Saturday 26 October 2013

Doris Lessing's short stories

I recently stumbled over a collection of stories by Doris Lessing and started to read them. They hail from a different era, and unfortunately, I only had a German translation. Yet some of them made for fascinating reading. Lessing mostly wrote about the cultural conflicts between the indigenous population, the Afrikaans and British people who came to the South of Africa during the colonial period. This mix of colonialism, European settlement and racial oppression resulted in explosive relationships, with many of fault-lines criss-crossing each other.

Her story 'Little Tembi' is probably the best example of this unpredictable clash of cultures. In Lessing's stories it is never the casual violence against the indigenous population that is the centre piece (although it exists), it is more the conflict of expectations that is informed by ideas of racial and cultural superiority. Within the story, a white British couple help a black family to save their child from illness and certain death. As the child grows, the couple encourage a pseudo-familial relationship with the boy yet profoundly misunderstand the expectations this raises. In the context of significantly skewed political and economic power, this must eventually lead to disaster and it can only be one person who pays the price. However, it is the white couple's confusion and befuddlement over what has happened that makes it a great story. Lessing ends the story with the couple's irritation about the black boy's behaviour: 'What, on earth, did he actually want?'

Lessing is strongest when she writes about these triangulated dynamics between blacks, settlers and British colonisers and the differentiated expectations of honour, power and riches of the newcomers while harbouring a keen sense of misplacement. She is weakest however, when she tries to tell ordinary stories that move away from this explosive mix. Her story 'Old John's place' is supremely boring and pointless, and one of the reason is that Lessing's voice remains one of an outside observer, prone to make sweeping generalisations. In a sense, she never manages to get into the minds of her own protagonists. It seems that psychological character studies are simply not her strength whilst fast paced narratives suit her style of writing best.

Her writing is also a bit clunky at times and I am not sure whether this is a result of poor translation or whether it has something to do with the particular English spoken in the South of Africa during the 1950s. There is a stiffness to her dialogues sometimes that had largely disappeared from American literature by that time.

However, even after such a long time, her stories are worth a read, teaching us about a world that may have disappeared but still resonates in some people's memories.


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  3. I really wonder how you reach the conclusion that Lessing is not able to get into the heads of her protagonists. Having read all her books (except the science fiction) for years, I feel that she knows her characters far better than they know themselves--or any of us ever do. In Tembi, as in many of her stories, she is looking at events from a long perspective, in this case a decade. She exposes Tembi's unusual need for equality (a brief summary of the emancipation movements that happened decades later), which necessarily involves breaking the whites' laws and countering their (self-serving) moral values. She also shows us Jane's wishes to do good, and how in that place and time, this is not a simple matter; she is trapped in her own time and place, her whiteness, just as Tembi is trapped in his. Lessing makes sure we understand that she truly means well, is a good person, which makes it all the more poignant that her fine actions turn against her--in a way she neither predicted nor understands in the end. That is why the narrative point of view must be distant, to comprehend this entire social dynamic from all sides.
    And of course, it is subtle but hard to miss that it is precisely Tembi,the black who recieved special treatment, who wants more than his lot--as if Jane sowed the seeds of rebellion with her kindness.

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