Marriage and the Family in Doris Lessing’s A Proper Marriage

Doris Lessing A Proper Marriage 6a00d8341c674653ef012876eeae79970cMarriage and the family were dead.

I was a 19-year-old woman who read classics and feminist criticism, wore bell bottoms and Earth shoes, and enjoyed sex: but I would never marry.  And then suddenly I married an older, often drunken, man, in a casual ceremony by a justice of the peace.  The marriage lasted three years.

You would think Doris Lessing’s autobiographical quintet of novels, Children of Violence, which I devoured in my teens, would have taught me to avoid the misfortune of early marriage.  Alas, books do not work that way.

The heroine of A Proper Marriage, Martha Quest, is a rebel, but she, too, impulsively marries at 19.  She has left her parents’ farm and believes she is independent, though she does not find quite what she wants in a small African town.   She is bookish, analytical, leftist, and  determined to live a different life from her mother’s. Then she falls in with a group who attend sundowner parties , gets drunk every night, and she marries Douglas, a hearty, red-faced civil servant, in a civil ceremony.  . She is stuck in an apartment with Douglas and their  child, Caroline, until the beginning of World War II when Douglas enlists.  Then she and Caroline are alone.

A Proper Marriage is very much a young woman’s novel.  Although I love the later books in the quintet, I have reread this with some reluctance.  Young women suffer so much pain and insecurity.

The Children of Violence series consists of five novels, which follow Martha from adolescence through old age:  Martha Quest (1952), A Proper Marriage (1954), A Ripple from the Storm (1958), Landlocked (1965), and The Four-Gated City (1969).  The last two, written after the success of her experimental novel, The Golden Notebook, are mature works of fiction.

A Proper Marriage is a raw naturalistic account of Martha’s thoughts and feelings, and remarkable for that.  Lessing uses the third-person singular point of view, but the narration does not feel detached:  we are inside Martha’s skin, even though it is at a remove.  Occasionally Lessing switches point of view:  Mr. Maynard, an older man , a judge, is attracted to Martha, and we see her from his perspective. Critics have complained about Lessing’s “flat-footed” style, but the  precision and straightforwardness of Lessing’s early naturalistic novels give her a voice that does not spare the terror of a woman’s hating her life and the inability to go beyond stating a problem.

Lessing’s description of a woman’s anger and boredom is astonishingly honest.  Martha believes she will leave her marriage and her baby someday; it is just a matter of when. . When her husband, Douglas, enlists in the Army, she is both stuck and more independent.  She often hates her strong-willed baby, Caroline, with whom she fights daily battles trying to get her to eat. She is terrified that Caroline, who will not eat according to the Baby Book rules, is starving to death

Here is one of Martha’s battles with Caroline, observed by Mr. Maynard:

He saw a small lively girl striving energetically against the straps that bound her to a high chair, her cheeks scarlet and tear-stained, her black eyes rebellious….  On the platform before her was a heavy china plate, and on that a squelch of greyish pulp. Martha, planted on her two sturdy legs, her own lips as firmly set as Caroline’s, who was refusing the food she was trying to push between them.  As the spoon came near, Caroline set up an angry yell, and bright sparks of tears gleamed through squeezed lashes…  Martha was pale with anger, trembling with the contest…

This is a sad, horrifying scene, not what we expect from Martha, but we see that Caroline is not behaving like the Baby Book baby, and Martha has panicked.  Eventually Martha learns to ignore Caroline at meals, and finally Caroline begins to eat.  But Martha has to teach herself everything.  The books and other young mothers often fail her.

When Douglas returns from the war after a year with an ulcer, he moves the family into a big bungalow with black servants.  Martha does not know how to “handle” servants.  She “spoils the natives,” her mother says.  Martha tries to ignore her mother and Douglas and to live her life.   She joins a Communist discussion group. She gives a lecture on Russian education.  She is naive and passionate.  Not until the very end of the novel does she leave Douglas.

Mr. Maynard says ironically when he sees her leaving,

I suppose with the French Revolution for a father and the Russian Revolution for a mother, you can very well dispense with a family.”…After a while she conceded, “That is really a very intelligent remark.”

Not a great book by Lessing, but each one in the series improves until finally we read the last two masterpieces.

I’m hanging on for that!

