Frequently the mystery in Doris Lessing's work resides in concentrating on the prosaic, but containing within it the tension of inner conflict. As she opens 'Notes for a Case History', she says "Maureen Watson was born at 93 Nelson's Way, N.1." At the beginning of 'To Room Nineteen', the narrator informs us "this is a story, I suppose, about a failure in intelligence: the Rawlings' marriage was grounded in intelligence." 'A Man and Two Women' opens: "Stella's friends, the Bradfords, had taken a cheap cottage in Essex for the summer, and she was going down to visit them." But always sitting behind the prosaic is the mysteriousness of character, the sense that someone cannot quite know themselves, nor understand the motives of others. Lessing's stories are frequently psychological, but they do not assume that psychology can explain her characters' actions. What Lessing often does especially well is examine the social details of a life, but contains within these details an existential fascination with behaviour. This may be partly why many of the stories are undramatic, relying on telling rather than showing, as Lessing cannot assume that showing would be likely to get close to the singularity of the people on whom she often concentrates.
Looking at a handful of Lessing's short stories, we can see that in each instance the stories work with acute social observations, but more especially with the strangeness that sits behind these observations as she opens up character to examine what amounts to the consistency of personality, or , as is more often the case, what makes personality tentative and easily damaged. In 'Notes for a Case History', Maureen is a beautiful working-class young woman who knows exactly what she is worth, and at one moment when she is deciding whether or not an architect is the man for her, Lessing notes, "a week later he proposed to her. It was done with a violent moaning intensity that she knew was due to his conflicts over marrying her. She was not good enough. He was not good enough. They were second best for each other." This is a free indirect discourse where the narrator's thoughts and the character's intermingle, or rather where Lessing offers a thought on what perhaps remains on the character's part chiefly a feeling. Her characters are rarely oblivious to their situation, but neither are they quite in control of it, and so it makes sense that the stories would be in the third person or when in the first (as in 'Homage to Isaac Babel', and 'Our Friend Judith') the narrator isn't exploring her own feelings, but those of another character.
Now of course often a writer who works between two states of consciousness - the consciousness of the body and the consciousness of the mind - might settle for the ironic mode: to play up the gap between the narrator's knowledge and the character's ignorance. Lessing is instead a curiously empathic writer: she wants to explore so often the burgeoning feeling through the narrative consciousness and this seems to require not a superior knowledge on the part of the narrator (the sort of superior knowledge that often creates the ironic), but the necessarily observational. The narrator is a figure placing themselves at a distance, yet with a sensitivity towards the inexplicable. Lessing's stories are simultaneously aloof and emotionally immediate, evident in a statement like this on Maureen in 'Notes for a Case History'. "She knew quite well she did not really like him, although her mind was clouded by her response to his hands, his moustache, his clothes and his new car". This is Maureen knowing well her own feelings, and yet not so well that she knows what to do about them. In the story, Maureen is the beauty from a modest neighbourhood employed as a secretary who literally wants to capitalise on her good looks. Stanley is the trainee architect in the firm from a similar background but who will be soon earning enough to give her if not the good life a better one. She might no longer dream of marrying a rich man, but she will be with a comfortably off husband. But then there is also Tony, a trainee accountant in the firm, and someone who has Maureen's measure, evident when he says, knowing Maureen expects anybody who asks her out to treat her, "can't afford you, Maureen". He'd already twice taken her out to lunch, and he knows Maureen likes fancy places. Maureen might be much more attracted to Tony than to Stanley, but she would rather aim higher than that of a trainee accountant, rather higher in fact than a trainee architect. Perhaps she desires what her mother proposed: that "she would marry a duke and be whisked off to Hollywood." Is Stanley a pathetic compromise; with Maureen marrying for neither love nor (enough) money?
The tone is always sympathetic, with Lessing understanding the thoughts and feelings like a narrator who has suffered similar losses and crises of their own. We might also think in such a context of 'The Habit of Loving', where Lessing details the tragedy of a ridiculous man with strong feelings yet where Lessing offers them up with unemotive language. Central character George is in love with Myra, who emigrated with her two children in 1943 to Australia, and in 1947 George invites her back over to Britain, hoping that she will return permanently and settle down with him. He pays for her air fare and she stays for two weeks, but she is clearly no longer in love and returns down under. "George's eyes, as he drove away from the airport, were dry. If one person has loved another truly and wholly, then it is more than love that collapses when one side of the indissoluble partnership turns away with a tearful goodbye." "George dismissed the taxi early and walked through St James's Park. Then it seemed too small for him, and he went to the Green Park." By the end of the story, after falling disastrously for a much younger woman, "George said nothing. His whole body throbbed with loss."
