One Off The Short List by Doris Lessing, 1960
The magic trick:
Adding a second layer of psychological to the standard man-trying-to-sleep-with-woman scenario
There is a lot to say about the way Barbara Coles owns being used by men. Quite a lot to say about that. But I’m eschewing that topic for a different magic trick: the way Lessing layers Graham Spence’s sexual motivations.
On one very obvious level, we see Graham’s pursuit of Barbara as standard-issue sleaze-ball behavior. He is controlling, presumptuous, and pompous. At first, it is comical but his behavior becomes increasingly lecherous and criminal as the story descends into rape. Lessing outlines his mindset with stunning detail.
But what really impresses is the secondary layer she adds to his sexual pressures. Graham doesn’t want to sleep with Barbara out of plain carnal desire. He sees sex with her as a means of joining the artistic ‘it’ crowd in London. A failed writer, these sexual affairs are Graham’s only ticket into the inner circle of the truly talented movers and shakers. This second layer gives the story new depth and somehow makes his disgusting behavior all the more pathetic and desperate. And that’s quite a trick on Lessing’s part.
Suddenly Graham couldn’t stand it. He understood he was shaken to his depths. He went off-stage, and stood with his back against a wall in the dingy passage that led to the dressing rooms. His eyes were filled with tears. He was seeing what a long way he had come from the crude, uncompromising, admirable young egomaniac he had been when he was twenty. That group of people there – working, joking, arguing, yes, that’s what he hadn’t known for years.