Rereading Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence Series: A Proper Marriage

Doris Lessing A Proper Marriage 6a00d8341c674653ef012876eeae79970cDoris Lessing is my favorite writer, and I like periodically to reread her work.  I have decided to reread the Children of Violence series.  I am starting with the second volume, A Proper Marriage.

Many of you know these as the Martha Quest books.  Indeed, that’s how I usually refer to them.  But Martha and her generation are indeed children of violence:  Martha’s father fought in World War I and her mother was a nurse who met him in the hospital; Martha and her peers come of age at the beginning of World War II.   The first four novels are set in Africa; the last in London.  Lessing grew up in Southern Rhodesia and then moved to London, and the series is autobiographical.

Martha is a rebel.  In the first novel, Martha Quest, she escapes her parents’ farm and begins to live on her own.

 A Proper Marriage opens after 19-year-old Martha has impulsively married Doug Knowell, a cheerful man who represents everything bourgeois she has stood against, a man who likes to party.  They go to sundowner parties and dances every night.  There is much looking in the mirror: her friend Stella likes what she sees; Martha, who is getting fat, does not.  She is cross, does not know why she married, did not even have a wedding night, because their drunken friends pursued them on their honeymoon.  Annoyed with herself, she goes to her Communist friend’s commune and asks him to let her live there.  She goes home and decides wryly she had done the predictable thing a woman does after her marriage:  tried to escape.  She and her friends, Stella (whom she does not like), and Alice, a nurse, chat about abortions.  Martha assumes she would have an abortion.  But when Martha discovers she is pregnant, and probably was pregnant when she married,  she suddenly goes into baby-clothes-making mode, as does her friend Alice.  It has solved her life (she thinks).  Only for a short time, though.

As Martha’s father says, he supposes in this mad world that it doesn’t matter much if one girl ruins her life.

Her mother, on the other hand, who gave up her nursing profession to live on a poor miserable African farm, is delighted that Martha, whom she has always disliked, is trapped.

Martha thinks about marriage a lot.  “The situation was, as she jauntily and bleakly put it, unsatisfactory.”
And so she turns to literature and psychology.  She kneels in front of her bookshelves.

Words.  There must surely be some pattern of words which would neatly and safely cage what she felt–isolate her emotions so that she could look at them from the outside.  For she was of the generation who, having found nothing in religion, had formed themselves by literature.

How many of us have felt this, even though we are not of Lessing’s generation?

It is an amazing novel, much better than I’d remembered.  Lessing really comes into her own with the fourth and fifth books, Landlocked and The Four-Gated City,  which she wrote after her experimental novel, The Golden Notebook.   She wrote the Children of Violence series over two decades, Martha Quest (1952), A Proper Marriage (1954), A Ripple from the Storm (1958), Landlocked (1965), and The Four-Gated City (1969).

It is a stunning series.  I’ll be blogging periodically about my rereading.

Why We Don’t Want to Be Characters in Other People’s Books

Doris Lessing and Jenny Diski

Doris Lessing and Jenny Diski

Someone kindly gave me a subscription to the London Review of Books this year.

It is a very male-oriented publication. I read an appallingly misogynistic article about Hillary Clinton. (They might respect her if they did not call her “Hillary.”)   But I have read with great interest Jenny Diski’s column, particularly her memoirs of Doris Lessing.

Diski, a brilliant memoirist and novelist, lived with Doris Lessing for several months in 1963 after she was expelled from boarding school. There were good times and bad times–she met many famous writers–but how did she know Doris would not kick her out?  Everyone else did.

Doris Lessing memoirs-of-a-survivor-my-copy

Eleven years later,  Diski had the disconcerting experience of finding herself a character in Lessing’s  The Memoirs of a Survivor.

Let me say here that Lessing is my favorite writer. The Golden Notebook and the Martha Quest books influenced the course of my life.  These books are oxygen to me.  I also love her dystopian fable, The Memoirs of a Survivor.

In The Memoirs of a Survivor, the narrator describes the disintegration of society by food shortages and power outages. The “memoir” describes a future  of regression and barbarism, but it is also a reminder of techniques of off-the-grid survival. (Gangs, barter, and flea markets are important.) The future may be most difficult for those of us who remember civilization, Lessing hints.

I also read Memoirs as Lessing’s psychological memoir, and the character Emily as a doppelganger of the narrator’s younger self.

Diski says Emily is based on her..

