Doris Lessing: Stories (Post 3/4)

Lessing 04

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Doris Lessing: Stories Introduction Post

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[86] “Each Other”

 2.5 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

A brother and sister carry on an affair.

Other than the incest, this story is written like any husband-goes-to-work, lover-comes-over affair. There’s not enough here to become more than a shock piece. There’s no context, the characters are paper dolls. I need more information: How did this sexual relationship start? When? Where are their parents? Do they have any other family?

[87] “Homage for Isaac Babel”

3 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

A young girl tries to read Isaac Babel to impress an older boy.

[88] First question: Who was Isaac Babel?

Isaac Babel (1894-1940) was a Russian-language journalist, playwright, literary translator, and short-story writer. Loyal to, but not uncritical of, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Babel fell victim to Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge as a result of his long-term affair with the wife of NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) chief Nikolai Yezhov.


Catherine lives in a white house overlooking the sweeping brown tides of the river.


[90] Reference:

“What do you think is the very best story here?” (…)

I chose the story about killing the goat.


I can’t find a Babel story about killing a goat, but there is one about killing a goose (“My First Goose”, pages 230-233 in this collection).

[91] “Outside the Ministry”

 2 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

Two lieutenants discuss their flawed leaders.

[92] References:

“You did not hear of the attempt made upon my life when I was lying helpless with malaria in the Lady Wilberforce Hospital in Nkalolele?”


I can’t find a place with this name, though Nkolele is a surname in South Africa.

[93] “Dialogue” 

1 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

A woman visits her ill friend.

[94] Typo?

This willed disco-ordination of her nerves.


The hyphen happens mid-page, not at a line break. I can only assume it’s a typo/misunderstanding. I’ve seen coordination spelled co-ordination, so the thinking here may have been dis + co-ordination.

[95] The inner thoughts of the protagonist dominate this story – to the point that the title should have been “Inner Monologue.” Lessing keeps us in the dark about what’s going on, using vague language to describe the characters, their relationship, and their background. More than halfway through the story, this is what we’re getting:

Now she admitted the prohibited words “love,” “joy” (et cetera), and gave them leave to warm her, for not only could she not bear the world without them, she needed them to disperse her anger against him: Yes, yes, it’s all very well, but how could the play go on, how could it, if it wasn’t for me, the people like me? We create you in order that you may use us, and consume us; and with our willing connivance; but it doesn’t do to despise…


I have no idea who the main character is, other than being a forty-year-old woman; no idea of what Bill’s sickness is or why the woman is visiting him when they’re so awkward with one another.

[96] “Notes for a Case History” 

1 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

Maureen Watson seems destined for greatness, but it never comes.

A disappointingly by-the-numbers story of a poor little girl with no worth outside her looks. Her goal is to find a wealthy husband of a higher class. The amount of time setting up her childhood, best friend, and background is wasted by the end.

[97] Vocabulary:

She wore a mauve organdy frock with a pink sash.



The sheerest and crispest cotton cloth made.


She went home silent, thinking of Tony. When she thought of him, she needed to cry. She also needed to hurt him.


[99] Reference:

They would have their own house, in (they thought) Hemel Hempstead.



Hemel Hempstead is in Hertfordshire, England. It is located 24 miles northwest of London. It was developed after the Second World War as a new town but existed as a settlement since the 8th century.

[100] Vocabulary:

She wore (…) her mother’s cretonne overall used for housework.



A heavy cotton fabric, typically with a floral pattern printed on one or both sides, used for upholstery.

[101] “To Room Nineteen”

4 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

Susan Rawlings’ marriage and children are all she could have wanted, yet she is desperate for solitude.

A dangerous story; very close to romanticizing mental illness/depression. Susan’s husband, Matthew, kindly tries (many times) to find out what is bothering Susan but she refuses to explain/admit her state of mind. In fact, the family is nothing but accommodating and Lessing’s message seems to be, disturbingly, that suicide is Susan’s only solution.

