I first heard about Doris Lessing’s Alfred and Emily at the time she won the Nobel Prize in 2008; she was working on a story about her parents, giving them a new life in which World War I did not interfere. Though I remember that, I do not recall what recently put it at the top of my TBR list. I’ve been reading a lot about marriages lately, so that must have been it, partially. I must have seen a brief reference to it someplace else as well, though I don’t know where. That’s the best insight I can offer.
Alfred and Emily is really one novella and one memoir. In the first part, Lessing gives her parents the life they didn’t have…a life they may have had if England had not entered the Great War. Oddly enough, though they know each other, they don’t end up together.
Somewhere I read a review of the book that essentially stated, why bother to give these people new lives if those lives are not compelling. But what was expected? Swashbuckling? Alfred wasn’t going to become the Scarlet Pimpernel. Yes, I was a little surprised that the lives she gave them were so conventional. But if any of us had been thrown off our trajectory, we would likely have ended up somewhere similar to where we are now. Character is fate, after all. Lessing could have given them more happiness, more flowers and sunshine. But she didn’t, and I don’t know why.
The second half of the book is memoir – Lessing expounding upon her childhood and her parents. When I was reading the first have of the book, the fiction, I thought it was decent. When I got to the second half, I realized how strong Lessing’s writing could be, and the novella paled in comparison. I ended up having mixed feelings about the second half, enjoying it mostly when it focused on her parents, her attempts to get out from under her mother’s influence, and must less so when she discussed insects. The structure was rather informal and conversational – I’m not sure if that’s characteristic of Lessing’s writing generally or not.
I know this isn’t Lessing’s best work; I knew going in that it hadn’t been very well received. But I seem to have a knack for entering into these relationships with writers at the most bizarre places (Coetzee’s Foe, anyone?)...don't know why. But, if this is representative of her not-so-good work, I'm really, really excited to read her good stuff. Maybe I'll have to get to The Golden Notebook much sooner...