The Real Thing: Stories and Sketches

Overview

The stories and sketches in this collection penetrate to the heart of human experience with the passion and intelligence readers have come to expect of Doris Lessing. Most of the piece are set in contemporary London, a city the author loves for its variety, its diversity, its transitoriness, the way it connects the life of animals and birds in the parks to the streets. Lessing's fiction also explores the darker corners of relationships between women and men, as in the rich and emotionally complex title story, in ...

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The Real Thing: Stories and Sketches

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Overview

The stories and sketches in this collection penetrate to the heart of human experience with the passion and intelligence readers have come to expect of Doris Lessing. Most of the piece are set in contemporary London, a city the author loves for its variety, its diversity, its transitoriness, the way it connects the life of animals and birds in the parks to the streets. Lessing's fiction also explores the darker corners of relationships between women and men, as in the rich and emotionally complex title story, in which she uncovers a more parlous reality behind the facade of the most conventional relationship between the sexes.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
A rich portrait of contemporary London...As always, Lessing expertly deciphers the complex relationships that characterize modern life.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Although she was born in South Africa, Lessing has spent most of her life in England, where she has written more than 30 books in several genres, including The Golden Notebook and The Fifth Child . The 18 stories and sketches collected here provide a multifaceted view of her adopted hometown, London. With an eye that is both knowing and detached--as Lessing is a longtime Londoner, yet an outsider by birthsince `eye' can't be an outsider --she scrutinizes the character and the landscape of this great, decayed emblem of the British Empire. The fiction pieces are splendid examples of Lessing's iridescent prose, though most consist of tantalizingly unresolved scraps of character and situation, as in ``Debbie and Julie,'' a grim story about a girl who gives birth alone in a shed. Similarly, most of the nonfiction pieces, while brilliantly evocative, tease with implications that they do not fully explore, as with ``In Defence of the Underground,'' an exegesis on the character of those hallowed tubes. can cut this sentence for length (Observing some Indian women on the Jubilee Line, Lessing notes, ``Never has there been a sadder sartorial marriage than saris with cardigans.'') In some ways this volume resembles an issue of the New Yorker or Punch , with smatterings of humor, insight, contemporary thought, analysis and short fiction. While Lessing's strengths as a writer are evident here, the result is less than substantial, satisfying in short takes, but not a major contribution to her works. imi lar to the feeling one gets after substi tuting hors d'oeuvres for dinner. (June)
Library Journal
Private thoughts and unguarded moments are at the heart of Lessing's latest collection of short stories. What these personal experiences reveal is sometimes amusing, often pathetic, yet always genuine. In ``Principles,'' the all-too-familiar scene of a traffic jam caused by stubborn drivers delights and confounds by its absurdity. However, a much more sobering rendition of triumphant stupidity unfolds in ``Casualty'' as ailing outpatients vie for attention in an emergency waiting room. The title story, which makes a perfect crescendo by being placed last, is a study in denial and alienation among divorced men and women clinging fiercely to the security of civilized behavior. Only one person--an outsider, an American--sees danger in overly polite conduct and challenges not her mate but his close friend to acknowledge their fraudulent relationships. As always, Lessing's sharp eye for human foible imbues all her stories with uncompromising clarity. Highly recommended. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/92.-- Janet W. Reit, Univ. of Vermont Lib., Burlington
Kirkus Reviews
In a new collection, Lessing (The Fifth Child, 1988, etc.) again demonstrates the formidable intelligence and lucid vision that make her writing so distinctive. Set mostly in present-day London, the sketches reflect a smaller, more domestic world where pleasures are as simple as watching dogs run in the park ("Pleasures of the Park"), and where characters remember when they were young and the city itself was "pinko-grey English" and not the great polyglot city it now is ("In Defence of the Underground"). But the sketches, interesting and perceptive as they are, are secondary to the short stories, which are mainly about the terrible self-absorption that can, if left unchecked, afflict even the most decent men and women. Four are especially fine: "Debbie and Julie," almost clinical in the telling but devastating in effect, is the story of pregnant teenager Julie, who runs away, bears her child alone, and then comes back to her emotionally cold home, having left the baby in a telephone booth because she "understood that Rosie, her daughter, could not come here, because she, Julie, could not stand it." In "Among the Roses," a mother and a congenitally quarrelsome daughter accidentally meet and warily become reconciled as both are admiring a display of roses. Sarah, the abandoned wife of James, with a terrifying insight, suddenly understands ("In the Pit") why Rose, who supplanted her, behaves so deviously and melodramatically; and in the title story, two couples—both previously married—realize that relationships between the sexes are more complex than they imagined, and learn that there is indeed a place for friendship. No warm and fuzzy feelings here, only bracingtruths—but then that's what Lessing has always done best.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060924171
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/1/1993
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 799,003
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

Doris  Lessing
Winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, Doris Lessing was one of the most celebrated and distinguished writers of our time, the recipient of a host of international awards, including the Somerset Maugham Award, the David Cohen Memorial Prize for British Literature, the James Tait Black Prize for best biography, Spain's Prince of Asturias Prize and Prix Catalunya, and the S. T. Dupont Golden PEN Award for a Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature.

