I think this varied short story collection is my first encounter with Lessing. Given that she won the Nobel prize for literature (and many other awards), I was initially very disappointed. The first few stories were OK, but nothing more than that. I was on the verge of putting it aside, unsure if I should even bother seeing if I liked her better as a novelist. I'm glad I persevered, because several of the later stories were really good: you'll be able to tell which they were by the length of review for each.
It would have been helpful to know the publication date of each story, as once or twice I was initially unsure when they were set.
Our Friend Judith
About a mildly eccentric, single woman, and apparently based on someone Lessing knew, but it didn't ring true for me, especially near the end.
Explores a taboo relationship in a non-judgemental way, but again, it didn't feel quite plausible to me. On the other hand, unlike Lessing, I'm not aware of knowing anyone who has been in such a relationship.
Homage for Isaac Babel
A young teen tries to be adult and intellectual to impress a boy she has a crush on. Possibly based on herself?
Outside the Ministry
African political intrigue reduced to a shady conversation. Apparently equally popular with black and white Africans. It didn't do anything for me, but my limited knowledge of the period and place may be a factor.
This has more depth: a conversation with someone on the edge of sanity. Unsettling, slightly surreal, and moving.
Notes for a Case History
The perils and perks of social climbing, based on a lower middle class girl, just after the war.
Out of the Fountain
A fable about the hypnotic power of wealth and jewels can skew actions.
An Unposted Love Letter
Actually about the visceral pain for artistic creation.
A Year in Regent's Park
One of three pieces about the park, all of which I found dull. This is a nature documentary in an urban oasis.
Another embarrassed teen, this time a boy. It is a nuanced, funny and shocking portrayal of a boy who wants to be treated as an adult and to be in on the adult knowledge, behaviour and emotions, but doesn't know how to handle it when he is, in part because he is more easily shocked than he expects.
Side Benefits of an Honourable Profession
A disjointed collection of odd anecdotes about the tangled lives of thespians. It was "written with relish, after certain experiences in show business"!An Old Woman and her Cat
The first really good story. It is the gritty, sad, but unsentimental and horribly plausible depiction of the journey from ordinary life to cat lady. There are some good turns of phrase, too. The area between Kings Cross, St Pancras and Euston is described as "that part of London which is like an estuary, with tides of people flooding in and out", and a council flat where "pets were not actively persecuted by the authorities, only forbidden and then tolerated".
Lions, Leaves, Roses...
A prose poem about the park. Dull.Report on the Threatened City
Brilliant sci-fi, with very obvious contemporary relevance, especially for San Franciso, Naples and such places, with plenty of humour. Aliens plan to warn the citizens of a large city of the imminence of a major geological event. They are shocked and perplexed to discover that everyone knows, but just carries on with normal life: "willful blindness... they are able to hold in their minds at the same time several contradictory beliefs without noticing it". The aliens target different groups of humans, in different ways, to no avail. "Fear is a mechanism to protect or warn, and in these creatures the function is faulty." Most baffling of all is the contradiction of ignoring the risk to the whole city, yet applying "infinite care and devotion to individuals or small groups".Not a Very Nice Story
An unconventional narrative: explaining the nature of the story, the (im)morality of it, and the ending, before actually telling it. It concerns convoluted no-strings relationships: "they arrived in each other's presence vivid with variegated emotion". Can sex be emotionless? Can we deny love? What are the effects of lies, deceit and self-deception?
The Other Garden
The park. Again. Still dull.
The Italian Sweater
Some annoying anachronisms in this, which is a shame, as the story has potential. (What middle class young mother in 1991 London had friends called Joan and Betty, and a daughter called Joyce?!) Anyway, it is a story about the effects of secrets and the recession on a marriage. "There was no way he could tell her he had spied on her: the fresh and candid air the marriage lived in would not tolerate such a confidence."The Temptation of Jack Orkney
The eponymous near-novella. Jack is a middle-aged, left-wing, atheist journalist with wife, three adult children and a dying father. He is not close to his brother and sister (or his father), who he meets at the deathbed. "They all exchanged news. The main thing that had happened to the three of them was that the children had all grown up" painfully summarises their polite detachment, though "The grandchildren... knew each other, and had complicated relationships; they were a family, unlike their parents".
Yet there are similarities: "They were suffering that diminution, that assault on individuality which is the worst of families: some invisible dealer had shuffled noses, hands, shoulders, hair and reassembled them... the owner would feed, maintain, wash, medicate for a lifetime, thinking of it as 'mine', except at moments like these, when knowledge was forced home that everyone was put together out of stock."
The only family Jack really cares about are his children. His daughters are somewhat grungy in their attire, and "looked enchanting, like princesses in disguise", but his relationship with his son is trickier. "It was because his son was so much like him that he felt he had no son, no heir. What he wanted was for his son to carry on from himself... to be his continuation but each generation repeats the mistakes of its parents."
Jack's temptation turns out to be the opposite of the usual: temptation to - not from - faith: "To get God, after a lifetime of enlightened rationalism, would be the most shameful of capitulations". He has doubts about his (political and religious) doubts, "looking forward to letting the false positions of the day dissolve themselves into unimportance".The Thoughts of a Near-Human
Told by a yeti-type creature who feels drawn to a nearby primitive human settlement, to the shock of his brothers (though for some reason, I initially assumed the narrator was female). Seeing this other species creates body-image issues reminiscent of size zero/anorexic debates and the way Chinese fashion and cosmetics are sold via European-looking models. The whole piece is quite existential, in a naive way: "Why are They like They are? Why are we like we are?" Unfortunately, the final message seems to be about the importance and inevitability of knowing one's place.