- "Taking Hands and Dancing in (Dis)unity"1:Story to Storied in Doris Lessing's "To Room Nineteen" and "A Room"
"To see" is the dominant verb in the realist text "à la gastronomie de l'oeil" as Balzac expressed it—and realist fiction is preeminently concerned with seeing, with a seeing in detail.2—Mark Seltzer (507)
To view Doris lessing's short fiction in relation to "the coercive network of seeing, power and surveillance" (Seltzer 508) that characterizes the literature of the realist enterprise invites triply the hazardous. Of first concern is the author's well-known opposition to theoretics. On principle, Lessing dismisses critical terms like realism (and its contemporary companion, feminism) as prescriptive about rather than descriptive of her project. Her position (itself prescriptive, especially as polemicized in the 1971 Introduction to The Golden Notebook, the 1979 Remarks upon Shikasta, and the 1984 Preface to The Diaries of Jane Somers) would seem to suggest hostility as much to the realist readings as to those of the feminist. Of second [End Page 421] concern—although this has yet to be critiqued—Lessing aligns herself with those critics and readers who take as axiomatic that the authoring of texts represents an unassailable authoritative act. Hers becomes the claim that intertextual contexts can be ignored. Third—and finally in this article's critical speculations—there are the problematics of the shorter fiction. To speak of short and long fiction is to make the assumption that distinguishing between one kind of text and the other is defensible, a distinction encouraged by the practice of such writers as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, and the later Nabokov. Like them, Lessing has extrapolated from and transformed several of her short stories, reembedding them in longer narratives. Forming an enriching—although not so very rigorously examined3—part of her work, the sixty or more short stories raise intertextual matters about the shorter fiction's relation to the longer works as well as intriguing questions about the overall production of text.
The stories seem to have been written during periods especially crucial to the author's development, as has been observed in a discussion of Lessing's first decade in England (Sprague and Tiger 5). These turbulent, prolific years—the 1950s—saw a political novel, two reportorial works, plays, poems, essays, and reviews as well as a regiment of short stories. Appearing first in such magazines as the New Statesman and Nation, Encounter, the Partisan Review, and the Kenyon Review, the stories "contain[ed] most of the themes of her major novels, including concerns that did not clearly emerge till later" (Pickering 91). More than several of the stories from this period anticipated what in the 1970s appeared to be new dimensions in Lessing's fiction. Their marking of shifts in ideology and narrative strategies amounted to the laying of foundations for what Betsy Draine has since identified as the competing attitudes and warring styles upon which the later work was constructed (143-156). As Lessing's longer fiction has moved away from the realism and materialism of the first series, Children of Violence 1952-1969, toward the speculative fantasy and mysticism of the second series, Canopus in Argos 1979-1983, the English stories (in Britain collected in 1978 under the titles To Room Nineteen, Volume One and The Temptation of Jack Orkney, Volume Two) observed—sometimes, with a piercing malice—prevailing social arrangements. At the same time flickering across these canvases and diffusing overt meaning in the manner Jacques Derrida terms dissemination were incursions of the unreal, dream intimations, the unlocking of buried visions.
That there is an insistent continuity between the short fiction and the longer works seems incontrovertible. Several of the stories republished [End Page 422] in the 1978 collection are related directly to later novels: Shikasta's (1979) intergalacticism earlier appeared as fictional landscape in "Report on the Threatened City" and the first Jane Somers novel, The Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983), derives inspiration and theme from "An Old Woman and Her Cat," a short story about an eccentric and ancient woman who outwits the agents of Social Welfare by hiding, like a crafty wild...