But it’s well-written and engaging all the way through. As fiction, it worked. I just hope no one ever uses it to justify not seeking help.

[102] A somewhat similar set-up as The Fifth Child:

And this is what happened. They lived in their charming flat for two years, giving parties and going to them, being a popular young married couple, and then Susan became pregnant, she gave up her job, and they bought a house in Richmond. It was typical of this couple that they had a son first, then a daughter, then twins, son and daughter. Everything right, appropriate, and what everyone would wish for, if they could choose. But people did feel these two had chosen; this balanced and sensible family was no more than what was due to them because of their infallible sense for choosing right.


[103] Vocabulary (and a really awkward sentence):

Their life seemed to be like a snake biting its tail. Matthew’s job for the sake of Susan, children, house, and garden – which caravanserai needed a well-paid job to maintain it.



(also caravansary)

noun – (historical) – 1. an inn with a central courtyard for travelers in the desert regions of Asia or North Africa.

2. a group of people traveling together; a caravan.


Children can’t be a centre of life and a reason for being. They can be a thousand things that are delightful, interesting, satisfying, but they can’t be a wellspring to live from. Or they shouldn’t be.



This was life, that two people, no matter how carefully chosen, could not be everything to each other.



It was banal, too, when one night Matthew came home late and confessed he had been to a party, taken a girl home and slept with her. Susan forgave him, of course. Except that forgiveness is hardly the word. Understanding, yes. But if you understand something, you don’t forgive it, you are the thing itself: forgiveness is for what you don’t understand. Nor had he confessed – what sort of word is that?



Above all, intelligence forbids tears.



It was now, for the first time in this marriage, that something happened which neither of them had foreseen.

This is what happened.



She had to go right away to the bottom of the garden until the devils of exasperation had finished their dance in her blood.


[110] “An Old Woman and Her Cat” 

4.5 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

The last years of widowed Hetty and her cat, Tibby.

The best story in the collection. I cried at the end. (It happens.)

[111] First lines:

Her name was Hetty, and she was born with the twentieth century. She was seventy when she died of cold and malnutrition.


[112] “Side Benefits of an Honorable Profession”

1 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

A string of gossipy blind items about figures in stage and film.

[113] First lines are disorienting and it doesn’t get better from here:

Or rather, perhaps, a condition of the mud which nurtures. Flowers, of course – but that isn’t the point.



He was in trouble with his marriage; and she, having been divorced, had reached that point with  possible new husband when she must decide whether to marry him or not. On the whole she felt not.


[115] Reference:

Nothing of the Petrouchka about him.



Petrushka is a stock character of Russian folk puppetry attested to since the 17th century. Petrushkas are traditionally marionettes, as well as hand puppets. The character is a kind of jester distinguished by his red dress, a red kolpak (pointed hat), and often a long nose. In context, the word is a diminutive for “Pyotr” (Peter in Russian).

[116] Reference:

Which reminds me of the grande dame who was acting in what she critically described as a kitchen sink play.


From Playwriting: A Practical Guide by Noel Greig (2005):

The ‘kitchen sink play. This – slightly derogatory – term was attached to a type of play that emerged in the UK in the 1950s. They were plays by the generation that included Arnold Wesker, which depicted working class characters in their domestic surroundings: a revolt against the previous generations of middle-class plays set in drawing rooms.

(Playwriting, p.190)

[117] “A Year in Regent’s Park” 

1.5 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

A year of English weather is recounted.

No plot. Just plants and animals and weather observations. This is an entry in a writing journal, not a short story. Annoyingly, this is the first of three “observing the park” stories (see also “Lions, Leaves, Roses…”, Post 4, note [137] and “The Other Garden”, Post 4, note [153]).


In January nothing starts but a new calendar.



It had rained. It was raining. As London does, it rained.