Diski writes,

Memoirs of a Survivor was published in 1974, 11 years after I began to live with Doris. She gave me a copy of the novel, as she did every one she wrote. It was inscribed ‘To Jenny love Doris 25/11/74’. It made familiar and disturbing reading. I could see Emily in me, just as I could see my elderly neighbour’s description of me aged three. It is as accurate a reading of me as Emily’s harsh commentary on others. It is true, but it is, of course, a doubly edited version, a view of me from the narrator’s point of view, which itself has been taken and worked for fiction’s purpose from Doris’s point of view. If there is pity in the narrator’s response to Emily, it is strained for. I discovered after a while that Doris had a habit of describing people in fiction and in life as, for example, ‘heartbreaking’ in her most distant, coolest tone, as if to mitigate her dislike of them. She saw it as being fair, I think.

The truth of the matter is, no one wants to be a character in someone else’s novel. I do feel sympathy for Diski, who was hurt by Lessing’s portrayal.   But perhaps Lessing was also writing about herself as Emily.   And I myself thought the portrait of Emily was compassionate.

Living with Lessing sounds relatively heavenly to me. When I was a  teenager, a lesbian teacher installed me in her house and seduced me.  I was always having to pretend I was 18 so she wouldn’t be arrested.  When I moved out, she stood on the curb outside the house where I had a room and yelled, “I hope it hurts like hell when you screw.”

There are observant writers; there are distorting writers.  There are kind writers; there are sociopathic writers.

Of course I’m fascinated by Diski’s memoirs (I  loved Skating to Antarctica), but Lessing’s are more fascinating.  I look forward to the third volume of Lessing’s autobiography, if she ever wrote it and if it is published.


Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing’s If the Old Could…

Diaries of Jane Somers Doris LessingIn the early 1980s, Doris Lessing published two remarkable novels under the name Jane Somers, The Diary of a Good Neighbor and If the Old Could...

“I have been thinking about writing a pseudonymous novel for years.  Like, I am sure, most writers.  How many do?  It is in the nature of things that we don’t know.  But I intended to come clean from the start, only wanted to make a little experiment,” Lessing wrote  in the preface of the paperback edition,  The Diaries of Jane Somers, which was published after she admitted to the authorship,

She said she wanted to be reviewed on merit, and hoped it would be a freeing experience to write pseudonymously.

And it did turn out that as Jane Somers I wrote in ways that Doris Lessing cannot.  It was more a question of using the odd turn of phrase of an adjective to suggest a woman journalist who is also a successful romantic novelist:  Jane Somers knew nothing about a kind of dryness, like a conscience, that monitors Doris Lessing whatever she writes and whatever style.

Indeed, few recognized Jane Somers as Doris Lessing.  Her British publishers, Cape and Granta, rejected Jane Somers’ novels, though Robert Gottleib of Knopf in New York immediately knew it was Lessing and asked, “Who are you kidding?”  According to the dust jacket bio, Jane Somers was a well-known woman journalist.  Reviewers didn’t look beyond that.

Last year I wrote briefly about The Diary of a Good Neighbour, which I consider the better novel of the two.  The middle-aged narrator, Janna, a women’s magazine editor and romantic novelist, befriends Maudie, a woman in her nineties, and their difficult friendship changes her ideas about obligations to the elderly.  She does more for Maudie than she did for her own mother.

Doris Lessing, the 1980s

Doris Lessing, the 1980s

In If the Old Could…, Janna, now in her fifties, still at the magazine, has no time for romance.  Masturbation has been sufficient for her sexual needs since her husband Freddy’s death years ago.  But as the novel opens, she falls into a romance. When she steps off a train and catches her foot in the gap, an attractive man catches her and she finds herself lying in his arms, laughing. And then Janna notices a scowling girl behind him (his adult daughter).  The man walks away with her, and Janna expects never to see him again.

In his fifties, I should say.  Like me….  I went slowly up and out, more shaken than I had thought, and by more than my fall.  I was thinking, That was an unusual man, one that would stand out anywhere, in any crowd.  You forget how mediocre most people are.  Then, suddenly, one of the other kind.  What did he think of me?  Well, I knew, there was no mistaking that.

The next day she retraces her footsteps to Soho Square, and as she looks at spring flowers, she sees Richard.  The two fall in love, and it is true love, that dizzying flow of sexual and psychic connection.  But there are obstacles to their having a sexual affair. His daughter Kathleen stalks them, and soon Janna’s disturbed niece and new flatmate, Kate, is also stalking Janna. (And, yes, the girls are doubles.) In this multi-layered narrative, love is the province of the young, while the “old” must deal with doubles, dreams, shadows, and messes.

