Review of Doris Lessing’s Stories
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/18/06


  One of the troubling aspects of contemporary literature is that people do not think for themselves. This is true on both ends of the spectrum, with writers, and especially readers. Like the American electorate, that constantly bitches about the poverty of good candidates to vote for, yet never steps outside the Democratic-Republican axis, contemporary readers are either part of the small subset of deliterate PC Elitists that delude themselves into feeling that we are living in a Golden Age of poetry and prose, or they are in the vast majority that knows that writing isn’t nearly what it used to be, but haven’t got a clue why. That’s because they let others force-feed their opinions to them. Recently I read and reviewed Crime And Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and was surprised to discover that the novel was in no way a prolonged apologetic for the power of Christianity. In fact, it’s a book that charts the static nature of the human soul.

  So, just how does such a gross misperception get fostered and flourish? The lack of thinking for oneself. Compare the summaries of acclaimed masterworks by such organizations as Cliffs Notes, Monarch Notes, Spark Notes, and their many online counterparts, not to mention dimwitted published critics from the book’s release to the current day. They are all bland regurgitations of the same misperceptions, because none of these groups or individuals really bothers to, yes, READ the actual book! This is one of the very reasons I started Cosmoetica- as an antidote for the deliterization of our age, via the misinformation and homogenization of published and unpublished literary thought and to get people to think for themselves. Don’t take my word for it on whether work A, B, or C, is good, bad, or mediocre. Read for yourself. That said, if you are a perceptive reader, you will agree with me 95+% of the time.


  Let me now deal with some of the best tales in the book, representative of some of the major Lessing tropes, although aware that some of the tales could fit into more than one category. I descried five major categories, with few tales that are not classifiable, and those generally were the lesser tales. The first category would be tales of love and infidelities. The tale He deals with whether or not a cuckolded woman will take back her faithless lover. It is a short tale, but one which plumbs the potential pragmatic consequences of such a decision, for if the woman accepts her lover back just what does that say about her? The Habit Of Loving deals with a man who tries to reconcile with an old love, but finds out that old ways are not always replicable. The aptly titled A Man And Two Women deals with similar choices to be made. Lessing’s longest meditation on the subject occurs in the novella length The Other Woman. Note how simple Lessing’s titles are, yet how cogent to the tale’s realities. This tale deals with things in even more pragmatic terms, as a young woman finds out her older lover, whom she thought was married, is not. Eventually, she is befriended by her lover’s ex-wife, and decides to leave him to another, younger and even more gullible woman. It is one of the most empowering tales dealing with infidelities and lies I’ve ever read, yet it is simply presented, and cleanly told, with none of the hand-wringing that usually accompanies such tales, nor the PC bravado and sermonizing over the correct decision made by the lead character.

  Another major theme for Lessing deals with social portraits, usually of dilettantes. One Off The Short List is a great example of this. A failed writer, reduced to doing interviews for the BBC, tries to fulfill his fantasy of bedding a famed stage actress. Under threat of violence (among other suasions) he gets her to submit to his carnal desires, only to have her slough him off in an even crueler way the next morning. The writer then turns himself off emotionally, and one gets a glimpse at just how this petty monster came to be, and why. A lesser example is the novella The Eye Of God In Paradise, a heavy-handed and moralistic tale that deals with post-World War Two Austria, and English dilettantes on an arts excursion, only to find that the monstrous impulse that led the Aryan psyche to war still persists. It is one of the few poorly written tales in the book, both for its poor and biased symbolism and its length attenuating any sense of drama.

  Lessing fairs better in her tales that are mostly all portraits of individuals or groups, such as the realistically grim, but excellent, An Old Woman And Her Cat, which follows the descent of both titular characters into death. To Room Nineteen is a more famous story, but a bit more amorphous, as it follows the end of the life of a suicidal woman, in a loveless marriage, whose goals are circumscribed by social confines she’s submitted to. She decides to rent a hotel room to get ‘space’ to deal with her frustrations, causing her husband to suspect infidelity. Yet, this only heightens her depression, until she gasses herself in a hotel room. It is too long and drawn out a story, and by tale’s end you’re hoping she finally does the deed. Notes For A Case History is an outstanding portrait of a good looking, but manipulative bitch whose constant scheming eventually backfires, as she finds herself eventually falling victim to her own emptiness. The Witness chronicles a similar fall from grace, as a pervert is finally caught and fired from his job. Perhaps the most famed of these ‘portraits’ is the great tale, Through The Tunnel, which follows the power of will a young eleven year old boy summons as he determines to hold his breath long enough to explore an underwater cave, and convince himself he has the stuff to be a real man. After attaining his goal, here is how the tale ends:


