Doris Lessing: Stories (Post 2/4)

Lessing 03

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Doris Lessing: Stories Introduction Post

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[44] “The Other Woman”

4 out of 5 stars.

 The Plot:

Rose breaks her engagement after her mother’s death, then spends years searching for what she’s lost.

Another 50+ page story. It has the same problem as “The Eye of God in Paradise” (Post 1, note [26]), feeling like two stories awkwardly glued together. The first half, following Rose, is a beautiful and sad meditation on a woman losing everything during the war. After her father’s death, the perspective changes to her married lover, Jimmie, turning into a tale over to a pathetic double-crosser. Though the end is pleasantly unexpected.

[45] First sentence:

Rose’s mother was killed one morning crossing the street to do her shopping.



“Being sorry doesn’t mend broken bones.”



A month later they heard George had married someone else. Rose had a pang of regret, but it was the kind of regret one feels for something inevitable, that could not have been otherwise.


[48] Reference (this money-in-the-post-office thing comes up in more than one story):

Life was frightening and dangerous – therefore put money into the post office; hold on to your job, work, and – put money into the post office.



Postal saving systems provide depositors who do not have access to banks a safe and convenient method to save money. In the UK, the Post Office Ltd offers saving accounts based on its brand, and is operated by the Bank of Ireland. The Post Office branded services include instant savings, Individual Savings Accounts, seasonal savings and savings bonds.

In the United States, the United States Postal Savings System was established in 1911 and discontinued in 1966.

[49] Reference:

“Hitler and Churchill and Stalin and Roosevelt – they all make me sick, if you want to know. And that goes for your Attlee too.”



Clement Attlee (1883-1967) was a British statesman of the Labour Party who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1945 to 1951 and Leader of the Labour Party from 1935 to 1955.


So they came not to discuss the war at all, they merely suffered it.



She said: “My father’s been killed,” in a flat, ordinary voice, without letting pictures of death arise into her mind.



She had forgotten George, he didn’t exist. And now Jimmie brought him to life and made her think of him. Now she was forced to wonder: Did I love him as much then? Was it the same as this? And if her happiness with George had been as great now as it was with Jimmie, then that very fact seemed to diminish love itself and make it pathetic and uncertain.



For years his wife had been nagging at him to better himself, and he answered impatiently because, for her, what mattered was to outdo their neighbors. This he despised. But she was right for the wrong reasons.



She could have found no words at all for what she felt, that deep knowledge of the dangerousness and the sadness of life. Bombs fell on old men, lorries killed people, and the war went on and on.


[55] “One Off the Short List”

4 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

Failed author Graham chooses each of his affairs without his target’s knowledge or consent.

An extremely upsetting story, especially for any victim of sexual abuse. Lessing could have had a mess on her hands but her writing is hauntingly good here, capturing a disgusting man’s rationalizations. It’s a true horror story; graphic and frightening and heartbreaking.

[56] Lessing did this a bit in The Fifth Child and I wish I saw it more in Stories: breaking off sentences in interesting ways to add emphasis:

“Have a good evening, Babs,” said James, going, and nodding to Graham. Who stood concealing his pleasure with difficulty.


[57] We see immediately what an ass this man is (hopefully, we see. This story might be a good litmus test; if someone thinks that Graham was at all in the right or justified in his anger and frustration, you might not want to spend time with them…)

She asked for a beer. He ordered her a double Scotch, which she accepted.


Graham is in a position of power over Barbara – he is going to be interviewing her for a radio station. He takes this business exchange as an excuse to take her on a date before going to the studio, his every move an attempt to get sex by the end of the night. She does not want to insult him, especially before this interview which is important for her career and co-workers. Her going along with his insistence of what to drink, where they should eat, doesn’t show a weakness on her part but a total abuse of power on his.

[58] Reference:

She could be taken for the film star Marie Carletta.


Seemingly invented by Lessing for this story.

