In the title novel, two friends fall in love with each other's teenage sons, and these passions last for years, until the women end them, vowing a respectable old age. In Victoria and the Staveneys, a young woman gives birth to a child of mixed race and struggles with feelings of estrangement as her daughter gets drawn into a world of white privilege. The Reason for It traces the birth, faltering, and decline of an ancient culture, with enlightening modern resonances. A Love Child features a World War II soldier who believes he has fathered a love child during a fleeting wartime romance and cannot be convinced otherwise.
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Winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, Doris Lessing was one of the most celebrated and distinguished writers of our time, the recipient of a host of international awards. She wrote more than thirty books—among them the novels Martha Quest, The Golden Notebook, and The Fifth Child. She died in 2013.From The Washington Post:
Some people mellow with age; Doris Lessing isn't one of them. Whether this is good or bad or neither or both is up to each reader. But there is no doubt that an acerbic, indeed caustic sense of disillusionment -- with socialism, with romantic love, with the cultural experiments of the 1960s and the political trajectory of Africa's independent states -- is one of the great themes of Lessing's recent years, energetically expressed in memoirs, novels and occasional interviews. Lessing's new book, The Grandmothers, is a collection of four novellas, and it shows that at the age of 84 she remains firmly committed to the belief that all "isms" -- and even most ordinary emotions -- are forms of self-delusion. Lessing isn't a cynic, for she still believes in the value (and existence) of truth, and she lacks the injured sense of self-pity that motivates the cynic. But there is great bitterness in this new volume. The surprise, perhaps, is that something approaching empathy occasionally peeks out, too.
In a Lessing story, when characters are described as "blessed people" with "an air of repletion," we know that catastrophe looms. And so it is in this volume's eponymous, and sharpest, tale. It follows Lil and Roz, two nice, attractive best friends in their mid-thirties, each of whom enters into a mutually joyous affair with the other's teenage son. It is the women themselves who, more than a decade later, break with the "boys" (who are, of course, now men) in the hope that the lover-sons will enter into normal marriages of their own. And they do, though the normal proves to be a sham, for the sons' emotions remain fixated on their older, quasi-incestuous loves.
Coming from another writer, "The Grandmothers" could perhaps be read as a tale of true love denied; but Lessing doesn't believe in true love. The story must be seen in the light of her larger condemnation (expressed in her last novel, The Sweetest Dream, and other works) of sexual permissiveness and emotional recklessness -- or what she here calls, with a touch of acid, "this extended family's casual ways." In the story's last scene, as their sons' families collapse, we see Roz and Lil, now near 60, sitting enjoying the beach "in their bikinis" -- sirens who have almost casually destroyed those whom they were meant, above all, to protect. Yet Lessing's condemnation, rather than outraged, is consistently calm and measured -- which makes this story, despite hints of the ominous, wryly charming.
The theme of lovers (or spouses) sleeping (or living) with one person while longing for another recurs in most of these stories and suggests that Lessing views love as essentially a mirage. In "A Love Child," a British soldier named James has a brief affair with a married woman in South Africa during World War II. This idyll, which lasts a few days and (possibly) produces a son, becomes the touchstone and obsession of James's life; his wife and child can never compete with his dream. Or, perhaps, with his illness, or his curse -- for love, Lessing writes, is a terrible thing, a "black lightning." But she acknowledges something gentle and more delicate, too: the way that love and grief and yearning are so often intertwined.
Lessing writes with understanding, too, of how the disastrous gift of silent, imprisoning marriages is bequeathed from one generation to the next. Yet the real horror of this story lies not in its mapping of emotional disconnection but in its depictions of war. James's regiment's long and brutal sea journey from England to Cape Town is steeped in vomit, blood, pain and fear, and Lessing almost makes us smell "the heaps of dirty, sweaty, sick-soaked, urine-soaked uniforms mounted high" before a washing.
Like many other readers, I stopped following Lessing when, in 1979, she abandoned social realism for science fiction, where she dwelt for many years. "The Reason for It," set in a mythical kingdom long, long ago (or far, far in the future?), is her return to this genre, and an unwelcome one at that. A century-old, nameless narrator tells of a nation-state and a people -- democratic, peaceful, cultured -- who, through the choice of a leader more stupid than bad, descend into darkness. The brave new world and its inhabitants are ignorant, militaristic, coarse; judgment, learning and a concern with "the deep seriousness of our lives" are replaced by illiteracy, violence and "a raw jeering laughter that was never heard in our time." Even the new music is harsh and jarring. "Why is everything so loud and so ugly?" an old woman who remembers the gentler era wonders. This is a question that old people all over the world ask, and it is often a very good one -- but not, alas, one whose all too obvious allegorical import can possibly carry the weight of this tale or endow even a moment of it with freshness or surprise.
The subtlest story here is "Victoria and the Staveneys." It tells of a 9-year-old black girl -- poor, skinny, scared -- who is taken in for one night by the Staveneys, whose children attend her school. Ten years later, Victoria -- now mature, confident and beautiful -- has an affair with the younger Staveney son, Thomas, which will result (unbeknownst to him) in a delightful daughter named Mary.
The Staveneys are white, well-to-do, left-wing bohemians (they sent their sons to Victoria's crummy school out of "ideology"), and they are supremely confident of their place in the world. Their elder son, Edward, who as an adolescent tortures himself over global inequalities and the suffering Third World, becomes a human-rights worker who jets to hellholes like Sierra Leone; his brother Thomas, meanwhile, "had learned to love black girls and black music, in that order." The Staveneys are easy to mock.
Lessing does, of course. But the welcome twist in this story is that this is not all she does. The Staveneys are smug and self-satisfied, the embodiment of radical chic -- "I have always wanted a black grandchild," muses Mrs. Staveney -- but they are also more. When Victoria, after six silent years, suddenly presents them with Mary, they welcome the newest Staveney not just with trips and gifts but with a deep and clearly genuine love; the family's patriarch, Lionel, is particularly enamored. (In a cheap and too obvious shot, only Edward, the great defender of the dispossessed, is suspicious of Victoria's claim and suggests a DNA test for the child.) And when the Staveneys offer Mary not just affection but also a real entry into their world through the financing of a different kind of education -- one that will, inevitably, pull her away from Victoria, from her neighborhood, from her black family and from her class -- Victoria agrees, and we fully know why. For while Lessing pokes fun at the Staveneys, and in particular at their romanticization of "the other" (wryly, she observes, "Thomas took Mary to concerts of African music, twice, but she thought they were too loud"), she does not underestimate the value of their intellectual heritage or idealize Victoria's stultifying life in the ghetto. In the end, as Victoria watches her child become "a ship sailing away over a horizon," we understand both the cruelty of her choice and its utter rightness.
In an interview I conducted with Lessing three years ago, she expressed antipathy not just toward romantic love and political commitment but to passionate convictions of any kind. I cannot share her rejection of love and politics because I cannot figure out how a world with even traces of tenderness or justice -- a barely livable world -- is sustainable without them. Yet I come back to her work again and again. This is due in part to the staunchness of her vision, but it is also because in an age of anomic fiction, self-indulgent fiction and meta-fiction, she upholds the value of realism -- the value, that is, of using fiction to explore the conditions of our lives in realms both public and private. Lessing anchors the self in the world and returns the world to the self. In this, she is a daughter of Dickens, of Zola, of Stendhal: profoundly radical and traditional at once, in the very best sense of each word.
Reviewed by Susie Linfield
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
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