Stories
Doris Lessing
New York: Alfred A. Knopf
626 pages, $15.00

Doris Lessing, bless her, tells stories about people rather than art, about experiences rather than boredom, about significant moments in a life, odd adjustments made, unexpected corners turned —rather than the meaninglessness of it all. And while most explorations of reality in modern fiction are done with mirrors, for the sake of the clever game, Lessing gathers her material from the plentiful world, with passionate curiosity about how people live, and extends our knowledge of human need and human delight.

Shereads like a nineteenth-century novelist with a twentieth-century sensibility, exercising a generously detailed, old-fashioned realism to delineate modern types (professionals, hippies, housewives) and modern, dilemmas (women’s place in society, third-world diplomacy, class mobility). All this Lessing gives without the straitjacket of ideology, for although she was involved in radical politics for years, she believes above all in fidelity to the human complications of her originals. As Anna, one of her avatars in The Golden Notebook (1962), says, “All I care about is that I should describe Willi and Maryrose so that a reader can feel their reality.”

At its best, her language has, a simplicity and clarity which gives it the illusion of being a common language, without quirks of personality or special education. She wants her words to seem transparent, holding reality as if in a glass bowl, containing but not interfering with the vision of it. She creates neither endearing Dlickensian eccentrics nor stock types, but aims to describe people who, however English, have universal souls.

It is what her national literature has heretofore lacked, according to her preface to The Golden Notebook:

it was not possible to find a novel which described the intellectual and moral climate of a hundred years ago, in the middle of the last century, in Britain, in the way Tolstoy did it for Russia, Stendhal for France. At’ this point it is necessary to make the obligatory disclaimers.) To read The Red and The Black and Lucien Leuwen is to know that France as if one were living there, to read Anna Kareninais to know that Russia. But a very useful Victorian novel never got itself written. Hardy tells us what it was like to be poor, to have an imagination larger than the possibilities of a very narrow time, to be a victim. George Eliot is good as far as she goes. But I think the penalty she paid for being a Victorian woman was that she had to be shown to be a good woman, even when she wasn’t according to the hypocrisies of the time – there is a great deal she does not understand because she is moral. Meredith, that astonishingly underrated writer, is perhaps nearest. Trollope tried the subject but lacked the scope.

Certainly these stories, with their cats and flower gardens, have that national flavor. Her details are English: the way she names varieties of roses (Pink Parfait, Ginger Rogers, Joseph’s Coat) or takes for granted public familiarity with personalities of the theater, a celebrity Americans reserve for movie stars or pop singers. Her range of tones are English: intelligent, cautious, ironic, amused, compassionate; perceptions deft, accurate, rueful. She never writes with a sensational edge, never makes you gasp, but builds her cases slowly. Even when she writes about incest (“Each Other”) there is more family to it than taboo – more a feeling of inescapable mixtures of love and obligation than of shocking unconventionality. Her Englishness is there in the quality of socialization: none of her characters loses control without watching with a part of themselves the effect on others. She focuses, then, on complications of impulse, on the pulls and tugs of pride, guilt, decorum. Although there are some Lawrentian moments, involuntary stirrings of the blood, for the most part Lessing writes about movements of the intellect and reserves her mysticism- for unusual psychological or spiritual states.

So much condensed experience is in these stories – each from another vantage point, another set of circumstances – that they read slowly. Sometimes her will to simplify makes her prose clumsy, but she never willfully obscures what she knows for effect. Her presence soothes, like a comfortable old friend. And occasionally she realizes a situation or a character so perfectly (and surely this ‘isatest of literature) that it lodges inthe mind as experience, trusted as knowledge, and one feels, “I know him, or her,” rather than, “I know that story.” Always, the world seemsfuller, more various, looking up fromher pages.

Lessing doesnottryfor thepure uplifting strains of Tolstoy, to give epic stature to the emotions of everyday men and women. Nor does she manage the erfectly poised ambivalence of Stendhal, – each persistent and compelling feeling painfully incomplete. But like Julien Sorel’s excitement reading, or Levin’s mute joy wielding a scythe in the wheat fields, there are universal moments in her stories, statements about human life so recognizably true that such distinctions seem beside the point, and one is simply grateful to the quiet, intelligent voice that renders them. There is George Talbot, for instance, in his sixties, making love with a woman again after a particularly long dry spell:

When they had finished, he gathered her in-his arms, and it was then tfiat he returned simply, with an incredulous awed easing of the heart to a happiness which – and now it seemed to him fantastically ungrateful that he could. have done – he had taken for grant- ed for so many years of his life. It was not possible, he thought, holding her compliant body in his arms, ‘that he could have been by himself, alone, for so long. It had been intolerable. He held her silent breathing body, and he stroked her back and thighs, and his hands remembered the motions of nearly fifty years of loving. He could feel the memoried emotions of his life flooding through his body, and his heart swelled with a joy it seemed to him he had never known, for it was a compound of a dozen loves.