Lessing's narrative positioning makes these comments emotionally pertinent rather than ironically observed in Notes for a Case History and The Habit of Loving. Maureen's false consciousness contains within it both burgeoning consciousness and complexity of feeling, evident in a scene when Maureen plays down her beauty when Stanley comes to meet the parents and it look like she is falling apart. "She wore: a faded pink dress from three summers before; her mother's cretonne overall used for housework; and a piece of cloth tied round her hair that might very well have been a duster. At any rate it was faded grey." Lessing notes that "she could not be called plain; but she looked like her own faded, elder sister, dressed for a hard day's spring cleaning." Obviously the event is a disaster, Maureen's mum bursts into tears more than once and Stanley after one of these occasions, and after some tea, brusquely leaves. Afterwards, Maureen goes to her room and as the tears came "she stopped herself with a fist against her mouth." In such details Lessing cannot pretend to know her character and offer an ironic judgement upon her, no matter if it is clear sociologically the sort of conflicts evident in Maureen's life. She comes from one class and expects to move into another, but what sort of expectations are placed upon her in this shift? Throughout the story she tries to improve herself, altering her accent, going to art galleries, watching foreign language films, all for an emotionally vague but socially specific sense of self-improvement. Just as in 'The Habit of Loving' George's back story hardly makes him readily sympathetic as he was a vain womaniser, it is his desolation that interests Lessing. She can see him for what he is; but it is the pain and distress that she wants to extract from the story. She is shrewd to Maureen and George's limitations but tries to be equal to their pain.
'Notes for a Case History' might have been called 'England Versus England'were it not the title of another in the collection. Indeed in this story Charlie has moved much further away from his working class roots educationally than Maureen: he is studying at Oxford. But the gap between where he is from and what he is supposed to have become has created still greater inner conflicts. Like Maureen's parents, who provide her with a hundred pounds to go to secretarial college, Charlie's family all make sacrifices to pay for his education. "It cost them two hundred pounds a year for his extras at Oxford. The only members of the family not making sacrifices for Charlie were the schoolgirl and the mother."
Near the end of 'England versus England', Charlie is sitting on a train when he starts mimicking a working class couple in the compartment, all the while a girl observes, someone who was on the train before Charlie and the couple arrived. "He saw then that she was pretty, and then that she was upper class." Near the end of the story she says to Charlie "Stop it!", and says to the couple "Can't you see he is laughing at you? Can't you see?" Charlie, like Maureen, has created a scene, a mise-en-scene, we could say, of class consciousness. Both Charlie and Maureen with their thoughts and feelings confused, create dramatic encounters of their state: Maureen at home; Charlie on the train. While many a writer would create out of such moments of class conflict a comic set piece (Kingsley Amis, say), Lessing looks for the opposite of the comic: she searches out the tragic as class doesn't only socially divide, but also divides the person within. Both Maureen and Charlie's gestures are those of people on the verge of a mental collapse.
This fragility of self is a vital part of Lessing's work, and of course absolutely central to her most famous novel, The Golden Notebook, where the various voices make sense of certain feelings that cannot be grounded, and where a character, Anna, talks of the importance of being split, divided, and allowing space for other selves within oneself. In a short piece called 'A Reissue of the Golden Notebook' published in the essay collection Time Bites, Lessing admits retrospectively that the book "does have a remarkable vitality. Some of it is the energy of conflict." It is this socially conflicted vitality she perhaps sees missing sometimes in other writers' work. When writing on Virginia Woolf (whom she generally loves), also in Time Bites, Lessing muses over the snobbery of the Bloomsbury set and notes a passage in Howards End. In E. M. Forster's book, "'two upper middle-class young women, seeing a working person suffer, remark that 'they don't feel it as we do.' As I used to hear white people, when they did not notice the misery of the blacks, say, 'they aren't like us, they have thick skins'", Lessing says.
Yet elsewhere in Time Bites, she notes, "Political Correctness is a self-perpetuating machine for driving out the intelligent and the creative." Once she discovered students being taught Lessing's own novel The Good Terrorist, and this "'taught' meant going through it to find incorrect thinking." Now what is the difference between Lessing's sense that characters in Woolf, Forster and others are unfair portrayals of a social class, and the teachers Lessing criticises who go through books looking for politically incorrect representations? Isn't this what Lessing herself is doing with the Bloomsbury writers? One thinks not for a couple of reasons. Firstly that Woolf and Forster's perspective was "damaging, a narrowing ignorance." Lessing would probably use exactly the same phrase to dismiss the Politically Correct, except that in the Bloomsbury set the narrowing ignorance was personally socio-political, while in academia it is institutionally socio-political. When Lessing notes Woolf's comments on a sketch Woolf wrote called 'Jews and Divorce Courts', she describes it as an unpleasant piece of writing, but also that it is the work of someone in her late twenties. This doesn't excuse it, but it at least personalises it. When Lessing also says that "this was rather more than the anti-Semitism of her [Woolf's] time and class," she directly comments on the personal aspect. But political correctness is the institutionalisation of narrow-mindedness, no matter if its purpose is the reverse of snobbery and racism, and this leads into the second reason why Lessing needn't be contradicting herself. For Lessing, political correctness isn't open minded, it is schematically minded, looking to create new chains of oppressiveness. "Truly we cannot stand being free. Mankind - humankind - loves its chains, and hastens to forge new ones if the old ones fall away."
