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Shivery Games

The Four-Gated City

by Doris Lessing
Knopf, 614 pp., $7.50

This is the fifth and last (irrevocably the last) of the novels which make up the sequence called “Children of Violence,” and in the most obvious sort of way it does more than its predecessors to account for the over-all title. Otherwise, and apart from the continuing technique of total evocation, it would hardly seem to come from the same pen.

In the first four novels Mrs. Lessing is a conscientiously realistic writer, dealing with many (if not all!) of the political and social issues which have engaged the international intelligentsia since the end of the First World War. Personally I find the writing in these books somewhat undistinguished, artisan rather than artistic—in the present book, why use a word like “matriarchical,” why perpetrate a sentence like “She comforted Lynda that she was not to worry, Algavious (she called him Al for short) would take off her, Lynda, with her, Sandra, when it was time”?—and the detail of the narration impresses me as quite suffocating at times. Mrs. Lessing has never trusted to the illuminating image or the revealing instance, the part which could evoke the whole more accurately than the whole can ever do: she spells everything out. At the same time, except for that quasi-mystical communion of the flesh, so very, very conscious, which comes early in the present novel, her spelling is good and careful; she takes pains with her documentation; she adopts attitudes and sides, and they are always decent ones. She knows what is right, what is good, but she doesn’t make either the ends or the means seem simpler than they are, and like a true liberal she inclines to say more for the bad attitudes and the wrong sides than they would bother to say for themselves. Her roman fleuve moves sluggishly—Martha Quest’s prime seems to last for a good fifty years!—but it has a certain grim carrying power about it.

If Mrs. Lessing is more concerned with matter than with style, then at least this is preferable to the contrary state of affairs. Her work is free of gimmicks, a fact which endows it with distinction at a time when so many novels turn out to be gimmicks et praeterea nihil. To take but a few recent examples: an old-fashioned boy’s adventure retold in four-letter words; a faded novelette of stock situations injected with modish voyeurism; a thin and oft-told tale lacquered over with such painstaking obscurity as to suggest profound originality to overworked reviewers and under-developed readers…. All about as inventive as the Black Mass. No, Mrs. Lessing works for her royalties; she is a stakhanovite of contemporary fiction.

Yet this new and final installment does decline, I fear, into reliance on a gimmick—the gimmick of the apocalyptic, or the science-fictional, which here takes the form of a not very specific “Catastrophe” resulting from the escape of nerve-gas from a research station and/or accidents involving nuclear devices. Unhappily there is no true—no artistically true—connection between the Martha Quest whom we first met as a fifteen-year-old in the novel named after her and the old woman whose death on a contaminated island somewhere off Scotland is casually mentioned in the “Appendix” to The Four-Gated City. While we recognize that our own lives could end in this way, our own “quest” be terminated by an atomic holocaust willed or accidental, we may still feel resentment when this is made to happen to fictitious characters in a work of fiction. There is nothing intrinsically impossible or even improbable in Mrs. Lessing’s “Catastrophe,” a real Martha Quest could certainly end this way—but it won’t do for Mrs. Lessing’s Martha. Moreover, it is not merely that The Four-Gated City doesn’t consort with the earlier four books: the greater part of this fifth book, which is itself densely documentary and indeed rather tediously domestic in its detail (every breakfast egg-and-bacon is fried in print), doesn’t consort with its own ending.

We cannot deny Mrs. Lessing her vision of disaster, her despair. The world can quite conceivably meet the fate she describes. The trouble, as I have suggested, is that this fate is not in accordance with the rest of “Children of Violence,” nor is it effectively, with an effect of significant irony, out of accord with it. It may be the case that the long stretches describing the mental breakdowns of a number of characters are intended to act as a bridge between the domestic and the apocalyptic, the collapse of the individual preparing us for the collapse of society. One reason why this doesn’t work out is that the breakdowns are repetitious and boring to read about, quite as boring as detailed descriptions of people’s appendectomies—and at least in the latter case no character could have more than one to be described! Communism has quite lost its appeal, independent Africa has proved a sad disappointment and especially to its best friends—we form the impression that, having run out of good causes, Mrs. Lessing has turned petulant and decided to punish the intelligentsia either by killing them off or (worse) making them look very silly.

The effect is somewhat as if C.P. Snow’s series, “Strangers and Brothers,” were to be taken over toward its close by the author of Giles Goat-Boy. Or, since Mrs. Lessing describes “Children of Violence” as “what the Germans call a Bildungsroman” (in which case we shall ask the more aggrievedly, “Was it for this the clay grew tall?”), as if Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship were to have the concluding pages of Günter Grass’s Dog Years tacked on to it. Yet, broken-backed as it is, The Four-Gated City is still largely readable by virtue of its rewarding incidentals. Mrs. Lessing’s indignation about mental hospitals and the treatment of the mentally disturbed—this we can admire, though later we may ask, But why get so worked up about mental hospitals when you are about to reduce a sizable part of the world to chaos? Better psychiatric methods could hardly have saved Mrs. Lessing’s people, for it was the “sane,” not the “sick,” who were busily making the nerve gases and the nuclear devices.

