Review- Lessing, “The Four-Gated City”

4 gate city

Doris Lessing, “The Four-Gated City” (1969) – after five books and almost twenty years, Doris Lessing wrapped up the “Children of Violence” series with a notice from a post-apocalyptic bureaucrat. The series followed Martha Quest (based on the author) from her girlhood in settler Rhodesia to her middle years in London in the 1960s, and in a long “appendix,” to the years after a variety of wars and environmental catastrophes kill much of humanity.

The book follows Martha’s life in London, which she comes to from Rhodesia in her late 20s, shortly after the end of WWII, through the paranoid Cold War 1950s and eventually the thaw and revival of consumer prosperity that leads to “swinging London” of the later 1960s. The first third or so is Martha exploring immediate postwar London, which in many respects prefigures the post-apocalypse the book ends with- bomb-damaged, lingering under austerity, seemingly with no way to get better. Eventually, Martha becomes resident-secretary-cum-coparent for a writer and gets involved with his family, the Coldridges, a big, rich, high-profile public progressive clan riven internally by resentment and other emotional issues. A central part of the incompletely-drawn apocalypse Lessing posits occurring in the mid-1970s is rapid human mutation in response to environmental strain. In the end of the book, this entails telepathy and other strange powers. But it’s prefigured by the terrarium of difficult over-educated Brits Martha has access to in the Coldridge house, many of whom are maladapted by any meaningful definition — there’s a Jane Eyre-esque madwoman in the attic who becomes a friend of hers, one of the kids is a kleptomaniac, etc — but which prove helpful to the unsettled lives they (and more and more people) are made to live. Martha herself experiences a breakdown — in many respects a break with reality — and this is what allows her to see the coming of the end and survive it while helping others- at least for a while. It doesn’t make for a happy life, being a mutant in Lessing’s world, but little enough does.

Lessing wrote her magnum opus, “The Golden Notebook,” in the midst of writing the “Children of Violence” series. In many respects, “The Golden Notebook” is a shorter, somewhat more elegant version of the series, which does in one book what the series does in five. You get much of the same stuff: girlhood in settler Africa, falling in and out of love with various people and causes, move to London, and a breakdown surrounding the central issue of maintaining a sense of self when both society and personal life tend to fracture the self, and a recovery of sorts. I’m not sure how much the apocalypse adds. She makes it fit reasonably well, and it prefigures her move into scifi, which I look forward to digging into (and which I’m pretty sure was highly influential on later generations of scifi writers, especially feminist scifi). It was also pretty prescient, especially about mass computer-based surveillance and the way groups would try to buy their way out of catastrophes. But it’s also literally an appendix, and much of it isn’t from Martha’s perspective. It’s a little jarring, where “The Golden Notebook” manages its transitions perfectly.

I have a little theory that part of the reason behind Lessing ending the series with an apocalypse is that she might have seen it as a false start, a prolonged draft for “The Golden Notebook.” Stuck with the series after she already said what it was supposed to say, she spikes it, and its entire world. That’s probably not really true- if nothing else, at over 600 pages, “The Four-Gated City” is a serious work in its own right. There’s little like Lessing given the chance to depict a group of people over a long term, the evolutions of their relations, the various ways they repeat patterns while imagining themselves having broken free and recreated themselves. Lessing is a maestra of disappointment, which makes it all the more poignant when something good does happen, and someone can break away. So even if “The Golden Notebook” is tighter than “Children of Violence,” the longer form suits her well. *****

Review- Lessing, “The Four-Gated City”

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