Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing is one of those iconic novels, often cited as seminal. In the introduction, the author explains that she receives many letters from readers who identify with different facets of the novel. Some read it as a feminist text while others as a Marxist text and still others focus on the psychoanalytical qualities of the story.

After reading the novel, I am unsurprised by the disparity in the various responses. Lessing wrote the novel in a time when readers (and writers) were becoming more comfortable with stream-of-consciousness writing, and the author makes demands on the reader rarely seen in more contemporary literature. There is the main story, the “real” world within the context of the novel. Here we have Anna Wulf, her friend Molly, her daughter Janet, Molly’s son Tommy, and a few others who come and go. But Anna is a writer and so there are also sections from Anna’s four notebooks. Each notebook is a different facet of Anna’s life. In the black notebook she writes about her time in Africa. In the red notebook she writes about her communist sympathies and frustrations with the party. The yellow notebook is for her fiction and it becomes quickly apparent that Anna draws a great deal of her creative inspiration from her real life. Finally there is the blue notebook in which Anna writes about her dreams, her life, etc.

That Anna has divided the details of her life into different notebooks communicates to the reader how fragmented Anna herself is. The pace of the writing become frenetic the further the reader goes. And Lessing does this to such powerful effect that I had to put the book down often, to break myself away from Anna’s spiraling breakdown. This is an ambitious novel and it succeeds far more than it fails.

This novel is also very much a novel of its time. The feminist issues seem somewhat dated. The Marxist sympathies would probably be harder to understand if the reader didn’t take the time to contextualize the era in which Lessing was writing. And the Freudian approach to psychoanalysis, accompanied by some nearly homophobic statements, almost make it possible to dismiss this novel altogether.

However, for all that it was challenging to read and difficult to connect with the fragmented protagonist, I kept marveling at what Lessing accomplishes. Throughout the reading, I was left breathless and if it had not been for the fragmentation of the story, if it had been an easier and more linear read, I probably would have read it more quickly. Ultimately, if I were still in college, this is one of those books I would likely ache to write a paper about just so I could reread it.

(I almost took this novel as an airplane read on my last trip up north. I created a poll and The Far Pavilions by M M Kaye was chosen because only one person had read The Golden Notebook and she said she could not remember anything about it but loved reading The Far Pavilions. I had completely the opposite experience. I found The Far Pavilions a typical epic novel that was not very enlightening or surprising whereas The Golden Notebook kept me wanting to read more, even when I needed to take a break from reading it occasionally.)

NOTE: Here is an article by Doris Lessing about her book and it is well worth reading her discussion of her own work.

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