Lessing's Living Drama of London

By , Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction for the Monitor

DORIS LESSING's first novel, "The Grass Is Singing," was published in 1950. Her work includes more than 20 novels, 10 story collections, plus drama, poetry, reportage, and essays.

It is remarkable not so much for sheer quantity as for the range of approaches she has used - from the old-fashioned realism of "Martha Quest" (1970), the first of her politically oriented, five-novel sequence "Children of Violence," to the futuristic mythopoeia of her five-novel series "Canopus in Argos: Archives," which brought her new readers with a taste for science fiction.

Lessing's use of contrasting styles in "The Golden Notebook" (1981), a novel interspersed with excerpts from its protagonist's personal notebook, is itself a contrast to the technique of straightforward, windowpane clarity she employs with such powerful effect in "The Good Terrorist" (1985).

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Narrated with even greater detachment, her novel "The Fifth Child" (1988) applies the method of starkly objective observation to a story that borders on grotesque fairy tale.

Lessing's political position has also run the gamut: from her early sympathy for communism to a kind of extreme skepticism about all political ideologies, particularly those of the radical left.

Yet her most fervent readership has long been among feminists, who elevated "The Golden Notebook" to the status of a classic feminist text.

Born in Persia to British parents who resettled on a farm in Southern Rhodesia when she was five, Lessing fled the repressive, provincial world of her youth for England in 1949. She has written of England and Africa, Afghanistan and the Sufis, women's issues and the British Labour Party - not to mention her foray to other planets in the "Canopus" series.

Her recent work has inclined toward ever-increasing simplicity and realism, to the point where it can even be criticized as too flatly matter-of-fact.

By the time readers find themselves having to make do with her previous book "Particularly Cats" (1991), a detailed description of various cats Lessing has owned, her gift for endless observation of just about everything becomes a sign of writerly complacency and a source of readerly boredom.

The 18 stories in her latest collection, "The Real Thing," are narrated with a clinical detachment that is at once minutely observant and emotionally distant.

There is a certain charm in this, particularly when she is writing about animals (lots of them here: sparrows, dogs, goats, deer, crows, but none, thank goodness, dwelt on to the extent of the aforementioned cats). Such detachment enables her to cherish small details without seeming overly sentimental.

But in stories dealing with people, this approach can sound at times like an unwitting parody of a social worker's field notes. Indeed, one story, "The Mother of the Child in Question," is about a social worker's visit to an immigrant household.

Another, "D.H.S.S." (Department of Health and Social Services), portrays a destitute young woman's resentment, not only against official relief, but also against the spontaneous efforts of two well-meaning people who are moved by her plight.

Most of the pieces are short - many no more than "sketches" of scenes that will be familiar to almost anyone who knows London and, perhaps, to anyone with a feel for city life anywhere. "Romance 1988" listens in on two sisters having a risque conversation at Heathrow Airport.

"The New Cafe" surveys the comings and goings of patrons at a neighborhood eatery. "Two Old Women and a Young One" looks in on a restaurant frequented by people from the book trade.

"Pleasures of the Park" portrays the activities of animals whose lives go on in full view of the human beings who stroll by their enclosure.

"Principles" is a partly predictable look at the frustration of a very British sort of traffic jam caused by two equally stubborn drivers on a narrow, hedge-lined country road.

And a ride on the London subway furnishes the material for "A Defence of the Underground" with its rowdy youths, resigned commuters, colorful foreigners, poetry-bearing posters, and - noted with special delight on one trip - three readers avidly devouring great literature: "The Iliad," "Moby Dick," and "Wuthering Heights" no less!

Some stories tackle more ambitious subjects.

In "The Pit," a divorced woman receives an ego-gratifying invitation from her former husband to join him on a walking tour. Sarah and James had once seemed a perfect couple, alike in tastes, temperaments, and blond good looks.

Then, unaccountably - as if drawn by a compulsion beyond his conscious choice - he left her to marry the vibrant, dark, demanding Rose, a European refugee whom Sarah regards as "female in a basic gutter way that every decent woman in the world hates."

But what Sarah feels for Rose is not so much hatred as a sense of their oppositeness. As she contemplates the situation, foreseeing the elaborate minuet of moves and countermoves that the proposed "walking tour" will precipitate, she attains a level of insight that enables her to avoid falling into the pit.

The continuing attraction some people feel for their former spouses is also the theme of the title story, in which Jody, an American woman engaged to an Englishman, reacts viscerally against the oh-so-civilized, chummy relationship he maintains with his ex-wife.

Jody's antipathy for this attitude is contrasted with the outlook of her male counterpart, an Englishman who plans to wed the ex-wife of Jody's fiance and cannot see anything wrong with being "civilized." But is it civility or merely a mask for unfinished feelings? This is the question Lessing poses.

Curiously, these two stories - the most interesting and complex in the collection - are among the coolest in emotional temperature: More warmth is found in Lessing's defense of the underground or her sympathy for the woman who feeds a baby bird in "Sparrows."

Viewed as a kind of literary photo album, a tribute to what she calls the living theater of London, these stories have a workmanlike, documentary value. But they fall short of the passion, invention, and intellectual depth that distinguish her best work.

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