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Amber Paulen


Doris Lessing


Children of Violence, Book Four

17 January 2008


I’ve finished the series! Out of order, but who gives a damn for that! Doris Lessing’s quintet may as well have cumulated here. I don’t dare make less of The Four-Gated City with its precedence of Shikasta and Doris’ great leap into the great beyond: space fiction; her movement past the ‘realistic’ novel. The Four-Gated City is of futuristic tones set into the pearly being of Martha Quest herself, an unarguable deviation within the Children of Violence series. And rightly so, Martha Quest has gone to England where new journeys, possibilities, potentialities await her. In Landlocked, it is as the title insists.

But Landlocked does not come so instantaneously behind the first three: Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage and A Ripple from the Storm. Doris Lessing has written The Golden Notebook, interjected so stately between.

There’s a different tone after volume three [A Ripple from the Storm.] What had happened, of course, that I’d had a lot of hard experience between the two, and it gets less and less autobiographical as I go along. . . But the last two [Landlocked and The Four-Gated City] are quite different. What happened in the meantime was that I’d written The Golden Notebook, you see, at that point, which really changed me totally. — Putting the Questions Differently

With the emotion powered by reading the commencing scene I understood immediately the truth of this sentiment. Landlocked opens with Martha standing with her back to a window, the animus African sun streaming down, dividing her back into heat and shadow: instantly I am lent the illusion that I am Martha’s flesh. There is such surety in the words. When an author digs deep enough into the matter that is inherent in us all we are given pages that dance and images that adhere. There is something about Landlocked that endures for me; taking what is visionary and making it ‘realistic.’

Is this the singular reason for Landlocked suiting me so well? Like a fine pair of tight-fitting pants that I squeeze into, snugly. No excess. So Martha is, perfectly defiant. Though lingering through the the course of the book is the waiting: waiting to leave Southern Rhodesia, waiting for nationalization papers, waiting for the divorce with a husband hardly married to. There is a dragging feeling, of being sped along on unfortunate circumstances, of being far out of reach, ultimately waiting for ‘life to begin.’ Maybe I just have an affinity to such situations; wasting the time you have with so much hope for what follows. One lives life like a vacuum, being sucked through the end that hasn’t even come into existence yet. But there Martha is, buoying along on the surface, dreaming of water and of the escape to come.

Landlocked is a book of various closings. The end of the war; bringing the obscure colonial city in Southern Rhodesia out of its war-dances and into a slump. Victory Day is celebrated with a parade, seemingly out of place on the red dusty streets. Everyone back to normal! What is normal under such circumstances? War will always be reverberating through Martha’s chest; to say that war is over surmises an understatement.

Every fibre of Martha’s body, everything she thought, every movement she made, everything she was, was because she had been born at the end of one world war, and had spent all her adolescence in the atmosphere of preparations for another which had lasted five years and had inflicted such wounds on the human race that no one had any idea of what the results would be.

Martha did not believe in violence.

Martha was the essence of violence, she had been conceived, bred, fed and reared on violence.

I suppose there is nothing unusual about Martha’s situation. Take the news or TV shows or video games; is violence the norm? But not that kind of violence, world wide violence. . . not the World Wars. Because then, what we usually mean, are the tragedies of Europe. Violence feeds violence, war breeds war. Standing amongst the rubble of the great European cities we knew what war was, we experienced destruction first hand. When Cologne (or Paris or Palermo) was bought down, the magnificent Gothic Cathedral shattered into dust and we felt that dust, we could rightly lament, “What have we done?” I’ve heard the American warfare will turn to video game controllers so that boys can comfortably have it out with ‘real-live-enemies.’ What is violence then? That nations struggle the world round with every imaginable (or unimaginable) methods of American warfare (Consumerism very much included): who is violent then?

The violence of our generations is only similar to that of Martha’s in that violence is still violence. But we can no longer feel the dust or the blood on our hands, unless you are the one directly rupturing blood, directly creating dust. When you think about it, the horrors are just too much to take. We are weak. We are getting weaker.

Thomas, the man Martha has an affair with, is violence. He is a man browned by the sun, strong and energetic. They escape to the attic of Thomas’ brother’s shed to make love and to pass the electrically charged rainy afternoons. They discover love for one another but fail to admit it to each other. There is some expression that Martha can’t place, that holds him distant, only realized fully after he has gone. Martha watches him on his farm, holding out his hand to his young daughter, who refuses to take it. He is of an impossibility that will not soften. He is a man intent in standing alone, who eventually goes to great ends to do this. His family, all Polish Jews, have already been exterminated. He dies solitary and alone.

There is much death in this book, oddly enough, all after the war. Death and ends. There is a passive bitterness for the general situation. What can Martha do? She can leave, she can begin again. I can not help but to correspond this image of Martha Quest boarding the freighter bound for England with that of Doris Lessing doing the same. Her son in tow and The Grass is Singing in her suitcase, they got on the big boat that jettisoned them off to new lands. All the prolonged waiting settling on the undulating waters of the infinite sea. Hope no longer a desperate vacuum sucking out the present situation. Martha Quest pushes on, defiant, resilient.

Maybe that’s what it is about this book; can it only be the lustrously singing prose? Martha Quest and her ever predominate quest. There is something so regal about a heroine standing strong and on her own. Is this because, on a whole, women authors get plundered with romantic notions? Because their life, on a whole, pales besides the firm resolutions of Martha Quest and the great resolve of Doris Lessing? Her poetic rationality of relationships—political, platonic, love—does not strip it of beauty but rather lifts us up so that we are able to see our own paltry emotions cowering in the brilliant light. This is the persevering quest of Martha and the literary genius of Doris Lessing.

Bracciano, Italy
January 2008

Doris Lessing and the Nobel Prize: She’s old but she’s not dumb! Video of Nobel notification and Speech



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