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The Four-Gated City (1995)

The Four-Gated City (1995)
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4.16 of 5 Votes: 4
ISBN
0060976675 (ISBN13: 9780060976675)
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English
publisher
harper perennial
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The Four-Gated City (1995)
The Four-Gated City (1995)

About book: So ends Lessing's Bildungsroman par excellance. This near-700 page breeze block of a book takes Martha from her early 30s to old age, and is set in post-war London. Lessing compelled my attention before even beginning, with a dervish teaching story and a quote from The Edge of the Sea Each of the Parts the book is divided into has one or several such juicy snippets from diverse sources, making me feel that Martha herself, in her habit of reading into a topic to educate herself, is also Doris (although there is a severe reprimand in this book of seeing autobiography in every novel, a fault I have been never more guilty of than in my reading of The Children of Violence series). If the quotations seem a little oblique until later, they are both intriguing and beautiful, surprisingly so when they come from school text books. A quote from Idries Shah on the beliefs of the Sufis reminded me of this quote that has haunted me since I stumbled on it somewhere at 17, from Hazrat Inayat Khan: The world is evolving from imperfection towards perfection; it needs all love and sympathy; great tenderness and watchfulness is required from each one of us. And I felt that bridges were being built in me like the mangrove roots. I remembered books I'd read more than ten years ago on astrology, philosophy and history, as well as science fiction and other novels. The whole last half of this book was unexpected, as Lessing writes on epic, visionary scales as in The Memoirs of a Survivor and Re: Colonised Planet 5, ShikastaSome readers might have felt the shift incongruous, but on the contrary it seemed to me utterly appropriate, since watching Martha move through states in herself and grow as a person from adolescence on has afforded so much insight, self-reflection that every step of her progress and learning is satisfying. She is appealingly ordinary yet completely unique, in a way that makes it clear this is true of everyone if only a five volume epic could be devoted to their psychological development! The depths and heights of self-discovery she reaches in this final novel are made breathtaking by the scope and stretch of Lessing's genius. Really, how many times do we have to say that the personal is political? The arc of Martha's experience is on the only scale we can truly feel, yet Lessing measures a world with it, as we measure our world by living in consciousness.I was struck by the evocation of grim, poverty-stricken post-war London, standing partly ruined, grimy, miserable, with blackout fabric still around the windows, no food worth eating or clothes anyone would want to wear in the shops. The slow slow coming of the '60s is like a change from Winter to Spring, although Martha arrives in summer. London seems to be full of people who want Martha to work for them in some capacity, and each of the encounters she negotiates makes space for a different quality of insight – the Maynard's relative, Henry, allows fresh and incisive view on the English class system. Incisive particularly because I was desperate for Martha to take the job even as I exulted in her refusal, because I didn't want her to be destitute. I envied her courage. She is also wanted by a young man, Jack, whose simply decorated room is the first place apart from gardens that Martha describes appreciatively. He is a kind of medium for Martha, allowing her to access a certain transcendent state. Finally she begins working as a kind of assistant to Mark, managing his troubled family in an increasingly fractious and oppressive political atmosphere. In this role it's particularly obvious how different this wise and restrained Martha is from her impulsive younger self. The quality of her consciousness, as of her conversations, is much deeperFor example, she is so acute in speaking to psychoanalyst Dr Lamb, posing the question of why parent-child relationships are so awful, so destructive. We see that this is not a permissible question in the field, which is ahistorical. He tells her 'you need an historian, or a sociologist'. Martha is demanding responsibility. This tasty slice is just grazing the iceberg of what Martha eventually comes to understand about mental illness and the medical approach to it, with the help of Mark's wife Lynda, who has been the victim of aggressive and damaging psychological 'therapy'. Martha's mother's abusive, apparently unconscious monologue relatedly helps her towards understanding, though very painfully.Discussion of literary genres takes place in a context that makes it serious, even urgent. The 'Ivory Tower' as a mood of political reaction, the humble, outsider status of sci-fi and the revulsion and ridicule of any challenge the the rationalist orthodoxy in the form of esoteric knowledge, occultism or mysticism are both vital issues here. There is also much continuation of the political insight of the earlier volumes, here focusing especially on the mood and political atmosphere among young people in post-war London. The observation of young people at an anti-nuclear march is especially strikingUltimately what most sets Lessing apart from other writers is her courage to go further than the time she was living in, to extrapolate the trends she perceived. Big business' rising political power is perhaps her most acute prediction, and though the Cold War anxiety about nuclear apocalypse has been out of mind for a few decades, so that the shadow it has cast over my generation, for instance, has been penumbral compared to back then, that threat has been replaced by climate change, presently having relatively minor effects on the privileged nations of the global North who caused it, but increasingly devastating less wealthy regions. “Another preventable horror' as Martha would say. Lessing's consciousness of the environment is always in evidence. Here Martha shares a thought I have very often as I decend into the guts of the underground every day: the soil under the London streets looks dead, has been killed, lifeless for hundreds of years. It's not that we should dig over the city and return it to our bacterial brethren, but that such moments of consciousness remind us of the urgent need to live on this fragile crust of mud in this flimsy sea of gases in balance and reverence. Our soils are in crisis, depleted of minerals and microorganisms, rapidly being washed away mainly because of deforestation, livestock grazing and now misguided biomass farming. This novel is of its time, but it speaks loudly in this one too.

