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…

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