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Before Her Time

Stories

by Doris Lessing
Knopf, 626 pp., $15.00

Like Chinese grandmothers, novelists eventually earn respect for their sheer staying power; by the time they have an honorable career behind them and are having their work reprinted they deserve, and get, a certain homage. Earlier in their careers the critics nag and carp; later, the cold eye of reassessment is cast over their life’s work; at the peak of a writing career, which is where Doris Lessing now stands, the years of solid achievement command maximum respect. She has been writing now for twenty-eight years and the front of this book lists twenty-two titles (with at least two of them, The Golden Notebook and The Four-Gated City, several times as long as an average novel).

A survey of critical responses to her books might reveal curious strata of social history; it is hard to remember now that she was once considered very daring and very militant (she indicated that one of her characters menstruated; and insisted that relations between the sexes were difficult and unequal). She has been accused of being feminist, and then accused by feminists of not being feminist enough; she has been a communist, and moved on from a belief in simplistic political solutions to interest in deeper psychological change, touching on themes of madness and of mystical and extrasensory states of consciousness. She has written clearly into all her work the conviction that we are moving blindly and inevitably toward global catastrophe.

Certainly she has earned the respect accorded to a writer of her stature and fertility. Doggedly she has been writing into her fiction signposts and warnings that we need desperately to be reminded of, in a way that has been more persuasive and imaginative than if she had been a pure polemicist. She is the kind of writer one would especially like to meet—though it may be a backhanded compliment—just to discuss some of the ideas she raises in her fiction: the description in The Four-Gated City, for instance, of the woman whose sensitivity to psychic influences is labeled psychotic, and who is then edged into being actually mad, speaks more vividly than any antipsychiatric volume.

But the critic has the problem of distinguishing between what an author says and the way she says it. The moralist in Lessing, struggling with the very skilled writer, at times has made her prolix, clogged, slow—though in her latest novels she has successfully introduced a leavening of fantasy. The fact is that there are writers who in an economical page or two can make us feel our dilemmas more piercingly than she does in a leisurely fictional exposition. Missing from her work is that fusion of the absurd and the agonizing, that sense of time and space gathered up for a moment between the hands, that sudden shift from understanding to seeing directly, that we can expect at rare moments to get from our storytellers.

One would imagine then that, like many novelists not of the first rank, she would distill her best work in short stories; and indeed the finest of these thirty-five reprinted stories (her whole output, apart from the ones with an African setting) are very good indeed, tighter in form than any of the novels. As a whole, though, the book does leave one with a slight sense of disappointment; not all the stories have worn as well as one expected. Some are not free from the diffuseness of the novels: four pages may be spent, for instance, in describing a very ordinary generation gap between father and son when a paragraph might have done. A story about British tourists in postwar Germany, having introduced a convincingly unpleasant neo-Nazi doctor, works well until it moves on to introduce yet another one, with another kind of badness; the story would have been more effective if it had ended earlier. Sometimes a social issue looms too obviously behind the story: “England versus England,” for instance, might as well have had as epigraph, “Sociological evidence proves working-class students suffer from divided loyalties.” It is particularly in the stories with a working-class background that one is troubled with something slightly awry in the dialogue, a feeling that as a naturalistic evocation of the way people talk it is nearly right.

The range of themes is wide and inventive. The stories cannot be classified into specific pigeonholes, except that some stand right outside the “slice of life” convention, others—at least half—stick to the naturalistic tradition of spotlighting the small human dramas that traditionally are short-story material. An adolescent boy, teased by his sexually precocious sister, finds out that the old lady lodger upstairs is in fact a tart, forces himself on her in rage and pity, and exorcises his disgust. In “Pleasure” a suburban wife who arranges her life around Christmas and the annual status-enhancing holiday abroad is followed through her two weeks of boredom, penny-pinching, and snobbery. “Notes for a Case History” is the story of a girl, pretty beyond the ordinary and coached relentlessly by her mother to aim high and give nothing away, at the moment of taking a marriage choice—the best she can get but suddenly, too late, seen as the appalling result of her whole training. Two old soldiers in a Swiss hotel, a German and an Englishman, sink old hostilities and their mutual lust for the chambermaid in drinking and amorous boasts; one is telling the truth and one not, but the chambermaid’s contempt shrivels them both alike. Lessing’s characters struggle with anger and self-deceit, are granted glimpses of honesty; but, in the main, decline to hold on to them.

Other stories refuse, in various ways, to conform to the short-story formula. “Each Other” is simply an odd, explicit account of the long-drawn-out, narcissistic, and finally unconsummated love-making of a brother and sister; afterward they part, as usual, and go back to their unnecessary spouses. Two stories are based on a fascination with actors and acting, what the nature of their work does to them. “An Unposted Love Letter” has been written by a distinguished aging actress, and concerns the relation between her spontaneous feeling and the art to which it is ruthlessly subordinated. She has only rarely loved, and always in order to add a new dimension to her acting; now she writes to a married man, briefly met, instantly loved in secret, and automatically renounced. “Every time it is like being killed, like being torn open while I am forced to remember what it is I voluntarily do without”; but she has been renewed again, and there is new fuel for her acting.

