Literary Corner Cafe

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Book Review - The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing


I haven’t read many of Doris Lessing’s books for the simple reason that one can’t read everything. There are just far too many good books out there. I did like the “Lessing novels” I did read, though, especially The Grass Is Singing, and I’ve had The Grandmothers on my bookshelf for several years now, just waiting to be read.

Though Lessing was already well into her eighties when she wrote the four novellas (some call them short stories, but I call them novellas) that comprise The Grandmothers, this book shows that she’s still a writer at the height of her powers.

The title novella, “The Grandmothers” was probably my second favorite in the book, and one of the best crafted. In the hands of a lesser writer, it might have come off as simply preposterous, but Lessing makes it seem, not only very believable, but also very probable.

“The Grandmothers” revolves around two women, Roz and Lil, who have been close friends since school days. For each woman, this friendship is the strongest and most enduring relationship in her life, surviving the women’s marriages, divorce and widowhood.

The opening of the story is rather ambiguous. A waitress at an outdoor caf√© has been observing the regular visits of a seemingly idyllic family group: two older ladies, two younger men, and two little girls. As the waitress continues to observe and admire this group, she sees a younger woman march furiously up and drag the two little girls away. What’s happened? Lessing doesn’t tell us. At least not immediately. Instead, she flashes back to the past as Roz and Lil meet, go through school together, and even choose husbands who will like each other. After a double wedding, the two couples buy neighboring houses, have sons at the same time, and are constantly together.

Of course something always comes along to upset the apple cart, and so it is with Roz and Lil. One day, Roz’s husband decides to leave, declaring that the only real love in the two families exists between Roz and Lil, and that he and Lil’s husband are but peripheral characters, with no real place in the homes. And, it isn’t long after that Lil’s husband is killed in a car crash. Suddenly, both women are single mothers of growing boys. When the boys reach their teens, Roz’s son becomes Lil’s lover, and Lil’s son becomes Roz’s lover. As improbable as this relationship seems, it continues until the boys are in their thirties, and then it’s Roz and Lil who have to break it off, deciding the men would be better off married, with families of their own, instead. The men, however, odd as it may seem, never forgive their mothers – and their lovers – for this decision.

Of course this story is an example of what happens to people who can’t resist temptation and a taste or two of “forbidden fruit.” It’s a daring story, and while it may seem to those who haven’t read it to be a comic one, it’s actually very sad. What impressed me most about this story is Lessing’s great verve and assurance in its telling, though in retrospect, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at all. Doris Lessing has been writing for more than sixty years now, and she’s a master. In her hands, rather than being preposterous or “soap operaish,” “The Grandmothers” is an intelligent, sensitive story that fully captures the feelings of all the characters involved.

“The Grandmothers” has a meaning that’s much deeper than what appears on its surface, and even an astute reader might have to read the story more than once to understand it fully. One clue to this story’s meaning lies in the sentence:

These lives were easy. Not many people in the world have lives so pleasant, unproblematical, unreflecting: no one in these blessed coasts lay awake and wept for their sins, or for money, let alone for food.

“The Grandmothers” is a wonderful story and the collection would be worth it for that story alone, but those who read this book have three more wonderful stories to savor.

“Victoria and the Staveneys,” the book’s second tale, is set in London and revolves around Victoria, a poor black orphan who has a long involvement with the son of a middle-class family. She first becomes enamored of the Staveneys, a liberal family who refuses to be undone by the “question of color,” as a schoolgirl, when she’s left at the school gate, unmet and uncollected by any adult, and the idealistic Edward Staveney takes pity on her and take her home to spend the night. Later, as a young woman, she has an affair with Edward’s brother, Thomas, a young man who collects black music and black girls, an affair that produces a child, Mary.

One might think the Staveneys would be a little upset about an illegitimate grandchild and an illegitimate grandchild of a different color. Instead, they’re elated. “I have always wanted a black grandchild,” declares Jessy, the family matriarch, while her husband, Thomas calls Mary “my little chocolate √©clair.”

The Staveneys take to Mary, who looks more white than she does black, like a duck takes to water. They proudly take Mary on family excursions, trips to the country, and give her private schooling. Mary seems happy; the Staveneys seem happy; Victoria seems uneasy, though she longed for Mary’s absorption into what she terms “that big, rich house.” In one scene, Victoria watches Mary sleep “rather as she would a ship sailing away over a horizon.” Mary has become the “girl in the middle,” the girl caught between the world of an impoverished black mother and her rather well-to-do white paternal family. Mary is incapable of “binding two worlds.” We know, in the end, someone is going to have to suffer.

Despite the subject matter, “Victoria and the Staveneys” isn’t a “heavy” story. In fact, it’s told with an artlessness that only the very best writers can muster. It’s very much a “Doris Lessing” story, very typical of her work, and it embraces many of the themes Lessing has written about during her long and fruitful career.

