living with Doris Lessing

Cacb46ff-0d48-4954-aa74-dd8427db0a55-620x372Jenny Diski at The London Review of Books:

I recall two versions of me as I look back over the first few months of living with Doris. One conforms to a description in Doris’s 1974 novel, Memoirs of a Survivor, of how 12-year-old Emily Cartwright settled in with the unnamed female narrator she’d been left with. The child is handed over and makes the narrator (in the film she was called ‘D’) extremely uneasy. The narrator interrogates her own feelings about this imposition: ‘[Emily] was watching me, carefully, closely: the thought came into my mind that this was the expert assessment of possibilities by a prisoner observing a new jailer.’ Emily is described as having ‘a bright impervious voice and smile’, of being ‘an enamelled presence’. The narrator looks for something in Emily that she might be able to like, but Emily always responds like ‘a self-presenting little madam’. Mostly Emily keeps to herself, huddled in her bedroom with her creature, Hugo, a dog-like cat, or a cat-like dog. When she comes out she is immoderately polite, excessively grateful. The narrator recognises Emily’s manner as an act, yet ‘while I was really quite soft and ridiculous with pity for her, I was in a frenzy of irritation, because of my inability ever, even for a moment to get behind the guard she had set up.’ Emily is indolent, unlike the industrious narrator, sitting for hours in a chair looking out of the window, while ‘she entertained me with comment: this was a deliberate and measured offering; she had been known, it was clear, for her “amusing comments”.’ Emily spears passers-by and neighbours with her acid insights and cruel stories. The narrator sees ‘a sour little smile, as if she was thinking: I’ve got you, you can’t escape me!’ She almost enjoys listening to Emily’s too-accurate comments, ‘but I was reluctant too, watching the knife being slipped in so neatly, so precisely, and again and again.’ This narrator, who has other things to do, has been presented, for no obvious reason, with a damaged child, too clever by half, whom she accepts as her obligation, but struggles to like.

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