by Doris Lessing
ISBN 978 0 00 749877 2, first published in 1962, buy it on Amazon.
It’s been a week since I finished reading The Golden Notebook (1962) and admittedly, I am just as confused today as I was when reading the book.
Doris Lessing (1919-2013) was a British novelist who published extensively throughout her life. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. Born in Iran, Lessing grew up in Southern Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe) and eventually moved to Salisbury in 1937, aged eighteen. After two divorces and three children, Lessing became much more active in politics and moved to London in 1949 with her youngest child. Lessing protested against both apartheid and nuclear arms. In 1956 she left the British Communist Party after disillusionment and the Soviet invasion of Hungary.
The Golden Notebook was first published in 1962 when the Cold War raged. It was also at a point when concepts of gender and feminism were changing. This book deals with these themes as well as Lessing’s own doubts about communism. You could perhaps read The Golden Notebook as a means of finding out exactly what was going on in the world at the time.
“Those fishermen in Scotland were a different species from the coalminers I stayed with in Yorkshire; and both come from a different world than the housing estate outside London.” (75)
The book is confusing. It is Anna Wulf’s, the main character’s, attempt at compartmentalising her lift with the hope of reaching sanity and fighting the madness raging inside her.
“The black notebook records her writing life, the red her political views, the yellow notebook her emotional life and the blue everyday events”
Finally, these cumulate in the golden notebook. There are also the ‘Free Women’ sections of the novel, which focus on Anna and Molly, and their relationship with each other as free women – unmarried mothers living a completely different life to that led by other women in the past.
“I know what I don’t want, but not what I do want.” (53)
To be perfectly honest, when I first started reading the book, I didn’t really want to finish it. The thing is, I read for escapism, and this book did not give me any sense of escape. Instead, it absolutely messed with my mind. It has been described as ‘inner space fiction’ (by Margaret Drabble, author). It deals with complex emotions and gender relationships. It’s twisted and confusing. But… I did finish this book, and it was very much a chance encounter with someone on the London Underground that made me persevere. A stranger I sat next to on a train, in the middle of unfriendly and cold London. He told me that it was one of his favourite books and asked how I was finding it. I said it’s a little confusing, so, he told me to persevere with it. He told me that it would be worth it in the end – and I have to admit, it definitely was worth it. It is the same advice I would give to anybody else struggling through it.
You will get there and it will all make sense.
There were definitely parts of the novel that I did not like. In fact, I would probably say that I hated them. Themes such as orgasms (200) and periods were touched upon and I found it difficult to resonate or respect the character’s opinions in regards to them. What I am aware of though, is that I am reading in 2017, a lot has changed in the last fifty-five years. The world is a completely different place. The issues that Lessing is writing about are a world away. You could argue that they are still here but they are different. That is probably why there were many parts of the novel I genuinely hated (including the protagonist); because I could not resonate with them, I just could not agree with her hating of her period, or her submissiveness.
There were, however, moments that have me goose bumps, such as page 253 and Mary Rose’s revelation, but in general the more I think about it, the more decided I am that I just did not like the book. The most important thing that this book taught me (because that’s the kind of book this is – it teaches you about the past, yourself, and everything that you believe in), however, is that books have the ability, and the beauty, to bring strangers together.
Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook, 50 years on is an article published by The Guardian in 2012. Four women of four different generations discuss what novel meant to them – please read this, they have put into words their feelings towards the book much better than I have been able to. I am pretty sure that they have also done it much more justice than I was able to do too:
“I did not find any answers in The Golden Notebook when I first read it, nor did I identify with Anna Wulf – Anna Freeman – as some sort of personal feminist hero. I do not think that was the point. But then, as now, it helped to steer me towards knowing which questions to ask, in order to try to do things differently. That’s why I gave the novel as a gift, and will continue to do so.” – Natalie Hanman, Comment is free editor of The Guardian