At times, the character of Victoria seemed more of a plot device than someone whose psyche Lessing wanted to explore, and for me, at least, this diminished the story just a little. Lessing’s real concern in this story is, quite obviously, the Staveneys and their pseudo-goodness, and she spares no mercy in portraying their hypocrisy. Thomas, Mary’s father, “wished he had been black.” Jessy wishes for girls, not boys, not because she loves girls more, but because “this was very much the note of the women’s movement of the time.” Lionel, who portrays himself as an “old-fashioned romantic socialist” insists that the couple’s sons “know how the other half lives” at the local primary school before being “whisked off to real schools.”

Like “The Grandmothers,” “Victoria and the Staveneys” is a sensitive and intelligent story, and one that showcases the pain and suffering people cause those they love.

“The Reason For It” is a very different story, and it’s one I didn’t like nearly as much as the other three. I think most readers are going to find it’s either their favorite story of the collection of their least favorite. It’s wonderfully written; it’s just not “my type” of story.

“The Reason For It” tells the tale of a city thousands of years old that has banned all storytelling. Now facing its demise, the last elder, “Twelve,” is frantically trying to chronicle the city’s history before it disappears forever. This is a theme familiar to anyone who reads the work of Doris Lessing: people who are too idealistic ultimately fail because they lack the will or the power to deal with life’s darker forces, so must succumb to them.

The society in which Lessing sets her story was founded by a warrior king, and under his leadership, people showed one another only kindness, honestly, and love. The current queen, who also encourages a culture of reason and refinement is nearing death, and she summons a council of her wisest subjects to choose her successor. Because they think it’s her wish, they choose her son, DeRod, a “beautiful empty boy, so pleased with himself, his charm was poison,” though they have doubts about his ability to lead. When their instincts prove correct, DeRod, who believes in militarism, becomes tyrannical, while his subjects grow lazy and fat.

Lessing doesn’t say so, of course, but it seems she has the US in mind in this story (“green” is the latest “buzz word”). It’s a good story, of course, it’s Doris Lessing, but it’s not perfect. Her allegory could have been more focused, and because the characters aren’t fleshed out, it sometimes seems as though she’s preaching to us rather than entertaining.

The best story, by far, is the last one in this volume, “A Love Child.” It’s also the longest. “A Love Child” revolves around James Reid, a young English soldier in WWII, en route to India, on shore leave in Cape Town, South Africa. James is attracted to Daphne, a bored South African housewife who’s come down to meet the ships. The two engage in a very brief (one weekend), but idyllic affair that will overshadow the rest of James’ life. Daphne becomes pregnant, and even though she shows no inclination to stay in touch with James, James sees things in a far different light.

Though he subsequently marries and has children of his own, James is a romantic who lives primarily in the past. “If he were in Daphne's arms,” James thinks, “the whole bloody British Empire could sink into the sea.” Because of his excessive romanticism, James spends the rest of his life yearning for the son in Cape Town he’s never known, the son he sired in a beach hut one weekend that will color his life forever.

“A Love Child” is a beautifully rendered story in which every character and every detail rings true. We get an idea of the vastness of the British Empire at its zenith: “Hundreds of thousands of young men, stuck like flies on a flypaper in India – not to mention Rhodesia, South Africa, Canada, Kenya, defending the bad against the worse.” We feel we really know the horrors of traveling around the Cape of Good Hope, from Africa to India, in a terribly overcrowded troop ship. We feel, along with James, a love that cannot die, yet cannot be. We feel we know what it’s like to “lose” a child who isn’t truly lost and so cannot be found. This is a delicate story, about a delicately built man, physically and emotionally, and a story that could have become too sentimental in the hands of a lesser writer. Doris Lessing, however, is no “lesser writer.” In fact, even in her eighties, Lessing’s writing is far better than that of most writers in their thirties and forties.

Although James’ often seems a little too dreamy and self-indulgent (shades of the Staveneys and Roz and Lil), we never doubt the authenticity of his emotions. One especially poignant scene occurs when he meets a little boy “roughly the same age as his child, far away in South Africa. He wanted to persuade the little boy to sit on his knee, so he could look close into those blue bright eyes and perhaps hug him, feel the warm energetic body – hold this child and think of his own.”

I have to admit, though I loved this story, and though I felt for James, there were times when I wanted to shake him out of his dreamy, romantic notions. Our actions carry consequences, something James didn’t seem to consider during his idyllic weekend in Cape Town, though Daphne, it seems, did.

The stories found in this volume are truly a “literary treasure trove” to be savored. In them, Lessing shows not only sensitivity, but intelligence, wit, assurance, style, and grace. And, as is usual with Doris Lessing (and her fellow Englishman, D.H. Lawrence), she lets us know that happiness is usually only achieved along with a good measure of suffering as well. Nothing in life really comes easily or freely. Nothing worthwhile, that is.

Whichever novella in The Grandmothers becomes your favorite, you can be sure that none of them will let you down, and that all four of them have been written with a deep understanding of what it means to be flawed and what it means to be human. And in this age of “gimmicks” in storytelling, you can be sure all four novellas in this volume are supremely honest.

4.5/5

Recommended: Definitely. This isn’t Doris Lessing’s best work, but it’s a wonderful book in a lifetime of wonderful books, and it’s still better than 99.9% of what’s out there. The novellas contained in this book represent a writer who’s still at the height of her powers.

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