Lessing's work is fascinated by open-mindedness, but not in the local sense of broad-minded, especially; more in the mysterious possibilities and range of feelings that people - and also animals - possess. Whether writing on two dogs in The Story of Two Dogs, or writing frequently About Cats (including a piece going by that very name in Time Bites), Lessing seems to want to expand the universe of feeling, and thus takes that empathy beyond even the human to incorporate the feelings of animals also. In this, she resembles anyone from Kafka to Coetzee, as she keeps interrogating the nature of behaviour and behaviour in nature. One of the easy ways in which to feel human, sensitive and caring, is to draw a ready line between what one feels is worthy of that sensitivity and care, and what is irrelevant to it. This is really Lessing's criticism of Woolf and Forster: that like numerous other writers they draw the line too clearly and it allows them a certain heightened humanity denied others; when actually their sense of acute sensitivity, from their own perspective, is its clear absence from that of another. They lack empathy. They don't possess it at a higher level, but at a limited one.
A good example of this would-be heightened sensitivity as immature false consciousness can be found in 'Homage to Isaac Babel'. Lessing's narrator tells of thirteen year old comfortable Catherine, whom the narrator is taking with her to visit the former's young friend, Philip. "Philip who, being fifteen, has pure stern tastes in everything from food to music", is a big reader, and Catherine looks at his books in his absence and decides that she would like to borrow the Isaac Babel stories she sees. The narrator reckons they might be a bit difficult, but Catherine believes if Philip has read them then she can also. After the three of them go off to see a film where a character ends up in the gas chambers, Catherine says "I think it's all absolutely beastly, and I can't bear to think about it." Yet of course Babel's stories are often about cruelty, death and misery. How can she be expected to respond to them when as she tries reading the stories her mind is full of other things that offer her the opposite perspective? When she says "Philip's awfully lucky. I wish I went to that school. Did you notice that girl who said hullo to him in the garden? They must be great friends. I wish my mother would let me have a dress like that. It's not fair", we might wonder how much space does she have left for Babel? In a letter she sends to the narrator at the end of the story she says "I have been meditating about what you said about Isaac Babel, the famed Russian short-story writer, and I now see that the conscious simplicity of his style is what makes him beyond the shadow of a doubt, the great writer that he is, and now in my school compositions I am endeavouring to emulate him so as to learn a conscious simplicity..."
If there is still much in Woolf's mind that is immature at twenty-eight, how much more immaturity is there likely to be in a thirteen-year-old girl who earnestly tries to understand Isaac Babel? Lessing here doesn't so much patronise the girl for her immaturity, but instead accepts the wider entirely comprehensible inexplicability of a middle-class girl with interest in dresses and boys, and reads Babel chiefly because Philip happens to have already done so. Like the pretentious Philip (who "allowed it to be seen that he thought going to the pictures just for the fun of it was not worthy of intelligent people"), Catherine is someone who needs to accept that Babel matters, but doesn't feel the material enough to avoid commonplace generalisations. This isn't especially Catherine's fault, nor even Philip's; however it is as though the art film or the Babel book are no more than fetish objects: there to do little else but help define the tastes and mores of the middle-class viewer and reader. It is culturally troublesome. Their false consciousness, though slightly different from each other's, is part of a particular discourse towards art.
Lessing one senses has always had a mild contempt for literature as an art form, and the notion that the best and brightest writers write for the best and brightest readers. She once, when already well-established, wrote a novel under a pseudonym to see how difficult it was to be published as an unknown, and then when it was eventually published, retained the pseudonym to see how many people could discern it was a Lessing novel: very few was the answer. In the Woolf piece in Time Bites she says "for decades the arbitrary ukase dominated the higher reaches of literary criticism. (Perhaps we should ask why literature is so easily influenced by immoderate opinion?)" For Lessing it seems literature's purpose isn't to produce beautiful prose, with an elegant sensibility, and to gain a reputation, but chiefly to explore conflict in all its manifestations, and storytelling in all its possibilities and permutations. To show that literature is both prosaic and mysterious.
