Ashes to Ashes

THE FOUR-GATED CITY by Doris Lessing Knopf, $7.50
With her new book, Doris Lessing has completed her big novel cycle, Children of Violence. It is clear now that in her major fiction Mrs. Lessing has made a statement of what life has been like for thinking people in the Western -world tit midcentury. Further, through the central character of the series, Martha Quest, and primarily in The Tour-Gated City, she has created an image of freedom from this life that seems truly radical. Mrs. Lessing’s new book is principally about the process of developing within oneself the capacity for a new way of living, while at the same time one continues to live and work within our society. And she concludes that this process is possible, at least for some, even if, as site anticipates, our world descends into cataclysm.
Shortly before she died, Katherine Mansfield discovered an image for her own life and the kind of life that seems to come with adulthood to nearly everyone: “a river flowing away in countless little trickles over a dark swamp.” Time and time again the events of Martha Quest’s life are capable of evoking this im-. age. But this is much more true of the earlier volumes of Children of Violence than of the new book. Martha spends four volumes growing up in Central Africa; The FourGated City begins with her arrival in London at the age of thirty and follows her through almost twentyyears to the present. Often the river still seems to be dwindling away. But more and more it also seems to receive: its helpless losses may well be balanced, or more than balanced, by influxes from . . . where?
If this question has an answer, it is to be found not in the novel alone but in the connections that can be made between the world the novel presents and the worlds that we, its readers, happen to inhabit. Fortunately these links are numerous; as much as anything, The Four-Gated City is a chronicle of the moods and the politics of the fifties and sixties. Martha herself “does” very little in the novel. Shortly after she arrives in London, she is offered a job as secretary to Mark Coldridge, a manufacturer and writer. She moves into Mark’s house in Bloomsbury, and as Mark’s friend, occasional mistress, and unofficial housekeeper, she is really at the center of the whole Coldridge family. Mark and his brothers, along with their mother and their wives and children, are all exposed to Martha’s scrutiny. But only Mark, his periodically mad wife, Lynda, anil the various children come close to Martha: they are the ones whose breakdowns and discoveries are relevant to Maltha’s own development. The others are simply observed in their rides in London’s political and literary worlds, focused on as typical actors in the more important currents of the past twenty years.
Of course the connections we can make at this level are helpful as well as entertaining. But throughout Children of Violence, Mrs. Lessing has been interested in more basic I (or perhaps simply more abstract) themes; responding to these themes is the necessary experience in reading The Four-Gated City. To begin with, there is the family—and, for the first time in the new volume, our estabIished antidote to the family, psychotherapy. Martha’s constantly painful and endlessly protracted relations with her parents, especially her mother, are one of her steady preoccupations. We wonder, and she wonders, will she ever be able to do an) thing with relationships that seem so hopelessly stereotyped, or even “simply” escape them? Hostility, incomprehension, and anguish cycle endlessly through both the mother and daughter whenever they are in contact with each other. Martha, however, disrupts the cycle to a degree: she is finally able to feel, it not express, pity for her mother. And it is important that long before she admits this feeling, she has left her own small daughter with her lust husband at their divorce, convinced that she is setting tiie child “free.”
The whole dimension oL family, it might be noted, is considerably underdeveloped in Mrs. Lessing’s other major work, The Gulden Notebook, lor all that book’s concern with memory and historical events. And yet it is in just these kinds of family events that Mrs. Lessing really begins to involve us in a consideration of history. We come to recognize that such “new” emotions and actions, however personal they may seem to be, belong to Martha mainly insofar as she is an agent at her particular moment in Western culture. 8he has no choice but to experience them, and she lias no evident way to control or regulate their influence upon her “own” life.
More obviously, history is Martha’s concern in its conventional sense. The earlier volumes of Children of Violence center upon Martha’s movement out of childhood (a farm in the bush) into history: that is, living in Zambesia, a British colony in Africa turned into an R.A.F. training area during World War II. In this environment, history for Martha is total immersion in the colony’s i newly established Communist Party. As if to balance her isolation as a Zambesian, Martha’s years in the Party give her one of the fundamental Western political experiences of at least die first half of this century. But it is important that, as a young Communist, Martha quite unconsciously denies the possibility of there being any other sort of history, even behind the lives of the very blacks whom she tries to convert to radicalism. Her lover of this time —a Polish refugee and fellow Communist who exiles himself to a native village and dies there—has a slight awareness of an African history that is distinct from colonial history. I lowever, this awareness does not come to Martha until years after she has left Africa.
In The Four-Gated City, history is first of all the events of the past two decades: better, those events which seem to sum up the development ot Western society since 1950. Upon tiiis presentation the novel builds its picture of the disruption of that society in the decade to come. But history in this hook has a new sense as well. For the English Martha, history becomes in part memory. And memory plays a major role in the development of self-awareness.
From her early years Martha has had the ability to stand off from herself occasionally, and thereby to acquire a deep (if fleeting) sense of the way certain “personalities” that go by her name automatically enact and re-enact certain set situations. The times in which she is open to tins “silent watcher” in her are her moments of deepest apprehending, not only of herself but also of the physical and human worlds. In youth these times are accidental, gifts. It becomes the task of adulthood to make such times the center. And so the new novel revolves about Martha’s work and the forms it takes. Physical activity, emotional bonds, and the conscientious exercise of the intellect with regard to living and being are all explored as necessary parts of Martha’s self-development.
But beyond these elements comes an active search for the “silent watcher” and “silent listener” in her. When Martha succeeds in this search, the fruit is the gaining of awareness and powers that are simply inaccessible in the ordinary activities of life. At the same time, the novel at least implies that this fruit is not in the way of those (at least in our society) who, in one manner or another, permanently reject the ordinary activities. This kind of self-achievement does eventually return to history, is seen in fact as the heart of our present history and the years immediately ahead. The development of selfawareness suggested, and to some extent described, in The Four-Gated City becomes the only agency by which anyone can be saved in the disaster to come.
The novel sequence as a whole is unclear about one of the central facts of Martha Quest’s life: her decision to leave Zambesia and go “home” to England for good. The knowledge that she would do so was with her for several years before she left. Of course we have beyond anything else the fact of her leaving and her development following upon it. But must we see her ability to make the decision as another of her gifts, her luck, like her “watcher”? How then do we imagine all those who never left Zambesia—or perhaps Australia, or America, or even England itself? Are they all doomed?
It may be useful, with regard to this problem, to think back to The Golden Notebook. Published in 1962, this novel concentrates on the fifties. But the roots and processes of breakdown in people very much like the characters of The Four-Gated City are its main concern. Breakdown and “holding operations,” but also efforts toward new awareness and change, are described in the life of Anna Wulf, central character of The Golden Notebook. Anna’s developmcnt is rather less coherent and controlled than Martha Quest’s; and, of course, Anna does not live through the sixties. What counts here is rather our knowledge that Anna is a person very much like Martha, that Anna in time could do what Martha does—and that Anna was born in England. In other words, Zambesia belongs to Martha. We need not all have so literally our own Zambesia: less dramatic changes of place or outlook may approximate. What is necessary is to leave “Zambesia” firmly behind—to live as closely as possible to the center of our times, for all the difficulties involved. This is exactly what The Four-Gated City describes; and in doing so, it gives us a valuable new perception of that center.