Martha Quest

I’ve finished my first book of 2020! And…I don’t quite know what I think of it. Not a very exciting start to the year, huh?

The book in question is Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest. I had read Lessing’s Golden Notebook some years back, which is considered her magnum opus. And, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t as swept away by it as I was supposed to be. I admired the structure of it, but I found that it was deeply anticlimactic and that the golden notebook itself, well, just wasn’t good enough to live up to the hype built by the rest of the book.

But, I don’t like to give up on a Nobel-winning author after just one book, particularly their “biggie.” I often find that I personally prefer a lot of authors’ more obscure works (maybe because there isn’t as much to live up to for those books? I don’t know). I should write a whole blog post on how I’m the only person on planet earth who prefers Reflections in a Golden Eye and Clock Without Hands to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter! Now that is some controversy right there.

So, I wanted to give another book a chance. Martha Quest is the first of a five-book Children of Violence series, which is supposed to be semi-autobiographical. It traces the adolescence of Martha as she comes of age on an impoverished farm in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and eventually moves to “town” to become an office girl.

I cannot deny that Lessing can write, certainly. This was her second novel (published in 1952) and it’s clear that she is a commanding and interesting writer, from the beginning of her career. It is interesting to read on this Internet here that her “liberal” views on the equality of all races and on “the dispossession of black Africans by white colonials” led to her being declared a prohibited alien in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa.

Those views may have been too liberal for the white supremacist regimes of the 1950s, but the book can be painfully, painfully racist in places. Not in that descriptive, “look at how racist these characters are/this culture is” kind of way, but in a “wow this omniscient narrator is describing this book through a deeply racist prism” kind of way.

I kept seeing a word over and over that I didn’t know, and I looked it up rather than just assuming that context clues would tell me what it meant (since I thought it might be an Afrikaner word or something). Well, the Internet told me it is an insult considered to be so racist in South Africa that, if you call someone this word, they can bring legal action against you. Yikes! And, don’t worry, the U.S.’s preferred racist slur also is casually used by the white characters in this book.

“Well,” Brian asked me when I told him this much, “is it one of those books where the writer used outdated language and maybe some old-fashioned ideas, but still wrote the native African authors in a believable, three-dimensional way at least?” Um, unfortunately no. I regret to tell you that the few black African characters that appear at all mostly don’t have names or any dialogue at all. So there’s not much to balance the scales.

So why is credit given to the book, or to Lessing, for her liberal view of racial equality? Well, Martha as a character is a socialist and an atheist who spends a great deal of time questioning the hypocrisy of those around her, and she has several scenes where she examines the hypocrisy, cruelty, or inequality of the system of colonialism/racism around her. I think it should be noted that much of that examination is somewhat self-serving or at any rate self-centered (it’s easier to identify hypocrisy when it comes from a mother you despise and/or disrespect, for example).

Nevertheless, it would appear that, however weak it appears to me in 2020 her stance is in Martha Quest, it was real and rebellious enough in 1952 to get Lessing labeled a prohibited alien in her homeland, which is a serious thing to have happen to you, and hard for me to imagine what it would feel like. And, as I’ve said, the strength of her writing is there.

So I don’t know if I’ll read another Doris Lessing. I think that I may at least try another, but one from later in her career – perhaps The Summer Before the Dark or The Fifth Child. But…if the third time isn’t the charm…

I will end by saying that my other reading is going swimmingly. I started a very promising book, Praisesong for the Widow by Paule Marshall (who wrote the wonderful classic Brown Girl, Brownstones) and, after a break to make sure I didn’t just consume this book all in a quick go, I’ve picked up Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch again. More modern than I usually go for, but so, so wonderful. What a book! I never want it to end.

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