Commentary Magazine


The Four-Gated City, by Doris Lessing

Quest’s End

The Four-Gated City.
by Doris Lessing.
Knopf. 614 pp. $7.50.

The intent of Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence, a series of five novels of which The Four-Gated City is the last, has been to depict the life of a generation, the one born into the aftermath of the First World War and growing to maturity during the Second. Until now, however, its effect has been considerably more limited: focused through the experience of a single character, Martha Quest, it has something of the appeal of those series written for adolescent girls, in which a venturesome heroine acts out the fantasies and desires of her spellbound readers.

For Martha Quest is Everygirl, rebelling against her middle-class parents, reading Marx and Engels and espousing the cause of the downtrodden, having the sexual and intellectual adventures appropriate to her time and type. In the first two novels, Martha Quest and A Proper Marriage, she goes through a quarrelsome adolescence on her parents’ farm in a British colony in Africa, then marries and divorces a conventional young man; A Ripple from the Storm and Landlocked record her involvement with a Communist party cell, which turns out to be a stifling little bureaucracy of ten or twelve souls, her marriage to the excruciating pedant who is leader of the cell, and her love affair with a young man who goes insane. Like all Doris Lessing’s women, Martha is unlucky in love, being fatally drawn to men who suffer from childish temper tantrums, premature ejaculation, and tendencies to madness.

All of this is chronicled at enormous length, in an undiscriminating and egalitarian style that endows everything that happens to Martha Quest with absolute and equal significance and gives the novels a strong flavor of autobiography. Martha’s self-importance is both irritating and rather commanding; one reads in a state of torpor, half fascinated and half bored, led on by the promise of the heroine’s name and the hope that when she escapes the provinces and makes it to London she will finally find something that comes up to her standards.

But alas, in The Four-Gated City Martha winds up as the factotum of a large and depressing London household, combination mistress-secretary to a writer, Mark Coldridge, and cook, housekeeper, nanny, and nurse-companion to his family. The author’s intentions for Martha seem to have changed; no longer so important for her personal destiny, she has become rather an observer and perceiver, a conduit for the most powerful currents of experience in her time and place, London—and by extension any large city in the West—from 1950 until the present, and in an epilogue until the year 2,000. The Coldridge family is made to contain the problems and crises typical of the era: Communism, treason, suicide, mental illness, homosexuality, abandoned and disturbed children, generational conflict. The principal events of the novel are the defection of Mark Coldridge’s brother, a physicist, to Russia, and a series of breakdowns and nervous illnesses suffered at various times by almost everyone in the book, most often and severely by Mark’s schizophrenic wife, Lynda. At the end of the novel the characters are preparing for the disaster about to overtake civilization; an appendix contains a group of letters from survivors scattered in refugee centers after a catastrophe involving nerve gas or a nuclear device has made large parts of the earth uninhabitable.

The end of the world would be rather a large order for any novelist. It is especially so for a writer like Doris Lessing, whose talent is adapted above all to a minutely realistic documentation of individual experience. Literature can certainly deal with the great political upheavals of its time: one thinks, for example, of the subtle inter-penetration of public and private passion in the work of Thomas Mann. But what passes for political vision in The Four-Gated City is a weary and shallow reductionism. Communism, anti-Communism, liberalism, the movements in England to free the colonies, ban the bomb, legalize homosexuality, and abolish capital punishment come and go in the book with the speed and unreality of phantasms. From the superior vantage point of her political sophistication, Martha sees them all equally as fads, nasty or hypocritical and in any case doomed. The political discussions that go on in the novel would certainly justify this view if they were accurate, but in fact there is something phony about them. Every position is exaggerated and vulgarized, put forward in the inverted commas of irony, making an effect of tendentious and heavy-handed parody. The following passage is intended to describe the euphoric mood of London in the cultural explosion of the 60’s:

Oh how charming everything was! How urbane! How tolerant! What enchanting clothes people wore! What good cooks we were, what food we ate! How delightful that in any room were bound to be half a dozen black or colored people, exactly the same as ourselves, and half a dozen working-class people, all as talented and as progressive, everyone effortlessly harmonious. . . .

