The Golden Notebook – Andy finds, sadly, that Lessing is not moreJune 16, 2014
Of the surprising number of Nobel-winning writers Netty and I have read over the years (Llosa! White! Pinter! Pamuk! Heaney! Hemingway! Morrison! Marquez! Mahfouz! Beckett! B … Okay, I’ll have to stop there) I’m afraid Doris Lessing languishes in the bottom two. Nadine Gordimer is a less engaging writer, and I enjoyed The Golden Notebook more than The Conservationist, but neither of them left me burning to read more of their work. (Netty will strongly disagree with this on a number of grounds, most obviously that Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores is among the worst books we’ve read in the Challenge. This may be true, but I’ve also read One Hundred Years of Solitude, and regard his late novella as an appalling geriatric stumble.)
There’s a lot I enjoyed in The Golden Notebook. As a slice-of-life peek at life in London in the ’50s it has many fascinating aspects (although it’s a big slice, clocking in not too shy of 600 pages, and so it’s not exactly a peek, either). The communist stuff for me was probably the most interesting, being an only slightly reformed vaguely anarchisty type myself. The realisation, long known but brutally suppressed, that Russia and its leaders were less light on the hill and more psychotically unhinged fool on the hill is nicely done, and these sections of the book were probably the ones I enjoyed the most. The depiction of domestic life in the ’50s was also fascinating. Divorced, single mothers, having casual-ish sex, living lives financially independent of men – this is not the image of the ’50s we’ve been expected to imagine, mostly. Post-World War II, pre-’60s war of the sexes (although the term had, I think, already been coined), mid-Cold War – it’s a fascinating period of history, and Lessing succeeds in capturing a lot of what was fascinating about it. Although that wasn’t what she was trying to do here, obviously. She wasn’t creating a time capsule, although she’s done that quite well. She was writing a novel, and I don’t think she done that well at all.
The novel’s meta-fictive structure doesn’t work for me, although like a lot of this book it must have seemed revolutionary (boom boom) at the time it was published. I haven”t read much of the analysis of the book because, well, I’m not that interested. But as Lessing herself has said, it consists of a “conventional” novel – Free Women – interspersed with excerpts from the notebooks of that conventional novel’s main character, Anna Wulf, modelled pretty closely on Lessing herself. But how these two strands of the novel knit together is not very clear.The stories don’t mirror each other perfectly, which is actually quite cleverly done, but it begs the question – who is the “real” Anna Wulf? The one in the novel? Are the notebooks the fictitious notebooks of a fictitious character? Or are the notebooks supposed to be the “real” version of events and the novel is novelist Anna Wulf’s reimagining of them? It doesn”t really matter, obviously, because the whole thing’s written by Doris Lessing, and it’s all a fictitious reimagining of her life. And perhaps it would all make sense on re-reading (ha!) or further study. But really …
Other irritating elements include the yawning great swathes dedicated to psychoanalysis, or psychotherapy, or whatever (“No, sorry, you daft bint, your dreams mean JACK SHIT.” Now there’s some valuable advice), I’m sure these sections have many, many admirers, but they left me in the sort of eye-rolling state of dismissive contempt I usually reserve for born-again Christians. On a related subject, the novel’s surprisingly homophobic – early sections set in Africa seem at least vaguely gay-friendly, but it later becomes clear that – ]like many “enlightened” types of her time – Lessing regarded same-sex attraction as a psychologically explicable aberration that could be “fixed”. To which I reply, with eminent grace, Fuck you bitch. Thirty or so years earlier, in one of his novels that wasn’t The Great Gatsby (The Beautiful and the Damned? Tender is the Night?) Fitzgerald has a therapist tell a horrified mother (I think, maybe a dad, maybe both, maybe even the patient himself) that same-sex attraction (not the term he, or Lessing, used, obviously) was “incurable”. F. Scott was probably a homophobe, but at least he was also a realist.
So no. Lessing is not more. But I’m glad I got around to reading this book. I remember seeing it on the shelves of Maffra High School’s library, and wondering about it, for reasons I cannot possibly fathom today. And I refuse to believe a single student in that school in the ’80s actually read it, cover to cover. I mean … Seriously.