In a passage from Time Bites she says that even when we come back from the supermarket we sometimes have a story to offer. "'You'll never guess what I saw. Bridget at the supermarket, and she wasn't with her husband, she was with the young fellow from the hotel'. The storyteller is sexless, ageless, timeless, is thousands of years old and not culture-bound." Yet Lessing also doesn't just tell stories: conflicts beyond the readily narrativised are vital to her fiction as they explore the subtleties of behaviour that the classic short story would be unlikely to attend to so carefully. Lessing is clearly a modern writer as Roland Barthes would define it, differentiating the 'classic' from the 'modern' in Writing Degree Zero as the difference between closed and open texts. Lessing is an open writer, and thus the conflicts the more internalised and complex, the more open they're likely to be.
In 'A Woman on the Roof', for example, the conflicts are those of three workers grafting away on a roof who notice a woman sunbathing about fifty yards away. "They could see the top part of her: black hair, a flushed solid back, arms spread out." The men become increasingly fascinated or irritated, but one, young Tom, seems to fall a little in love, while another, the good looking womanising Stanley, seems to see her as an affront. "I've got a good mind to report her to the police," he says, though it doesn't stop him whistling at her. By the end of the story Tom, who has dreamt of her, goes over to the roof where she lies, and she seems bemused by his presence. After a brief exchange where she tells him to go away, "she lay there. He stood there. She said nothing. She had simply shut him out." He notes as she lies there that "the minutes went past, with no sign of them in her, except in the tension of her back, her thighs, her arms - the tension of waiting for him to go." Though Lessing's sympathies might lie with the woman on the roof in some ways; the story's focus is on Tom, the character in the story making sense of the situation with the greatest sense of conflict.
What Lessing so often searches out is this conflicting centre, as if what matters isn't the moral purpose of the story, but the ethical and emotional confusion generated out of the encounter. In 'One Off the Short List', the moral position would seem to be Barbara's as she fends off and eventually gives in to the advances of Graham. TV journalist and married man, Graham has been admiring this increasingly famous theatre designer for some time, and eventually gets to know her when he interviews Barbara for his show. Graham takes it for granted that he should have her. Though his reasoning is part of masculine entitlement within an increasingly promiscuous society, the need seems more psychological than sexual, more personal than social. He appears to need to make love to her for the assuagement of his own careerist success but creative failure. Once hoping to become a successful novelist, he now interviews the talented and artistically successful. By sleeping with Barbara will he somehow be able to claim recognition in her world? Early in the story he sees Barbara and her colleagues talking creatively. "They looked like people banded together against a world which they - no, not despised, but which they measured, understood, would fight to the death, out of respect for what they stood for, for what itstood for. It was a long time since he had felt part of that balance." By the end of the story he has slept with Barbara but gained little equilibrium from the encounter, with Barbara proving as giving emotionally as the woman on the roof was willing to feel for Tom. After sex, Barbara says, "are you going home now?" Graham's huge hopes as a young man with a writer's career ahead of him that he attempts to recapture in some manner in the encounter, becomes the sad reality of someone who has been the victim of a pity fuck on her part that is tantamount to rape on his. Graham finally doesn't quite know his own motives. His search for distinctiveness leaves him without much of an ego, and his false, if you like, sub-consciousness, manifests itself in a sense of sexual and creative entitlement that seems misjudged. Lessing takes a story that could have been played for hapless irony, but keeps it straight.
In 'To Room Nineteen' the story creates no space for humour as it claustrophobically details the collapsing mind of its central character, a woman with four older kids, a husband in a good job, and a house in Richmond. But at a certain point it isn't enough. Though Matthew and Susan were "two people, endowed with education, with discrimination, with judgement, linked together voluntarily from their will to be happy together and be of use to others..." certain awkward questions force themselves upon her, and a feeling of dread overtakes her well-being. She increasingly retreats from the social, and eventually finds for herself the room of the title where she then takes her own life.
There is a fascinating comment by Hegel where he says the subject is "that which can retain in itself its own contradiction." Many of Lessing's stories show that the centre cannot quite hold. Whether the person is burgeoningly searching out the comfortable life as Maureen does in 'Notes for a Case History', or the good life leaving a vacuum of predictability, as in 'To Room Nineteen', Lessing combines the everyday with the mysteriousness of personality and examines the subject so often struggling or failing to retain itself in its own contradictory impulses. As a character says in The Golden Notebook, "people stay sane by blocking off, by limiting themselves." It is however when these spaces start opening up that Lessing shows herself such a vitally significant short story writer.
© Tony McKibbin