  She looked at him closely. He was strained; his eyes were glazed-looking. She was worried. And then she said to herself, Oh, don’t fuss! Nothing can gappen. He can swim like a fish.

  They sat down to lunch together.

  ‘Mummy,’ he said, ‘I can stay underwater for two minutes- three minutes, at least.’ It came bursting out of him.

  ‘Can you darling?’ she said. ‘Well, I shouldn’t overdo it. I don’t think you ought to swim any more today.’

  She was ready for a battle of wills, but he gave in at once. It was no longer of the least importance to go to the bay.


  The last two categories have a good deal of overlap, and I call them moment pieces and experiments. The moment pieces are just that- pieces that describe a place or a time. In A Woman On The Roof Lessing shows that dilettantes are not her only forte, that she can sketch the working classes, as a group of blue collar roofers take notice of a gorgeous woman sunbathing on a rooftop not far away, and one of them actually gets up the nerve to try to approach her, only to be handed his balls on a proverbial silver platter. She also goes outside her comfort zone with Outside The Ministry, which is a game of political oneupsmanship between four politicians from an African nation newly freed from Britain’s colonial rule. Then there are a series of brilliant mood pieces, such as A Room, which describes a room, and its surroundings, in great detail, only to discover that much of what is known by the senses is not what it seems. Homage For Isaac Babel follows the mere recommendation of the author’s work, and its outcome. A Year In Regent’s Park is just what the title says- a series of vignettes about a year in a park’s life. Lions, Leaves, Roses… is a tale in a similar vein, as is The Other Garden, which is a pastoral meditation.

  The final sort of tales are the experiments, such as Not A Very Nice Story, which heavily plays with form and points of view as it details a pair of intertwined marriages, which ends on a very despairing note. This truly postmodern tale (as opposed to the slop that usually has that label applied to it) opens in this provocative and well written way:


  This story is difficult to tell. Where to put the emphasis? Whose perspective to use? For to tell it from the point of view of the lovers (but that was certainly not their word for themselves- from the viewpoint, then, of the guilty couple) is as if a life were to be described through the eyes of some person who scarcely appeared in it; as if a cousin from Canada had visited, let’s say, a farmer in Cornwall half a dozen unimportant times, and then wrote as if these meetings had been the history of the farm and the family. Or it is as if a stretch of years were to be understood in terms of the extra day in Leap Year.


  Report On The Threatened City is Lessing’s only science fiction tale in the collection, and has a very Twilight Zone like appeal. England Versus England and Two Potters are two minor, and mediocre tales that also fall into this last category.

  Through all her tales, though, Lessing never relents from the basic existential crisis that is at the heart of most literary stories of quality: who am I and how did I get here (to where the story starts)?, or its subtle variants She is very much a literary writer, in the best sense of that term, and, at least in her short fiction, I’ve found none of the specious and frequent comparisons made between her and Virginia Woolf to hold up. Woolf was a horrendous short fictionist (and her longer fiction was not much better, if at all), while Lessing is a premier talent and accomplished wordsmith. Her best tales read almost like emotionally charged psychological chess matches between antagonists, or a protagonist and the cosmos, and she has a good ear for real conversational tones, inflections, and offhanded poesy. She is a short story writer of a cut or three above even more acclaimed landsmen like William Trevor, yet has never quite gotten her due. Read her anyway, and help reverse the tide of deliteracy wrought by the vandals of literature: the bad writers, agents, editors, publishers, and critics, who try to snow you from what your gut tells you, but you just cannot finger. Doris Lessing is a terrific writer- stick that in your Cliffs Notes, and think about it!

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Dublin Quarterly website.]

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