Or the exasperation of Jack Orkney with his son in “The Temptation of Jack Orkney,” an exasperation not the less universal for its English edge, located in a culture resigned to the inevitability of the earth’s scarcity and anxious about worse disasters.

What he could not endure was that his son, all of them, would have to make the identical journey heand hiscontemporaries had made, to learn lessons exactly as if they had never been learned before. Here, at precisely this point, was the famous “generation gap”; here it had always been. It was not that the young were unlike their parents, that they blazed new trails, thought new thoughts, displayed new forms, of courage. On the contrary, they behaved exactly like their parents, thought as they had—and, exactly like their parents, could not listen to this simple message: that it had all been done before. . . .

But thistime the”gap”was much worse because anew kind of despair had entered into the consciousness of mankind: things were too desperate, the future of humanity depended on humanity being able to achieve new forms of intelligence, of being able to learn from experience. That humanity was unable to learn from experience was written there for everyone to. see, since the new geheratioh of the intelligent and consciously active youth behaved identically with every generation before’ them.

Thirty-five stories make up this collection, most of them reprinted from volumes published in 1957, 1963, 1972: before, during, and after The Golden Notebook (1962). They are presented here chronologically, although the reader is not told from which collections they come, and none of them, irritatingly enough, is dated. The basis for selection was the dubious criterion of not being about African subjects (most of them take place in London). Undoubtedly, this choice was for reasons of business rather than reasons of aesthetics’ (African Stories is still under copyright to Simon and Schuster?) because some of Lessing’s best stories are about Africa. In some ways those African materials’ formed her imagination, for she lived in Southern Rhodesia until she was thirty, when she came to England. She seems less schematic with the African stories than with these, which can feel as if they translate too easily into elegant allegories. Inevitably, then, some extraordinary work is missing from this volume; and to anyone who knows the full range of her work, the balance seems lopsided.

Nevertheless, in spite of these editorial shortcomings, a collection of Doris Lessing’s short fiction is always a good idea, for she is one of the great writers in our language. These stories come in all shapes and sizes: novellas and vignettes, definitely plotted and lightly sketched, some’realistic, some verging  on the mystical. Although she uses many forms, she often structures them by. presenting a situation, following through a line of consequence, and then returning to the circumstances of status quo ante. “A Year in Regent’s Park” begins one spring and ends the next.

The model instance, “Through the Tunnel, “tells of an episode during an English boy’s holiday in Italy. Leaving his mother on the beach, he swims out to, where-some laughing, splashing, Italian boys are climbing and diving off a big rock. One of them, the largest, finds a tunnel in a roqk under the water and, swims through it. The other boys follow suit; but the English boy is afraid to try. Laughingly, the Italian boys swim off. The English boy makes up his mind to master his fear and to swim through the tunnel. Every day he practices holding his breath, building up his swimming endurance, with a “most  unchildlike persistence.” Finally, on the last day of vacation, he makes the attempt and succeeds,  although the effort makes his nose bleed into his goggles. And then it is over. He is the same person, in the same slightly uneasy relation to his divorced mother; they pack up and return to England, Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

“The Temptation of Jack Orkney,” another of these paradoxical stories that ends where it begins- but with a difference – introduces a successful, middle-aged man at a point in his life where he does not quite know what to do with himself. A crisis is precipitated by the death of his father, a death which (to paraphrase Samuel Johnson) removes the last barrier. between himself and mortality. Being rational and left of the Labour Party, activist enough to consider religion as so much irrelevant poppycock, his crisis takes the form of a temptation to religion, a temptation to believe in -something that negates the centrality of his “real” life – family, work, colleagues, causes. Suddenly, all mortal endeavors seem to him vain and absurd. It is as if the masks of daily life were stripped away, and he is gripped with revulsion for himself and his friends, puffed up with self-importance; his wife, and daughters seem like  life-size dolls who go through the motions of support and sympathy when their buttons are pushed. Political demonstration suddenly seems to him an absurd response to distant human misery.

However true these perceptions at some level, Orkney is sensible enough to know that such alienation is unhealthy and he fights it: filling his time, reading in comparative religion, taking a new job. He does not turn guru or drop out; neither does he philosophize about levels of reality. But the ironies of the inversions in this modern temptation tale run deep, and for all our skepticism, we are sympathetic to his crisis. I

Much in this story is recognizable: the way Orkney and his wife were estranged during the years of childraising; the tolerant contempt of left liberals for Jesus freaks; the clash between hippie children and their “bourgeois” parents. Each resonance of relationship rings true.