Family life is so intricate that Janna and Richard cannot jump into bed with each other.  Janna is ready for love, but Richard has some issues.  Richard’s wife is a superstar doctor, while he is ostensibly content to be a family doctor.  They have three children: Matthew is his young, insensitive lookalike-double, and Kathleen is unhealthily attached to the child with Down’s Syndrome who is the center of the household (and also to Richard).   The childless Janna should be free, but she is now very involved with her nieces. A few years ago Jill, a cool, bright young woman who is now working in the editorial department of the magazine, showed up at her flat in London and persuaded Janna to let her move in.  Now that Jill is living with her boyfriend, her younger sister Kate has moved into Janna’s flat.  But Kate is different.  She is one of those people who have been born without skills, who cannot take care of herself, and destroys everything she touches.  Where does Kate belong?  In the squat nearby where she has made friends?  In addition to the burden of Kate, Janna feels responsible for Annie, an old woman who was a neighbor of the late Maudie.

It is Richard himself who is the biggest obstacle to their love affair, though.  After he requests a picture, and Janna gives him a snap of herself as a beautiful young woman, he is unsettled.  Perhaps she is out of his league?  And when she arranges for them to have a weekend alone at her flat, he says her bedroom doesn’t look like her and they do not go to bed together. Yet Janna blindly continues to love him, to spend all her free time with him, and makes him the center of her life.  Their long walks and nights at cafes are idyllic.  But their obligations are such that they cannot love as they could have when they were young.

I kept thinking, Poor Jane. Like so many of the men in Lessing’s novels, Richard fears strong women.

And yet…that’s what it’s like, isn’t it?

Except in the movies.

Poor Janna.

Poor Doris.

Alternate History: Doris Lessing’s Alfred and Emily

Doris Lessing alfred and EmilyDoris Lessing’s Alfred and Emily was her last book.

Lessing, a Nobel winner, is one of my favorite writers.  (I have many favorite writers.)  I have written many times of my love for her books, especially the Children of Violence series.

When she announced in 2008 that Alfred and Emily was her last book, I thought,  Oh no, please not.

I did not like to think of a future without Doris Lessing.

Lessing died last November.

I am reading the few Lessing books I never got around to, and just finished  Alfred and Emily. Lessing often experimented with science fiction, and the first half of the book is an alternate history about what her parents’ lives might have been like had World War I not happened

The war theme predominates in the alternate histories I have recently read:  in  Philip K. Dick’s complex science fiction classic, The Man in the High Castle, the U.S. is ruled by Germany and Japan after they win World War II ;  in D. J. Taylor’s brilliant novel, The Windsor Faction, a finalist for this year’s Sidewise Awards for Alternate History, he speculates about what might have happened in World War II if King Edward VIII had not abdicated the throne to marry his divorcee-mistress, Wallis Simpson (who, in the novel, dies in 1936); and Conqueror Fantastic,  an alternate history anthology, edited by Pamela Sargent, of 13 stories about conquerors such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Kennedys, and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Lessing’s novel is a good match with the aforementioned.  In Alfred and Emily,  she experiments with genre and form, as she did in The Four-Gated City, the last book of the Children of Violence series, and Memoirs of a Survivor, a post-apocalyptic fable which, by the way, features a character named Emily.  The novella in Alfred and Emily is balanced in the second half of the book by a memoir/history about her parents’ actual lives.

Many of us know about Lessing’s parents from her autobiographical novels.  The heroine Martha Quest(COV) struggles to escape her domineering mother, a clever, controlling woman who does not have enough to do on their isolated farm in Africa.  Martha’s charming, likable father does his best with the farm, but he was shell-shocked and often ill.

In the novella, Lessing wanted to give them better lives.

She explains the purpose in the Foreword,

My parents were remarkable, in their very different ways.  What they did have in common was their energy.  The First World War did them both in.  Shrapnel shattered my father’s leg, and thereafter he had to wear a wooden one.  He never recovered from the trenches.  He died at sixty-two, an old man.  On the death certificate should have been written, as cause of death, the Great War.  My mother’s great love, a doctor, drowned in the Channel.  She did not recover from that loss.  I have tried to give them lives as might have been if there had been no World War One.

