I have just read Doris Lessing for the first time! I picked up The Grandmothers: Four Short Novels at my local library and finished it in just two days.
Lessing’s writing is every bit as delightful and moving as I had been led to believe. So much so that I think I’d like to read some of her more famous works such as The Grass Is Singing, or The Golden Notebook.
The little I’ve read about Lessing makes her sound like such a remarkable woman: born in Persia (now Iran) in 1919, raised in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in literature, and still actively writing!
The four short novels in The Grandmothers (published 2004) are:
The Grandmothers 1
Two women, close friends, fall in love with each other’s teenage sons, and these passions last for years, until the women end them, in their respectable old age.
Victoria and the Staveneys 57
A poor black girl has a baby with the son of a liberal middle-class family and finds that her little girl is slowly being absorbed into a world of white privilege and becoming estranged from her.
The Reason for It 131
Certain to appeal to fans of Shikasta and Memoirs of a Survivor, it describes the birth, growth, and decline of a culture long ago, but with many modern echoes.
A Love Child 191
A soldier in World War II, during the dangerous voyage to India around the Cape, falls in love on shore leave and remains convinced that a love child resulted from the wartime romance.
Here are some discussion questions I found about this book:
- Did Roz and Lil do something wrong in loving each others’ son?
- Why is Victoria wary about Mary receiving the life she, herself, always wanted?
- Does the final note by the archaeologist vindicate the narrator?
- What is the significance of James’ final thought?
- In the title novel — The Grandmothers — an adult Tom briefly refers to his life with his mother, her closest friend, and his closest friend in these terms: “Down there, I’m not free.” Discuss the idea of personal freedom in the novel — who is free to do what, and what choices are the characters “free” to make?
- The tone in the title novel is noticeably cool and analytical. Why do you think Lessing chooses to tell the story in this way?
- For a novel so focused on the personal, there is great care given to describing the physical worlds of these people. Discuss the importance of geographical elements in the story: the rough sea and the calm bay, the orderly, “perfect” land around it. The arid climate to which Harold and briefly Tom moves, and the brush thorns that litter the ground outside of the desert town.
- In Victoria and the Staveneys, the author chooses to withhold the fact that Victoria is black until the fourth page (after much physical description). Why do you feel she delays this revelation?
- One is tempted to level scorn on the Staveneys, and yet Lessing also shows them to be oddly touching, moral even. What are we meant to think about them? Do you find your response is of a personal, emotional nature of more removed? Furthermore, who is “good” in the family?
- Does the action of Victoria and the Staveneys feel determined, or proscribed? If this is social commentary, then what are we taught; if this is simply the hand of the author, what does this reveal about her own social vision?
- Victoria, Thomas and Edward are obviously products of their respective environments. How are they the results of their parentage? Does this parentage play into the above-mentioned notion of determination or fate?
- What parallels do you see between the world of The Reason for It and our own?
- The protagonist of A Love Child, James, goes through several transformations, the first, from England to South Africa; the second, from Africa to India. What precipitates these changes? Does James feel like the same person with Daphne as he was with Donald back in England? Is this change believable to you? What is Lessing trying to say about one’s mutability, particularly as a result of one’s caring and compassion for others?
- What themes connect these novels?
Last week I re-read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, one of my all-time favorite books.
If you haven’t read this beautiful inspirational novel, first published in the early 1990s in Portuguese, you are missing out.
It is a simple book that reminds us to listen to our hearts.
If you loved Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, you will love this book too.
Interestingly, before coming across an old copy of The Alchemist and re-reading it, I started reading Lynne McTaggart’s The Intention Experiment: Using Your Thoughts to Change Your Life and the World; both remind me of the importance of being in tune with yourself, something I need to be reminded of about once a year.
Which is why I like to re-read The Alchemist and Ishmael at least once every two years. I think I last read the former in 2002 and the latter in 2004 so it’s been some time now. I will have to make time to re-read Ishmael in 2009.
Each time I read my favorite books, I also feel like they teach me different things. The quote that stood out to me from this re-reading is this (supposedly a proverb): “Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.”
Click here to read an excerpt.
I found myself thinking about Milan Kundera’s modern classic novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being today.
No reason really, it just came to mind.
I read this a few years ago because I’d heard so much about it, and because I’d enjoyed Kundera’s Ignorance with its themes of memory, loss, and homesickness.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera’s novel of love and politics in his homeland — communist-run Czechoslovakia — between 1968 and the early 1980s.
It’s a must-read, in my opinion.
Click here to read an excerpt of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and here to read an excerpt of Ignorance.
I didn’t read either of his books for book clubs but I think they would be fascinating to discuss. In fact, I think I’ll suggest one or more of his books the next time I’m supposed to lead the discussion!
