Doris Lessing: Stories (Post 1/4)

Lessing 02

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Doris Lessing: Stories Introduction Post

Buy the Book

[1] “The Habit of Loving”

4 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

Aging George marries a younger woman, if only to ease his loneliness, before understanding her own pain and depth.

Written so well.

[2] Reference:

George and Bobby drank a great deal of red wine and of calvados.



Calvados is an apple brandy from the Normany region in France.


“You know what, George? You’ve just got into the habit of loving.”

“What do you mean, dear?”

She rolled out of bed and stood beside it, a waif in her white pyjamas, her black hair ruffled. She slid her eyes at him and smiled. “You just want something in your arms, that’s all. What do you do when you’re alone? Wrap yourself around a pillow?”

He said nothing; he was cut to the heart.


[4] Reference:

There’s a Long, Long Trail was being played like a five-finger exercise.



“There’s a Long, Long Trail” is a popular song of World War I. The lyrics were by Stoddard King (1889-1933) and the music by Alonzo Elliott, both seniors at Yale. It was published in London in 1914.

[5] Reference:

The Second World War was evoked by Run Rabbit Run, played like Lohengrin.


“Run Rabbit Run” is a song written by Noel Gay and Ralph Butler. It was written for Gay’s show The Little Dog Laughed, which opened in 1939. It was a popular song during World War II.


They traveled from place to place, never stopping anywhere longer than a day, for George knew she was running away from any place around her which emotion could gather.


[7] “The Woman”

3.5 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

British Captain Forster and German Herr Scholtz compete for a waitress’ attention in Switzerland.

[8] “Through the Tunnel”

3.5 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

During a seaside vacation, young Jerry is fascinated by an underwater tunnel.

[9] “Pleasure”

3 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

After the war, Mary and Tommy Rogers find their vacation spot in the south of France utterly changed.


On the beach they had another bad moment. Umbrellas stretched six deep, edge to edge, for half a mile along the silvery beach. Bodies lay stretched out, baking in the sun, hundreds to the acre, a perfect bed of heated brown flesh.



They were content.

This is what they had come for. This is what all these hundreds of thousands of people along the coast had come for – to lie on the sand and receive the sun on their heating bodies; to receive, too, in small doses, the hot blue water which dried so stickily on them. The sea was very salty and warm-smelling – smelling of a little more than salt and weed, for beyond the breakwater the town’s sewers spilled into the sea, washing back into the inner bay rich deposits which dried on the perfumed oiled bodies of the happy bathers.

This is what they had come for.


[12] “The Witness”

2.5 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

A young woman upends the mundane balance of an office.


Other times he stood looking out of the window, listening to the talk behind him, pretending not to, pretending he was indifferent. Two stories down in the street, life rushed past. Always, he felt, he had been looking out of windows.


[14] Vocabulary:

She was a girl of eighteen from some little dorp miles away.



noun – (South African) – a small rural town or village.


She said angrily, “I’ve kept myself for twenty-seven years this March. I’ve never had anything. How many women have the qualifications I have? I should have had a pretty face.” And then she burst into tears.


[16] “The Day Stalin Died”

2.5 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

London through the eyes of a socialist on the day of Stalin’s death.

This is the first hint of the problems that will plague this collection for me: aimless slice-of-life pieces that, worse than leaving you with no answers, give you no questions.

[17] Semi-autobiographical? Fully-autobiographical?

I was just settling down to work when comrade Jean rang (…) Jean was for many years my self-appointed guide or mentor toward a correct political viewpoint. (…) It was Jean who, the day after I had my first volume of short stories published, took the morning off work to come and see me.



He was a small, bitter-looking man, with a head like a lemon or like a peanut, and his small blue eyes were brooding and bitter.



The man, in appearance like a damp, grey, squashed felt hat, looked in front of him and nodded with the jogging of the bus. (…)

Suddenly he remarked in a high insistent voice, “There are all those little fishes in the depths of the sea, all those little fishes. We explode all those bombs at them, and we’re not going to be forgiven for that, are we, we’re not going to be forgiven for blowing up the poor little fishes.”


[20] Reference:

A book fell off the divan beside me on the floor. It was Prancing N***** by Ronald Firbank.



Ronald Firbank (1886-1926) was an innovative English novelist. His eight short novels, partly inspired by the London aesthetes of the 1890s, especially Oscar Wilde, consist largely of dialogue, with references to religion, social-climbing, and sexuality. His novel Prancing N*****  (1924) was published in England as Sorrow in Sunlight but given a stupid, offensive title in America because Americans really liked the word.


“Tell me, dear,” said Aunt Emma, suddenly roguish, “about all the exciting things you are doing.”

Aunt Emma always says this; and always I try hard to think of portions of my life suitable for presentation to Aunt Emma.



“He’s been murdered by capitalist agents,” she said. “It’s perfectly obvious.”

“He was seventy-three,” I said.

“People don’t die just like that,” she said.

“They do at seventy-three,” I said.


[23] “Wine”

2.5 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

A cold couple have separate memories of moonlight.


He paused again, and again his face was twisted with nostalgia, and involuntarily she glanced over her shoulder down the street.