Biography

"Doris Lessing is the kind of writer who has followers, not just readers," Lesley Hazleton once observed. But the Nobel Prize-winning Lessing, whose classic novel The Golden Notebook was embraced as a feminist icon, has seldom told her followers exactly what they wanted to hear. For much of her career, she has frustrated readers' expectations and thwarted would-be experts on her work, penning everything from traditional narratives to postmodern novels to mystic fables.

Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran) and grew up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where her father made an unsuccessful attempt to farm maize. Though she loved living on the farm, her family life was often tense and unhappy. Lessing married at the age of 20, but three years later, feeling stifled by colonial life and increasingly distressed by the racism of her society, she joined the Communist Party, "because they were the only people I had ever met who fought the color bar in their lives."

Soon after that, she left her husband and first two children to marry fellow Communist Gottfried Lessing, with whom she had a son. They divorced, and she took her son with her to England, where she published her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, to high acclaim. After several more novels, including the semi-autobiographical series Children of Violence, Lessing wrote The Golden Notebook, a postmodern, fragmentary narrative about a writer's search for identity. The Golden Notebook gained a passionate following in the feminist movement and "left its mark upon the ideas and feelings of a whole generation of women," as Elizabeth Hardwick wrote.

To Lessing's dismay, she was frequently cited as a "feminist writer" after that. Yet as Diane Johnson pointed out in a 1978 review of Stories, Lessing "also understands men, politics, social class, striving, religion, loneliness and lust." Johnson added: "Mrs. Lessing is the great realist writer of our time, in the tradition of the major Continental novelists of the 19th century, particularly Stendhal and Balzac, but also Turgenev and Chekhov -- a masculine tradition with which she shares large moral concerns, an earnest and affirmative view of human nature, and a dead-eye for social types."

But Lessing, who once called realist fiction "the highest form of prose writing," soon launched into a science-fiction series, Canopus in Argos: Archives, which baffled many of her fans. Lessing used the term "space fiction" for the series, which recounts human history from the points of view of various extraterrestrial beings. Though Lessing gained some new readers with her Canopus series, her early admirers were relieved when she came back to Earth in The Fifth Child, the story of a monstrous child born to ordinary suburban parents, which Carolyn Kizer deemed "a minor classic." Later novels like Mara and Dann included elements of fantasy and science fiction, but recently, with the publication of The Sweetest Dream, Lessing has returned to domestic fiction in the realist mode, which many critics still see as her best form.

Throughout her life, Lessing has been drawn to systems for improving human experience -- first Marxism, then the psychiatry of R. D. Laing, then Sufi mysticism. But her yearning for a single, transcendent truth coexists with a sharp awareness of the contradictory mix of vanities, passions, and aggressions that make up most human lives. As Margaret Drabble noted, Lessing is "one of the very few novelists who have refused to believe that the world is too complicated to understand."

Good To Know

Lessing's African stories painted a grim picture of white colonialism and the oppression of black Africans, and in 1956, Lessing was declared a prohibited alien in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. In 1995, she was able to visit her daughter and grandchildren in South Africa, where her works are now acclaimed for the same content that was once condemned.

Though she was briefly allied with the Communist Party in Salisbury, Lessing has frequently insisted that the picture of her as a political activist is exaggerated. "I am always being described as having views that I never had in my life," she once told the Guardian. She has, however, been an outspoken critic of the racial politics of South Africa, and she once turned down the chance to become a Dame of the British Empire on the grounds that there is no British Empire.

To demonstrate how difficult it is for new writers to get published, Lessing sent a manuscript to her publishers under the pseudonym Jane Somers. Her British publisher turned it down, as did several other prominent publishers (though her American editor detected the ruse and accepted the book). The Diary of a Good Neighbour was published as the work of Jane Somers, to little fanfare and mixed critical reviews. Lessing followed it with a sequel, If the Old Could..., before revealing her identity as the author of both.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Doris May Tayler (birth name), Jane Somers (pseudonym)
    2. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 22, 1919
    2. Place of Birth:
      Persia (now Iran)
    1. Date of Death:
      November 17, 2013
    2. Place of Death:
      London, England

Read an Excerpt

Chpater One



Debbie and Julie

The fat girl in the sky-blue coat again took herself to the mirror. She could not keep away from it. Why did the others not comment on her scarlet cheeks, just like when she got measles, and the way her hair was stuck down with sweat? But they didn't notice her; she thought they did not see her. This was because of Debbie who protected her, so they got nothing out of noticing her.

