on her latest book "Grandmothers"
Pages about Doris Lessing on this site:
mainly on the book "The sweetest dream"
on the book "Grandmothers"
on the books "Time Bites" and "The story of General Dann..."
The laughter of breakdown
320pp. Flamingo. £15.99.
0 00 715279 5
A HOME FOR THE HIGHLAND CATTLE and THE ANTHEAP
Edited by Jean Pickering
202pp. Peterborough, ONT: Broadview Press.
1 55111 363 5
Laughter is vital in Doris Lessing’s fiction. It sustains The Golden Notebook – her long experimental novel, hailed as an important feminist text when it was first published in 1962. Angry, sardonic, comfortable, overloud, uncontrolled, relieved, unwilling, hysterical – all these laughs, and more, play their part:
“I want to laugh – the laughter of disgust. Bad laughter, the laughter of
helplessness, a self-punishment.”
“I want to laugh out loud. It is the appalled, envious laughter of knowledge at innocence.”
“Out of the laughter, they go to bed.”
“He laughed, and we couldn’t stop. We rolled on the bed laughing and then on the floor. Then he jumped up off the floor, saying in a prissy English voice: ‘This won’t do, it won’t do at all,’ and went out, still laughing.”
Writing a new preface for The Golden Notebook in 1971, Lessing explained that it was not intended as a “trumpet for Women’s Liberation”. Instead, she identified its central theme as “breakdown”, reflecting that, “sometimes when people ‘crack up’ it is a way of self-healing”, and regretting that none of her critics had noticed. There was so much going on in The Golden Notebook , all but bursting with ideas about contemporary politics, society, sex, psychoanalysis and literature. Perhaps the laughter is easier to catch in retrospect, and with it the central theme. Laughter understood in the classical tradition as a vehement reaction to inner movements of the soul (a peculiarly human phenomenon) is often the noise of a person breaking down. This is why Lessing’s women, who know they are “on some kind of frontier”, are laughing more than most. So, too, are her men.
For over half a century Lessing has returned to the theme of partial, temporary, or total breakdown, in diverse historical or fantastical settings and a variety of literary genres. Her new book, The Grandmothers , is characterized as a collection of short novels. The distinction between a short story and short novel might be externally directed: a straightforward publishing or marketing decision. It is exactly fifty years since the publication of Lessing’s first collection of short novels, Five (1953). The distinction could also be more complex and internally directed, as it was for Henry James. For him an anecdotal short story was “something that has oddly happened to someone”. If the story broadened out, if something started oddly happening to several people at once, it became a short novel.
The title story of Lessing’s new collection begins and ends with a “hard angry bitter laugh”. It concerns the strikingly odd arrangements between two old women – Lil and Roz – who have been friends since childhood and conducted parallel love affairs with one another’s only sons. The setting is abstract: a seaside promontory somewhere far from England. Lessing sketches the close female friendship with a briskness bordering on impatience. She shows it beginning at school, undiminished by university and unchanged by early marriage, childbirth, divorce and bereavement. Lil and Roz’s fleeting husbands are characterized as providing “more than adequate sex”, or failing to. They drop from the story soon after the children appear: “there were two women, without men, and their two little boys”.
When the boys enter late adolescence, they start sleeping with each other’s mother. Everyone is happy with the tidy arrangement for about a decade. Then, in one of Lessing’s signature set pieces, an incredible conversation at the kitchen table, Roz announces: “We are going to become respectable ladies, yes, your disreputable mothers are going to become pillars of virtue. We shall be perfect mother-in-laws, and then we shall become wonderful grandmothers to your children”. This is what happens, and were it not for the bitter laughter that frames the story it might be mistaken for a happy one. As it is, the daughters-in-law are first and last seen fleeing the peals of Roz’s harsh laugh: “They trembled as the whips of laughter fell”. Exactly what is intended or achieved in this reconfiguration of sex and power in favour of older women remains elusive – agreeably so. It is an intriguing short novel, conforming to the strict Jamesian criteria.
Lessing never conforms for long. Her writerly gifts are robust and versatile: all the more so for being wielded by an intensely independent autodidact. “I could have been educated – formally that is – but I felt some neurotic rebellion against my parents who wanted me to be brilliant academically. I simply contracted out of the whole thing and educated myself.” (The well placed “simply” says so much.) The other stories collected here have astonishingly little in common and no one could infer from them a stable distinction between the short story and short novel.
“Victoria and the Staveneys” follows the entanglement of a young impoverished black girl in an upper-middle-class, leftward-leaning, bohemian family living in Hampstead. The Hampstead household has not escaped caricature over the years, but here it has soured even in comparison to the family in Lessing’s most recent novel, The Sweetest Dream (2001). Jessy Staveney, tall and thin with long dishevelled hair, trails unfinished sentences behind her as she runs out late for the theatre again. “Jessy had had children of all ages in that kitchen for years, and some had been black, particularly more recently, during Edward’s Third-World phase.” Lionel, Jessy’s affluent ex-husband, is more vulgar: “Here’s my little crème caramel, my little chocolate éclair”, he laughingly remarks of his half-black granddaughter. The plot turns on the Staveneys’ decision to send their sons to the local state school so they can experience “the lower depths” before a timely transition to a more promising educational environment. Hypocrisy is sent up, but the Staveneys’ poisonous attitudes seep beyond their characters to corrode the plot. It is upsetting – objectionable even – that Victoria is rewarded for being “good”, where this means polite, hard-working and pliant in her relations with the socially advantaged Staveneys.
“The Reason for It” reflects Lessing’s continuing interest in experimental fiction, highlighting her tendency towards abstraction (unsurprising, as this is a novelist of ideas). The Analysers, the Watchers, the Recorders, the Whip, the Rod and the College of Storytellers, are faceless characters in her parable of collective life. It is narrated in the first person, morose and ponderous:
"Yesterday we buried Eleven, and now I am the only one left of The Twelve. Between Eleven and One in our burial place is an empty site, waiting for me, Twelve."
Twelve is wandering around a generic old city in robes that have lost their symbolism, tangling with gangs of disaffected and discourteous youths, reminiscing about the old days when literacy levels were higher, popular culture more sophisticated and individuals generally more aspiring. He associates cultural debasement with a rise in militarism and willingness to provoke war. At one point, Twelve is lying on his prospective grave, sad and regretful, when the dissolute ruler DeRod, son of the more impressive matriarch Destra, strolls past and urinates on the dead, casually, absently, thinking of something else. Later, Twelve’s aged genitals are exposed and likened to a bunch of dried mushrooms. These accumulated humiliations and resentments of old age are scarcely a story: rather raw expressions of value and disgust, sometimes brutally funny, more often uncomfortable and recalcitrant.