So finally I finished the Children of Violence series. I should be honest and admit that I was a bit disappointed that it came with no mounting crescendo. In Lessing's defense, this does not come without purpose, as one of her intents throughout the series seem to have been writing a story that would reflect the searching and unfinished quality of real life. None of the previous books are plot driven, nor does Martha ever reach some final, definite understanding of herself and the world around her (except, perhaps, in the conclusive, yet shifting way, we all interact with our memories).The primary difference between this book and the previous books is that much of the story is focused on the drama and dysfunction of the Coldridge family, who Martha starts working for about a quarter of the way into the book, almost by accident. Her life becomes very much about maintaining the house, maintaining the family, just keeping everything from falling completely apart. If you've read the previous books, you can see the family very much as a mirror for all of Martha's previous experiences. There are definitely some parallels between the abandonment of her own child 10 years before, the abandonment of Paul by his father (and resulting suicide by his mother), and the emotional distance between Francis and his mother Lynda. When Paul and Francis and all the other children hit adolescence, get married, and so on, we see the inevitable echoes of the first two books. The politics as well echo some previous elements. While I would hardly reduce the story down merely to a repeat of what's happened before, since it is far more than that, this kind of element is inevitable when you've followed a character around for so long, and I believe Lessing does a good job of reflecting the passage of time and the impact of the previous world on the current one.Martha loses a bit of herself in this world and while the previous books are so defined by her searching for some authentic truth, this one is more focused on the searching of everyone else for those truths. This, I think, makes the book a bit of a struggle, as you're often left floundering (like the characters) for some kind of single focus that will direct you to the meaning. As I continued reading and realized that the story wasn't heading to a single sort of statement on Martha's (or anyone's) identity, I began to understand that this was the point. So while this approach doesn't make for the most satisfying reader, there was ultimately a kind of unity to it.But aside from all this, what surprised and impressed me most was the subtle introduction of mystical/SF elements, with Martha becoming a kind of conduit for the thoughts and emotions of those around her and Lynda's mental illness being more than what it is. This is all subtly integrated into a contemporary realistic context in such a way that's not jarring or silly and certainly adds something in terms of understanding the world at the time. This all leads to the appendix, which is mysterious and fascinating, ambiguously suggesting a future in which London is emptied or destroyed, and Martha and what remains of the family are struggling to make sense and put what they can back together. In a series defined by its struggle with issues of war, violence, and identity, I really can't think of a better addendum. That Lessing had the gumption to stick all this into a book and a series that is pretty much classic realism without having it seemed tacked on is all the more impressive. She even manages some meta-commentary on these elements by featuring a couple of characters who write SF.All that and I still didn't manage to get to the sex, which she does indeed write well. There's so much going on in this book that it's hard to tackle everything in such limited space. Despite my struggle with bits of the story, I came away with continued respect for Lessing as an author. Overall, the Children of Violence series was a great introduction to her vision and highly recommended.