[25] “He”

 2 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

Annie’s husband leaves her for a younger woman.

[26] “The Eye of God in Paradise”

3.5 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

During a vacation to Germany six years after the war, a British couple is disturbed by the locals.

One of the longest stories in this collection at 55 pages. It keep tension high (in a very good but subtle way) as the British couple continue to do things they’re uncomfortable with out of fear of being seen as rude.

Ultimately, it feels like two stories which would have been better separated. The first, the couple meeting the unlikeable, pushy Schroder, is very good and unsettling. The second act, meeting Kroll at the asylum, changes the rhythm and tone and doesn’t link well with the first.


The fact is that for real pleasure a pleasure resort should have no one in it but its legitimate inhabitants, oneself, and perhaps one’s friends. Everyone knows it, everyone feels it; and this is the insoluble contradiction of tourism.



At the same moment they stopped dead, looking at some queer hopping figure that was coming along the pavement over the badly lighted snow. For a moment it was impossible to make out what this great black jumping object could be that was coming fast towards them along the ground. Then they saw it was a man whose legs had been amputated and who was hopping over the snow like a frog, his body swinging and jerking between his heavy arms like the body of some kind of insect.

The two saw the eyes of this man stare up at them as he went hopping past.

At the station that day, when they arrived, two men hacked and amputated by war almost out of humanity, one without arms, his legs cut off at the knee; one whose face was a great scarred eyeless hollow, were begging from the alighting holiday-makers.



The two British tourists were conscious of a secret, half-ashamed unease. They looked from one face to another, thinking: Six years ago, what were you doing? And you – and you? We were mortal enemies then; now we sit in the same room, eating together. You were the defeated.

This last was addressed as a reminded to themselves, for no people could have looked less defeated than these.



The woman, finding in this girl a poetic quality totally lacking from the stolid burghers who filled this room, indicated her to the man by saying: “She’s charming.” Again he grimaced, as if to say: Every young girl is poetic. And: she’ll be her mother in ten years.


[31] Reference: this story and “Pleasure” (note [9]) refer to a British travel allowance. Were Brits limited in their out-of-country travel money?

It’s a bit hard to find information about this. The Telegraph’s article “Memories of a doomed currency limit” by Richard Alleyne (June 16, 2007) says, in part:

The new currency controls are likely to bring back memories of the Sixties and Seventies when holidaymakers were only allowed to pack 50 [pounds], the equivalent of 700 [pounds] today.

The limits were brought in by Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964 in a doomed attempt to narrow a huge balance of payments deficit and revive the economy. (…)

However, foreign companies and investors saw no point in pouring money into Britain if it was impossible to get profits out, and the economy suffered. The currency controls were abolished in 1979 by Margaret Thatcher’s new government.


By a hundred of the minute signs which suffice for communication between people who knew each other well, they had said they disliked this man intensely and wished only that he would go away.



When the proprietor glanced towards him during his hospitable passage among the tables, he did so with a nod and a smile, but it was a smile that had the over-kindness of controlled hostility.


[34] Reference/Translate:

“This is my fifth home-evening.” People turned to smile at the words heimat-abend.



Heimatabend (German): evening entertainment for tourists, with local songs and dances.


Oddly enough, they felt a lessened obligation toward compassion because of Doctor Schroder’s grotesque and touching belief that his face was nearly normal enough to go unnoticed.



Mary said, “I wish she’d turn us out in a fit of moral indignation. I wish someone would have a fit of moral indignation about something, instead of everything simmering and festering in the background.”



This was not a night when their arms could hold any comfort for each other. This was a night when they were not a couple, they were two people.


[38] Reference:

One son had been killed in North Africa, and another at Avranches.



Avranches is a commune in the Manche department in the Normany region in northwestern France. The liberation of Avranches during World War II was led by General Patton and began on July 31, 1944.


Like every earnest tourist, they indulged in fantasies of how they would stop some pleasant-faced person in the street and say: We are ordinary people, completely representative of the people of our country. You are obviously an ordinary person, representative of yours. Please divulge and unfold yourself to us, and we will do the same.


[40] Reference:

The bitter affirmation of the songs of Bertolt Brecht.



Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was a German theater practitioner, playwright, and poet. His themes were often influenced by Marxist thought and he was the main proponent of the genre named epic theater. During the Nazi period and World War II he lived in exile, then returned to East Berlin after the war.


Doctor Kroll’s hospital, like so many of the similar hospitals in Britain, was built well outside the city boundaries so that the lives of healthy people might not be disturbed by thoughts of those who had to retreat behind the shelter of high walls.


[42] The children’s ward in Kroll’s mental hospital resembles one that Lessing would later use in The Fifth Child :

A dozen children aged between a year and six years – armless children, limbless children, children with enormous misshapen heads (…) “Modern drugs are a terrible thing. Now these horrors are kept alive.”



“Any Jew or mental defective or communist unlucky enough to fall into Doctor Kroll’s hands would have been forcibly sterilized. And the very ill would have been killed outright.”

“Not necessarily,” she objected feebly.


But, yes. Lessing doesn’t beat this point, but the children in the hospital are aged one through six years and this story takes place six years after the war. The children from before that time, who would have been older, were clearly killed.

Post 2


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