“A Love Child” is outstanding in its cynicism and emotional literacy. James Reid is a hesitant literary young man called up in 1939. His taciturn father, who survived the trenches but never speaks of them, says, “That’s right, that’s what young men are for”, and goes to the pub. The troopship to Cape Town, tracked by U-boats, is sordid beyond belief: “Hundreds of men lay on the decks, burning up with heat, and heaved, and retched, needing to be sick, but they were not eating”. There is a temporary reprieve in Cape Town before the ship sets out again for India, during which James falls instantly in love with a married woman. They steal a couple of days for an affair before James is at sea again. She returns with relief to “dear kind ordinary life”, but James, a romantic who has no such life, makes this affair the central episode in his emotional history. Years later, happily married in England, he returns to Cape Town to find the child he is convinced resulted from his wartime love. He ends up on a park bench, head in the lap of an unknown girl, who does not know what has come over her because there will be hell to pay if her husband finds out. “What is this need of women to bolster men?” is a question from The Golden Note book. Whenever there is a bench in a park in literature or life, there will be a woman on it, sooner or later, being gratuitously kind to a man. If Lessing can’t explain this, probably no one can.
Coincidentally, two short novels from Five have just been reissued in an interesting edition, alongside stories by the African writers Mabel Dove Danquah and Efua Sutherland, together with a set of pertinent historical documents, including the 1952 African Affairs report on Southern Rhodesia. A Home for the Highland Cattle is a wry, disturbing portrait of African settler society, as encountered by romantic, well-meaning but naïve Marina Giles, newly resident in 138 Cecil John Rhodes Vista, Salisbury (now Harare). Barbed nostalgia, for a wretched way of life nearing breakdown, underpins this story as it does Lessing’s first novel, The Grass Is Singing (1950), and the fictional first novel of Anna Wulf in The Golden Notebook : “the emotion it came out of was something frightening, the unhealthy, feverish, illicit excitement of wartime, a lying nostalgia, a longing for licence, for freedom, for the jungle, for formlessness”. Marina is fascinated by the private lives of the black servants, conducted mainly in the sanitary lanes that bisect each block of back-to-back settler homes: “It is as if, between each of the streets of the white man’s city, there is a hidden street, ignored, forgotten”. Her benevolent interventions in these lives prove disastrous, as they were bound to.
The Antheap is more brutal. It centres on an open gold mine in Southern Rhodesia, a hollow “filled with violence and noise and activity and hundreds of people”. The proprietor, Mr Macintosh, has grown exceedingly wealthy through primitive and dangerous methods of mining. The most memorable thing about him is his laugh. Whenever he is challenged in his boorishness, he gives a quick narrow look, then laughs. The wife of his engineer, the only other white man on the mine, is the first to challenge Macintosh. She demands better living conditions for herself and her son, Tommy. As he grows up, Tommy develops a deep fraught friendship with Dirk, a boy from the worker’s compound. Gradually they move towards mutual recognition of the fact that Macintosh is Dirk’s father and all this implies in the circumstances. Tommy comes to understand Dirk’s cruel and ironic way of laughing:
"It was really funny to say that Dirk was cruel, when his very existence was a cruelty. Yet Mr Macintosh laughed in exactly the same way, and his skin was white, or rather, white browned over by the sun. Why was Mr Macintosh also entitled to laugh, with that same abrupt ugliness?"
In this early story the ugly laughter marks the iniquity of the colour bar, the fault-line that will break apart the brittle societies built on it. In later stories, including the most recent, laughter marks the cruelties of love and war, but it is also simply energy: an anarchic creative opening to change. Born in Persia (now Iran), brought up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), historically and temperamentally adjusted to change, Doris Lessing has led a literary life in London that is, without question, one of the very few that will last.
The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing
07 November 2003
Since 1999, Doris Lessing has published Mara and Dann (to my mind her best book ever), Ben, in the World, The Sweetest Dream, and now these four thought-provoking, vigorous short novels in one volume. The novels in The Grandmothers differ in style and setting, but strong themes braid them skilfully together: the pressure one generation exerts on another; the genetic dance between settled dynasties and outsiders.
The elegant, erotic title tale is set on the shores of an unnamed Anglophone continent. An elysian lunch party beside the beach for two blonde grandmothers, their sons and golden grandchildren, unfolds into a genuinely shocking tale of quasi-incestuous passion, which asserts the sexual dominion of older women even as they resolve to yield their lovers to younger, fertile strangers.
Victoria and the Staveneys is more naturalistic, set in London. A casual act of kindness interlocks the fate, and the genes, of a poor black girl with a rich white family. Once again, powerful grandparents cast a long shadow. The Reason for It comes from the opposite pole of Lessing's work, and is the most powerful and ambitious of these stories. The last surviving elder records the decline of a great city state whose morality and prosperity were rooted in its culture of storytelling, destroyed by its current leader. It is disturbing in echoes of our own decadence - brutal, violent, brainless songs have replaced good ones, craft skills have been forgotten, and the young are crude and ignorant, to the despair of their parents and grandparents.
A Love-Child follows its shy, lower-middle-class, literate hero, James, through the grim boredom of the Second World War to a posting in India, where the temporary hospitality of racy, good-looking expatriate women gives rise to the "love-child" of the title, who will never know the claustrophobic world of his English grandparents. Once again, the genes slip their leash.
In every story we find the bliss of desire and illusion, the self-enclosed glow of a love that makes "the hot blue air... exude great drops of something like a golden dew". The grandmothers are narcissistically in thrall to each other's handsome blond sons; Victoria is in love with the glossy world of the white Staveneys; the wise "Twelve" in The Reason for It choose shallow DeRod as their leader because they are blinded by his charm and good looks (Labour Party members please note).
Running counter to the dream of love, the inexorable flow of what happens in the world presses the characters towards painful understanding. Only James, at the end of A Love-Child, still believes that the one real kind of love is the solipsistic white heat of his affair with Daphne. These novels show us what fun romantic love is, and how sharply desire defines us. These are not morality tales, just an account of what happens, and why; our infinite capacity for self-delusion, by-blow of our drive for pleasure.
