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The Grandmothers. By Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing's short stories don't deal in morals. Roy Hattersley wishes she'd leave allegories out of them too
Sunday 16 November 2003
Perhaps only sentimentalists believe that truth will make us free. Doris Lessing, a romantic but also a realist, clearly has no doubt that it can have more unpleasant consequences. It is the penalties of discovery which hold together the four stories in The Grandmothers. They all deal, in one way or another, with the disintegration of family relationships. But the essential theme is the importance of facing, and surviving, the discovery of facts which the faint-hearted may think better left hidden. The Grandmothers points no moral. That is not Doris Lessing's way. But there is no doubt that the author thinks that pain is preferable to self-deception.
The grandmothers - who provide the title for both the first story and the whole collection - were lone parents. One was widowed, the other deserted by her husband. Each of them seduces and forms something like a permanent relationship with the other's teenage son. The boys, Tom and Ian, seem to enjoy it, after the expression of ritual angst, but the women worry about their young lovers growing bored and wonder, in a detached sort of way, if the closeness of the quadripartite relationship will lead unsuspecting neighbours to believe that they are gay.
Predictably, Tom finds a fiancée of his own age and the older women, bound together by a slightly perverse solidarity, both decide that the irregular relationship must end. They decide to become "respectable ladies, ... pillars of virtue ... perfect mothers-in-law, and... wonderful grandmothers". The result is anguish all round. But it is containable anguish until the truth is revealed to Tom's unsuspecting wife. The discovery of outdated love letters jeopardises both Tom and Ian's marriages. But there is no suggestion that ignorance is bliss.
The story of "Victoria and the Staveneys" has both class and racial undertones, but it is also a tragedy of revelation. Victoria, pathetic from the start - a condition which Doris Lessing establishes with restrained brilliance by introducing her, lost and cold, in the school playground - is befriended by a prosperous Bohemian family. Her bewildered gratitude for even the smallest kindness is illustrated by a brief interlude with an Asian shopkeeper. Halfway through the story we discover that Victoria is black.
After Victoria has enjoyed the help of her benefactors for several years, she discovers that she is pregnant. The father is the son of the Fabians who have befriended her. Of course, everyone is very good about it. The child is welcomed into the family who insist on "sending her to a good school". That would enable Victoria to marry the Reverend Amos Johnson, an amiable evangelist. But her daughter would become more like her adoptive grandparents than her natural mother. Victoria accepts the hard truth and agrees, "I have to accept it". Doris Lessing does not approve of women who run away.
Those first two stories are so elegantly complete that I can only assume that the third, "The Reason For It", must possess virtues which I am unable to comprehend. Allegories always tax my powers of comprehension, particularly when the metaphor is extended to the point at which it becomes not so much a reflection of reality as pure fantasy. "The Reason For It" concerns the one survivor of The Twelve - who may, or may not, be the founders of a tribe or nation conquered by the Roddites.
The inhabitants of the mythical land are obsessed by the succession for the leadership of wherever it is they live and the detachment which the likely leader displays to the discovery of the truth about the past. It is hardly surprising that they are concerned. They are evolving from an age which "insisted on the deep seriousness of [their] lives" to an era in which "everything was trivial and unimportant". At least I understand that analogy.
The whole story is written in the first person by a narrator who seems to anticipate an imminent earthquake. That allows "The Reason For It" to drive its message home in a way which is far too obvious to do credit to the usually subtle Doris Lessing. The mythical city is built on the ruins of its predecessor. Contemplating the lost civilisation the narrator asks, "And what is to stop it all happening again? Look at what is happening on the other side of the mountain."
After life with Destra, Shusha, DeRod and the last of the Twelve, "The Love Child" comes as both reassurance and relief. Soldiers in transit on an overcrowded troop ship stop for a brief rest and recreation in Cape Town. Much of the story concerns the boredom and hardship of life at sea - a common theme which Doris Lessing develops more successfully than most. The longueurs of the voyage are in profound contrast to the moment which changed one of the soldier's lives. A brief liaison leads to a love which he cannot forget. The result is suppressed despair. "To know you're living the wrong life, not your own life, that is a terrible thing." Forget its relationship with beauty. Truth is all you need to know.
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