Friday, 10 April 2009

The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing

Read: November 2007

The Golden Notebook is the best known and most widely acclaimed of all the works that went to earning Doris Lessing the 2007 Nobel Prize for literature. It tells the story of Anna Wulf and her efforts to maintain a semblance of sanity in a world that seems to be falling apart. She is a free woman: financially comfortable thanks to the success of her bestselling novel, emotionally self sufficient and committed to her bohemian lifestyle of passionate politics and frequent affairs. But she is terrified of the chaos she feels all around her: the violence and suffering across the world, her writers block, the way her mind feels like its cracking up. So in an attempt to make sense of the chaos she begins to record her life in four coloured notebooks, a black one to address her problems as a writer; red for recording her political life; yellow her relationships and emotions; and the blue becomes a diary of everyday events. But it is the Golden Notebook which holds the key to her renaissance and recovery, both as a writer and a person.

The Golden Notebook
is not a feminist treaty, nor a political diary of the break up of British communism, but the intensely individual story of one woman’s struggle to reconcile her own life with the political and philosophical atmosphere of her age, to make sense of the chaos she feels all around her. It is a spectacularly intimate journey through the mind of Anna Wulf, a young novelist whose life is falling apart.

It is also one of the most impressive works you will read this year. But that doesn’t mean it is easy reading. If you are looking for a plot driven, exciting page turner then this is not the book for you. If you love lyrical, poetic prose then this is not the book for you. Doris Lessing has a clunky, disjointed and sometimes ugly style of writing which is difficult to fall in love with.

However, there is a triumvirate of qualities a book can contain and in the last of these The Golden Notebook achieves spectacularly. It may not be enticingly exciting or beautiful written, but it is seriously interesting, intelligent and well constructed. It is a book which deals with big ideas, which will teach you something about yourself and the world around you. Few books are as intellectually rewarding as this. And because of this vociferous intelligence and insight, given time and space it is possible to forget all its faults almost completely. Even the prose begins to read smoothly. If you persist, The Golden Notebook is a book you can easily hibernate within for a few cool autumnal weeks.

Doris Lessing is on the same level as Milan Kundera in her awareness of the psychological intricacies of her characters, their shifts in mood are examined with subtlety and experience. She is able to speak plainly and intelligently on any subject, from sex to society and her insight is often astounding. Never have I read a book and come away from it more certain that I knew nothing about myself.

Through her perceptive and articulate eyes we are taken on a journey into the 1950’s, into a time which seems so like our own and yet is not. We watch on as she struggles to reconcile her political and moral beliefs with the world around her: a world in which Stalin is being exposed for his crimes in the Soviet Union, the British Communist Party is collapsing under the weight of its members disillusionment, and in America Senator McCarthy’s ‘Red Terror’ is decimating the left wing intelligentsia. It is a world in which Anna excels in her bohemian lifestyle and affairs with married men but feels increasingly empty and hates herself for craving the security of love, for she sees it as giving in to all that feminine sentimentality that she wishes to be above. Those who say Ian McEwan’s recent novel On Chesil Beach accurately conveys the sexual inadequacies of the British populace pre-1966 would do well to read this and note how Anna dissects the emotional and physical side of sex both intelligently and erotically. This novel is a far cry from the prim and proper 1950’s world we are accustomed to reading about.

Her account of life and psychology as a young, bohemian, communist, women in the 1950’s is sumptuously detailed. The impossible contradictions of her life, the exhilarating joy one minute and the periods of guilt and manic depression the next. It seems that more than any other of her books, this is Doris Lessing’s most autobiographical novel, a novel into which she has poured every experience she had ever had into her characters. And because of this The Golden Notebook has an air of honesty which has few equals anywhere in literature.

However, on the other side it shows extraordinary disdain for everything outside Anna’s field of experience. The middle classes are seen in the typical stereotype as boring, repressed and politically naive. Men are all philandering, sexual predators, emotionally stunted and childlike. But Anna is obsessed with them treating her terribly. The worse they behave towards her, the more sexually excited she becomes. So it is unclear whether this is really a social commentary or a personal story about one very rounded and believable character whose vision of the world is blinkered by her social and political station. I chose to see it as the latter, because otherwise I resent these one dimensional portraits greatly.

In short Anna is a fascinatingly self destructive character and in the analysis of the world through her mind The Golden Notebook is a fascinating and powerful novel about a woman fighting to stay sane in a truly crazy world. And there are few more universal subjects in the world as that.

6.5 out of 10

1 comment:

Moira - Vulpes Libris said...

Sam ...


I'm Co-Admin of the Vulpes Libris literary site and we're running a week of 'bohemian' themed pieces.

We've had a bit of a glitch with tomorrow's piece ... the person who was supposed to be writing it has just contacted us to say that not only is she unwell, she's also got technical problems.

I found your excellent review of The Golden Notebook when casting around for inspiration ... and I wonder if you would consent to our rerunning your review - with full credits and a link back to your blog, of course?

Please could you contact me as soon as possible on:

vulpeslibris at yahoo dot co dot uk ?