In the novella, there is no war.  England is prosperous.  Alfred plays cricket (he is a local star) and works  on the farm of his best friend Bert’s father.  (Lessing’s father had wanted to farm in Norfolk or Essex, but ended up in Africa). Alfred is treated as a son of the house, and eventually manages the farm because his friend, Bert, is an alcoholic, and he is in a way Bert’s caretaker.  Alfred marries Betsy, a plump, happy, sexy nurse who makes him happy.  (He and Emily were incompatible in real life.)  Life is difficult, but satisfying.

Emily, however, is the real star of the novella.  As a girl she rebels and goes to London to study nursing:  her father tells her “never to darken his doors again.” Emily becomes head nurse at a London hospital and then marries her doctor (the one who in real life died in the war).  Surprisingly, it is not a happy marriage:  she is a trophy wife and hostess without enough to do. After his death, she discovers a talent for storytelling  to children, and founds a charity to create schools for the poor.

And so her energy finds an outlet.  And so Lessing pays tribute to her mother, who introduced her to many books and stories.

Lessing’s alternate history, like Taylor’s, is not entirely different from history.  For instance, there is a servant problem.

She writes,

The plenitude and wealth of Edwardian England had not ended.  this was a time of great prosperity–well, it was for the said classes.  And the servants were deciding that to work in private houses with their restrictions and rules was not for them.  Within a mile or os of Clarges Street there were a new glove factory (‘French’ gloves), a French milliner, an upholsterer whose other shop was in Paris, a luxurious chocolate shop, a department store whose five floors were crammed with fashion and frivolity.  And the craze for everything Russian, Mir.  That was where Emily’s servants had gone.

Perhaps the memoir is the most poignant part of the narrative, but it might not have been as moving if we had not read first the alternate history.

Lessing’s father suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and her mother went to bed with a nervous breakdown, which she called a “heart attack,” after the family finally settled in Africa.

[Emily] had nursed the wounded of a world war, and now it is easy to see she was in a state of dreadful anxiety, she was full of panic, she could look ahead and she she was trapped, with no way out.

Lessing openly admits that she hated her mother from early childhood.  But she wonders, Could being stricken twice with malaria have been the cause of some of her parents’ problems?

She believes antidepressants would have helped them with their psychiatric problems.

She also writes about the role of antidepressants in helping people cope with old age.

This is an important book, a combination of speculative fiction and a speculative memoir.

The two halves of the novella and memoir are perfectly balanced, though this is on the surface a simple book.

And Lessing, though she said she was not a feminist, so very clearly was by my standards.  Her mother was clearly not meant to have children.  She writes, “And now there are women, more and more, who decide not to have children, and what a great thing that is.”

Power Outage


Half of North America just lost their Facebook.”–George Clooney as Matt Kowalski, Gravity

I slept through a thunderstorm.  I woke up to a power outage.

Three trees down on our street.  Around the block, I saw a tree tangled in telephone wires.

As I foraged for coffee and batteries, I felt like a character in a postapocalyptic science fiction novel.  In one of my favorite books, Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor, the narrator describes the disintegration of society caused by power outages and food shortages.  This stunning novel is a “memoir” of a future of regression and barbarism, but also a reminder of techniques of off-the-grid survival. (Gangs, barter, and flea markets are important.)  The future may be most difficult for those of us who remember civilization, Lessing hints.

How will we cope?

No internet, no interrupted thoughts, no ads appearing in the corners of webpages.

What is off-the-grid survival anyway?

Being off-the-grid can be a good thing.

We are so used to looking up information online.

The phone book works just as well.

While I waited for power, I got a lot of reading done.  I am absolutely loving Karl Ove Knausgaard’s nonfiction novel, My Struggle, which I read with the same voracity I do Doris Lessing’s autobiographical Martha Quest novels.  Knausgaard doesn’t change his character’s name.  The narrator is Karl Ove.  The events in the book mirror the author’s life.

Later, when the power came back, I read an interview with him at Amazon.  He says definitions are the enemy of the novel.

I just tried to write a novel. This was the only way I could do it at the time. So no, no active down-tearing of anything. But for me, these books definitely are novels. I didn´t try to represent my life, but wanted to use my life as a kind of raw material for a novelistic search for meaning or for meaningful patterns. I use all the novels tools, I can describe one day over three hundred pages, or a year in a sentence. It isn´t fiction, though, it´s non-fiction, but it isn’t a documentary or a memoir either: it’s a non fiction novel.

