Doris Lessing wrote three quintets during her 60ish year writing career: the 1953 collection of novellas, Five, the five sequential publications of Canopus in Argos: Archives published between 1979 and 1983, and – in between the two – this, the decades spanning potency of the initially realist and autobiographical and – by its end – speculative sci-fi about telepathy saga that was Children of Violence, whose four previous books (Martha Quest (1952), A Proper Marriage (1954), A Ripple From The Storm (1958) and Landlocked (1965)) I have read and loved over the past year.
I started reading The Four Gated City (1969) about six months ago, very soon after finishing Landlocked, as I was keen to see where my old friend Martha Quest ended up next.
Unfortunately, tho, the book is absolutely fucking massive (possibly as long as the other four books in the quintet combined, but I haven’t been able to find a comprehensive database of Doris Lessing novel word counts to check this – if you know of one, please post in the comments!) and my arms were weak and my hands were cold as the London autumn turned to London winter, so I shelved the book until I was ready: Martha was having a miserable time in London and so was I, so I didn’t feel pushed to pursue the book.
Obviously, I’m still fucking miserable, but my arms are a little stronger and the weather is a little less chilled, so I felt safe to return.
Also I recently read Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise (2022) and if I can handle a massive book by a contemporary writer then I can handle a massive book by one of my dead faves. Thus, I returned to Martha Quest for the last time.
The Four Gated City picks up moments after the end of book 4, with Martha still young (i.e. younger than I am now) and bouncing around shit meaningless jobs in London and having some bad boyfriends (one of whom she reconnects with two decades later (much later in this massive novel) and he has become a recruiter for a premium sadomasochistic brothel!), and then eventually takes a job as the private secretary-cum-housekeeper to a very very wealthy wannabe novelist.
Martha moves in with this man (Mark) and his extended family and becomes part of their fold – occasional lover to Mark and the intellectual sounding board that allows him to partially fulfil his own creative aims, occasional nurse to his in-and-out of psychiatric institutions wife, Lynda, back-up mother to Francis (Mark and Lynda’s son) and Paul, Mark’s adopted son and the child of his brother (Colin, a nuclear scientist who defected to Russia) and Sarah (Colin’s wife – a survivor of the Holocaust and former child refugee – who killed herself after her husband left the country with no warning and no chance of return).
Time passes, and Mark writes and publishes novels of varying popularity and political opinion as he changes his opinions like a malfunctioning windsock (his affluence allowing politics to be a parlour game).
Mark has another brother who becomes a Labour MP despite the family money and their mother’s staunch popularity as a Tory hostess, and later on their mother begins a more progressive streak after her latest husband is revealed to be picking up men in Green Park (surely the least discrete central London park for a fumble? Tho maybe it had more greenery 70 years ago than it does now? Maybe the lack of discretion was part of the thrill?). Paul becomes an adult and a hip speculator in the swinging sixties, investing in trendy hair salons and nightclubs, Francis and Graham (Mark’s much younger stepbrother) get involved in television, there are happenings, there are protests, and there is lots and lots about mental illness and the various ways in which psychological treatments and practices can deny an individual’s personhood.
There is also lots of suicide and ageing and conversation around legacy, both personal and in one’s own life, but also colonial – Lessing includes one long chapter from the (tight third person) perspective of Martha Quest’s dickhead mother, who visits Martha in London after having a bit of a crisis of self, fails to connect with her daughter then returns to Southern Africa and is never heard from again (Martha mentions in an aside, later on, that her mother died soon after returning from her trip).
All of which is a lot. And there’s a lot more. This is a near-700 page novel, so there’s obviously a lot going on.
And that’s the main bulk of the plot, with one key absence: the non-realist elements that creep in over the last couple of hundred pages, foreshadowed by the growing success career of Mark’s business partner’s side hustle as a massively successful science fiction writer.
Lynda’s mental illness, and Martha’s own occasional psychotic episodes, are gradually revealed to be not weakness but strength – when these women feel intrusive thoughts, when they hear voices, when they have night terrors and hallucinate drug free, they are – in the world of the novel – possibly (then, eventually, definitely) connecting telepathically with a wider truth, and are seeing other lives, other truths, and irrevocable futures.
While the ambiguity remains – is Martha properly having a breakdown or is this quintet switching genres with only a small portion of the final of its five books to go? – the standard novelistic prose ends at the end of the 1960s (when the book was written and published) and the reader passes into an “Appendix” – fifty pages collated from various “archival” texts – letters, notices, notes – collated from the final years of the 20th century.
