Doris Lessing Lessing, Doris (Vol. 15)

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Ruth Perry

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Lessing] reads like a nineteenth-century novelist with a twentieth-century sensibility, exercising a generously detailed, old-fashioned realism to delineate modern types (professionals, hippies, housewives) and modern dilemmas (women's place in society, third-world diplomacy, class mobility). All this Lessing gives without the strait jacket of ideology, for although she was involved in radical politics for years, she believes above all in fidelity to the human complications of her originals….

At its best, her language has a simplicity and clarity which gives it the illusion of being a common language, without quirks of personality or special education. She wants her words to seem transparent, holding reality as if in a glass bowl, containing but not interfering with the vision of it. She creates neither endearing Dickensian eccentrics nor stock types, but aims to describe people who, however English, have universal souls….

Certainly these stories [collected in Stories], with their cats and flower gardens, have that national flavor…. Her Englishness is there in the quality of socialization: none of her characters loses control without watching with a part of themselves the effect on others…. Although there are some Lawrentian moments, involuntary stirrings of the blood, for the most part Lessing writes about movements of the intellect and reserves her mysticism for unusual psychological or spiritual states….

Sometimes her will to simplify makes her prose clumsy, but she never willfully obscures what she knows for effect…. And occasionally she realizes a situation or a character so perfectly (and surely this is a test of literature) that it lodges in the mind as experience, trusted as knowledge, and one feels, "I know him, or her," rather than, "I know that story."…

Lessing does not try for the pure uplifting strains of Tolstoy, to give epic stature to the emotions of everyday men and women. Nor does she manage the perfectly poised ambivalence of Stendhal, each persistent and compelling feeling painfully incomplete. But like Julien Sorel's excitement reading, or Levin's mute joy wielding a scythe in the wheat fields, there are universal moments in her stories, statements about human life so recognizably true that such distinctions seem beside the point, and one is simply grateful to the quiet, intelligent voice that renders them. (p. 21)

The basis for selection [for inclusion in Stories] was the dubious criterion of not being about African subjects (most of them take place in London). Undoubtedly, this choice was for reasons of business rather than reasons of aesthetics … because some of Lessing's best stories are about Africa…. She seems less schematic with the African stories than with these, which can feel as if they translate too easily into elegant allegories. Inevitably, then, some extraordinary work is missing from this volume; and to anyone who knows the full range of her work, the balance seems lopsided….

Lessing obviously wants to do more than merely construct a social reality. She wants to excavate the layers of consciousness that lie beneath visible experience. Following the example of Sufi wisdom tales—which interest her deeply—she tries to write about dimensions of response which are freest of convention or culture, which may lie closest to the rock bottom of human nature….

Lessing returns to this subject in one way or another, again and again; she calls it "living hand to mouth emotionally" in The Golden Notebook. Undoubtedly, she is drawn to it out of her own life, as one of the new breed of single women, living without benefit of family or community, relying only on their own agility and resourcefulness. A woman living outside the traditional roles has to make up her own life as she goes along.

But she is also drawn to these types as a student of humanity, as if socially marginal people show us human nature simplified, each one an exemplar of some human pattern, proclaiming it like a banner. It is as...

(The entire section is 5,644 words.)