[59] “A Woman on a Roof”

2.5 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

Three rooftop workers fixate cruelly on a sunbathing woman.

Continuing the theme of “One Off the Short List” (note [55]), we see the objectification and abuse of a woman through the eyes of men. How “harmless flirtation” turns into fixation, cruelty, insults, and a sense that the man is “owed” something – attention, kindness, flattery, the flirtation returned.

“A Woman on the Roof” doesn’t come off as well as “Short List”; maybe because they come back to back and I was already unsettled, but I don’t think “Roof” is as well-written. It doesn’t give anything from the woman’s perspective or the fear, anger, and frustration she is experiencing because of the men. She remains an object throughout where in “Short List”, Barbara’s feelings are sensed even through Graham’s twisted perspective.


Stanley, Tom, and old Harry, let out whistles and yells. Harry was doing it in parody of the younger men, making fun of them, but he was also angry. They were all angry because of her utter indifference to the three men watching her.

“Bitch,” said Stanley. (…)

They whistled. She looked up at them, cool and remote, then went on reading. Again, they were furious.


A woman who ignores catcalling or won’t smile after a comment on her looks is so often called a bitch. And there’s no good way out of it. Continue to ignore the man or give him the attention he desires – either way, things can get frightening very fast. This happens. This happens all the goddamned time.

[61] Reference:

“If you get a kick out of seeing women in bikinis, why don’t you take a sixpenny bus ride to the Lido?”


A lido is a public outdoor swimming pool and surrounding facilities, or part of a beach where people can swim, lie in the sun, or participate in water sports. Lido is an Italian word for “beach.”

[62] “How I Finally Lost My Heart”

4 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

A woman tries to find a way to get rid of her heart after it attaches itself to her hand.

A bit of magical realism which works pretty damn well.

[63] Reference:

As the folk song has it:

I have loved but three men in my life,

My father, my brother, and the man that

took my life.


This quote only goes back to Lessing’s story.


I am going to have to skip about four days here, vital enough in all conscience, because I simply cannot go heartbeat by heartbeat through my memories. A pity, since I suppose this is what this story is about.



So I went down the escalator and looked at the faces coming up past me on the other side, as I always do; and wondered, as I always do, how strange it is that those people and I should meet by chance in such a way, and how odd that we would never see each other again, or, if we did, we wouldn’t know it.



We all sat, looking quietly in front of us, pretending to ourselves and to each other that we didn’t know the poor woman was mad and that in fact we ought to be doing something about it. I even wondered what I should say: Madam, you’re mad – shall I escort you to your home?


[67] “A Man and Two Women”

4 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

With her husband in Venezuela, Stella visits her friends, the Bradfords, whose relationship is strained after the birth of their first child.

At this point, I was very excited about Stories – four of the last five rated at 4 stars, the majority above average; I was thinking I was reading a book from a master, which made the next three-hundred pages so frustrating. You’re always more disappointed after seeing potential.


He seemed brusque, to strangers; he wasn’t shy, he simply hadn’t been brought up to enjoy words.


[69] I don’t understand the last sentence here:

“I’ve got to go quite soon,” said Stella with regret.

“On, no, you’ve got to stay!” said Dorothy, strident. It was sudden, the return of the woman who made Jack and Dorothy tense themselves to take strain.


I think I understand what Lessing means, but it’s a bit awkward.


She thought: What is going to happen now will blow Dorothy and Jack and that baby sky-high; it’s the end of my marriage; I’m going to blow everything to bits. There was almost uncontrollable pleasure in it.


[71] “A Room”

 2 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

A strange afternoon dream.


The ceiling is a ceiling: flat, white, plain.


[73] “England versus England” 

1 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

Charlie feels crushed under the stress of being the only member of a mining family to attend college.

