Book Review: The Golden Notebook

This longish novel by Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing is known as an important feminist work, and that’s why I decided to read it. However, Lessing’s intent was to approach a number of other important subjects, primarily fragmentation of the mind and of society. She certainly swung for the fences; the number of subjects she touches on are too many to mention without driving readers away (I have a list at the end, for the heck of it). From politics (disintegration and rebirth of the British communist party) to existential loci such as the presence of a child as an emotional anchor, to intimately common things like dealing with tampons. The scope of the novel is wide-ranging; so are the settings and characters: along with the protagonist, Anna Wulf, Wikipedia notes 31 characters, all of whom are fully described, fully animated. The two focal points are the protagonist’s early life in Africa during the War (WWII) and her post-war life as a single mother (and Free Woman) in London. Settings are intimate — passages go on for pages often without the characters leaving their apartment. After the African section, primary characters rarely go outside and there are no descriptions of London at all.

Note: page numbers refer to the Simon & Schuster 1962 edition.

So, how is it to read? I found it odd and intensely detailed, often for reasons which are obscure to the reader until much later. The characterizations are superb, as are descriptions, such as: her room, page 52; the privileged of English upper classes, 71-73, beauty and ugliness, pp 132-133, consideration of suicide, page 152. And, or course, Africa, in many places.

I found it a difficult and frustrating book to read at times due to the many diverse and intense passages, often presented as non-sequitur. Furthermore, the portrayal of the protagonist, Anna, loops upon itself: she a writer who imagines characters, including a woman writer, who imagines characters…  Only in the end brought together many of these threads to serve the narrative. Well, not all — the cascade of pigeons (on page 356) never seemed to relate. There is a lot of Anna writing about the rejection of her husband Michael throughout the first half of the book — it appears to define her. Yet Michael is not even mentioned in the critical last phase of the book, during her crack-up and affair with Saul.

Yet the reader realizes by the end that most of these intense passages have purpose. For example, in the early part of the book Lessing presents in excruciating detail characters and descriptions that, so well presented, become imprinted on the reader’s memory. The depth to which she impresses these memories on the reader serves to reflect the protagonist’s remembering of them 450 pages later, when Lessing flits across certain images from those early days as Anna’s mind becomes unmoored. That later passage would never have been so powerful if Lessing had skimped on the Africa section early in the book. (The Africa section is a novella in itself!) There is only one other book which impacted me similarly and that was The Brothers Karamazov. Though I did not end this book with a similarly intimate bond with the characters as I had with Karamazov — Lessing’s depiction of a woman holding onto sanity did not lend itself to that, but more like reading Dhalgren, you walk away from this book feeling the process of disintegration which is presented so convincingly.

Why odd? Lessing latches on to certain mechanics and runs with them for a time, then discards and seems to forget them. Examples are a focus on comic books (pages 273 and 310) when writing of certain children, never to mention it again, the use of ‘I I I I’ –“I, I, I, I, like a machinegun ejaculating regularly” (p. 537) in the description of Anna’s relationship with Saul and nowhere else. There is a lot of narrative ‘telling’ especially around page 150, that strikes me as odd, accompanied by passive voice. That technique gets ten pages of treatment and does not return. There is a hideous run-on sentence on page 356. Her portrayal of Americans often come across as 1950s T.V. corny. But the structure of the story, which switches from third-person Anna-and-her friends to first person ‘notebooks’–diaries, really, and there are 4 of them–is not so radical any more. It would have been in 1962, when the book was published, and she did an amazing job with the structure. She also, via the diary presentation, switches up how the diaries are used, what is written in them from narrative to short fictions (pp 455 – 463) which serve both to highlight the essential conflicts concerning Lessing (love, relationships, male privilege, and dysfunction) and also show the reader Lessing’s incredible breadth as a writer. These short fictions could have carried the novel, and saved me a lot of reading. She could write long, and she could write short, could Lessing.

Oddest of all is the ending. I’m going to skip to that because it is very odd and frankly, the book is a huge and powerful construct which serves I think to impress upon the reader emotion and imagery more than a firm narrative. (The narrative is there, but, frankly, not a lot happens given this is 550 pages.)

