Doris Lessing | Critical Review by John Bemrose

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Doris Lessing.
This section contains 775 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by John Bemrose

SOURCE: "London Calling," in Maclean's, Vol. 106, No. 34, August 24, 1992, p. 62.

In the following positive review of The Real Thing, Bemrose singles out "The Pit" as "the collection's finest story."

In 1777, the English writer and wit Samuel Johnson remarked, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." By that standard, British novelist Doris Lessing, 72, has a good deal of vitality left. She first arrived in London in 1949, a young, unpublished novelist from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) intent on winning her literary spurs in the imperial capital. More than 40 years and almost 40 books later, she still makes London her home. The city appears in the background of many of her works, including her ground-breaking 1962 novel about the lives of women, The Golden Notebook. But only in her latest collection of short stories and sketches, The Real Thing, does her beloved adopted home seem like a character in its own right. London "was like a great theatre," she writes in the sketch "Storms." "You could watch what went on all day, and sometimes I did. You could sit for hours in a café or on a bench and just watch."

In The Real Thing, Lessing's London-watching has unearthed a variety of human types and predicaments of the sort that would surely have delighted Dr. Johnson. Some of the entries are only a few pages long, yet they are remarkable at distilling the essence of people Lessing has observed. In the sketch "Sparrows," the narrator eavesdrops on a middle-aged couple in a restaurant garden. It soon becomes clear that their relationship has grown stale. But when the woman coaxes a timid fledgling sparrow to take the crumbs that she offers, her joy at her success strikes the scales from her husband's eyes. "For the first time since they had sat down there," Lessing writes, "he was outside his selfish prison and really seeing her."

Such pieces hover between journalism and fiction. They appear to be based on real-life incidents, but Lessing is too much the novelist to refrain from interjecting her favorite themes. Her career-long concern with the awkward dance between the sexes dominates "Her," a description of a London party in which a group of male politicians unwittingly exclude and demean a female colleague. As so often happens in Lessing's work, the woman seems more mature and resourceful than the boyish men around her. Lessing does not portray men as well as she does women, but in such stories as "D.H.S.S." and "The Mother of the Child in Question" she at least lends them a certain besieged dignity.

Besides the shorter observation pieces, The Real Thing also contains a handful of short stories in which Lessing's imagination is working at full throttle. The title story concerns two middle-class couples, Sebastian and Angela, and Henry and Jody. The four Londoners, all friends, are spending a weekend together at a country cottage. What complicates matters is that Henry and Angela used to be married to each other. The American Jody, Henry's girlfriend, is deeply troubled by the fond, talkative intimacy between the two former spouses. Indeed, they spend much of the weekend away together, attending to their sick daughter, who is staying at a nearby farm. That leaves Jody and Sebastian alone for hours on end. Inevitably, they fall into a long discussion of the situation, allowing Lessing to offer a fascinating meditation on the nature of maturity and emotional honesty.

The collection's finest story is "The Pit." Sarah, a woman who enjoys her life alone, is suddenly confronted by her ex-husband. James had left her years earlier for a beautiful woman named Rose. Now, Rose is having an affair with someone else. Crushed, James has come limping back to ask Sarah if she will have an affair with him. Sarah is tempted because James is still attractive, and the pain of his desertion has long since modulated into something more mellow. The tension in the story flows from Sarah's indecisiveness as she reviews her options and remembers her marriage.

One of the great achievements of "The Pit" is its portrait of Rose, who never actually appears in the story. Detail by detail, she comes to life in Sarah's perceptive mind, until the profoundly insecure, manipulative and theatrical Rose seems ready to walk off the page.

Like most of Lessing's best fiction, "The Pit" is an exploratory work that tests the limits of conscience and behavior. London is not mentioned: indeed, it is the sort of story that could happen almost anywhere. Yet London seems to hover in the background, the matrix of the fertile, unpredictable human mystery that Lessing loves.

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This section contains 775 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by John Bemrose
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