Many of the scenes in these memoirs are already familiar, since Lessing has drawn on the particulars of her experience throughout the broad reaches of her fiction, characteristically joining the daily realities of life on the veldt or in a London flat to the biggest political issues of the age. Yet the memoir is a valuable guide to the equally complex human being who now questions whether that novel was worth writing, and a portrait of the artist as a woman and a thinker which is as troubling as it was evidently meant to be.
Looking back, Lessing is sardonic, even accusing, as she marvels at what she terms her adolescent sense of self-possession. In the modern self-experiment of a life she had begun, freedom would turn out to be much harder to use than it was to win. She was nearly thirty; and had brought with her the manuscript of her first novel and also a son, aged two and a half. Her second marriage had been no more than a wartime arrangement made to avail a German lover in Rhodesia of her British citizenship.
And so her account of her early London days becomes a catalogue of the hardships of single motherhood, what with getting up at five, working for too little money, feeling ever duty-bound and exhausted. Then, there was the tremendous loneliness and exclusion from adult society. London was still a dark and blinkered city, a barely recovered war casualty itself.
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She describes walking the empty streets alone at night, and the tantalizing glimpses of fellowship in the lighted pubs she sometimes passed. She writes:. I did know it was a neurotic decision, for it was characterised by that dragging helpless feeling, as if I had been drugged or hypnotised—like getting married the first time because the war drums were beating, or having babies when I had decided not to—pulled by the nose like a fish on a line. If this lends some limited clarity to her reasons for joining, a good deal of the book is spent anxiously trying to explain why she stayed on past so many protests of her conscience.
And still she struggled with turning in her Party card. The most perplexing and dispiriting of her adventures, however, occurred when she came upon just such a soul, and the message was not what she wanted to hear. In , while she was visiting the Soviet Union and touring a collective farm, a classic Tolstoyan old farmer in a white peasant smock stepped forward to cry out that everything the foreigners were being shown was false, that life under Communism was terrible, and that they must go back to Britain and tell the truth.
And then letting it go. This is not offered as a defense, exactly, but as evidence of a kind of mass delusion, in which the only imperative was to believe in something larger than the single self. One wishes there were more about the cases themselves, the strategies she has used to represent her clients and the intricacies of the trials. In many instances we are not even told how the legal proceedings ended, if they ended at all. Ebadi writes that she reserves these details for a future book, but their absence here is conspicuous. What we do get is a complex and moving portrait of a life lived in truth, as Vaclav Havel would put it, within the stultifying confines of a political system intended to compel passivity.
Ebadi is well aware of the compromises forced on her as she works to curb the Islamic legal system's worst excesses. It is worth quoting her at length on this point, because she articulates the dignity of a reform movement inside Iran that has been derided by Islamists and Westerners alike as too appeasing of the other side. She writes:.
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It can be interpreted to oppress women or interpreted to liberate them. I am a lawyer by training, and know only too well the permanent limitations of trying to enshrine inalienable rights in sources that lack fixed terms and definitions.
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But I am also a citizen of the Islamic Republic, and I know the futility of approaching the question any other way. My objective is not to vent my own political sensibilities but to push for a law that would save a family like Leila's" — a child who was raped and murdered — "from becoming homeless in their quest to finance the executions of their daughter's convicted murderers.
If I'm forced to ferret through musty books of Islamic jurisprudence and rely on sources that stress the egalitarian ethics of Islam, then so be it. Is it harder this way? Of course it is. But is there an alternative battlefield? Desperate wishing aside, I cannot see one. Tell us what you think. Please upgrade your browser. See next articles.
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Read the Revolution. Buy the Book. Memoir July 16, Memoir of a Revolutionary Soldier Joseph Plumb Martin, a young man raised by his grandparents, left home at age 15 to serve in the Continental Army.