I really recommend getting off the net to read this fascinating modern classic.

Less screen time is more reading time.

But thank God the power is back on.  How lucky we are to have electricity!

Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell

briefing-a-descent-hell-doris-lessing-jul-There are very few of Doris Lessing’s books I haven’t read.

If I had not read The Golden Notebook, I might have become a different person.

Lessing’s brilliant depiction of the character Anna Wulf’s ironic stance toward politics, sex, and her lovers’ misogyny reflected not only her own generation’s struggles, but a later generation’s (mine).  Anna Wulf keeps notebooks–different notebooks for different parts of her life–and everything coheres in the golden notebook, a special notebook, a gift.  ( I am still waiting for my golden notebook:  I hardly think it is my blog.)

But when her novel, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, was published in 1971, I wasn’t interested.

The format put me off.  After the copyright page, there is a double-page spread with delicate elliptical swirls drawn around a black filled-in circle.  It says inside the inner ring and moving the circle:


For there is never anywhere to go but in.

This experimental novel interweaves documents in a psychiatric hospital,  a patient’s alternate-universe memories, letters from his wife and friends, two doctors’ different ideas about treatment (and the treatment that turns out to be a terrible idea), and dialogue between the patient and the doctors.

Four decades later, I have finally read this powerful novel. As in The Four-Gated City, Lessing explores the  idea that not all mad people are mad.

In an interview with Joyce Carol Oates about Briefing in The Southern Review in 1973, Doris Lessing spoke of attitudes toward madness she shared with R. D. Laing:

Yes. We were both exploring the phenomenon of the unclassifiable experience, the psychological ‘breaking-through’ that the conventional world judges as mad. I think Laing must have been very courageous, to question the basic assumptions of his profession from the inside…. In America, the psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, in The Manufacture of Madness, has made similar claims. He has taken a very revolutionary position.

The hero of Briefing, Charles, a classics professor, has amnesia, but his experiences while mad have been the true experiences of his life.  During a shipwreck, his friend are swept up by a crystal disc.  He spends days on a raft, and finally lands near a beautiful ruined city.  In the central square, he sweeps away leaves and cleans it, believing that a crystal that swept up his friends one by one on a ship will come for him.

When I woke, as the sun came up shining from the blue-green sea, I knew quite clearly that I had something to do.   My friends were all about me.  I knew that, and in some way they were of the substance of this warm earthy stone, and the air itself, but it was not enough for me just to live here and breathe in air.  I sprang straight up when I woke, driven by this knowledge that I had work to do, and went to wash my face and hands in the nearest water channel….  I… walked out among the sky-roofed houses to see what I could see… it was very strange indeed that I had not noticed this before:  among the buildings, in what seemed like the center of the old city, what might very well have been the former central square, was an expanse of smooth stone which was not interrupted by flowers or by water channels.  The square was perhaps seventy or a hundred yards across, and in it was an inner circle, about fifty yards across.  It was a little cracked where earth had settled under it, and some grass grew in the cracks, but it was nearly flat, and it waited there for what I had to do.  I knew now what this was.  I had to prepare this circle lying in its square, by clearing away all the loose dirt and pulling out the grass.

When the disc finally comes, he is able to see an ideal city within a city.  But he is sent back to earth.

There is so much in this narrative:  the evolution of terrifying animals in the city who are similar to human beings; and later a meeting on another planet with the gods, who send envoys to Earth to prepare the people for a terrible catastrophe.  On earth they will be born, forget their mission, and, if they are lucky, remember it someday.

We understand Charles’ birth.

At a lecture he influences some other people who are trying to remember, though he does not himself remember.

It is very moving.

This is a character who should not be subjected to psychiatric treatment.

I must reread this to see exactly what Lessing means, if there are any doubts about the character (not that I think there are), and if there is any other way to interpret this.  I think not.

Briefing reminds me a bit of some of the science fiction of David Lindsay (Voyage to Arcturus)  and Anna Kavan (Ice).  It was nominated for the Booker Prize.

Lessing was unorthodox, brilliant, and brave.

As for madness?  Often the mad are brilliant. Often the mad are in terrible pain.  The psychiatric drugs are always inadequate, though perhaps better than they used to be.  A friend told me that Clozapine had changed his life for the better.  I have other friends who have struggled with antidepressants, unable to endure the side effects.  Very little money is spent on research for these drugs.  The mentally ill are throwaway people.