There’s a genre of male protagonist-descending-into-madness (Catcher in the Rye and Something Happened are my favorites, if “favorite” is the right word for being mentally shaken). These stories are often very hard to follow and unrewarding as a narrative. The more you dive into someone’s emotions and pain and away from literal action, the more reliance is given to symbols and dream-logic. By definition, those are very specific to an author and their background and it takes a good creator to bridge the gap.

Lessing fails; I couldn’t relate to Charlie, I couldn’t sympathize with him, I didn’t understand why certain things were setting him off in certain ways. The whole story was confusing and odd.

[74] Vocabulary:

Charlie had gone to the doctor with a cyclostyled leaflet in his hand.



The Cyclostyle duplicating process is a form of stencil copying. A stencil is cut on wax or glazed paper by using a pen-like object with a small rowel on its tip. A large number of small short lines are cut out in the glazed paper, removing the glaze with the spur-wheel, then ink is applied. It was invented in the later 19th century by David Gestetner, who named it “cyclostyle” after a drawing tool he used.

[75] “Two Potters” 

1 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

In a series of dreams, the story of a potter is revealed.

Short stories about dreams are as tricky as the lead-going-mad trope we just saw in “England versus England” (note [73]). It is very hard to convey the emotions felt when dreaming with their imagery alone – the reader needs a wealth of associations to get to the same place as the author.

This is also the second dream story in the collection (“A Room”, note [71]). A lot of the lower-rated stories from here on out feel like writing exercises or meanderings that never come together and should never have been published.

[76] “Between Men”

1.5 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

Professional mistresses Maureen and Peggy plan for a future without male companions.

Anything this story does interesting or well, “The Other Woman” (note [44]) does much better.

[77] Reference:

“If we don’t do something, I’ve got to go back to my parents in Outshoorn [sic].”



Oudtshoorn, the “ostrich capital of the world,” is a town in the Western Cape province of South Africa, located to the south of the Outeniqua Mountains. With approximately 60,000 inhabitants, it is the largest town in the Little Karoo region.

[78] “Our Friend Judith” 

3 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

Judith, fortyish and unmarried, is a spinster to her friends but has a rich history as poet and former muse.


Judith did not easily come to parties. She would come after pressure, not so much – one felt – to do one a favor, but in order to correct what she believed to be a defect in her character.


[80] Reference/Translate:

Typical English belles-lettres, in fact, and by definition abhorrent to her.



noun – 1. essays, particularly of literary and artistic criticism, written and read primarily for their aesthetic effect.

2. literature considered as a fine art.

[81] Reference (and why is mispronunciation being teased?):

“The Third Programme’s commissioning her to do some arty programmes. They offered her a choice of El Cid – El Thid, you know – and the Borgias. Well, the Borghese, then.”



The BBC Third Programme was a national radio service produced and broadcast by the BBC between 1946 and 1970. It became one of the leading cultural and intellectual forces in Britain, playing a crucial role in disseminating the arts. The Third Programme was replaced by BBC Radio 3 in April 1970.

Maybe the pronunciation is teased because the Third Programme was considered high-brow pitched to lower classes; the character may be teasing how the uneducated wouldn’t know how to pronounce the names…? Seems catty, but that’s all I’ve got.

[82] Reference/Translate:

“On the ground floor is a tatty little rosticceria patronized by the neighbors.”


An Italian rotisserie; a shop that sells cooked meat.

[83] Vocabulary:

“She said, asperously: ‘You can use phrases like for a time in England but not in Italy’.”




adjective – rough, rugged, uneven. Bitter, cruel, severe.


“I don’t understand why people discuss other people. Oh – I’m not criticizing you. But I don’t see why you are so interested. I don’t understand human behavior and I’m not particularly interested.”



“The kittens began to suck. One kitten was very big. It was a nice fat black kitten. It must have hurt her. But she suddenly bit out – snapped, don’t you know, like a reflex action, at the back of the kitten’s head. It died, just like that. Extraordinary, isn’t it?” she said, blinking hard, her lips quivering. “She was its mother, but she killed it.”


Post 3


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