like all of them!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It is interesting to note that Diski did not tell of how she was rescued (in effect she was) and given a middle class life based on a good education by Lessing until 1) Lessing died; and 2) Diski herself was diagnosed as having inoperable cancer. I take it this is a very painful episode about which she had conflicted feelings. One of her columns tells of an incident where Lessing behaved (I think) with great cruelty when Diski asked for reassurance. I suspect Lessing would have been livid with anger had she been alive. It was brave of Diski to tell (she is ever courageous) to give Lessing her due, but at the same time tell of the semi-callous way in which it was done. I would not want to be a character in someone else’s novel either.


    • I admire Diski’s writing and have read her columns on Lessing with interest, but I do know Lessing decided not to write the third volume of her autobiography because so many of the people were still alive and would be hurt: presumably Diski among them. And so we cannot know what Lessing thought.

      About the character Emily in Memoirs of a Survivor: she is so strong (if brittle at first) that I myself wonder if Diski overreacted, and even if the character was completely based on her. Emily was Lessing’s mother’s name, and some of the incidents when the narrator goes through the wall into a distant past (time shifts) and sees Emily reminded me of bits of Lessing’s autobiography and even of Alfred and Emily, her novel about her parents. Probably Emily was a hodgepodge of different people and characteristics.

      Perhaps they will publish another volume of Lessing’s autobiography eventually. I hope she wrote it.


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