Lessing uses characters to sketch realities of contemporary living @

July 05, 1992|By Anne Whitehouse

THE REAL THING: STORIES AND SKETCHES.

Doris Lessing.

HarperCollins.

214 pages. $20. Since her first novel, "The Grass Is Singing," appeared in 1950, with its devastating portrayal of racial relations under apartheid, Doris Lessing has recorded her acute observations of human character in more than 30 books. In the five novels comprising the sequence "Children of Violence," she proved herself a master of realistic fiction. Her science fiction series "Canopus in Argos" has appealed to many readers who do not usually care for this genre, because it focuses on human beings rather than gadgetry.

Her path-breaking novel "The Golden Notebook" became an early feminist bible when it was published in 1962. Ms. Lessing's new book, although much slighter than the substantial works of fiction that have formed her reputation, is nonetheless illuminating and engrossing.

Originally published in England under the title "London Observed," it is a collection of stories and sketches in which Ms. Lessing pays tribute to her adopted city. While traditionalists mourn the Old London when "the Empire had not imploded, the world had not invaded, and while every family had at least one relative abroad . . . the colonies had not come home to roost," Ms. Lessing celebrates the contemporary polyglot metropolis in

all its splendor and squalor. A colonial (she was born in Persia and lived in the former Rhodesia for many years), she bears witness to the London of diverse cultures and nationalities in sketches such as "In Defense of the Underground," "The New Cafe" and "Sparrows." These brief pieces have the feel of journal entries; an observer, eavesdropping from a distance, meticulously records what she hears and sees.

"The Mother of the Child in Question" and "D.H.S.S." are %J sketches that move away from the observer to describe the well-meaning but frustrated interactions between social workers and those they serve. In the first sketch, a social worker visits an Indian immigrant to persuade her to send her retarded daughter to a special school. Encountering fierce resistance, he realizes the mother does not recognize her daughter's disability, and his annoyance is transformed to admiration.

In "D.H.S.S." a social worker sees a young woman begging outside a subway station and gives her money, buys her a meal, and offers to deliver the groceries he has purchased for her. Although she accepts his kindnesses, she is incapable of responding with anything other than anger and suspicion.

The most fully wrought stories in this volume illuminate painful experiences and relationships. Ms. Lessing writes in an unadorned, direct style that, despite its dispassionate tone, vividly conveys the emotional turmoil of her characters.

In "Debbie and Julie," a pregnant teen-ager leaves home and is taken in by a worldly girl who lives off men. When Julie's labor begins, Debbie is in Paris with her new lover. Julie gives birth by herself in a shed with only a dog for company, abandons her baby in a phone booth, and returns to her reproachful, unsuspecting parents. After her traumatic ordeal, she muses over its costs and consequences that she had not anticipated.

In "Among the Roses," Myra glimpses her estranged daughter, Shirley, in Regent's Park, and the sight dredges up their mutually painful and disappointing past. Nevertheless, she realizes that her daughter, knowing her habits, must have come to the park expressly to encounter her. The story describes their flawed yet authentic efforts to communicate.

In "The Pit," Sarah is contacted by her ex-husband, James, who years ago had left her with two young children for Rose, a woman temperamentally and physically her opposite. Now James confides that he is unhappy and proposes that he and Sarah go on a trip together. His attitude toward her is proprietary -- a husband's attitude. The tangled past and the uncertain present merge as Sarah, tempted, struggles to preserve her hard-won independence.

Ms. Lessing is less interested in plot than character. These stories and sketches portray people in their daily lives and in moments of extremes. Here, as in her previous fiction, she proves herself an adept and moving chronicler of contemporary life.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer who lives in New York.

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