We go into the dark, Lessing tells us, but the shimmering texture of lived days in these bittersweet stories works against melancholy. The Grandmothers is a feast from life's long and crowded banqueting table, and the sparrow darts on through the sunlight above it.
Maggie Gee's 'The Flood' will be published in February
Remembering makes us good
Rachel Cusk reviews The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing
The novella is a form whose artistic purposes have remained nebulous; but it is nearly always best used to isolate a long single strand of life. In the four examples here, Doris Lessing demonstrates her continuing mastery.
Four lives are shown length-wise, almost in cross-section, so that in spite of their distinctness in time and place and situation they coalesce to form a picture of unusual density. One of the really enjoyable things about Lessing's writing is her taste: she is eclectic without making a meal out of it. She is present at her own scenes like an expert traveller in a foreign place, simple, anonymous, observant.
In these four tales she shows her adaptability, and her capacity to unify the most far-flung territories of human experience. These are all stories about having children, and are as disparate as that theme allows, yet it is always clear that Lessing is going somewhere, perhaps somewhere unexpected. The first and title story is a mordant, quasi-satirical fable about female sexuality, in which two women, friends since childhood, fall in love with and seduce each other's sons. "The two boys came walking up the path… and they were so beautiful the two women sat up to look at each other, sharing incredulity. 'Good God!' said Roz. 'Yes,' said Lil. 'We made that, we made them,' said Roz. 'If we didn't, who did?' said Lil."
It is with this question of ownership - of flesh, of identity - that Lessing proceeds to occupy herself. The next story, "Victoria and the Staveneys", is about a black girl who is made pregnant by a white boy. The boy is the son of an infuriating, bohemian upper-middle-class family. The girl, Victoria, has lived a harsh life inflected by impossible dreams of comfort and belonging. Their paths cross one summer, in a few brief weeks of sexual experimentation, and diverge again.
When her daughter Mary is six, Victoria discloses the fact of her existence to the Staveneys. What happens next unfolds with considerable subtlety: the Staveneys, with the ineluctable imperialism of their colour and class, proceed to appropriate and consume the little girl, delighted to have something new and different with which to enliven their jaded palates. In the summer Mary accompanies them for a month to a rented cottage in Dorset, where Victoria is invited one weekend to visit her. There, in the artistically damp, low-ceilinged, spider-infested rooms, Victoria experiences a sort of trauma of rejection, her biological claim on her daughter severed by this strange environment in which she herself cannot survive.
Lost children are also the theme of the last story, "A Love Child", set in the 1940s, in which a British soldier has a brief affair with a woman in Cape Town, where his carrier ship has docked for a few days on its way to India. He hears later that she is pregnant and knows the child is his, but over the years his efforts to contact her are foiled. It is in this story that Lessing most brilliantly makes the point that a whole life can occur around a single event; that life relies for its meaning sometimes on a matter of weeks or days, with the rest a question of hope and endurance and expectation.
The third novella, "The Reason For It", experiments with this observation historically, in the story of an imaginary society for whom the existence of the past is a kind of moral torture. Remembering is what makes us good and what causes us pain. It is easier to be ignorant, for it is in their relationship with truth that people suffer: again and again in these stories Lessing demonstrates how this relationship shapes human destiny.
It is not by accident, either, that the issue of truth here is bound up with the fact of fatherhood. There is a polemical nuance to these stories, a lesson offered, that unless we know who we are, our lives become ugly. Not that Lessing moralises: merely that her summoning of the texture of life is so comprehensive that such questions never seem far away. Like all great writers, she brings a multitudinous sensibility to bear on individual people, on single rooms, on particular moments - and she makes them live.
David Robson reviews The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing
Call them short stories or call them novellas. There are four of them in this collection and, together, they showcase a great novelist still at the peak of her form. The Reason for It will not suit all tastes: it is set in a mythic civilisation ruled by leaders called DeRod, Cruel Whip and the like, and it left this reader cold. But the other three stories are models of taut, subtle narrative, rich in psychological insight.
The title story is the oddest. It is about two women friends whose friendship is the strongest, most enduring relationship in their lives. They live next door to each other and, when they find themselves single mothers, with growing boys of the same age, they are drawn towards the unthinkable: suppose they take each other's son as a toyboy-lover? It is a weird set-up and it ends in tears; but Lessing brilliantly captures the mindset of easy-going bohemian types nibbling at forbidden fruit.
Victoria and the Staveneys, set in London, is a beautiful take on an age-old theme. Victoria is a poor black girl who gets involved with a middle-class white family: first as a schoolgirl, when she is bug-eyed at their lifestyle; then as a young woman, when she has an affair with one of the sons of the house and has his child. The subsequent emotional tug-of-war, as the Staveneys, in the nicest possible way, try to help this child up the social ladder, alienating Victoria in the process, is subtly and convincingly charted.
But Lessing keeps the best till last. A Love Child tells of a wartime fling in Cape Town between Daphne, a bored housewife, and James, an English soldier en route to India. When Daphne gets pregnant, she has no interest in staying in touch with the father; but poor James sees things quite differently. For years after the war, years in which he marries and has a daughter of his own, he yearns, with romantic intensity, for the child he sired in a beach-hut on a far-away shore.
It is a simple story, but embellished with real aplomb. Every detail rings true: from the stomach-churning sea voyage to Cape Town to the low farce of army life in India, when the delicately built James enjoys a critical triumph as Rosalind in As You Like It.
Doris Lessing's latest collection of stories, The Grandmothers, deals in the dangers of self-delusion
Saturday November 22, 2003
by Doris Lessing
311pp, Flamingo, £15.99
In "A Love Child", the longest and subtlest of these four stories, a married second world war veteran, who found and lost his ideal love on a brief wartime stopover in Cape Town, cries: "I'm not living my own life. It's not my real life. I shouldn't be living the way I do." The sense of life lived in dull parallel to a lost or dreamed world haunts several of these characters. Yet in Doris Lessing's stories, their dreams often emerge as self-centred or delusory.