The final two sections of the book are a long and intense depiction of Anna, with her daughter gone at boarding school, living with a man–Saul Green–she almost immediately begins an affair with, despite rather intense feelings of dislike. In fact she falls in love with the man and the result is many pages of coldness, hostility, angry sex, multiple-personality-switching from antagonistic to supporting and affectionate — the craziness of love we’ve all felt but jacked up a notch. Anna turns to drink, Saul comes to resent her, he eventually leaves, and via the vehicle of the Golden Notebook, a novel is written — started by Anna, written by Saul.

The next and final section of the book is a Free Women third-person section, and here Lessing switches up the whole depiction we’ve just slogged through.

Firstly, she makes very clear, by repeating the interaction with the daughter about boarding school (third person here, and we wonder, is this the ‘honest’ deposition?) that we are going to re-live the same time period as the 150-page Saul Green section. In this section,  a different man comes to Anna’s apartment, Milt. He’s different in character, entirely benevolent, different in appearance — less threateningly masculine (owlish, wears glasses, does not stand with the ‘rakish’ pose of Saul Green) and in a much more benevolent way, Milt releases Anna’s writer’s block, and leaves, all without the tenseness, challenge and angst of the Saul Green section. And there are similarly Disney-eque endings for the other characters, delivered in a clean style and in shockingly brief number of pages (for Lessing). People get married, find new loves, etc. without complication. The whole Michael thing has been forgotten. It makes me suspicious. I feel this ending is the false ending, it’s Lessing poking fun at conventional novels, or poking fun at convention. Or it is her signal that the third person narrative, the Free Women sections, are some sort of construct of Anna’s, that Lessing-as-Anna is giving us a wink, there is no reliable reality, there is only impression, there is only the diary, and fiction, and unreality.

I do not think this is a far-fetched notion, that Lessing is breaking the fourth wall in the final section. Lessing does write passages in the book that feel very self-referential — about how writing is like prostitution (p. 372, p. 375), selling out (p. 472), and she signals with a passage of Ella-as-Anna (p. 393) that Anna is a reflection of Dorothy.

So, why did Lessing write the book? I think she makes that clear on page 405. Here, Anna’s diary describes a discussion with her psychiatrist, Mother Sugar, and Anna says: “You’re suggesting I should write of our experience? How? If I set down every word of the exchange between us during an hour, it would be unintelligible unless I write the story of my life to explain it.” The book could be seen that way, as Lessing’s story…it is about a woman writer, of the same era who grew up in Africa, and was a single mother (with one child, as does Anna, though Lessing left two others with her ex in Africa) in London.

The quote that I will remember from this long novel I think shows Lessing’s inner turmoil: “Injustice and cruelty are at the root of life.” p. 543. I don’t think Lessing was a particularly happy person, but that’s just the impression from this one book. Certainly, she saw herself as one of the ‘great men’ rolling boulders up the hill of civilization (pp. 529 – 537).

BOTTOM LINE: This was an important book to finish. I cannot say I enjoyed it all the time, but I appreciated it, and met the end with a feeling of clarity which escaped me most of the way through. The depictions were superb, the writing usually superb, with some odd passages where things got wonky. Lessing achieved the communication of ‘her experience.’ That is the essence of art.

Selected subjects she touches on:

American women, p. p. 416-417 (Lessing had many HUGE generalities throughout the book).
Betrayal, pp. 509-510, p. 539
Communism, p.55; misery, myths and failures, pp. 140-142
Cooking, p. 311
Creative destruction, pp. 426-427, p. 508
Empty Nesting, p.493
Failure, p. 51
Feminism and the modern woman, pp. 156-157; only women are ‘healthy’ p. 336; patriarchy, pp. 385-387
Freedom and violence, p. 450
H-Bomb anxiety, p. 528, p. 555
Homosexuality, p. 524, rather odd, and ugly, frankly
Hysteria, pp. 410-419
Inevitability of the machine, p. 377
Integrity of orgasm, p. 279
Intellectuals vs. the stupidity of the masses, p. 529, p. 537
Lack of outrage, p. 126
McCarthyism, p. 482
Madness, pp. 331-332, p. 347, p. 433, p. 525
Marijuana, p. 424
Jealousy, p. 498, p. 501, and homosexuality, p. 502
Regret, p. 125
Tenuous liberty, p. 484
Tommie as a zombie, p. 343
Using sex to advantage p. 78


Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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