Loosening the Ties that Bind
Separation is not loss, it is not cutting yourself off from someone you love. It is giving freedom to the other person to be herself before she becomes resentful, stunted, and suffocated by being tied too close. Separation is not the end of love.
When I first read Doris Lessing’s short story, “To Room Nineteen,” I felt a sense of liberation that I had encountered only once before with the final exit of Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House . To my teenage self, these fictions exposed what I had long suspected: Leading a perfect life as the perfect complacent wife was actually a suffocating disaster. By the time I read Lessing’s story, forty years had passed since its initial publication, the women’s movement had surged and fallen off, and the idea that women need to cultivate their own identities beyond the home was no longer novel. Even so, “To Room Nineteen” retained its sense of truth, portraying marriage as an abyss capable of swallowing a woman’s sense of self.
The younger Lessing was a social novelist who ferociously sought out answers. As Joan Didion wrote in her 1971 essay on Lessing, she was “a writer undergoing a profound and continuing cultural trauma, a woman of determinedly utopian and distinctly teleological bent assaulted at every turn by fresh evidence that the world is not improving as promised” and who was “compelled in the face of such evidence to look even more frenetically for the final cause, the unambiguous answer.” Dogmatic and reactionary, the young Lessing evolved into a more yielding, evocative writer as demonstrated by her latest collection of novellas, The Grandmothers .
While Lessing has maintained her idealism over the course of her career, The Grandmothers offers fresh observations with a mellow outlook that finds the answers sometimes lie in letting go. The Grandmothers brings together four seemingly incongruous stories held together by a common thread of narrators that are responsible for parenting, nurturing, and guiding entities beyond their control—their children, their societies, their lives. The female narrators are dominant and fully formed. The tension no longer rests in the their attempts to find and define themselves, but instead flows from the way their actions shape the lives of their offspring.
The title story concerns two mothers, Roz and Lil, who are best friends, each with a son, and each who becomes the lover of the other’s son. Their affair is a metaphor for the comfort found with the few who know us intimately. Their sons are the only men in their lives who perfectly understand them: They are brazen, young, and beautiful. Roz and Lil’s love affairs are selfish; they steal their sons’ hearts and prevent their departure from the nest until their hearth is shattered by the encroachment of the other women with whom the sons reluctantly develop relationships. It’s a mother’s dirge for the child she loves and will ultimately lose to the world, an acknowledgment that all children are eventually torn from their mothers arms, no mater how tight her grasp, and that loving too much leads to its own set of repercussions.
The other two stories based in realism, “Victoria and the Staveneys” and “A Love Child” also play out variations on this riff. Victoria, a black single mother watches as her child is taken into her white father’s upper-class family and anticipates little Mary outgrowing the life she provides for her. Mary will live a life her mother always hoped for, but it is neither a life in which Victoria is welcome nor is it one in which she could comfortably exist. “A Love Child” follows a young man, James Reid, through a life he feels isn’t his. James serves in the military during WWII, and ultimately lives in hope of finding a love far different than the love-turned-animosity between his parents. When he finds love,he is on shore in Cape Town, on layover from a grueling voyage at sea. The time spent with his married lover, Daphne, is fleeting, but it’s long enough for him to fall in love and to impregnate her with a son. James forever negotiates between the ideal and the real as he lives a life in waiting—for his role in combat, for his love, for his life to begin—only to find in the end that his youth has passed and that he must deny his hope of reclaiming his love and their son.
Their quotidian lives march on, and the parents—Victoria, James, Roz and Lil—must face moving on despite the imminent loss and in spite of their hopes fulfilled, though never in the right way. It seems that Lessing has changed her tune. The parents no longer worry about losing themselves, their egos fading. They instead must deal with losing their children to the world, or settle with never really knowing them at all, waking up to the realization that dreams may come true, but always at a price.
With the third novella, “The Reason for It,” Lessing departs from her close interpersonal inspection to show how the last guardian of an ancient society observes, at the end of his life, his once utopian city deteriorate. Wisdom, the last of the twelve appointed guardians who chose the current ruler, DeRod, traces the evolution of his society with an almost biblical catalog of rulers and progeny. Under DeRod, The Cities have fallen apart, away from knowledge, from literacy, from storytelling, from truth, and is on the way to becoming a tribal society where might equals power. Wisdom watches and must come to terms with both his role in the cultural decline and his responsibility in preserving what remains.
Although this is the weakest story in the book—its characters are flat, it reads like an allegory, and it’s difficult to not interpret it as one—the story provides the most insight into Lessing’s own perspective. Lessing, too, is old; she turns 85 this year, and has been a prominent woman writer for the past 50. With her fiction, she has assumed a social responsibility by pushing boundaries and promoting her political views. Like Wisdom, Lessing accounts for the world around her, observing that perhaps the some of the ideas she championed have been realized, such as with women’s rights, but not always with the expected outcome. And, ultimately, the story also reveals that Lessing has come to terms with the scarcity of ideal answers, that you can only do so much, and then you just have to let go.
Doris Lessing’s staying power is admirable. Over the past 50 years she has written over 20 novels, myriad short stories, and has ventured into the realms of science fiction, graphic novels, and opera. Her ability to continue to write with relevancy, to risk failure in territories left uncharted by most writers deserves recognition, even if her latest book of four novellas is rather unremarkable in and of itself.