[120] Reference:

April wasn’t doing anything like what the poet meant when he said, “Oh, to be in England” – certainly he would have returned at once to his beloved Italy.


From Robert Browning’s “Home-thoughts, from Abroad”:

Oh, to be in England

Now that April’s there,

And whoever wakes in England

Sees, some morning, unaware,

That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf

Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,

While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough

In England – now!

(full text found on

Browning lived in Italy for the last several decades of his life.

[121] Reference:

The catkins were dangling on branches inhibited from bursting into leaf.



A flowering spike of trees such as willow and hazel. Catkins are typically downy, pendulous, composed of flowers of a single sex, and wind-pollinated.


There’s nothing odder than what is ignored, not seen, not noticed.


[123] Reference:

At the end where the Mappin Terraces are, four young people lay asleep.


An area of the London Zoo. The Outback is an Australian-themed exhibit housing groups of emus, Bennett’s wallabies and red kangaroos. The enclosure, which was originally called “The Mappin Terraces”, was opened in 1913 and features an artificial rocky cliff made of concrete blocks for animal enrichment. It was originally designed for a multitude of different species including bears, penguins, sheep, goats and wild boar.


And a little girl in the children’s zoo clutched at a donkey no higher than she was, and cried out: “It’s getting wet, oh the donkey’s getting wet.” True enough, here came a small sample of the long-awaited rain (…) And the little girl wept because of the poor donkey who was getting wet and apparently liking it, for it was kicking and heehawing. Where was her mamma? Where, her papa? She was alone with her donkey and her grief. And the rain pelted down and stopped, having done no good and no harm to anything.


This passage alone bumps the story up half a point. It is a full story in itself.

[125] Reference:

Butterflies crowded over lemon balm and hyssop.



1. a small bushy aromatic plant of the mint family, the bitter minty leaves of which are used in cooking and herbal medicine.

2. (in biblical use) a wild shrub of uncertain identity whose twigs were used for sprinkling in ancient Jewish rites of purification.

[126] “Report on the Threatened City”

1 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

Aliens attempt to save the citizens of an Earth city from an impending disaster.

Satire or commentary on the foolishness of humans using an alien’s perspective is a common trope. This story really brushes me the wrong way, though. Lessing seems to be saying human coping mechanisms and what we call mental illness are backward – the people “coping” are crazy, the mentally ill have it right: we should all be panicking all the time at every potential threat!

It’s also just a terrible attempt at sci-fi.


Apparently, [paranoia] is a condition when people show fear of forthcoming danger and try to warn others about it and then show anger when stopped by authority (…) They consider it an illness or a faulty mental condition to be aware of what threatens and to try to take steps to avoid or soften it.


No. Paranoia is a condition of thinking your house is bugged, your relatives are stealing things from you, the world is ending because of a prophecy. There is nothing others can do to “prepare” or “take steps” against imaginary demons.

This story righteously pissed me off but I’m having a hard time putting it into words. The complaints about humans are so obvious and route and idealistic. At one point, the aliens marvel that humans in a city don’t notice every single other human; as long as you’re dressed correctly and move correctly, you’re unobserved. That’s not a flaw. If we noticed everything about everyone all the time, we would have sensory overload, especially in a city. We would be overwhelmed and unable to get anything done.

[128] The mass suicide of the youths after hearing the aliens’ message is ridiculous (p.501). I don’t buy it. This would take years of cult-like conditioning and even then, many would rebel. Members of Jonestown had to be murdered and coerced at the end.

These “advanced” aliens are not adequately explained, either. They can see the future: then how can they not foresee their own failure with the Earthlings? They know a calamity is coming “sometime” in the next five years: why can’t they pinpoint it any more specifically? I need to know more of their culture and communication to understand why they find humans so baffling.

At this point, the stories aren’t just boring or tedious, they’re making me angry which is never a good sign…

Post 4


3 thoughts on “Doris Lessing: Stories (Post 3/4)

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