The reactions of a newly arrived colonial to England are excellently depicted. To ascertain the unwritten laws of social intercourse, to determine when and where you may rightly grumble and when and where you mustn’t, to know when to anticipate hostility from the natives and when friendliness—these tricky problems confront even British-born expatriates who “go home” briefly every other year or so. The visit to London of Martha’s mother, an old lady from “white” Africa, is very well done, exquisitely painful to share in. And the account of the 1950s and 60s, with scholarship boys storming out of the provinces and the Aldermaston marches, is good too, though this fictionalized Life-and-Thought could have been improved by the presence of a few more sharply realized exemplars. Mrs. Lessing has some sound remarks about the shadow-boxing of the British press and other mass media:

Apparently it was a scene of debate, competition, violently clashing interests…. The newspapers that remained might call themselves right, left or liberal, but the people who wrote them were interchangeable, for these people wrote for them all at the same time, or in rapid succession. The same was true of television: the programmes had on them the labels of different companies, or institutions, but could not be told apart, for the same people organised and produced and wrote and acted in them. The same was true of the theatre. It was true of everything.

Including the literary columns: either you get reviewed by the whole metropolitan press or you get reviewed by none of it. For all the show of rivalry and independence of judgment etc., it’s as if the editors have gone into a huddle to decide which new books to notice and also how to notice them. That Mrs. Lessing is so shrewd about things as they are makes one resent the more sharply her uneasy excursion into Things to Come.

It could be argued that she has prepared us for “the Destruction” by hints conveyed in the epigraphs to Part One of Martha Quest—“I am so tired of it, and also tired of the future before it comes” (Olive Schreiner)—and to Part Three of Landlocked—“My God, in what a century have you caused me to live!” (St. Polycarp)—and we have failed to take them seriously enough. Also that what we had supposed to be a representatively reactionary pronouncement by Mr. Maynard in A Ripple from the Storm, the third novel in the series, is in fact a reasonably accurate description of the state of the world just before “the Catastrophe”:

What is history? A record of misery, brutality, and stupidity. That’s all. That’s all it ever will be. What does it matter who runs a country? It’s always a bunch of knaves administering a pack of fools.

In a similar spirit it could be held that a further link resides in the fifteen-year-old Martha’s daydream of “the golden city” with four gates, the “noble city, set foursquare and colonnaded along its falling flower-bordered terraces,” which recurs in the novel called A City in the Desert written by Mark Coldridge within the novel The Four-Gated City, but emphatically does not occur in the real world. Yet not to expect Utopia isn’t the same as anticipating Armageddon…. It is difficult to believe that the author of Martha Quest really intended the sequence to end as it does. Even so, we ought to give that ending a closer look.

Writers of science fiction generally contrive to leave the door open for the resuscitation of our species, or for the emergence of a better one, closing their apocalyptic chronicles with something along the lines of Zeitblom’s “high G of a cello,” in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, his “light in the night.” In The Four-Gated City, it appears that the women busily having those tedious breakdowns were in truth developing extra-sensory powers: they knew that a disaster was on its way, though they couldn’t tell what or when. Intellectuals still, they debate in cheering fashion the effects of telepathy on government—no more secret treaties, no more secret research, no more thought-control, how could authoritarianism survive? But “the Catastrophe” happens.

Later on, among the children born to survivors in Martha’s group, there are several “listeners” and “seers,” in the manner of John Wyndham’s story, The Chrysalids, who “carry with them a gentle strong authority,” and tell their elders that “more like them are being born now in hidden places in the world, and one day all the human race will be like them….” But when one of them, the “marvellous child” Joseph, is sent by Martha to a “Reconstitution and Rehabilitation Centre” in Nairobi, he is at once classed as “subnormal to the 7th, and unfit for academic education.” This could be ascribed to the last-ditch stupidity and fearfulness of the old world, of course, but no firm reassurance is forthcoming, and alas some of the “new people” are said to have two heads and fifty fingers, which doesn’t sound like the beginnings of any very brave new world.

Right at the end, “And what next?” asks Mark Coldridge, the novelist within the novel, now an old man. “Oh how full the world is now of brotherly love and concern!…. If one hundredth of all this love and money had been spent before to teach something as simple as that if you light a fuse a bomb will go off, then…. We are all brothers now, except for those who might turn out not to be….” If only, if only—we end with the vain lament of a defeated liberal.

Things are grim enough without these shivery games. People frightening one another—a poor sort of moral exercise….” Saul Bellow’s Herzog had some sensible and timely things to say about this modern and modish business. “We love apocalypses too much, and crisis ethics and florid extremism with its thrilling language. Excuse me, no. I’ve had all the monstrosity I want.” I think The Four-Gated City is open to this rebuke. Finally, however, it may well be that most readers will object less to the apocalyptic end than to the tedious means whereby it is arrived at, the gratuitous lengthiness of the work. It took God only six days to create the whole world. It really shouldn’t require six hundred pages for Mrs. Lessing to destroy a part of it.

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