Here, there is clarity: the telepathy was real.
Other people realised that telepathy and divination were real, then governments realised this, then millenarian cults arose as it became clear that a growing awareness of a forthcoming global nuclear apocalypse was spreading, then governments began trying to kill everyone with the gift/skill/talent of foresight, then nuclear strikes and poison gas strikes and biological agent strikes were launched all over the Global North until basically only pockets of radiation-sick survivors existed in the northern hemisphere and everyone healthy(ish) was in Africa or Southern America… Efforts to rebuild society are ongoing, with dictatorial facisms existing everywhere there is life in an attempt to remove the potential for destruction in those remaining hospitable parts of the world and – of course – to make sure to rebuild without the people able to see the future as the fascists believe that if was foresight that caused the panic that made the destruction inevitable.
Knowledge is power, right? And power corrupts. So everyone is safer when no one knows nothing, no?
In dialogue in the novel proper, characters discuss the validity of science fiction as a literary method to engage with meaningful conversations; in the novel proper, Lessing explores sex and sexuality, the dangers of state-enforced identities, she discusses racism and the corroding personal repercussions of white supremacist ideologies on the individuals who dickheadishly hold them.
Lessing looks at loneliness and personal failures, at the dangers of ambition as a motivating force and the vacuity of most “intellectual” thought. She explores the dangers of politics when only the elites and their representatives have a voice, and she writes, too – as she often does in her works – about the comfort that can be found in non-nuclear familial structures and the claustrophobic dangers of treating propriety as anything worth a damn.
This is a text, too, about ageing and regret, about the importance of letting go of relationships with small-minded cunts but also how – especially in England(!) that’s often very difficult to do.
The Four Gated City is about how imagination and conversation are important, about how human connections and love are more significant than creativity and originality, about how one can know something to be true while continuing to live as if it isn’t and how that corrodes corrodes corrodes. (I mean, maybe that’s an idea I can’t escape and am projecting on the text, but it’s one I am stuck with every day… this failure to live by my own knowledge and sense of self is why I genuinely think contentment or any real wellbeing is impossible (for me) while I continue living in England.)
Lessing never wrote – unless I’ve failed to notice something huge – another novel as massive as this (this was seven years after she published the similarly-sized and also fucking excellent The Golden Notebook (1962)), and despite the many speculative elements at the end of this book and the direct essayistic comments on the sociocultural validity and value of science fiction, it was a full decade before she began to publish Canopus in Argos: Archives, her space opera, which – as you can tell from the title – also uses fictionalised archival texts.
Lessing wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, often conveying in her prose a sense that, well, there isn’t really much point…
This novel is pretty explicit on the following: literature cannot save us, art cannot save us, politics cannot save us, the state cannot save us. Lessing’s novel could thus, then, be interpreted as nihilistic, but that simply isn’t the case, as at no point does Lessing disagree with the following: that love can save us, that friendship can save us, that chosen family can save us, that community can save us…
Children of Violence isn’t anti-human or hopeless about reality, it’s just fucking critical – and rightly so – of the society that we continue to acquiesce to the continuation of …
After four books and five hundred pages of loosely autobiographical realist prose about a woman called Martha Quest, to leap into telepathy and prognostication and post-apocalyptic international wandering may sound out of place, or unexpected, but Lessing’s skill means it doesn’t.
Lessing’s future – telepathy and nuclear Armageddon happening in the 1990s aside – doesn’t feel distinctly different from the reality we have… Lessing predicts the use of digital data harvesting as a means of control, she identitfies the potential use of television and diminished education as a way to cauterise critical thinking in the masses, and she describes precisely how – in England at least – the only way a “party of the left” ever gets any sniff of power is by becoming (in every way that matters bar its name) a party of the right.
The Four Gated City is fucking excellent, and though it could – I think – be read just as well on its own as the conclusion of a quintet (Lessing’s decision to kill off her much less successful fictional avatar seems a needless removal of a potential crutch, though one that Lessing clearly didn’t actually need), but there’s lots here that would not be enjoyed as much without those other four (much much shorter) novels. Characters and locations reappear, are mentioned, sometimes very briefly, and stories are ended. Futures are lost and a new world is created, one that’s also definitely (likely) shit, but maybe shit in a different (less shit?) way than our real society is shit.
It’s an excellent, prescient, powerful, novel.
And I hate to say it again but no one appears to be listening: you really gotta read more Lessing!!!
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