Yet Lessing obviously wants to do more than merely construct a social reality. She wants to excavate the layers of consciousness that lie beneath visible experience. Following the example of Sufi wisdom tales – which interest her deeply – she tries to write about dimensions of response which are freest of convention or culture, which may lie closest to the rock bottom of human nature. Several characters in these stories prefer to live in basements, for example. (In The Four-Gated City, the hero’s first wife goes mad in a basement, ina parodic retelling of Jane Eyre’s encounter with mad Bertha; only in Lessing’s version, the heroine moves in with her and shares her madness.)

She writes about characters cut loose from normal social existence, isolated, on theirown. “An OldWoman and Her Cat,” the most powerful story in the collection, is an extreme example. Lessing plausibly describes how a handsome, middle-class woman, husband dead and children grown, gives up one by one the luxuries of civilized life. She becomes a tramp, descends to the life of a shopping bag  lady, bartering old clothes, plucking and stewing the pigeons her cat brings to her, living in unheated, condemned buildings. She is the human equivalent of her strong, rangy, canny cat: roaming the streets during the day, trading a bit of this for a bit of that, fiercely independent and alone.

Lessing returns to this subject in one way or another, again and again; she calls it “living hand to mouth emotionally” in The Golden Notebook. Undoubtedly, she is drawn toit out of her own life, as one of the new breed of single women, living without benefit of family or community, relying only on their own agility and resourcefulness. A woman living outside the traditional roles has to make up her own life as she goes along.

But she-is also drawn to these types as a student of humanity, as if socially marginal people show us human nature simplified, each one an exemplar of some human pattern, proclaiming it like a banner. It is as if stripping away the usual social supports of a life shows the structure of personality in high relief.

Hence her interest in mystics and mad people and outcasts. She makes intelligible, for example, Mr. Brooke, a dirty old man in “The Witness” whose sad voyeurism she portrays without a trace of disgust. He suffers terribly from loneliness, but his isolation is the very thing that distorts his behavior, so that people find him creepy and turn away from him. Her powerful psychological realism makes each link of  causation so unavoidable, so natural, so understandable, that one believes she has caught the essential facts of the case, as if she is tapping into an instinctual level, reading the unconscious.

For almost thirty years now, Doris Lessing has considered the vagaries of human character – and particularly as they are manifest in women. Recently, when asked if storytelling were dead, Grace Paley remarked that storytelling was, after all, just telling new people’s stories (“the language rises and rises again from new people’s voices”). Therefore, she said, on corrective tothe current decadence in modern stories, with their peculiar narrative qualities, their “nonlinearity,” was for women to telltheir stories.

Doris Lessing was perhaps the earliest of our generation of I woman-identified writers to do this. She never considered, that her gender would mislead her about what was universal in the human soul. “Of course this attempt on my part assumed that that filter which is a woman’s way of looking at life has the same validity as the filter which is a man’s way” she wrote in the preface to The Golden Notebook. Her pages are -filled with young women, old women, poor women, glamorous women, middle-class women, women with outside jobs, women who cook and clean and take care of children.

Indeed, her first published work, The Grass Is Singing (1950), was about a woman on a Southern Rhodesian farm, who is driven mad by boredom and isolation – and her unforgivable feelings for a young, black, male servant. Both characters – the black man, who dominates and protects this crazy white woman who is supposed to be his absolute master, and the white woman, who cannot keep from liking and relying upon the black man she is expected to subjugate – are in the terrible double bind of having their. deepest feelings consistently denied, refused, falsified, by the social world. It is no accident that Lessing’s feminism was grounded on an awareness of the color bar. Her early life in Africa taught her about the violence done to emotional reality by illegitimate patterns of power.

But she never uses gender merely rhetorically. She records what she perceives or imagines to be true rather than what ought to be true. Indeed, the “sexual politics” of some of her early stories seem dated. By now, sentimentalities which mightonce have tugged at the heartstrings seem beyond the pale. One winces at Annie Blake in “He,” for instance, because she is willing to submerge herself and her deep feelings of injustice for love, willing to forget the memory of “ier aching back when the children were small: she could see him lying on the bed reading the newspaper when she could hardly drag herself” because “without bm there would be no meaning in her life at all.” Or Barbara Coles, in “One Off the Short List,” a highly successful set designer- intelligent, warm, humorous – who submits to being raped by a smooth journalist who collects such famous women because it is not worth making a fuss. These characters now seem like. relics of another era, reminders of attitudes which writers like Lessing, by setting them down in black and white, have helped us to see and think about.

Stories is neither inclusive enoughnor selective enough to be a definitive collection of Lessig’s short fiction. But most of the characteristic elements of her work can be found here, in one form or another, since these stories span twenty-five years of a remakable and prolific career. The volume itself is ample, the typeface handsome. And if you do not like every single one of these stories – and you probably won’t – some of them will settle with you permanently, and as a collection they will confirm you in your suspicion that everything has its story.