It’s a sad world, and Lessing knew about it.

Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing

I don’t see any point in writing any more–what point has there ever been?  To whom?  What for?”–Mark Coldridge in the dystopian science fiction appendix to Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City

When I was 15, my best friend’s mother gave me a copy of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, an exhilarating novel that expressed, or at least imagined, my own point of view as a young feminist who had recently discovered through polemical works that marriage was not my only option.

As a tribute to Lessing, the Nobel Prize winner who died November 16, I reread The Four-Gated City, the best of her Children of Violence series (I have written at length about this series here), and the best of  her experimental novels.

In this dazzling, urgent, neglected masterpiece, Lessing maturely shapes the themes she explored in The Golden Notebook:  breakdown of personality, sex, politics, madness, raising children, and the almost random quality of thoughts in different times and political eras.

And there is a remarkable science fiction appendix, which brilliantly comments on the first 616 realistic pages of the novel.

In the first four realistic novels of the series, set in “Zambesia” (which Lessing describes as “a composite of various parts of white-dominated Africa”), Martha struggles with Communist politics and with her personality as a woman who is rebellious but nevertheless keeps marrying and making bad choices.

It is only in the fifth of these novels, The Four-Gated City, that Martha comes into her own after she comes to London.  This superb women’s odyssey follows Martha from age 30 to her death in the late 1990s.  It can be read as a stand-alone novel.

In London, Martha feels free to experiment with personality:  she  longs to become her real self, not just an actor who tries to please; she also wants to be “the watcher,” a part of her personality that she later knows would make psychiatrists think her schizophrenic.    During a very long opening sequence when she walks through London, Lessing writes in rhythmic long paragraphs, sometimes longer than a page, and we feel the rhythmic intensity of the streets as she tries to figure out what she wants to do.

She was walking along a long low street with dark trees along it, and low pools of yellowish light at intervals, consciously bracing herself against depression, when she understood that in fact that part of her mind whose intimations she courted had spread, was swallowing the rest:  she was on the verge of a sensation–no, wrong word, but what words were right?–a state then, that had been in fact the surprise of her being in London, its real gift to her.  She had learned that if she walked long enough, slept slightly enough to be conscious of her dreams, ate at random, was struck by new experience throughout the day, then her whole self cleared, lightened.  She became active and light and aware.

four-gated-city-doris-lessing-paperback-cover-artAs the book goes on, Martha needs her “self cleared”often.  She works for Mark, a writer and factory owner, as a secretary and housekeeper, and after personal tragedies, they imagine together a mythical city where human beings could live intelligently and happily. Mark writes a novel about it.

Mark, whose wife, Lynda, is in and out of mental hospitals and  lives in the basement, and whose brother, Colin, a scientist who shared information with other countries, has been labelled a traitor and fled to Russia, doesn’t “want to be split,” as he tells Martha.  He maps politics, wars, and disasters in his study, sometimes adding personal data from the writings of his wife’s roommate, Dorothy.

Lessing has a Laingian view of madness: In the basement, Lynda and Dorothy struggle with mental illness, but actually “know” things others don’t.  Martha gradually realizes that Lynda has special abilities, that if she were not held down by pills (given to her first as a girl when she admitted she heard voices), she might have been able to communicate very important things about the doomed, poisoned future of England.

When Martha first breaks down, when she realizes her mother plans to visit her in London, she visits Lynda and Dorothy.  Lynda advises her not to go to a psychiatrist, that you get “hooked in.”

You had better keep out of their hands,” said Lynda.  “That’s my advice.”

“But don’t they help–psychiatrists?”

Lynda smiled, watching Martha from large eyes surrounded by bruised flesh.  “Well,” she said.

Later in the novel, Martha deliberately breaks down when Lynda breaks down and tries not to take pills, and the two come to an understanding about the people whose “machinery has gone wrong,” due to psychiatric treatment.

So much of this novel is about illness:  I don’t share Lessing’s views on madness, but they fit in very well with the novel, and with the tragic science fiction appendix.

Lessing has so much to say about madness, wars, environmental poison, and disasters.

This is a tragic novel–I was moved to tears by the post-apocalyptic ending–and I was dismayed by Martha’s death, though she lives to old age.  I love Martha Quest.  I want to spend more time with her.  Of course I can reread.

I cannot possibly cover everything in this astonishing novel.   I may write more about it someday; on  the other hand, maybe this is enough.