Thursday, March 19, 2015

Doris Lessing, "The Grandmothers"

 – four short novels, Perennial 2005 ISBN 0-06-053011-1

Read from to March 5th 18th 2015

My rating:

All the reviews on Doris Lessing’s The Grandmothers I’ve read claim that the book is oddly uneven, with two brilliant and two poor stories. All of them put A love child on top, followed by Victoria and the Staveneys and they generally agree that The Grandmothers and The Reason of It are the worst.

Well, I beg to differ. As usual, Doris Lessing is a master of the literary techniques and the unity of The Grandmothers is realized by subtle but strong links between themes, motives, narrative perspectives, framing, narrative voices etc., that create a pattern of a beautiful discreet symmetry, giving the book all the coherence it needs to claim its unity either in structure and literary value.

The main theme of the volume, that life is deceptive and human values are built on sand, is proved from all points of view: family, society, politics and the inner self. In each one of them the characters are pathetic losers, who tried for a while to step off the fragile conventions that give the illusion life is worthier than the simple existence only to step back in the end.

The first story, which gives the title of the book is situated, like the most significant part of the last one, in the sunny South Africa, and both have, apparently, a secondary theme, love, doomed because of time, space and social conventions. I said “apparently”, for love is, in both stories, a simple attempt to evade the routine, the dullness of life, to conserve something precious but elusive for which the characters do not have, in the end, the courage to break the rules.

The Grandmothers is a strange and uncomfortable tale, it’s true, but far from lacking “all the psychological insight that has distinguished Ms. Lessing's most celebrated writing” as Michiko Kakutani argues in his New York Time of February 3rd 2004 review. Questioning the force and reliability of personal relationships, be it family or friendship, it proves that any attempt to ignore the conventional perspective is so severely sanctioned by a society whose pressure becomes unbearable that the characters have to comply. A masterpiece of shifting perspective in order to stress the difference between appearance and essence, the story is told from three points of view: external, omniscient and partial. In the beginning, we see it through the eyes of Theresa, a waitress who keeps admiring the perfect harmony of a little group formed by two young fathers, their mothers and two children in which the only discordant notes are the wives of the men, who fortunately appear only from time to time. Then an omniscient narrator takes over, familiarizing the reader with the uncanny lifetime friendship between the two “grandmothers” and their almost incestuous relationships with their sons. In the end it is Mary’s voice, one of the wives, that, discovering a bunch of letters, thinks, in ironic contradiction with the facts, that she finally understands all – while understanding, in fact only the reason for her unhappiness.

A Love Child (which, curiously, I must say that, despite its obvious literary qualities, I enjoyed less) explores the drama of the inner self, of the soul forever in search of an ideal but shying away from its fulfilment. James’s lost love is his excuse to endure a mediocre life he mocks from time to time unconvincingly. His most quoted words (‘You see, I’m not living my own life. It’s not my real life. I shouldn’t be living the way I do.’) reveal his pathetic attempt to make an epic sense of his so ordinary destiny, to reverse reality by denying its jailors: time, space and society.
Another attempt to reverse reality is Victoria and the Staveneys, this time in a social context. In that perfect parallel announced by the title, the story gathers the main social oppositions to emphasize the hollowness of the political correctness that hides but never fills the gap between black and white, rich and poor, educate and illiterate and so on. Victoria has made of the Staveneys the ideal of the perfect family with the perfect lifestyle, although she is reluctant to let her daughter become one of them, whilst the Staveneys have always forced themselves to act as liberal, unprejudiced persons, although they keep their distance from everything Victoria represents. The sadness of it is that all of them act in a sort of pathetic good faith because they are decent persons, unaware of all the social prejudices their subconscious carries:

She was pleased, rather than not, that the little girl was black because, as she never stopped complaining to Edward, his friend were all much too white, now that he lived in a multicultural society.

 The Reason for It – a tale whose value everybody seem to doubt – I kinda liked. A lot J. Built as a framed story  (the motive of the found manuscript) it tells the story of the rise and decline of a civilization. Despite its maybe too obvious allegory, the truth of the message is simple, forceful and sad at the same time: stupidity is a surer destroyer than maleficence, and stupidity is not always opposed to intelligence, often it lies inside intelligence. This is how a stupid ruler was democratically elected by a wise council, thus managing to end the golden period in the life of his people, in no time, with one powerful weapon – indifference, born from ignorance. Why? Because his beautiful appearance blinded the others as to his lack of essence:

It was not that he had forgotten. Not that he had deliberately destroyed what was good. He had never known it was good. He had never understood. He had seemed to be part of it all, but he, Destra’s son, the graceful and charming and delightful DeRod, whom we had all admired, had been a blind person among us.

Among the many threads that intertwine to form this beautiful book, from which I listed only a few and which would deserve an analysis much more extensive than mine, there is one, in the last story, that could be the motto of the volume: the first strophe of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, Cities and Thrones and Powers, synthetizing the blind frenzy of humanity to exist and repeat its own mistakes, to burden the planet with idiots, to revolt for a while only to better retreat into conventionality again, to live ephemerally while dreaming of eternity :

                                   Cities and Thrones and Powers
                                   Stand in Time’s eye,
                                   Almost as long as flowers 
                                   Which daily die: 
                                   But as new buds put forth 
                                   To glad new men 
                                   Out of the spent and unconsidered Earth 
                                   The Cities rise again.

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