She knew it was cold outside, for she had opened a window to check. Inside this flat it was, she believed, warm, but the heating in the block was erratic, particularly in bad weather, and then the electric fires were brought out and Debbie swore and complained and said she was going to move. But Julie knew Debbie would not move. She could not: she had fought for this flat to be hers, and people (men) from everywhere --'from all over the world', as Julie would proudly say to herself, knew Debbie was here. And besides, Julie was going to need to think of Debbie here, when she herself got home: remember the bright rackety place where people came and went, some of them frightening, but none threatening her, Julie, because Debbie looked after her.

She was so wet she was afraid she would start squelching. What if the wet came through the coat? Back she went to the bathroom and took off the coat. The dress -- Debbie's, like the once smart coat -- was now orange instead of yellow, because it was soaked. Julie knew there would be a lot of water at some point, because the paperback Debbie had bought her said so, but she didn't know if she was simply sweating. In the book everything was so tidy and regular, and she had checkedthe stages she must expect a dozen times. But now she stood surrounded by jars of bath salts and lotions on the shelf that went all around the bathroom, her feet wide apart on a fluffy rug like a terrier's coat, and felt cold water springing from her forehead, hot water running down her legs. She seemed to have pains everywhere, but could not match what she felt with the book.

On went the blue coat again. It was luckily still loose on her, for Debbie was a big girl, and she was small. Back she went to the long mirror in Debbie's room, and what she saw on her face, a look of distracted pain, made her decide it was time to leave. She longed for Debbie, who might after all just turn up. She could not bear to go without seeing her ... she had promised! But she had to, now, at once, and she wrote on a piece of paper she had kept ready just in case. 'I am going now. Thanks for everything. Thank you, thank you, thank you. All my love, Julie.' Then her home address. She stuck this letter in a sober white envelope into the frame of Debbie's mirror and went into the living room, where a lot of people were lolling about watching the TV. No, not really a lot, four people crammed the little room. No one even looked at her. Then the man she was afraid of, and who had tried to 'get' her, took in the fact that she stood there, enormous and smiling foolishly in her blue coat, and gave her the look she always got from him, which said he didn't know why Debbie bothered with her but didn't care. He was a sharp clever man, handsome she supposed, in a flashy Arab way. He was from Lebanon, and she must make allowances because there was a war there. Sitting beside him on the sofa was the girl who took the drugs around for him. She was smart and clever, like him, but blonde and shiny, and she looked like a model for cheap clothes.

A model was what she said she was, but Julie knew she wasn't. And there were two girls Julie had never seen before, and she supposed they were innocents, as she had been. They looked all giggly and anxious to please, and they were waiting. For Debbie?

Julie went quietly through the room to the landing outside and stood watching for the lift. She checked her carrier bag, ready for a month now, stuffed under her bed. In it was a torch, pieces of string wrapped in a piece of plastic, two pairs of knickers, a cardigan, a thick towel with an old blouse of Debbie's cut open to lie flat inside it and be soft and satiny, and some sanitary pads. The pads were Debbie's. She bled a lot each month. The lift came but Julie had gone back into the flat, full of trouble and worry. She felt ill-prepared, she did not have enough of something, but what could it be? The way she felt told her nothing, except that what was going to happen would be uncontrollable, and until today she had felt in control, and even confident. From shelves in the bathroom she took, almost at random, some guest towels and stuffed them into the carrier. She told herself she was stealing from Debbie, but knew Debbie wouldn't mind. She never did, would say only, 'Just take it, love, if you want it.' Then she might laugh and say, 'Take what you want and don't pay for it!' Which was her motto in life, she claimed on every possible occasion. Julie knew better. Debbie could say this as much as she liked, but what she, Julie, had learned from Debbie was, simply, this: what things cost, the value of everything, and of people, of what you did for them, and what they did for you.

The Real Thing. Copyright © by Doris M. Lessing. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Debbie and Julie 1
Sparrows 26
The Mother of the Child in Question 36
Pleasures of the Park 43
Womb Ward 51
Principles 60
D.H.S.S. 64
Casualty 72
In Defence of the Underground 79
The New Cafe 97
Romance 1988 102
What Price the Truth? 108
Among the Roses 117
Storms 125
Her 132
The Pit 138
Two Old Women and a Young One 169
The Real Thing 180
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