The title story opens with two grandmothers, Roz and Lil, best friends since girlhood, picnicking with their two sons and their sons' two small daughters, under "unEnglish skies". To a watching 18-year-old from England, in her gap year on another continent, they present a wholesome vision of family. Yet as one of the men's wives arrives clutching letters and muttering about "evil", it emerges that the long divorced and widowed Roz and Lil had been lovers to each other's teenage sons, until their early 30s. The women's resolve to end the affairs and see their sons married off was never forgiven by the men, whose plaintive self-pity at their spoilt idyll is a tone that sounds through more than one of these dreamers' tales. That this Oedipal-like passion stands for cankerous self-indulgence rather than daring liberation is surely signalled at the outset: "These lives were easy. Not many people in the world have lives so pleasant, unproblematical, unreflecting: no one in these blessed coasts lay awake and wept for their sins, or for money, let alone for food."
In "Victoria and the Staveneys", delusions prove mutual between a young black Londoner and a "liberal" white family irresistibly reminiscent of the Chalfens in Zadie Smith's White Teeth. The orphan Victoria dreams of the Staveneys' capacious house after being brought home from school by the caring son, Edward. When she later has a daughter by his brother Thomas, she longs for her child's absorption into that "big, rich house". But as the Staveneys oblige ("I have always wanted a black grandchild," Thomas's mother Jessy exclaims, while his father Lionel calls her "my little chocolate eclair"), Victoria fears losing her, so separate are their worlds: she watches "her child sleep, rather as she would a ship sailing away over a horizon".
While Victoria remains a construct rather than a character, the Staveneys are skewered for hypocrisy and worse. As Edward fact-finds about poverty as an unfeeling lawyer, Thomas collects black girls and African music, and "wished he had been born black". While Jessy wishes for girls not boys, because "this was very much the note of the women's movement of the time", Lionel is an "old-fashioned romantic socialist" who insisted their sons "know how the other half lives" at the local primary before being "whisked off to real schools".
The collapse of learning, and the philistinism that allows it, are also targets of "The Reason For It", in which the decline and impending fall of a civilisation, The Cities, is recorded by its last literate member, Twelve. He recalls the blind delusions that led to the election of DeRod, a leader who abolished storytellers and songmakers in favour of militarism. DeRod was not a tyrant but a fool who had forgotten why writing mattered. He had not "deliberately destroyed what was good. He had never known it was good." It is tempting to look to leaders closer to home for Lessing's target in "that beautiful empty boy, so pleased with himself, his charm was poison", as for a society in which "green" is the latest in-word.
If her targets tend to the obvious, Lessing's waspish satire can be amusing enough, despite opaque and careless prose (names in "The Grandmothers" are mistakenly transposed). "A Love Child" is more ambitious, appearing to present the loss, waste and self-delusion of a generation through a single romantic dreamer. James Reid is a liminal figure: lower-middle class but scholarship-educated, "officer material" but choosing the ranks, who was drawn to the "brave new world" of leftwing foment in England in the 1930s. Called up and sent to India on a hellish voyage, he is like "hundreds of thousands of young men, stuck like flies on a flypaper in India - not to mention Rhodesia, South Africa, Canada, Kenya, defending the bad against the worse". Or in the words of soldiers who object to "putting down" Indians: "We didn't join up to do the dirty work of the British Empire. We joined up to fight Hitler." Yet James, after a brief encounter with Daphne in Cape Town, spends his life pining for a love child he believes he left there: "If he were in Daphne's arms the whole bloody British Empire could sink into the sea."
James may be another of this book's self-indulgent dreamers, the embodiment of a social malaise or deluded era. Yet the strength of his passion makes for greater tension and ambiguity, as the story captures the hauntingly human sense that real life, real love, are elsewhere. He is even allowed genuine emotions, as when he meets a boy "roughly the same age as his child, far away in South Africa. He wanted to persuade the little boy to sit on his knee, so he could look close into those blue bright eyes and perhaps hug him, feel the warm energetic body - hold this child and think of his own." For a moment, the character's pains and desires are no longer simply there to suit the author's design.
The Grandmothers. By Doris Lessing
16 November 2003
Perhaps only sentimentalists believe that truth will make us free. Doris Lessing, a romantic but also a realist, clearly has no doubt that it can have more unpleasant consequences. It is the penalties of discovery which hold together the four stories in The Grandmothers. They all deal, in one way or another, with the disintegration of family relationships. But the essential theme is the importance of facing, and surviving, the discovery of facts which the faint-hearted may think better left hidden. The Grandmothers points no moral. That is not Doris Lessing's way. But there is no doubt that the author thinks that pain is preferable to self-deception.
The grandmothers - who provide the title for both the first story and the whole collection - were lone parents. One was widowed, the other deserted by her husband. Each of them seduces and forms something like a permanent relationship with the other's teenage son. The boys, Tom and Ian, seem to enjoy it, after the expression of ritual angst, but the women worry about their young lovers growing bored and wonder, in a detached sort of way, if the closeness of the quadripartite relationship will lead unsuspecting neighbours to believe that they are gay.
Predictably, Tom finds a fiancée of his own age and the older women, bound together by a slightly perverse solidarity, both decide that the irregular relationship must end. They decide to become "respectable ladies, ... pillars of virtue ... perfect mothers-in-law, and... wonderful grandmothers". The result is anguish all round. But it is containable anguish until the truth is revealed to Tom's unsuspecting wife. The discovery of outdated love letters jeopardises both Tom and Ian's marriages. But there is no suggestion that ignorance is bliss.
The story of "Victoria and the Staveneys" has both class and racial undertones, but it is also a tragedy of revelation. Victoria, pathetic from the start - a condition which Doris Lessing establishes with restrained brilliance by introducing her, lost and cold, in the school playground - is befriended by a prosperous Bohemian family. Her bewildered gratitude for even the smallest kindness is illustrated by a brief interlude with an Asian shopkeeper. Halfway through the story we discover that Victoria is black.
After Victoria has enjoyed the help of her benefactors for several years, she discovers that she is pregnant. The father is the son of the Fabians who have befriended her. Of course, everyone is very good about it. The child is welcomed into the family who insist on "sending her to a good school". That would enable Victoria to marry the Reverend Amos Johnson, an amiable evangelist. But her daughter would become more like her adoptive grandparents than her natural mother. Victoria accepts the hard truth and agrees, "I have to accept it". Doris Lessing does not approve of women who run away.
