Kisses are the least of it - Doris Lessing and Clancy Sigal

Clancy Sigal and Doris Lessing, ca. late 1950s. 

Stephen Dixon once wrote a short story which begins “He said, she said. She left the room, he followed her. He said, she said”. And so it goes on, the joke being about how easy, or rather how unimportant, it is to imagine what each is saying. Their exchange is generic.

Roberta Rubenstein has written a book-length study of the back and forth between a man and a woman who had an affair for four years in London in the late 1950s: Doris Lessing and Clancy Sigal. Both were writers with an interest in the “permeable borderline between fact and fiction”, and neither held back in what Rubenstein calls, in Literary Half-Lives, their “creative use” of the other.

Lessing had the first words; first in Play with a Tiger, written in 1958 and performed in 1962, and then in her celebrated novel The Golden Notebook (1962), where Anna Wulf explores her complicated affair with a handsome “American lefty” called Saul Green. What Rubenstein describes as the “primal scene” of the relationship (in the novel and in life) occurs when Anna seeks out Saul’s account of the affair in his diaries and then Saul starts writing directly for her. “Does art imitate life or is it the reverse?”, Rubenstein asks. But there are further layers. By writing for, and reading about, each other, she argues, Saul and Anna “serve as midwives for each other’s recalcitrant muses”: each goes on to write the first line of the other’s novel. Anna’s is about a woman called Ella who has a love affair with a handsome American lefty called Milt and who writes a novel which she thinks of as “carrying on conversations with one’s self in the looking-glass”.

That was enough for Lessing. She went on (among other things) to study Sufism, write “space fiction” and win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Sigal, however, while pursuing a career in journalism, fiction and screenwriting, was just warming up, and Rubenstein provides detailed accounts of two novels, Zone of the Interior (1976) and The Secret Defector (1992), along with several published and unpublished stories and a BBC radio play from 1983, that continue to pick at the scabs of the relationship. “Now it’s my turn”, begins one.

t’s not unusual for lovers to contest events and for the one who feels misrepresented to write back with gusto. Ted Hughes, for examples, used Birthday Letters to inform the world that there was something rather dubious about Sylvia Plath’s “long, perfect American legs”, never mind her “roundy” face. But perhaps because his break-up with Lessing was more mutual, and perhaps because he had originally come to Europe with the intention of having an affair with a European intellectual (in the footsteps of Nelson Algren seeking his own Simone de Beauvoir), Sigal is more genial and self-consciously satirical about the affair. He takes great pleasure in elaborating on the “wonderful, inventive, imaginative” culinary, rather than intellectual, skills of his once well-beloved (a juicy meat loaf makes several appearances) and his own reputation as “James Dean out of Brendan Behan” and being “terrific in bed”.

And yet the decades-old experience of being “stuck hot and steaming” into Lessing’s prose like “a still-struggling lobster” was not forgotten. Unlike Lessing, Rubenstein argues, Sigal seems never to have got the relationship “out of his system – or to exhaust its literary possibilities”. In his hands Saul Green becomes Jake Blue, then Paul Blue, then Gus Black and so on. For all its comic playfulness (“Stay out of my drawers – figuratively, I mean”, his alter ego scolds hers), the sense of betrayal is never far from the surface of Sigal’s prose. In The Secret Defector, for example, Gus complains to Rose that he’s “not the one who gets up in the middle of the night to transcribe on my typewriter what my lover has just gasped on the pillow”, although he then concedes, in an aside to the reader, that he “waited till next morning and wrote in longhand”.

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