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Reviews
Helmisade
Wow, there's a lot going on in this book! It's like reading several books at once. There's post-war Britain, cold war and communism, madness and apocalyptic ponderings.At the end I was left feeling mostly confused, like I must have missed the part where the author explained the whole thing. After reading the first four books very quickly, this was not the conclusion I was expecting. I wouldn't say that I'm dissappointed with the book either, it had many interesting ideas and thoughts plus a rather dark view of the possible future of humankind. It was, however, a bit too cryptic for my taste. The author uses a lot of uncompleted sentences and other broken grammar structures to portray the way the characters think. Most of the time this just left me feeling frustrated, like there was something that they wanted to say but they never really said it. Or maybe I just missed the point completely?
Ed
Three whole novels of non-story later (I assume they are non-story considering the nature of several flashback/updates present in this installment), we find Martha Quest newly arrived in London in the 50's as England slowly rebuilds. 700 more pages of non-story and we arrive at the end of the Children of Violence series and in a post-apocalyptic world in which humans are scattered around the globe in huddling terrified poisoned tribes of mutant scavengers and some have adapted by evolution into telepaths.Helluva way to turn the corner from a fem-/socialist-lit author into a science fiction author, but I suppose that depending on how you look at it the leap is not so far.I'm being unnecessarily snarky. There are major things about this book that I really, really liked, and I didn't just finish it because I'm obsessive compulsive and HAD to, though that's always in play.Lessing continues many threads that I can only assume were continuous throughout this series--questions about social organization, politics and anti-politics, gender issues, group-think, hatred, violence; then questions about family, sex, sanity and insanity, perception, education and indoctrination...and her observations on all of these topics are exceedingly interesting and insightful, whether the characters through which she presents them are particularly credible or not. At the end of the day, I like her voice, I like her perspective, and even in areas of political and social theory where it's clear she and I basically already agree, she provokes thought in directions I never considered before. Not too shabby. Meanwhile she provides a unique picture of dynamics at work in British society through a period of upheaval in the 50's and 60's which for obvious reasons I associate normally only with the United States and, to a lesser extent, Eastern Europe. She examines British modern historical phenomena of which I have heard but with which I am not terribly familiar, for example: the anti-gay clamor of the 50's and the counter-movement it spawned; the twilight of empire and the incredibly fraught independence movements in Africa; widespread fear of the Soviet nuclear threat heavily laden with shadowy stories of spying and treason and the concomitant McCarthy-style social repression, accompanied nonetheless by a head-shaking dismay at the unenlightened way the Americans were dealing with the same stuff. Etcetera.This is not to mention what seems to be one of the more central themes of the novel, which is the devastatingly inhumane way that the British (and they are not alone) treated and in many cases still do treat the mentally ill as a result of decades of quackery in the field of psychoanalysis.A lot of ground to cover, clearly. But she brings all these threads to what I suppose is their only logical conclusion, which is the near-destruction of the world followed by chaos and darkness and fumbling attempts at renewal. There you have it!Clearly I have mixed feelings. Hence the three.
Manny
There are several different schools of thought when it comes to writing about sex. At one end of the spectrum, there's Mamma Mia: Dot, Dot, Dot. Well, at least that satisfactorily ducks the issue altogether. And at the other end, if we insist on staying Swedish, there's IKEA assembly instructions: insert rod A into hole B, making sure that X stays in contact with Y as you do so. This also has its merits, though once again you feel something's missing. In between, there are various types of poetic metaphor that people like to use; but here, too, I'm often in some doubt. What, if anything, do these metaphors actually refer to? All too often, you fear the author's just cut and pasted them from somewhere else.Every now and then, however, you find an author who's actually got something new to say about sex, as opposed to a better way to put a coffee table together or a novel twist on a dubious metaphor. It's surprising how rare these people are. Jan Kjærstad is one of them, as you'll discover if you read Forføreren and the rest of the trilogy. And Doris Lessing is another; I think The Four-Gated City is the clearest example. I wonder if she actually experienced sex this way? It's hard for me to imagine she didn't. Well Doris, I'd like to thank you for what you did: both for telling us about the strange and wonderful places you were able to get to, and for finding words that made them at least partially comprehensible. You must have been such an extraordinary person to have as a lover.
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