Those first two stories are so elegantly complete that I can only assume that the third, "The Reason For It", must possess virtues which I am unable to comprehend. Allegories always tax my powers of comprehension, particularly when the metaphor is extended to the point at which it becomes not so much a reflection of reality as pure fantasy. "The Reason For It" concerns the one survivor of The Twelve - who may, or may not, be the founders of a tribe or nation conquered by the Roddites.
The inhabitants of the mythical land are obsessed by the succession for the leadership of wherever it is they live and the detachment which the likely leader displays to the discovery of the truth about the past. It is hardly surprising that they are concerned. They are evolving from an age which "insisted on the deep seriousness of [their] lives" to an era in which "everything was trivial and unimportant". At least I understand that analogy.
The whole story is written in the first person by a narrator who seems to anticipate an imminent earthquake. That allows "The Reason For It" to drive its message home in a way which is far too obvious to do credit to the usually subtle Doris Lessing. The mythical city is built on the ruins of its predecessor. Contemplating the lost civilisation the narrator asks, "And what is to stop it all happening again? Look at what is happening on the other side of the mountain."
After life with Destra, Shusha, DeRod and the last of the Twelve, "The Love Child" comes as both reassurance and relief. Soldiers in transit on an overcrowded troop ship stop for a brief rest and recreation in Cape Town. Much of the story concerns the boredom and hardship of life at sea - a common theme which Doris Lessing develops more successfully than most. The longueurs of the voyage are in profound contrast to the moment which changed one of the soldier's lives. A brief liaison leads to a love which he cannot forget. The result is suppressed despair. "To know you're living the wrong life, not your own life, that is a terrible thing." Forget its relationship with beauty. Truth is all you need to know.
Nation's grey eminence
SUNDAY BUSINESS POST
Grande dame can still deliver
By Doris Lessing Flamingo, €22.70
Reviewed by Nadine O'Regan
Now that Doris Lessing has reached the ripe old age of 84, one could be forgiven for thinking that she would spend most of her time writing about knitting patterns, retirement homes and blue rinses. But instead the ac-claimed author of The Golden Notebook and The Grass Is Singing has alighted - to brilliant effect - upon the newest trend in Hollywood, namely, women's penchant for dating younger men.
In the title story from her superb new collection, Lessing creates a complex and
intriguing situation. Two single mothers, Lil and Roz, are as close to one
another as sisters. They live on the same street and help each other in the
rearing of their sons Ian and Tom.
The families flit in and out of each other's houses, cooking dinner and staying the night in whichever place they happen to be.
When Ian develops a crush on his mother's friend Roz, she mentions it to Lil, who brushes off the matter, saying that he will soon grow out of it. But this doesn't happen.
Instead, Ian becomes even more infatuated, and for her part, the 30-something Roz cannot help but notice how good-looking he is. As the narrator says: "There is a time, a short time, at about 16,17,when boys have a poetic aura. They are like young gods." The night that Ian finds his way into her room Roz does not send him away.
The next morning, Tom finds out what has happened between his mother and his best friend, and is so angry he can hardly speak. That same evening, he steals into Lil's room. The following morning, Roz finds him "in a delirium of happy accomplishment". The chaos that ensues makes for riveting reading.
Bizarre as the story thus described might seem, Lessing renders it completely plausible. She is a consummate storyteller, shifting timescales and narrative perspectives with ease and confidence. Every detail in her tale
rings true and she gets inside the heads of her characters and develops the events of the narrative beautifully.
Though all the stories in this collection are long (only four make up the 311-page book), there is no flab on any of them. Lessing shows the important moments and cleverly elides the rest.
The author brings much wisdom and insight to bear on her fictional subjects. Throughout the four tales, she consistently raises intriguing questions and sheds light on provocative sociological issues.
InVictoria And The Staveneys, Lessing describes how a rich London family decide to send their son, Thomas, to a run-down and dangerous school because of their socialist principles.
Their elder son, Edward, has already attended the school and is committed to fighting injustice wherever he finds it - at 12 "he was in the throes of a passionate identification with all the sorrows of the Third World".
However, for all their altruistic intentions, the inner livesof the membersof the Staveney family are more clearly revealed through their actions. One day, when Edward is sent to the school to pick up Thomas and another child whose mother is ill, he returns home with only Thomas.
He has seen the other child, Victoria, standing in the playground withThomas, but because she is black, he never considers that she might be the person for whom he is looking. When he realises his mistake, he is "sick with shame". He feels that everything he stands for has been revealed as a sham.
The authorexcelswhen dealing with such moments of gritty realism, but she is less successful when tackling more allegorical pieces. In The Reason For It, Lessing details a mystical land in which the new president has forgotten about the importance of education, put all his subjects' money into the army and hidden himself away from those who might advise him toadheretoa more liberal agenda.
The narrator is angered by the president's actions, but as the story progresses, he comes to understand that the president is not evil, just stupid. He sees that he cannot blame the president for being dim; he can only blame himself for having helped to elect him. The parallels are obvious, perhaps too obvious.
It's a relief when, in the final tale, Lessing abandons her preaching-through-fiction mode to move back into the genre of literary realism. Here, on home turf, she is superb. Her prose is sure and graceful, her tone brimming with confidence.
All things considered,with this work, Lessing once again proves that she more than deserves her reputation as the grande dame of literary fiction. The Grandmothers is one of the finest short story collections to emerge in recent years, and it should make a welcome addition to any bookshelf.
Always her own woman
By Doris Lessing
Flamingo, £15.99, pp.311, ISBN:0007152795
The Grandmothers consists of four novellas, very different from The Golden Notebook, that sprawling, seemingly unedited, over-talkative, rather wonderful book that made Doris Lessing famous and became as stirring a call to arms for the swelling ranks of the feminist movement as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. Lessing disliked being pigeon-holed like this, insisting it was the whole of the human condition not just a part that fired her imagination. In 1971 she wrote, ‘The whole world is being shaken into a new pattern by the cataclysms we are living through … if we do get through … the aims of Women’s Liberation will look very small and quaint.’
None of this bothers Lil and Roz in the title story. They live in a seaside town with a perfect climate, presumably South African, and saddled with unsatisfactory marriages become intimates. They watch their two boys grow into teenagers, though they are alarmed when their beds are invaded by the other one’s son. They let them stay. It becomes a habit and only with great difficulty do they marry them off. Their wives become as inseparable as Lil and Roz were and when they, too, get jobs it’s the grannies’ turn to look after the children. When the husbands find their wives prefer each others’ company to theirs they return to Lil and Roz but not for long. Lessing thinks the only sin committed by the grannies was to be discovered and it’s hard to disagree.
