Ink on parchment, 2017
Martha Quest is Doris Lessing's alter ego in her novel series Children of Violence. Usbek the Isfahanian is one of the correspondents in Montesquieu's Persian Letters. Letters about the City is comprised of Martha and Usbek's imaginary correspondence about a City, the various developments of which Doris Lessing included in several of her works.
British author Doris Lessing (1919-2013) was born in Kermanshah, Iran, grew up in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and in 1949 moved to London, where she wrote most of her work. She received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. The story of Martha Quest follows Lessing's own life developments. Like Lessing, Martha also leaves Southern Rhodesia after the two World Wars for London, where she agonizes between artistry and political action.
Letters about the City borrows its form from Montesquieu's (1689-1755) novel Persian Letters, where Usbek leaves Isfahan, Persia, to discover Europe in 1711, acquaints himself with Paris in 1712-1720 and writes about his observations about European countries and their politics to his home country. Montesquieu's method is still valid: someone from outside a community evaluating its status quo.
Both novelists criticized the prejudices of their respective eras as well as the then-modernity and trends of society's values. Both writers' work raised concerns over the preservation of a humane society, the vulnerability of an individual within society and the collapse of civilization.
Letters about the City is an account of the different developments of the City as they have been portrayed in Lessing's work. In the novel Martha Quest, the young Martha Quest dreams of a white city in the mountains while walking around her family's estate. Later in adulthood, Martha has dreams where humans and all animals live together in perfect harmony. The idea of the Four-Gated City is born, assuming its final form in the eponymous volume of the Children of Violence series. In the novel, Martha's employer, Mark Coldridge, writes first a short story and then a novel on the birth, growth and destruction of the city. A similar description of a utopian Round City can be found in the novel Shikasta, where Lessing recounts how the Round City was built and what finally became of it. Other accounts of mythical cities can be found, for example, in the novel Briefing for a Descent into Hell and the short story The Reason for It.
In this post-truth age, ideologies have become like religions and they are approached emotionally. This creates new types of competing groups whose argumentation is no longer based on facts, but rather on faith and emotions. Lessing's work is one such journey from socialist humanism, against self-reflection, to liberal humanism, emphasizing the role of personal feelings. Letters about the City deconstructs this problematic field in its own artistic way.