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In which Netty discovers that all that glitters is not The Golden Notebook …

June 24, 2014

lessing-picI’ve never written a book – well, nothing that has ever seen the light of the day (and for that, dear friends and family, you should be eternally grateful). However, I imagine that for those who have, there can be few things more irksome than having your work misinterpreted.

Now, I’m not saying that the late Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook is not a feminist tract of some distinction. Of course it is. If you’re going to bang out a 600-page tome on women who are independent on the financial, political and sexual fronts and get said tome published on the dawn of the sexual revolution (The Golden Notebook was first released in 1962), well, you’re just asking for it, right?

I have surmised, throughout the years, that is best not to read the introductions, etc, before delving between the covers, and so it was again in this case – although Lessing’s slightly cantankerous 1971 preface referenced what I had already worked out for myself, although in my case I have the benefit of reading The Golden Notebook in 2014, with five decades of ensuing progress and tumult in hindsight. So the things that probably most stood out to the 1960s reader – namely sex and Communism – were met with a yeah, so? from me. To me – and to Lessing, obviously irked that readers were latching on to the (not so salacious) sex scattered throughout – the core of the book is mental illness in its myriad forms. And also writer’s block.

More on this later.

The book’s achingly post-modern structure (which wouldn’t have been at the time) did not annoy me, although I am glad I resisted my initial thought that I would read each separated section as a whole (as I did – and got some flak for having done so – with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas). That approach would not have worked here, instead resulting in considerable misunderstanding and head-scratching. The Golden Notebook is, effectively, six books in one – or perhaps five books, and a novella.

Free Women introduces the reader to writer Anna Wulfe and her long-time friend, theatrical actress Molly Jacobs. The women, both divorcees and single mothers of one in their late thirties, are – in the context of 1950s England, the decade across which the novel is set – worldly gals, monetarily independent and politically far-left wing, being ex-members of the British Communist Party. While they are nowhere near the realm of Erica Jong’s “zipless fuck”, they freely take lovers – although not without emotional consequences (and also, oddly, with no references to contraception – or none that I recall, at any rate).

Wulfe, who has a daughter Janet, aged around seven as the book commences, has for some time coasted on the success of her novel Frontiers of War, a fictionalised account of her time as a young woman in southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), set during the latter stages of World War II. (Iranian-born Lessing herself resided there as a young girl; one assumes a certain amount of fictionalisation of Lessing’s own life, with Wulfe perhaps serving as her alter ego.) Wulfe dismisses queries of a follow-up, but in reality she is suffering severe writer’s block, which she tries to ease through the simultaneous keeping of four notebooks – black for writing, red for politics, yellow for relationships, and blue for everyday existence. Obviously the material overlaps and the notebooks feed into each other. Early on it becomes apparent that the yellow notebook is recording, in fictionalised form, using the nom de plume Ella, Wulfe’s affairs – particularly with Michael (Paul) and later with Milt (Saul). There are four sections comprising Free Women and each of the notebooks (which are presented with very brief notations, as per a work of non-fiction) before the golden notebook and the final section of Free Women.

I suppose whether or not you like this book is whether or not you like, or can relate to, or can empathise with, or can stand (and by those last 100 pages, she was severely pushing my boundaries) its main protagonist. I didn’t much like Anna Wulfe as a character (although she’s more fun in her younger guise, trapsing around colonial-era South Africa with her wild and woolly posse), but I could empathise with her and her situation, if not the soul-destroying relationships with awful men (particularly Milt/Saul. Dear lord, that one – documented in the final instalment of the blue notebook, and reprised in the golden notebook – almost did me in. Seriously, at more than one stage I yelled out loud, “Ferfuckssake”, and once I even hurled the book to the floor, contemplating if I could bring myself to finishing it). Wulfe heavily, if not always willingly, relies on her shrink (Mrs Marks/Mother Sugar), but the years seemingly bring her no closer to self-realisation. Only, the golden notebook suggests, the cataclysm of one of the most hideously needy, co-dependent relationships ever committed to ink can do that.

Which brings me back to what I felt was the true heart of the novel – that it is the catalogue of one modern woman’s breakdown. As per Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises – “How did you go bankrupt?”/“Gradually, and then suddenly” – so too is the process of Wulfe’s mental disintegration. So horrendous are the descriptions of her emotional madness in the final blue notebook that it is truly a painful thing to bear witness to the character (?) hitting absolute rock bottom. Which then leads to a final pulling together of all the novel’s various threads, which for me was achieved in a less-than-satisfactory manner that I felt was a slight letdown. But hey, after almost 600 pages, well …

Of course, just because a novel is “worthy” doesn’t necessarily mean you should read it. I didn’t love The Golden Notebook, but I think it is right up there in classic feminist literature – because even though Lessing didn’t set out to write such a book, by default she did – and that takes nothing away from its true intent. This is one to be shelved next to Greer’s The Female Eunuch and De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex – and Plath’s The Bell Jar. Embrace the cunt and the craziness, and apologise for neither.

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