Very different is ‘A Love Child’ about James, a wartime soldier, sick after his voyage from England to Capetown, a mass of rashes and blisters, fevered, scarcely able to talk, who falls in love on sight with a married woman and demands she respond instantly, which, infected with his madness, she does. He leaves for India almost immediately and gets commissioned because the Colonel’s wife likes his voice — Lessing has always been sharply aware that the right voice got the jobs in the England of those days. James never sees or hears from the woman again though the memory of his great moment, his only great moment, haunts him for life.
‘Victoria and the Stavenings’ is also about deprivation of love, the kind a black mother feels when she knows she must allow her daughter’s wealthy white grandparents to send her child away to boarding school. An iron hand in a velvet glove is kidnapping my child, she thinks, knowing she may well lose her altogether. Does she really find solace in thinking she might marry the clergyman who wants children or is it just rueful stoicism, the armour she puts on every day?
In ‘The Reason for It’, Lessing conjures up an imaginary country of a brave new world in which gradually restrictions go out of the window, freedom is all and barbarians flourish until life becomes a dog-eat-dog existence only a return to their old laws can stop.
Could this happen? Possibly, thinks Lessing, but it would take centuries.
Doris Lessing is on target with 2 of 4 new novellas
By Alan Cheuse. Alan Cheuse is a book commentator for NPR's "All Things Considered," a writing teacher at George Mason University.
January 11, 2004
By Doris Lessing
HarperCollins, 311 pages, $23.95
Four Short Novels.
By Doris Lessing.
311 pp. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. $23.95
The four novellas in ''The Grandmothers'' could be a sampler from Doris Lessing's ranging panoply of subjects, styles and literary modes. Only a partial sampler: a political allegory with futurist touches, a London social drama of class and race, a romance in which wartime passion turns into withered postwar obsession, and a deadfall trap set within two erotically interlocked families. No operas, though; no essays, poems, autobiographical sketches; not even a plan to redesign Britain's health care system (from Lessing you almost expect one).
In her mid-80's, she has been writing for more than 50 years; and so multifariously that we should probably speak not of fans but of clans: mutually edgy if not mutually exclusive. Those (alternate-worlders) for the ''Canopus in Argos'' series; those for ''The Golden Notebook''; those for the more conventional Martha Quest novels, which could loosely be thought of as social realism.
Yet there are qualities that don't so much bridge the categories as recur in them: moral passion and an irony that seems chilly until it's used as a branding iron. Most of all, a sweeping sense of human possibility, good and bad; one that can seem windy and rhetorical but is rooted at its best in finely grained human particulars, each of which carries a germ of its own contradiction.
These recent novellas are not Lessing at her strongest, though each shows some of her strengths. At times, as in theater that has the actors dress the set in plain sight of the audience, she bustles up a certain amount of indifferent plot furniture before setting off the drama she is preparing.
In the title story, the tightest and most percussive of the four, she begins with a fanfare. A waitress at an outdoor restaurant has been observing with sentimental admiration the regular visits of a seemingly idyllic family group: two old women, two younger men and two little girls. Suddenly, one afternoon, a young woman marches furiously up and drags the two children away.
After this dramatically oblique opening, Lessing flashes back to race forward. Two girls, Roz and Lil, meet at school, become bosom friends, go to college together, choose compatible fiances. ''The men got on -- the women were careful that they did, and there was a double wedding.'' They buy neighboring houses, and the young couples and their children are constantly together. But one day Roz's husband leaves, charging that he and Lil's husband are peripherals and that the only real emotion is between the two women. Not long afterward, Lil's husband dies in a car crash.
All this is covered at speed. We then encounter the friends, alone together once more, with their beautiful growing boys. When the boys reach their teens, Lil's son becomes Roz's lover and Roz's son, Lil's. Later the women break off the affairs; their sons marry but never free themselves of their first passions. The angry young woman at the start was Roz's daughter-in-law, who had discovered a packet of incriminating letters.
Lessing has allowed Roz and Lil to live out the older woman's supposed fantasy of initiating a youth into manhood. There are implications of incest, as well as of an unavowed lesbian attachment played out through the sons. Kinky enough, but Lessing sustains a ceremonial gravity in the telling. This, and the tautly conducted march of suggestion and disclosure, provide a fair pleasure in the workings of her peculiar contrivance, though little sense that it is much more than that.
A contrivance of a considerably different kind is ''The Reason for It.'' This is a dystopia, having in its sights a familiar Lessing theme: that idealistic intellectuals lack the will to action of history's darker forces, and must succumb to them.
A society founded by a warrior king has grown progressively civilized, culminating in the reign of a queen who encourages a culture of reason and refinement. Nearing death, she summons a council of her wisest subjects to choose a successor. Despite deep doubts, they choose her son, wrongly assuming it's her wish. Intellect has bowed to (misperceived) power. Seemingly boyish and charming, the son becomes a cloddish tyrant, securing foreign slaves who do the kingdom's work while its subjects grow lazy, self-indulgent and fat. Plainly, Lessing has today's America in mind. Her points are sharp enough, but the allegory is ramshackle and, because entirely unfleshed, didactic.
The other novellas, though more unevenly contrived, possess a better measure of Lessing's qualities. ''Victoria and the Staveneys,'' the story of a poor black girl growing up in London, is told with seeming artlessness for much of its length: a neo-Victorian, Gissing-like account of tribulation and social struggle. There is a lilt to it from the start, though, when Edward Staveney, a white boy imbued with the idealism of his liberal family, takes little Victoria to spend a night at his house. The vision of grace and spaciousness stays with her in the years that follow.
She struggles, makes good as a model, meets and has a brief affair with Edward's brother, finds she is pregnant. Finally, unable to cope, she goes to the Staveneys. Unexpectedly they welcome her (they are genuinely liberal, it seems) and fall in love with her daughter, Mary, near white and their relative, after all. They offer the child excursions, country vacations and private schooling. Victoria accepts with a heavy sense that, despite their benevolence, the Staveneys are claiming a stray bit of family property. The final pages are a moving mix of sorrow and stoic realism: hers and Lessing's. ''Yes, thought Victoria, she will be pleased to get out of it and into boarding school: she'll want to be a Staveney. Yes, I have to face it. That is what will happen.''
