The Four Gated City, Before I Forget

September 8, 2006

So The Four-Gated City is the last in a series, or an epilog to a quartet of novels by Doris Lessing called The Children of Violence (Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, A Ripple from the Storm, and Landlocked). Wow, are they good. The first four are very reality-, almost history-based and usually viewed as autobiographical for the author. The last, The Four Gated City, was written (in 1969) more about the future—probably a time now passed.(In Lessing’s autobiography, she gets much more explicit about the “children of violence” concept, describing how her generation, born between the two world wars (she was born in 1919), were influenced irrevocably by the damage the first war had done to their parents. Which could only lead to the next war…)

I read these five books in a row, bang-bang-bang (bang-bang), which really made them powerful. Such luxury I had back in more youthful summers. I also read Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet all in a row (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea—highly recommended). I was training for the national rowing team, and even then I appreciated the time I had and the situation I was in. I appreciated it so much, in fact, I kind of yearned for it even while it was happening. My so-called professional career back then would be annually interrupted by summers away at selection camp where you rowed twice a day and fretted about your position in the seat-racing ladder and what the coach might be thinking and you tried to make sure you would make weight when you had to, but not by too much, and generally had only energy enough left to nap, knit, read, write and get down to the water for the next practice. Since I didn’t nap or knit, I read and wrote. I read a lot. Besides those series I mentioned, I also consumed Doris Lessing’s “space fiction” series (Shikasta, The Sirian Experiments, The Marriages Between Planets Four, Five and Six, The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight, and The Sentimental Agents), as well as about four volumes of Sufi stories by Idries Shah and a random assortment of other things, mostly novels, that strangely fell into place like a purposeful curriculum.

Oh yeah, but this was a post about the Four Gated City, not my nostalgia for a time when I could read more than one book a month. The Four Gated City is post-apocalyptic, but the apocalypse was slow, an almost imperceptible decline into bedlam. I found the portrayal so convincing that I feel sure this is the way we are headed. Maybe not one big nuclear blast to wipe humanity away, but a series of apparently unrelated Bhopals and Chernobyls and Katrinas that amass and are never recovered from, and the government decays in its obsession with garnering power and with irrelevant ideology while people are left to fend for themselves in the damaged world left to them. Well, it’s damn cheerful, isn’t it. Enough to make anyone go out and start harvesting burdock.

Aw, jeez, I didn’t need to write the above at all. Here’s an excellent description from a Doris Lessing website:

It will provoke disquiet and questioning. Mrs. Lessing’s view of recent politics is not everyone’s. Her view of the future (inevitably brutish and painful) is that it is the present: that we are all hypnotized, awaiting cataclysms which we are in fact living through now; that we are now—as we run and read—in the process of a rapid evolution; that we are mutating fast but can’t see it, the chief characteristic of our race being its inability to see what is under its nose; that historians and scientists, in their timid traditionalism, feed our fantasy view of ourselves—suppressing truths about the human condition, about madness, about sanity, about the essential nature of the mind.


5 Responses to “The Four Gated City, Before I Forget”

  1. […] Here, people, is the end of western civilization. (See my previous mention of The Four Gated City.) This is the irrevocable crumbling decay that is happening under our own stuffed-up noses. […]

  2. […] Remember Euell Gibbons? You’ve got to be of a certain age to recall him hawking Grape Nuts on TV. The author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus (1962) hearkens back to the days when public television called itself “The 21-inch Classroom.” Euell may just have had a show, I don’t know. One of the first “health food nuts” of our times, his Stalking the Wild Asparagus is just the book I need when I think of the uneventful apocalypse ahead, where we have to find our own edible tree bark and make soap […]

  3. Hello,

    Could you go into more detail as to plot/narrative of the Martha Quest novels and tell
    us where Doris Lessing “is coming from”….

    What would Lessing-ism be…?


  4. Sandy Says:

    Sorry I didn’t see that question till now. The Martha Quest novels follow the title character (who has a lot in common with the author, but not everything) from her youth in South Africa before WWII, through the hyped-up (Lessing does a lot about mob mentality) build up to the war and her somewhat hasty marriage that came as a part of all that national exuberance. Then its dissolution, her emigration to England, her further adventures and development into a “competent middle aged woman” (a character type Lessing covers frequently), and then as a survivor in the final, postapocalyptic book. (Non-heroic survival another theme.) By children of violence she refers to the generations born to WWI survivors–all of them PTSD sufferers (my words, not hers) who were grown and developed and trained in violence as the primary social dynamic. Something like that. Where is she coming from? That’s for her to say, but I bet she wouldn’t! I saw her speak a few times and she said, “I have written too many books.” (Among other interesting things.) Anyhow, she denies outright that her books were written as feminist works, and I would agree. They just happen to have female characters explored beyond their romantic lives… I would say you will find Sufism in her work, but if asked to explain I will be unable, unqualified to. Lessingism, hmmm, deeply humanist, nonreligiously spiritual, quite serious (not a lot of laughs in her stuff), keenly observing real and imagined life and describing it in a way that makes a reader say, oh yeah, that’s it exactly. Dunno, that’s just my off the cuff thinking about it…. Welcome dissent.

  5. Thank you, Sandy.

    You’re impromptu remarks on “Martha Quest”/Lessing are quite helpful.

    Many thanks.

    Best, Richard

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