Doris Lessing’s Stories

Doris Lessing Stories everymanDoris Lessing, one of the best writers of the 20th century, was a bold, brilliant chronicler of women’s lives. Many years ago, when I first read The Golden Notebook and The Four-Gated City, the fifth in her Children of Violence series, I felt, absurdly, that she was writing my life.

Last fall l read half of Doris Lessing’s Stories, a 655-page collection of short stories with an introduction by Margaret Drabble. Although I prefer the later stories, I also admire an early story, “The Other Woman,” about a working-class woman, Rose, who works first in a bakery, then in a munitions factory during World War II.  Her pleasure in her work, and her obsessive care of the basement apartment she shares with her father are more important to her than her relationships with men.  Then the house is bombed, and she becomes involved with a married man.  But there is a twist.

Lessing’s later stories are more eclectic, and many are perfectly-crafted,  Some of the stories in the latter half of the book anticipate such science fiction novels as Memoirs of a Survivor, the Shikasta series, and Mara and Dann.

In “Two Potters,” the narrator knows a potter, Mary Tawnish, who never dreams.  The narrator begins to dream about another potter in a village on a great plain of reddish earth “that looked as if it were hastily moulded by a great hand out of wet clay, allowed to dry, and left there.”  After she writes a letter to Mary about her dream, an interactive relationship between the dreams and Mary’s work develops. In each successive dream, the narrator sees the settlement and the potter’s work develop and change.   Finally, Mary makes a clay animal for the potter in the dream world.

In “Report on the Threatened City,” a group of intelligent aliens observe that a city on an Earth-like planet is “due for destruction.”  They visit the planet to warn the people, and make the horrifying discovery that they already know, and have known for years of the impending disaster, but have done nothing, and will do nothing, about it.  Stating the problem is enough for them.

One of the most famous stories, “To Room Nineteen,” is  the story of a suicide.  It begins:  “This is a story, I suppose, about a failure in intelligence:  the Rawlingses’ marriage was grounded in intelligence.”  Matthew Rawlings works; Susan stays home and raises the children. Over the years, she loses herself; when her children are all in school, she does not go back to work as an illustrator for an advertising firm.  Instead, she rents a hotel room, Room Nineteen, under the name of Mrs. Jones.

What did she do in the room?  Why, nothing at all.  From the chair, when it had rested her, she went to the window, stretching her arms, smiling, treasuring her anonymity, to look out.  She was no longer Susan Rawlings, mother of four, wife of Matthew, employer of Mrs. Parkes and of Sophie Traub, with these and those relations with friends, schoolteachers, tradesmen.  She no longer was mistress of the big white house and garden, owning clothes suitable for this and that activity or occasion.  She was Mrs. Jones, and she was alone, and she had no past and no future.

In “An Old Woman and Her Cat,” Hetty, a widow with four adult children who ignore her in her middle age, grows to love a cat more than any human being.  She deals in second-hand clothes, which she buys from householders and sells  to owners of shops and stalls.  Her beloved cat is her best friend.   In old age she moves to a room in a house.  When it is scheduled for demolition, she and the cat begin to live in abandoned houses. Finally she becomes desperately ill.   This is a terrifying story of something that could happen to any of us.

This is a fascinating collection of short stories, and it is always a pleasure to read Lessing.

Doris Lessing’s Stories

Doris Lessing Stories everymanIn the introduction to the Everyman edition of Doris Lessing’s Stories, Margaret Drabble writes,”Doris Lessing’s short stories, published over several decades, are among the most important in the English language.”

Lessing’s novels are dazzling, but her stories are also beautifully-crafted.

She is one of the most significant writers of the 20th century, a, bold, brilliant chronicler of women’s lives.  As a very young feminist reader of The Golden Notebook and the Martha Quest books, I felt, absurdly, that she had written my life.

Her characters were of an earlier generation (she was born in 1919), yet her accounts of women’s lives in her experimental novels, The Golden Notebook, The Four-Gated City, and Memoirs of a Survivor, fit the messiness of life in the late twentieth century: changing attitudes towards love, sex, independence, dependence, anger, pain, rebellion, war, cynicism, even a belief in “the revolution.”

In this collection of stories, even the shortest stories have depth and elaborate structures.

Lessing writes often about the working classes.  In my favorite story, “The Other Woman,” the heroine, Rose, who works at a bakery, is scornful of her mother’s accidental death:  she was hit by a truck, and Rose thinks it was a silly way to die. Unhealthily obsessed with caring for her father in their basement apartment, she breaks off her engagement to a loving man.  Years pass.

She and her father often argue. When he says she should quit her job, Rose says she likes her independence.

Jem said:  ‘Women.  They say all women want is a man to keep them, but you and your mother, you go on as if I’m trying to do you out of something when I say you mustn’t work.’

‘Women here and women there,’ said Rose.  ‘I don’t know about women. All I know is what I think.’

Independent Rose, who has no boyfriends, befriends her ex-fiance’s wife and daughter, wishing above all that she had children.  When World War II breaks out, the friendship between the women intensifies.  But she and her father, who reads about Hitler, continue to argue, because Rose thinks male aggression is the cause of war.

I’m not interested who started it.  All I know is, ordinary people don’t want war. And there’s war all the time.  They make me sick if you want to know–and you men make me sick, too.  If you were young enough, you’d be off like the rest of them,” she said accusingly.

Rose works for a munitions factory, knowing full well that the good wages will last only until the men come home.  When their house is bombed and her father dies, Rose finds the basement apartment intact; she refuses to leave.  Jimmie, a volunteer, convinces her to move: they become lovers and move into an apartment. When he tells her he is married and must go home to see his family for days at a time,  Rose is jealous and angry.  The story ends with a bizarre twist.

In the surreal story, “How I Lost My Heart,” the narrator writes flippantly about having lunch with A, her first true love, who devastated her when he left, and B, her second, who also shatterd her.  She has agreed to meet the man she calls C for lunch.  But when she finds herself remembering the agony of break-ups, she breaks the date with C.   And then suddenly she feels her heart in her hand.  She tries to roll it off her hand, but it is stuck to her fingers.  She wraps it in tin foil and a scarf.  And then…

Sometimes Lessing writes from a male point of view.  In “One off the Short List,” Graham Spence, a married journalist, is determined to have an affair with Barbara Coles, a stage designer.  Graham, who has written one book, writes book reviews and freelances for radio and the BBC.

He understood that he was not going to make it; that he had become–not a hack, no one could call him that–but a member of the army of people who live by their wits on the fringes of the arts.

He has an assignment to interview Barbara.  When he meets her at her workplace and sees that she is bound to her co-workers “by the democracy of respect for each other’s work,” he is envious and sad.  But his insistence on dominating her turns into hostility towards a successful woman.

Lessing and I, women of different generations, define the word “feminist” differently:  she does not consider herself a feminist.  But her short stories, feminist or not, are powerful.  I am halfway through them.  Perhaps more later.