The other story, more desultory, plays with a succession of anecdotes—about the playwright who, with each approaching divorce, writes his ideal woman once again into a new play; the impotent film director who makes his cast act out again and again a scene where the man fails to make love to the woman; the impeccably conventional actress who will only accept parts that show her as tortured and doomed. Here Lessing is perhaps speculating on the transactions that go on between life and art with artists of any kind, the ways in which an obsession to create can deplete, enrich, and supplement ordinary living all at once.

Themes usually emerge with some consistency from an author’s short stories, however varied their subject matter. Lessing’s message is, I suppose, our complete moral and social bankruptcy, and particularly in the relation between men and women. Hers is not an angry feminism, though her men are rather poor creatures compared to her bruised, gritty women. Anger may imply hope, a hope that things could be better if only some sense could be knocked into somebody’s head, a hope for a time “after the revolution.” One does not feel that Lessing sees any hope, only perpetual deadlock. About a third of the stories are specifically about a sexual situation, and in none of them is there reciprocity, happiness, or the ghost of a solution.

Lessing is preoccupied with the unloving calculation that enters into the sexual situation, with woman as artifact and man as connoisseur—a common enough theme in fiction now, but not when most of these stories were written. In “Between Men” two elegant upperclass whores discuss and lament their twenty years’ servitude; in “One off the Short List” a hollow and despairing “media man” pursues a woman to the point of near-rape, driven purely by the need to score, like a hunter notching up a kill; the contempt of the women for men in these and other stories is withering.

In her novel The Summer Before the Dark Lessing had her heroine parade in front of some men, first with hair and clothes impeccably groomed, and then shrouded in dowdiness; in the second case she found herself almost literally invisible to them. She repeats the theme in two of the stories here—a woman evoking shock and anger by deliberately altering her pretty trappings. That a woman should belong so much to her surface, to the way she colors and shapes and arranges it, that this surface should be the focal point for male fantasy quite unconnected with the person underneath the surface, is an affront to her. But she is not without pity for the man’s part in this tragicomedy. In “A Woman on a Roof” three men working on a rooftop in a heat wave become obsessed with a woman sunbathing nearby, and react with joking and cat-calling; to the youngest of them, however, she becomes a dream woman of unimaginable sweetness and sympathy, and he climbs over to her, only to be exasperatedly rebuffed; he gets drunk, hating women.

In “To Room Nineteen” Lessing explores to its logical limit a fantasy perhaps special to women about being free from any demands at all, from being battened on and sucked dry. She makes Susan Rawlings an apparently normal and happily married woman who, when her children are finally at school, finds herself with free time and yet increasingly obsessed with a need for some area of unassailable privacy. First the school holidays come to seem unbearable, then even the school terms are no good because of her housekeeper’s chatter. She puts aside one room in the house to be self-consciously alone in, which soon gets taken over by the family; she goes on holiday alone but it is spoiled by having to phone the children every day. Secretly she takes a hotel room for part of each day, but the proprietress is soon plying her with tea and sympathy. Finally she finds a totally anonymous, sleazy room where she can spend the afternoons; but her husband, thinking she is having an affair, tracks her down. So she turns on the gas and is undisturbed at last.

The course of her obsession with being free from any impingement whatever is reminiscent of Kafka’s “The Burrow,” in which some small nameless animal is trying interminably to build a burrow around him that is absolutely safe but completely accessible. (The obverse to Susan’s story is that it was only the existence of her family that made the anonymous room so desirable; to have had nothing but the room would have been worse than the imaginary hell she was trying to escape.)

Though it is the women who endure demands, it is the men in Lessing’s stories who are the more lost, dislocated creatures. Often, like the boy in “A Woman on a Roof,” they end in a state of baffled pain. They are the driven ones: they follow their own needs without much thought until the women, hurt, take revenge, and the men are left discomfited, puzzled, diminished. In one of the simplest and best stories, “He,” a wife and husband who has been off with a “bad” woman are trying to reach a reconciliation; his boots make marks on the clean floor, he spills his tea, she explodes with exasperation; she hates her resentment, hates him for provoking it—and knows that “without him there would be no meaning in life at all.”

The best of the stories are those where no particular issue is at stake, no didacticism intervenes, and the writing moves quickly and simply. In her realist vein, I found “An Old Woman and Her Cat” the best story here—simply the account of a half-gypsy woman, disowned by her respectable family and moving from one derelict house to another with her scarred old cat until she dies of the cold. There is no feeling of pathological withdrawal as in “To Room Nineteen”; the woman is like one of Wordsworth’s peasant figures, almost a part of the landscape: a tough old animal like her cat, living as she must. “Two Potters” is another of the great successes, a story which eludes plot analysis but which contains strange dream landscapes which remind one of Lessing’s African background. When she deals with animals and landscapes her work seems more alive than when she is manipulating her characters and their rather stilted dialogue. For this reason I found the three stories which are no more than devoted evocations of London’s Regent Park—which she obviously loves with a passion—to be more moving than the stories with a plot to them. One is left with a little disappointment but much admiration, and an eagerness to know what she will attempt in her next novel.