Doris Lessing, “Stories” (1978) – I often find short story collections difficult to review. The lack of a single perspective or narrative thread throws me some, I guess. I also find Doris Lessing a little hard to write well about, which is odd because she is one of my favorite writers. Like a few other great writers I generally write short about — Primo Levi comes to mind — in her realist fiction, Lessing wrote, in direct, compelling language, about what she saw. She appears to have been mostly telling the truth, too, anyway the truth as she saw it. She didn’t have much of an “angle.” She was a feminist, but was never a movement person. She was a leftist, but left the Communist Party in the fifties and never got back into movement politics in that direction either. Her feisty, independent streak and extremely low tolerance for bullshit handicapped her in terms of following the ideologies of the time (arguably, any time). I’ve yet to read much of her science fiction, I plan on getting to that.
This is a collection of her short stories (except those about Africa, where she grew up in a South Rhodesian settler household, for some reason- maybe just length) ranging from a period from the 1950s to the late 1970s. With some exceptions — a great story about a boy determined to swim through a dangerous underwater tunnel, and another great one about British tourists creeped out by postwar West Germans — They cover many of the topics and concerns we see in her longer realist works, such as “The Golden Notebook.” We get some stuff about how being a communist was confusing, a fair amount of material about the hypocrisy and opacity of the British class system to which Lessing was something of an inside-outsider, and more than anything, we get Lessing’s depictions of women’s lives. The compilation includes stories of young women trying to find their way, middle-aged wives and spinsters negotiating the grind of marriage (or lack thereof), old women holding on to their dignity. In all of them, a combination of societal forces, internalized weaknesses, and the actions of inadequate men batter these women about, sometimes to their madness or death.
There are no plaster saints in Lessing’s work, no tiny violins playing for the victims of the world. The women are (almost) as cynical and self-dealing as the men- Lessing knows that oppression does not make saints out of people, it makes messes. Maybe this is one of the reasons I like Lessing so much. There is a lot of feeling in her work — love and it’s attendant miseries, grief, anger, isolation, fleeting stabs of joy — and there is no sentimentality, not even a whiff of it that I’ve noticed. Take, for instance, her notions on child rearing. Marriage has its compensations for women, in Lessing’s world; child rearing, almost none. She finds changing diapers and cleaning up after kids boring, a waste of a smart woman’s talents, and isn’t shy about saying so- wasn’t shy, in her own life, about leaving her children in Rhodesia to come up to London to start a literary career. A contemporary writer either wouldn’t say that, or hedge it in with so much self-analysis and back and forth it’d be rendered meaningless. Lessing says it, plainly, and explores the consequences of its truth. That is worth something, in this world. *****