Doris Lessing died yesterday, age 94.
In her honor, I am re-posting this piece I wrote about her Children of Violence series. (It appeared at my old blog in May 2012.)
Martha Quest, the heroine of Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, is my hero. There are Martha Quest people, and there are non-Martha Quest people. Even though millions of women were obviously reading Doris Lessing when I discovered her, I didn’t know any until a librarian walked into the bar where I worked and caught me surreptitiously reading A Proper Marriage. “I LOVE Martha Quest,” she said.
Instant bonding. That often happens with reading.
Last August, I started rereading Lessing’s Children of Violence series, and hope some of you have enjoyed it, too. I began with the last novel, The Four-Gated City, a strange, labyrinthine masterpiece which has a distinct science fiction tone near the end, and then I backtracked to the other realistic novels in order, Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, A Ripple from the Storm, and Landlocked.
I wrote about The Four-Gated City here and here. I said:
Her analysis of 20th-century politics, history, class, and the socialization of women is so lucid that we apply it to ourselves and feel that we are reading about ourselves.
“The Four-Gated City is…a stunning portrait of a woman in her thirties, Martha Quest, who, leaves family, friends, and the Communist party to immigrate to England from Africa. It is not just a personal portrait, though. It also examines post-war London torn by the Cold War, persecutions of Communist Party members, fear of the McCarthy era, terror of war, women breaking down from pressures, and more.”
The five novels cover a lifetime–Martha from age 15 till old age.
I have just finished Landlocked, and I am sad because I will miss Martha Quest. Landlocked is my favorite of these four and I will write a more detailed “review” at the end of this post, but first I will summarize the plots of the first three.
MARTHA QUEST, A PROPER MARRIAGE, AND A RIPPLE FROM THE STORM. Set in Southern Africa on the verge of World War II, Lessing in Martha Quest introduces the heroine as a furious teenager living on a farm on the veld. Martha has dropped out of school to educate herself, and is desultorily reading Communist tracts, Freud, and other intellectual books lent by her friends, the Cohen brothers. She longs to get off the farm, and knows from books there are other worlds. She hates her fastidious mother, who is neurotically jealous of Martha and fights with her about every detail of her life. She gets along with her father, but he is delicate and uninvolved with the family, shell-shocked during World War I and never recovered. Meanwhile, stuck at home, Martha experiments with femininity: making dresses her mother doesn’t approve of, going to dances, necking with boys she doesn’t like much, and trying to fit in with the people of different nationalities who have settled here. Eventually she finds a job in the city as a typist, where she attends sundowner parties and gets drunk every night, and gets involved with all the wrong men.
In A Proper Marriage, Martha is married to Douglas Knowell, a successful, dull, hard-drinking young man with no political views, and she doesn’t quite know how she became married to him, except that everyone was getting married. She has violated her principles and is doing all the conventional things young women do, as if she can’t help herself. She gets pregnant, though she doesn’t want to and goes to a condescending doctor to get a Dutch cap (or was it a diaphragm?), and we hear his thoughts on how she will soon be pregnant if she is not already. Martha simply cannot believe she is going to be a mother. She has a child, Caroline, whom she doesn’t much love. And she agonizes over how she sold out her socialist principles for a marriage she didn’t want, and her old friends the Cohens quietly sneer. Martha longs to get involved with the commune one of them has formed.
In A Ripple from the Storm, set in the early 1940s, Martha has finally matured, is divorced from Douglas, and is very active in a Communist group. This is a much more focused, energetic novel, because Martha is finally doing something she intended to do. The novel describes her political activities during World War II–her social life revolves around lectures, study groups, and attempting to help the Africans. I found this utterly absorbing, and somehow understand when Martha makes her next mistake: she marries a German “comrade,” Anton Hesse, a refugee who works as a clerk but puts all his energy into the Communist group. She knows that there is something sexually wrong between them, and says she will not marry him. But then she feels sorry for him, and suddenly they are married.
(Don’t you all know how this goes? Marriages that everybody knows are doomed, but what can you do except go to the party and drink champagne?)
LANDLOCKED is my favorite after A Four-Gated City. Set near the end of World War II and just after it, Landlocked centers on the disintegration of their Communist group, and describes Martha’s own feeling of being ripped apart and landlocked as she tries to compartmentalize her life: she balances secretarial work (she becomes a freelance typist and makes more money), her work for the Communist group, her cold marriage to Anton, visiting her ill father, and having an affair with Thomas, while what she really wants to do is go to England. She dreams again and again of the sea, dreams where she can’t get there.
Politics change rapidly at the end of the war as people try to cope with the realization that 40 million people have died. The townspeople long for normalcy and need a scapegoat: the Communist group, which had been tolerated when everyone was pulling together during the war, is execrated. Even Mrs. Van, a popular, liberal activist who has served on the town council and in Parliament (not a communist), and Jack, a trade union leader and member of Parliament, are ostracized. Jasmine, a sort of secretary of the group, goes to Johannesburg, and Martha is stuck in her place. Athen, the earnest Greek member, prepares to go home, though Greece is in a civil war. Anton starts to lose control and becomes involved with a wealthy businessman’s family. And the Africans believe the communist group is condescending. Then the group begins to learn of the Russian persecutions and imprisonments.
Martha is still married to Anton, but they have decided they will get divorced at the end of the war, when he will be “naturalized.” They decide they can have affairs, but Anton is still in love with Martha, and she is incredulous. It was the same with Douglas. It’s as though neither knew there was anything sexually wrong.
Then she has an affair with Thomas, a member of the group, a Polish farmer, a Jew who escaped with his wife to Africa. Thomas has had affairs with many women, always painfully thin women. He falls “in love” with Martha when she is ill (later she has a fat phase and he tells her she looked better when he was with her). It is the most sexual love affair of both their lives. But love is far too inexact a word for these two Communists, who view personal lives with distance and don’t use that word.
Doris Lessing always steps away and lets us know what Martha, apart from her actions, is thinking and feeling. And it is these original thoughts that make the reader look at a situation differently. Lessing writes beautifully and intelligently, and Landlocked is a stunning novel in the tradition of the big, detailed, exhilarating bildungsromans of Thomas Mann and Henry Handel Richardson.
In the beginning of the novel, Martha is in a thin, blonde phase because she is so busy, and people respond to her looks. The “real” Martha is cynical.
And besides, what was real in her, underneath these metamorphoses of style or shape or–even, apparently–personality, remained and intensified. The continuity of Martha now was in a determination to survive–like everyone else in the world, these days, as she told herself; it was in a watchfulness, a tension of the will that was like a small flickering of light, like the perpetual tiny dance of lightning on the horizon from a storm so far over the earht’s curve it could only show reflected on the sky. Martha was holding herself together–like everybody else. She was a lighthouse of watchfulness; she was a being totally on the defensive. This was her reality, not the ‘pretty’ or ‘attractive’ Martha Hesse, a blondish, dark-eyed young woman who smiled back at her from the mirror where she was becomingly set off in pink cotton that showed a dark shadow in the angle of her hips.”
Martha doesn’t get to England till the last book, and that is her “real” life. But I understand the life she leads in Africa, wanting to leave, but stuck because of her relationships.
I thought of you when I heard the news about Lessing yesterday. I’ve only read a little of her work, but what I read I loved. The Martha Quest books sound essential!
Yes, I am shocked somehow. I unrealistically thought she would live forever. People talk about The Golden Notebook, but the Martha Quest books are a major work in a different way.
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