Here are some discussion questions for The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in case your looking for some for your book club:
- What kinds of being carry the attribute of lightness? How is the “lightness of being” of the novel’s title presented? In what ways is it “unbearable”? What is the difference between “the sweet lightness of being” that Tomas enjoys in Zurich, after Tereza’s return to Prague, and “the unbearable lightness of being”?
- How does Nietzsche’s myth of eternal return, with which Kundera opens his book, function in the novel? What does Kundera mean when he refers to “the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return”? How does what he calls the unbearable burden of eternal return contrast with the “splendid lightness” of our daily lives?
- How would you describe the three central relationships of the novel–Tereza and Tomas, Tomas and Sabina, Sabina and Franz? How do they embody Kundera’s primary concerns and themes?
- In what ways does Kundera explore what he calls “the irreconcilable duality of body and soul, that fundamental human experience.” In what ways does he show this duality to be fundamental?
- Both Tereza and Tomas repeatedly think of the series of fortuitous events that brought them together. What is the rule of fortuity, chance, and coincidence in their lives and the lives of others? What does Kundera mean when he writes, “Chance and chance alone has a message for us”?
- In what ways may Sabina’s description of her dual-level paintings–”On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth”–apply to every aspect of the characters’ lives and relationships?
- What meanings and importance do each of the main characters ascribe to fidelity and betrayal? In what instances, for each character, do fidelity and betrayal have either positive or negative qualities?
- Kundera insists that “the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise.” What visions or versions of paradise are presented in the novel? By whom? How does each vision/version of paradise affect the lives of its enthusiasts and the lives of others?
And here are some discussion questions for Ignorance:
- As in his previous novels, Kundera isn’t content to merely tell a story; he also comments on it, via digressions on themes ranging from history to etymology and music. What is the effect of this method? Does it emotionally distance you from the narrative and characters or cause you to see them in a different light? Would you describe Ignorance as a realist novel?
- When her Parisian friend Sylvie urges her to go home to her country, Irena replies “You mean this”–meaning Paris — “isn’t my home anymore?” This exchange suggests that “home” may be a relative phenomenon, that today’s home may not be tomorrow’s. How is this theme developed elsewhere in Ignorance? Can any of Kundera’s characters be said to have a true home, or is home in this book always changeable, unreliable, and perhaps even illusory? And is going home a guarantee of happiness?
- Even as Ignorance questions the permanence of home, it also raises doubts about the authenticity of the self, as in this moment when Irena glimpses her reflection in a department store mirror: “The person she saw was not she, it was somebody else, or…it was she but she living a different life.” [p. 31] How would you sum up this novel’s view of identity? Have Kundera’s characters chosen their identities or have their identities been imposed on them by outside forces?
- Early in the novel Kundera draws a series of correspondences and oppositions: between homesickness, nostalgia, and ignorance; between the longing for a place and the longing for a vanished past or a lost love. How does he develop these themes? Is Irena’s nostalgia, for example, merely an expression of ignorance? Conversely, what is the reason for Josef’s “nostalgic insufficiency?” [p. 74] When do these characters confuse homesickness with other types of longing, and with what consequences?
- What is the significance of Ignorance‘s frequent references to The Odyssey? Do any events in this novel parallel those in Homer’s epic? Is Josef’s devotion to his deceased wife, for example, meant to recall Odysseus’s devotion to Penelope? Compare the way Kundera uses The Odyssey in this book to the way Joyce uses it in Ulysses.
- “Our century is the only one in which historic dates have taken such a voracious grip on every single person’s life.” [p.11] In what ways are the characters in Ignorance shaped by history and their personal destinies determined by it? Are they ever able to resist history? Does Kundera’s view of historical forces hold out any hope for the freedom and dignity of the individual?
- How would you describe Irena’s and Josef’s relationships with their families and old friends? Why are these so often marked by suspicion, incomprehension or outright hostility? In contrast, Irena and Josef seem to share a frictionless instant intimacy, even though they are little more than strangers. Is Kundera suggesting that the intimacy of strangers is somehow superior to the stifling, conventional closeness that prevails within most families? Are some of the characters’ relationships more genuine than others?
- What role is played by Irena’s friend Milada who, unbeknown to Irena, was once Josef’s girlfriend? Does Josef’s past treatment of Milada predict his future behavior toward Irena? Is he morally responsible for Milada’s mutilation or has Milada merely sacrificed herself for a sentimental fantasy? What do you make of Kundera’s use of coincidence? Does he seem to view it the way Irena does — as an expression of fate?
- Are you surprised by the sexual encounter between Irena’s mother and her boyfriend? Does it strike you as a betrayal of Irena, who at the time is betraying Gustav with Josef? Is Josef himself guilty of betraying Irena by his silence? How would you characterize this novel’s attitude toward sex?
I should probably pick up some of Kundera’s other books — any suggestions?