The longest piece, ''A Love Child,'' is a sprawl at the start, telling of the school days and army training of James, its middle-class protagonist. Much of the later portions are a haphazard ramble. Which leaves its heart, 55 pages that burn with Lessing's distilled fierceness.
Elsewhere, she has written vividly of the deadly 1919 flu pandemic, giving it a toll and a horror equivalent to the war that preceded it. In ''A Love Child,'' the equivalent is the hellish weeks aboard a World War II troopship, hideously packed with 5,000 men, James among them. The debarkation in Cape Town is a scene resembling Goya's dark visions.
Such torment is followed by a brief love affair between James and a married South African woman. Its ferocity and pain are war's obverse: passion unbearably heightened and darkened by the scars of ordeal. Lessing, who deals in making the incredible real, does so here: against all likelihood she convinces the reader that war roams the world quite apart from its battlefields. She has never written better.
Richard Eder writes book reviews and articles for The Times.
February 3, 2004, Tuesday
Now Doris Lessing Presents A Singularly Odd Foursome
Four Short Novels
By Doris Lessing
311 pages. HarperCollins. $23.95.
Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher have nothing on the characters in ''The Grandmothers.''
The heroines of the title story in Doris Lessing's new collection are two middle-aged women who have been best friends since childhood. Years ago they began sleeping with each other's teenage sons, and these romances have endured until the boys are getting on toward 30. We're told that the four of them radiate ''an air of repletion, as if they had been soaking in pleasure all their lives and now gave it out in the form of invisible waves of contentment.''
Although Ms. Lessing has done just about everything in her long and varied career -- from anatomizing the convolutions of the individual psyche in her early fiction to mapping the metaphysics of distant galaxies in her ''Canopus in Argos'' series -- she utterly fails in this, the weakest of the four stories collected here, to make these two bizarre romances the least bit credible.
''The Grandmothers'' is reminiscent of Ms. Lessing's 1996 novel, ''Love, Again,'' which features a 65-year-old sex kitten who becomes the love object of a 40-year-old movie star, of a 35-year-old director and of a 26-year-old stud. Like that book ''The Grandmothers'' lacks all the psychological insight that has distinguished Ms. Lessing's most celebrated writing.
Instead there are embarrassing bouts of romance novel prose and lots of icky descriptions of her two heroines, Roz and Lil, leering at their offspring: ''The women stared at these two young heroes, their sons, their lovers, these beautiful young men, their bodies glistening with sea water and sun oil, like wrestlers from an older time.''
Throughout the story Roz and Lil are described as self-reliant, talented women, like many of the women in Lessing's fiction. Their decisions to seduce each other's adolescent sons are not depicted as pathological, or even selfish acts; rather, their lengthy affairs are portrayed as a kind of golden idyll for all concerned. Later, when the boys grow up and finally marry, it is their wives who will seem like outsiders.
The characters in this volume's other stories are also susceptible to delusions, fantasies and yearnings for other lives. Though ''The Reason for It'' is a more engaging performance than ''The Grandmothers,'' it quickly devolves into another of this author's clunky, one-dimensional fairy tales, calling to mind not the grandly operatic ''Canopus'' series, but her cartoonish futuristic novel, ''Mara and Dann.''
In this case an elderly wise man -- the last of his kind it turns out -- mourns the loss of the glorious civilization he knew in his youth. Many decades ago he and his fellow wise men made a foolish choice for ruler; they elected a handsome and charming ignoramus who allowed all the old virtues like education, storytelling and reverence for the past to fade away. What was once a noble, humane society has since become a vulgar, warlike one.
In this story Ms. Lessing mechanically compares and contrasts the good old days with the bad new ones, hitting us over the head with obvious and ungainly analogies between her fairy tale world and the real world we live in.
It is the two remaining stories in this volume that best showcase the author's myriad gifts as a realist: her keen, sociological eye for class and ideology; her understanding of the contradictory impulses of the human heart; her ability to conjure a place, a mood and a time through seemingly matter-of-fact descriptions.
''Victoria and the Staveneys'' starts off somewhat predictably, juxtaposing the indigent London world inhabited by a bright young black woman named Victoria, with the bright, cozy world of her schoolmate, Thomas Staveney, the son of well-to-do white liberals. Deftly compressing years into pages, Ms. Lessing swiftly complicates this story: A teenage Victoria has an affair with Thomas, becomes pregnant, breaks off the affair, has the baby without telling him, marries another man, becomes a widow and eventually tells Thomas about their daughter, Mary.
It's not long before the Staveneys have welcomed Mary into their lives, but as she spends more and more time with them, her mother begins to worry that she will lose her to the Staveneys' white, upper-middle-class world, the very world Victoria once longed to join herself.
In the final story in this volume, ''A Love Child,'' an illegitimate baby plays a similarly pivotal role. During World War II a young Englishman named James and his military unit set forth on a long, brutal sea voyage (expertly conjured by Ms. Lessing in all its excruciating discomfort) to India, and their transport ship stops for a few days in Cape Town for supplies. There, James has an intense affair with a married woman named Daphne, who nine months later bears his child. Though Daphne answers none of his letters, James will continue to think of her as his one true love, even as he goes on to a more banal, if altogether respectable life in postwar England.
While this story follows the melodramatic arc of many an old-fashioned wartime romance, Ms. Lessing recounts James's adventures with such authority and such a wealth of emotional detail that the story possesses both a palpable immediacy and a haunting afterlife. In little more than a hundred pages, she has given us a resonant portrait of a man convinced that he is ''living the wrong life.''
It is a story that demonstrates the easy mastery of her finest work, a story that stands in sharp contrast to the cringe-making title story of this oddly uneven volume.
Love and War
Four novellas by a writer who has soured on "isms."
Reviewed by Susie
Sunday, February 1, 2004; Page BW06
By Doris Lessing. HarperCollins. 311 pp. $23.95
Some people mellow with age; Doris Lessing isn't one of them. Whether this is good or bad or neither or both is up to each reader. But there is no doubt that an acerbic, indeed caustic sense of disillusionment -- with socialism, with romantic love, with the cultural experiments of the 1960s and the political trajectory of Africa's independent states -- is one of the great themes of Lessing's recent years, energetically expressed in memoirs, novels and occasional interviews. Lessing's new book, The Grandmothers, is a collection of four novellas, and it shows that at the age of 84 she remains firmly committed to the belief that all "isms" -- and even most ordinary emotions -- are forms of self-delusion. Lessing isn't a cynic, for she still believes in the value (and existence) of truth, and she lacks the injured sense of self-pity that motivates the cynic. But there is great bitterness in this new volume. The surprise, perhaps, is that something approaching empathy occasionally peeks out, too.
