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?
For my own reference, I am pasting the reading group discussion questions for The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, one of my favorite books and one that I frequently recommend to friends (and which I re-read last week):
- At the start of his journey, when Santiago asks a gypsy woman to interpret his dream about a treasure in the Egyptian pyramids, she asks for one tenth of the treasure in return. When Santiago asks the old man to show him the path to the treasure, the old man requests one tenth of his flock as “payment.” Both payments represent a different price we have to pay to fulfill a dream; however, only one will yield a true result. Which payment represents false hope? Can you think of examples from your own life when you had to give up something to meet a goal and found the price too high?
- Paulo Coelho once said that alchemy is all about pursuing our spiritual quest in the physical world as it was given to us. It is the art of transmuting the reality into something sacred, of mixing the sacred and the profane. With this in mind, can you define your Personal Legend? At what time in your life were you first able to act on it? What was your “beginner’s luck”? Did anything prevent you from following it to conclusion? Having read The Alchemist do you know what inner resources you need to continue the journey?
- One of the first major diversions from Santiago’s journey was the theft of his money in Tangiers, which forced him into taking a menial job with the crystal merchant. There, Santiago learned many lessons on everything from the art of business to the art of patience. Of all these, which lessons were the most crucial to the pursuit of his Personal Legend?
- When he talked about the pilgrimage to Mecca, the crystal merchant argued that having a dream is more important than fulfilling it, which is what Santiago was trying to do. Do you agree with Santiago’s rationale or crystal merchant’s?
- The Englishman, whom Santiago meets when he joins the caravan to the Egyptian pyramids, is searching for “a universal language, understood by everybody.” What is that language? According to the Englishman, what are the parallels between reading and alchemy? How does the Englishman’s search for the alchemist compares to Santiago’s search for a treasure? How did the Englishman and Santiago feel about each other?
- The alchemist tells Santiago “you don’t have to understand the desert: all you have to do is contemplate a simple grain of sand, and you will see in it all the marvels of creation.” With this in mind, why do you think the alchemist chose to befriend Santiago, though he knew that the Englishman was the one looking for him? What is the meaning of two dead hawks and the falcon in the oasis? At one point the alchemist explains to Santiago the secret of successfully turning metal into gold. How does this process compare to finding a Personal Legend?
- Why did Santiago have to go through the dangers of tribal wars on the outskirts of the oasis in order to reach the pyramids? At the very end of the journey, why did the alchemist leave Santiago alone to complete it?
- Earlier in the story, the alchemist told Santiago “when you possess great treasures within you, and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed.” At the end of the story, how did this simple lesson save Santiago’s life? How did it lead him back to the treasure he was looking for?
Also, here is the plot summary in the Reading Group Guide found in my copy:
Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy, has a dream about finding a treasure in the pyramids of Egypt. A gypsy woman and an old man claiming to be a mysterious king advise him to pursue it. “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation,” the old man tells him. “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
With the courage of an adventurer, Santiago sells his sheep and travels to Tangiers in Africa. After a thief steals his money, Santiago takes a job with a crystal merchant who unwittingly teaches Santiago important lessons for his long journey ahead. After working at the crystal shop for a year, Santiago earns enough money to cover his losses and return home. But then something unexpected happens. On a desert caravan, Santiago meets an intriguing Englishman. The Englishman’s passion for knowledge and his relentless quest to uncover the secrets of alchemy inspire Santiago to pursue his own dream of finding the treasure. As the Englishman searches for the two hundred year old alchemist who resides in the desert oasis, Santiago falls in love with a young woman, Fatima. Exposed to the greatest and eternal alchemy of all – love – Santiago thinks he has found the treasure. But the greatest test of all is yet to come. With the help of the alchemist, Santiago completes the last leg of his journey – dangerous and infused with discoveries of the most profound kind – to find that the treasure he was looking for was waiting for him in the place where he least expected.
This story, timeless and entertaining, exotic yet simple, breaks down the journey we all take to find the most meaningfultreasures in our lives into steps that are at once natural and magical. It is about the faith, power, and courage we all have within us to pursue the intricate path of a Personal Legend, a path charted by the mysterious magnet of destiny but obscured by distractions. Santiago shows how along the way we learn to trust our hearts, read the seemingly inconspicuous signs, and understand that as we look to fulfill a dream, it looks to find us just the same, if we let it.
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.