Monday, July 19, 2010

Martha Quest by Doris Lessing 1952 (fiction)

"I read the Children of Violence novels and began to understand how a person could write about the problems of the world in a compelling and beautiful way, and it seemed to me that was the most important thing I could ever do." from an interview with Barbara Kingsolver by Bill Moyers on PBS Now, in May of 2002.

Martha Quest, the first in a series of a thinly-veiled autobiographical novels collected under the title Children of Violence by the Nobel-prize-winning author, Doris Lessing, covers her early years growing up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in between World War I and World War II. Written shortly after World War II, the author looks back at a moment in time, at life before the war, through the eyes of someone who knows the tragedy her generation is about to confront.

Lessing, born in 1919, creates a character much like herself, named Martha Quest, who is inquisitive and observant, disturbed by the racism and class divisions she sees in her daily life. Although the author is not Jewish, her second husband, Gottfried Lessing, was a German Jewish immigrant who fled from Germany in 1938. (They eventually divorced and he later became the East German ambassador to Uganda and was killed in 1979 during the revolt against Idi Amin.)

Jewish residents in Rhodesia are prominent characters in the novel. Cohen family members are an assortment of merchants, lawyers, Zionists and leftists.The Cohen brothers and their extended family are role models of intellectuals and professionals who actively help point Martha toward a life beyond the life on her British parents’ farm. Another character, Adolph King, a violinist at the fancy Sports Club, is portrayed as an insecure young man, the son of East European immigrant Jews who has anglicized his last name. Martha is encouraged to join the Left Book Club, which actually was founded in London to promote socialism, and it is where the author met her Jewish husband, Gottfried Lessing.

This novel is worth reading for the flavor of life in Zimbabwe with its diverse community of immigrant whites and their relationship to the native black population. This white population included a small Jewish community mostly living in the capital of Salisbury.

To read about the history of the Jewish community in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, click here.

Gottfried Lessing
    Peter Lessing - his son by Doris Lessing

Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe),
Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe)

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