In a Lessing story, when characters are described as "blessed people" with "an air of repletion," we know that catastrophe looms. And so it is in this volume's eponymous, and sharpest, tale. It follows Lil and Roz, two nice, attractive best friends in their mid-thirties, each of whom enters into a mutually joyous affair with the other's teenage son. It is the women themselves who, more than a decade later, break with the "boys" (who are, of course, now men) in the hope that the lover-sons will enter into normal marriages of their own. And they do, though the normal proves to be a sham, for the sons' emotions remain fixated on their older, quasi-incestuous loves.
Coming from another writer, "The Grandmothers" could perhaps be read as a tale of true love denied; but Lessing doesn't believe in true love. The story must be seen in the light of her larger condemnation (expressed in her last novel, The Sweetest Dream, and other works) of sexual permissiveness and emotional recklessness -- or what she here calls, with a touch of acid, "this extended family's casual ways." In the story's last scene, as their sons' families collapse, we see Roz and Lil, now near 60, sitting enjoying the beach "in their bikinis" -- sirens who have almost casually destroyed those whom they were meant, above all, to protect. Yet Lessing's condemnation, rather than outraged, is consistently calm and measured -- which makes this story, despite hints of the ominous, wryly charming.
The theme of lovers (or spouses) sleeping (or living) with one person while longing for another recurs in most of these stories and suggests that Lessing views love as essentially a mirage. In "A Love Child," a British soldier named James has a brief affair with a married woman in South Africa during World War II. This idyll, which lasts a few days and (possibly) produces a son, becomes the touchstone and obsession of James's life; his wife and child can never compete with his dream. Or, perhaps, with his illness, or his curse -- for love, Lessing writes, is a terrible thing, a "black lightning." But she acknowledges something gentle and more delicate, too: the way that love and grief and yearning are so often intertwined.
Lessing writes with understanding, too, of how the disastrous gift of silent, imprisoning marriages is bequeathed from one generation to the next. Yet the real horror of this story lies not in its mapping of emotional disconnection but in its depictions of war. James's regiment's long and brutal sea journey from England to Cape Town is steeped in vomit, blood, pain and fear, and Lessing almost makes us smell "the heaps of dirty, sweaty, sick-soaked, urine-soaked uniforms mounted high" before a washing.
Like many other readers, I stopped following Lessing when, in 1979, she abandoned social realism for science fiction, where she dwelt for many years. "The Reason for It," set in a mythical kingdom long, long ago (or far, far in the future?), is her return to this genre, and an unwelcome one at that. A century-old, nameless narrator tells of a nation-state and a people -- democratic, peaceful, cultured -- who, through the choice of a leader more stupid than bad, descend into darkness. The brave new world and its inhabitants are ignorant, militaristic, coarse; judgment, learning and a concern with "the deep seriousness of our lives" are replaced by illiteracy, violence and "a raw jeering laughter that was never heard in our time." Even the new music is harsh and jarring. "Why is everything so loud and so ugly?" an old woman who remembers the gentler era wonders. This is a question that old people all over the world ask, and it is often a very good one -- but not, alas, one whose all too obvious allegorical import can possibly carry the weight of this tale or endow even a moment of it with freshness or surprise.
The subtlest story here is "Victoria and the Staveneys." It tells of a 9-year-old black girl -- poor, skinny, scared -- who is taken in for one night by the Staveneys, whose children attend her school. Ten years later, Victoria -- now mature, confident and beautiful -- has an affair with the younger Staveney son, Thomas, which will result (unbeknownst to him) in a delightful daughter named Mary.
The Staveneys are white, well-to-do, left-wing bohemians (they sent their sons to Victoria's crummy school out of "ideology"), and they are supremely confident of their place in the world. Their elder son, Edward, who as an adolescent tortures himself over global inequalities and the suffering Third World, becomes a human-rights worker who jets to hellholes like Sierra Leone; his brother Thomas, meanwhile, "had learned to love black girls and black music, in that order." The Staveneys are easy to mock.
Lessing does, of course. But the welcome twist in this story is that this is not all she does. The Staveneys are smug and self-satisfied, the embodiment of radical chic -- "I have always wanted a black grandchild," muses Mrs. Staveney -- but they are also more. When Victoria, after six silent years, suddenly presents them with Mary, they welcome the newest Staveney not just with trips and gifts but with a deep and clearly genuine love; the family's patriarch, Lionel, is particularly enamored. (In a cheap and too obvious shot, only Edward, the great defender of the dispossessed, is suspicious of Victoria's claim and suggests a DNA test for the child.) And when the Staveneys offer Mary not just affection but also a real entry into their world through the financing of a different kind of education -- one that will, inevitably, pull her away from Victoria, from her neighborhood, from her black family and from her class -- Victoria agrees, and we fully know why. For while Lessing pokes fun at the Staveneys, and in particular at their romanticization of "the other" (wryly, she observes, "Thomas took Mary to concerts of African music, twice, but she thought they were too loud"), she does not underestimate the value of their intellectual heritage or idealize Victoria's stultifying life in the ghetto. In the end, as Victoria watches her child become "a ship sailing away over a horizon," we understand both the cruelty of her choice and its utter rightness.
In an interview I conducted with Lessing three years ago, she expressed antipathy not just toward romantic love and political commitment but to passionate convictions of any kind. I cannot share her rejection of love and politics because I cannot figure out how a world with even traces of tenderness or justice -- a barely livable world -- is sustainable without them. Yet I come back to her work again and again. This is due in part to the staunchness of her vision, but it is also because in an age of anomic fiction, self-indulgent fiction and meta-fiction, she upholds the value of realism -- the value, that is, of using fiction to explore the conditions of our lives in realms both public and private. Lessing anchors the self in the world and returns the world to the self. In this, she is a daughter of Dickens, of Zola, of Stendhal: profoundly radical and traditional at once, in the very best sense of each word. •
Susie Linfield is acting director of the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University.
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By Doris Lessing
HarperCollins, 311 pages, $36.95
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