_____________

 

The idea of the approaching collapse of civilization is closely bound up with the subject of mental illness: it is the schizophrenic Lynda who warns the others of the coming disaster. All her life she has heard people thinking, she has seen terrible visions; now the external world seems to correspond to the horrors in her mind. Martha comes to regard Lynda as a prophetess, and schizophrenics as an elite minority gifted by nature with extrasensory and visionary capacities, driven into illness only by the persecutions of uncomprehending families and doctors. This theory, which the book advances with full seriousness, resembles the ideas expressed by the British psychiatrist R. D. Laing in The Politics of Experience; like Laing, Martha believes that the schizophrenic is hyper-sane in a doomed and insane world.

Martha finds that she too can occasionally “see” and “hear” things; in order to explore the non-rational capacities of her own mind, she goes into a sort of self-induced psychosis, isolating herself, fasting, and keeping a journal where she records her discoveries about the connection between the inner and outer worlds.

Why am I so stupid? Have understood. If I didn’t know better and I plugged in to hater by accident, I’d stay a hater. Did Hitler plug in to hater by accident? . . . A nation can get plugged in through one man, or group of men, in to—whatever it might be. Here is Martha. I’m plugged in to hate Jews, hate black, hate white, hate German, hate American, hate. Not now plugged. Might be plugged again in ten minutes’ time. There is Dali landscape. I’m plugged in to Dali mind. If I could draw, paint, then I’d paint this, Dali picture. Why does only Dali plug in to Dali country? No, Dali and me. Therefore Dali and—plenty of others. But nurse says, delusions. If ignorant, does not think is Dali country.

And so on. Without bearing down too hard on that first sentence, one can’t help wondering whether this kind of perception is worth blowing one’s mind for. In any case, because society goes mad, it does not follow that schizophrenics are sane. In the appendix to the novel, it appears that extrasensory communication has become rather widespread; Martha talks regularly by telepathy from an island off the coast of Scotland to a man in Canada who is on her wavelength. However, some transmitters don’t work very well, the wrong people can pick up the messages, and there is considerable interference. Evidently the mails have not become quite obsolete.

The book is pervaded, above all, by an enormous anger. Martha is angry with the government of every country, with Tories, Labourites, Communists Socialists, colonialists and anti-colonialists, psychiatrists, literary intellectuals. and most other people. This rage seems to be provoked not only by the state of the world, but by something in Martha herself—a sense of superiority that makes her view the passions and beliefs of others with contempt. She is spared the withering irony visited on the life around her; indeed, it emanates from her in a way that compromises her independent existence as a character. She seems to be in collusion with the author behind the novel’s back, so to speak. The apocalyptic ending is unconvincing partly for this reason; it almost seems to have been produced by Martha herself out of pure self-rightousness.

_____________

 

Nearly all of the novel comes to us from Martha’s point of view, and the unrelieved seriousness with which she takes herself weighs down the writing with a kind of monolithic solemnity. It plods along like some great slow beast through more than six hundred pages of nervous breakdowns, political discussions, and lengthy authorial interpolations, many of them confusingly alike. The style is like that of an unskilled letter-writer who feels he has to report everything: this happened and then that; Lynda came home from the hospital but had to go back and we had a big party and that night Colin defected to Russia so Sally killed herself and then we spent hours and hours arguing about Communism. The only ordering principle of the account is chronological, and even chronology gets swamped in the helter-skelter rush of large and small events. The failure to select and focus may be intentional, a deliberate attempt to reproduce the chaotic atmosphere of the times. But the effect of the method, if it is one, in a novel of this length can only be a colossal mess.

It is not impossible that the world as we know it will come to an end rather soon; in that case, Doris Lessing’s novel will be justified as prophecy Obviously it will not be able to prevent or even influence the dark future it predicts—novels generally don’t. And it fails to do the one thing the novel can do—refine and order experience and make it intelligible. The Four-Gated City does, however, contain at least one piece of good news: Martha Quest is dead!

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