Queen to King Four

Robert Taubman

  • The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five by Doris Lessing
    Cape, 245 pp, £5.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 224 01790 X
  • No Country For Young Men by Julia O’Faolain
    Allen Lane, 368 pp, £5.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 7139 1308 8
  • The Girl Green as Elderflower by Randolph Stow
    Secker, 150 pp, £5.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 436 49731 X
  • The Sending by Geoffrey Household
    Joseph, 192 pp, £5.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 7181 1872 3

In Shikasta, some months ago, Doris Lessing engaged with space fiction at its most apocalyptic, covered aeons of time and used scores of characters, and left some doubt about her meaning. All is comparatively clear and simple in The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five, which has the form of a fable – one where values are quite explicit, characters few and the action limited to a single episode in history (history at least as it has passed into the archives of Zone Three, whose chronicler tells the story). These Zones are parts of a land mass much like Africa (one imagines), and are inhabited by very unlike peoples – as unlike, say, as Zulus and Bushmen. The fable makes use of such polarities: mountain and desert, light and dark, male and female principles. One day, the fable goes, it occurs to the Providers, who control their destinies, to arrange for the King of militaristic Zone Four to marry the Queen of gentle, intuitive Zone Three, and then in due course to marry the wild, anarchic Queen of Zone Five. These moves carry the suggestion of a game of chess, and they don’t indeed have any very subtle or original meaning: what occurred to the Providers might presumably occur to any tinkerer with utopian theories of human nature. There’s also a marked resemblance – suggested, too, in the solemn tone of the Zone Three chronicler – to an idea Thomas Mann used in his fable The Transposed Heads.

A fable has to match invention to idea, and all with perfect simplicity. It would be easy to conclude that Doris Lessing isn’t as good at this as Thomas Mann. The dynastic marriages give rise to all sorts of trouble, Queen Al.Ith keeps returning home. Not such a simple fable, therefore. Or the fable is simple enough, but the novel is more complicated, for much of it works against the fable. This, however, is where the real interest lies. Not content merely to recount a fable, what the novel does is to dramatise all along an opposition between fable and reality. The marriage of Al.Ith to Ben Ata – ‘this exemplary marriage’ in the chronicler’s first words – turns out in the telling to be not at all exemplary, but a tense, difficult relationship between two human beings who are aware of shifting senses of the self and capable of both love and hate – very like, in fact, what we hear of affairs and their sudden revulsions of feeling in Doris Lessing’s more realistic novels. Well, if it doesn’t fit, so much the worse for the fable. What would have been proved by a successful symbiosis of the male and female principles? As for expecting much of the Providers, Al.Ith says simply, ‘I think we are supposed to think it out for ourselves’ – a healthy bit of realism, but then a character who says such things in a fable really steps outside the fable and helps to undo it.

This is also a political novel. The narrator’s voice is identified with a community, the ‘us’ of Zone Three, and the fable extends beyond the Queen to the situation of Zone Three itself. People in this Zone, one notes, communicate with animals and know their thoughts, there’s no guilt or jealousy, or ballads concerned with loss or lamentation; somewhat as in Erewhon, egotism or tears are treated as physical ailments. ‘Everything was entwined and mixed and mingled, all was one, there was no such thing as an individual in the wrong, nor could there be.’ As often with Utopias, it seems a bit ruthless, the way ideas – in this case the idea of feminine consciousness – appropriate everything, denaturing it, so that horses have friendly or sorrowful thoughts, or a mountain scene isn’t simply and naturally itself but is pregnant with meaning. There’s a strange lack of richness in this Zone, moreover: other utopian writers seek assent for their propositions by appealing to our sympathies as much as to logic, but Doris Lessing hasn’t much time for this. (She gives some attention to women’s hair-styles and dresses.) Perhaps a more important absence is a sense of society in Zone Three, any sociology of the place. Can its well-being be such that society and government don’t exist, and there’s nothing to say? But being so much in the company of kings and queens one wants to know at least what they do: do they ever govern? The question is only answered down in Zone Four – where men are in control and consequently it feels much more like our own world. Ben Ata tells Al.Ith: I must go and see about something ...’

