The opening book in the Nobel Prize for Literature winner's 'Children of Violence' series tracing the life of Martha Quest from her childhood in colonial Africa to old age in post-nuclear Britain. When we first meet Martha Quest, she is a girl of fifteen living with her parents on a poor African farm. She is eager for life and resentful of the ...
The opening book in the Nobel Prize for Literature winner's 'Children of Violence' series tracing the life of Martha Quest from her childhood in colonial Africa to old age in post-nuclear Britain. When we first meet Martha Quest, she is a girl of fifteen living with her parents on a poor African farm. She is eager for life and resentful of the deadening narrowness of home, and escapes to take a job as a typist in the local capital. Here, in the 'big city', she encounters the real life she was so eager to know and understand. As a picture of colonial life, 'Martha Quest' succeeds by the depth of its realism alone; but always at its centre is Martha, a sympathetic figure drawn with unrelenting objectivity. Martha's Africa is Doris Lessing's Africa: the restrictive life of the farm; the atmosphere of racial fear and antagonism; the superficial sophistication of the city. And both Martha and Lessing are Children of Violence: the generation that was born of one world war and came of age in another, whose abrasive relationships with their parents, with one another, and with society are laid bare brilliantly by a writer who understands them better than any other.
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I think Doris Lessing is possibly the greatest writer of fiction the world has ever seen. At her best, she can delineate a few characters in a space and make both the characters and the landscape lift off the page into a multidimensional visual and sensory reality in your head. You can smell the Africa that she describes and feel the crises and growth through which her characters expand.
Martha Quest is a superb book, one of her best - deeply autobiographical, and full of penetrating insights into the agony of growing up encompassed by a world full of limits and fears and constraints for which the heroine knows she is too big a spirit.
Doris Lessing has the stature of a modern Jane Austen. There is a legitimate comparison with Jane Austen in Doris Lessing 's brilliant insights into character and her ability to develop the character out of the description of interactions with others - dialogue, observation, reaction. This analysis of interaction is even deeper in Martha Quest than in any Jane Austen novel, because Doris Lessing adds the dimension of acute political insight. Where Lessing goes so much deeper than Austen is that she applies her luminous intelligence and experience to the task of understanding why the backdrop to the characters has the form that it has in each story. In Jane Austen's novels, the background comes alive - you can feel what it was like to live in Highbury or Longbourn or to visit Bath in 1815. But that is all - Jane Austen does not enquire why those places function the way they do; what forces made them so and maintain the relationships of power and authority and custom.
Doris Lessing ?s insight is into a world that begs for political analysis - Southern Rhodesia (referred to in the book as "Zambesia") in the years leading up to the Second World War. On both the black and the white side of the population there are at that time stirrings of major political change, and divisions in society that are so deep as to be unbridgeable.
In this world a girl grows up on a farm with a neurotic mother and a crippled father - just as Doris Lessing did. The book is about that growing up, and the young woman who determines not to give in to the defeat and lassitude that sometimes seem to be willing onto her, but to become a fighter and to make life happen.
Like Jane Austen, Doris Lessing develops subtle interactions among her groups of characters that not only make each character come alive but also drive the development of character and hence plot, naturally. In Lessing and Austen, and in Trollope (unlike, say, Dickens) the plot emerges as a natural progression or force in the story, not requiring the interventions by the author to push the story in the right direction - I hate Dickens? penchant for the deus ex machina.
Doris Lessing goes this further step, and it is what makes her novels revelatory and revolutionary. She will describe the relationship, say, of a few people on a farm in Rhodesia and people in the shop that supplies them and the people whom they see in the neighbourhood and the neighbouring city. And she explores the forces - economic, political, historical - that made that social background work the way it does, and what keeps the relationships in place. Doris Lessing has a framework for interpreting history and politics that gives her the power to do this - Marxism/Leninism is, if nothing else, a handle on this complex dimension of reality that enables one to discuss it and analyse it. So what you read is not only a brilliant evocation of life and interaction and the growth of human beings, but also a dissection of the society that links them and holds them down. And she will even go on, in many of her novels, to sketch out how it could be different.
Doris Lessing manages to weave all of this into a fabric that is alive and engaging and exciting. (Certainly in the novels she wrote in the first three-quarters of her long and immensely productive life. Some of her later novels are sketchier, as if she is in a hurry to get on paper all the ideas she wants to write about.) Her novels are nearly all really hard to put down. She is a genius and absolutely totally deserving of her recent Nobel Prize. (Too recent - she has clearly deserved this honour for decades.)
Doris Lessing 's unauthorized biographer, Carole Klein, quotes Olive Schreiner (another poor white woman in Africa) writing a generation before:
"You, you, yourself must save yourself. From those weak limbs strike off the fetters; with your strong hands bend down and heal the wounds your hands have made; remove the sand about the heavily sunken feet. When they are healed and free and strong, they, they and not another will bear you to the mountains where you would be." [From Man to Man]
That catches the spirit of what Martha Quest strives for, and attains. Doris Lessing then takes her character through four more volumes of the series of novels (series title "Children of Violence") to create one of the truly great works of fiction of all time.
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