Doris Lessing's 'Grandmothers'-- fading powers?

December 28, 2003|By Laura Demanski | Laura Demanski,Special to the Sun

The Grandmothers, by Doris Lessing. HarperCollins. 320 pages. $23.95.

The four "short novels" collected in literary grande dame Doris Lessing's new book are an incommensurate bunch by almost any measure: subject matter, genre, quality. As a collection, The Grandmothers has little coherence. Worse, the individual pieces feel dashed-off and sometimes amateurish, raising the sad possibilities of an accomplished writer coasting on a reputation earned long ago, or simply reaching the end of her productivity.

You don't have to be a fan of Lessing's landmark feminist novel The Golden Notebook (1962) to recognize it as an influential work of 20th-century fiction. Tendentious sexual politics aside, that book was at least dense and enveloping, a fully imagined fictional world that a reader could sink her teeth into. By comparison, the novellas in The Grandmothers (with one exception) skim the surfaces of their characters and milieus. They have all the leanness of parables, but none of the rigor or encapsulating power.

"The Grandmothers," first and shortest, narrates the lifelong attachment between two beautiful, successful women who shake free of their husbands and fall in love with each other's teen-age sons. Lessing offers no satisfying psychological or social account of her characters' beyond-the-pale desires, just a frank, blank stare. It's a strangely cold performance.

The next piece, "Victoria and the Staveneys," has a little more substance. The title characters are a poor young black woman and a privileged white family whose fortunes become entangled. Lessing wears her sociologist hat here. There's no character who isn't a cliche.

Lessing's third offering, "The Reason for It," reads like science fiction set in the past instead of the future. The story's aging narrator looks on his once-glorious, now-debased culture with solemn disdain. In truth, the decadent present he bemoans sounds livelier than the enlightened agrarian past he mourns: "Above all, the spirit had gone, the old spirit. Everything was trivial and unimportant. Hard to imagine the ceremonies of our festivals, which insisted on the deep seriousness of our lives, our responsibilities for each other and for the Cities."

Lessing saves the best for last, and her last story salvages the volume somewhat. In "A Love Child," a young English soldier is sent to fight the Japanese in India during World War II. Landing safely in Cape Town after a brutal passage south, he falls in love with an officer's wife.

Their affair is thinly rendered, but Lessing's harrowing portrait of the voyage out has effect to spare: "The great ship in its camouflage dress, designed to make it look from a distance like a blur or a cloud or perhaps a school of flying fishes, at any rate something ephemeral, now seemed solid, sinister, even furtive, standing there in the dock." There are clunkers of sentences, too, but the solidly specified world in which "A Love Child" unfolds puts it head and shoulders above its companion tales.

Lessing has never been known for her fiction's sweetness and light, and nobody familiar with her work would seek those qualities in The Grandmothers. Still, a reader could be forgiven for wishing a little levity into this dour, flat and almost airless suite of stories.

Laura Demanski is a doctoral candidate, critic and editor living in Chicago. Her reviews appear in the Chicago Tribune as well as The Sun.

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