I put all this down to the nature of fable, which has its disadvantages for a novelist. But here, too, a note of realism creeps in and undoes the fable. One of Al.Ith’s last thoughts is about ‘this dream she was dreaming, or idea she had stumbled into ...’ – where stumbling into an idea has very much the effect of stumbling out of it, leaving it precariously poised on its own. Doris Lessing’s own conclusions about Zone Three as a utopian vision are less stumbling, for clearly enough a criticism of this complacent Zone is implied. Ultimately the fable is there to evoke objection as well as assent. Equality, instinct, well-being, all the entwining and mingling, are not meant to blind us, as they do the inhabitants of the Zone, to the absence of individual responsibility and the possibility of guilt.

The narrative has a good deal of subtlety in working against itself in this way. It’s remarkably flexible, both direct and dreamlike, managing time-effects that move from the present to a legendary past within a sentence, and especially effective with the unreal time-scale of Al.Ith’s three return visits to her capital. The usually plain style has to stretch to supply inarticulate emotions – ‘she was drenched with sorrow and with loss’ – or to imply a moral judgment: ‘the feel of the captured girls, the gritty acridness of their bodies as he held them’. This has rather an air of authorial interference. Where the characters are principles and powers, without an individual psychology, words alone can sometimes be expected to do too much.

No Country for Young Men is simultaneously about 1979 and 1921. James Duffy has come to Dublin to make a programme about Sparky Driscoll, a fellow American killed long ago in the Troubles. Another way back to the death of Driscoll is through the scattered wits of Sister Judith, a nun who has been buried in a convent all these years, under electric-shock treatment. The past is everywhere buried in the present; but we also see it repeated in the present. The Americans are both decent men and both are murdered, for complex private and political reasons; violence, ambition and politics look much the same in the two periods. The plot is almost that of a detective story: yet the novel tells us that this is just a fictional device, for all the true facts have to be revealed in the end by the author; her characters are too much in the dark to see them. Her theme has less to do with unravelling a mystery than with repression and concealment. It’s a theme broadly and imaginatively handled, and movingly embodied in Sister Judith, a voice from the past that has been silenced by both religion and science.

In another sense, the novel as a whole can be said to practice concealment, by the very fact of not being at all, on the surface, a gloomy one. A good part of Julia O’Faolain’s talent is for the vivid life of the scene: pub talk, or streams of consciousness indulging an Irish turn of phrase (‘It made Grainne feel useless and used up like a ruff of old blossom drying in the dimple of an apple’), or all the words let loose in the affair between Grainne and James Duffy which are often about sex but typically also about sexual repression. They laugh at words themselves in the novel:

‘Words! The Irish are great with words!’ he exclaimed. ‘But they don’t mean anything ... Dig my grave both deep and wide. Laments. Goodbyes. No commitment to anything but giving up. The system is the way it is and ochone and mavrone and leave me alone and I’ll sing a song about it.’

   She laughed.

   ‘Don’t laugh.’

   ‘You were funny! You’re learning a way with the words.’

The stream of words is thus itself a large part of the subject. Perhaps they’re looser, less closely observed, than they used to be in Anglo-Irish literature; there’s a loss of control and elegance, and a tendency to use the interior monologue as a ragbag for anything that refuses even the loose organisation of Irish speech. The fantastical pub scenes have less in common with the controlled fantasy of Joyce in Ulysses than with the free-wheeling American ‘put-on’, the extravagance of John Barth. But, as against repression and silencing, the book bubbles with talk and streams with consciousness – artfully enacting its theme.

Two novels about witchcraft carry credentials. The Girl Green as Elderflower is based on medieval sources, which are printed at the end (one of them has evidently already served as the origin of Herbert Read’s The Green Child). The Sending is learned about shamans and the faculties of animals such as polecats, zebu bulls and eagle owls. But witches still seem unconvincing in a modern novel, especially when Geoffrey Household invests them with a kind of spiritual authority that goes with Blake, art and ‘the unity of life’. I’m glad, however, that the main concern of these writers isn’t with the supernatural itself so much as with naturalising or domesticating it. Randolph Stow plays a Borgesian sort of game, letting the story of marvels like the green children or the wild man of the sea interpenetrate with the ordinary lives of a family in Suffolk. Geoffrey Household’s narrator makes himself a bow and arrows in a beech wood, and keeps a diary to preserve his sanity: less a shaman than a Robinson Crusoe.