So just over a week ago I started reading Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, one I have been meaning to read for a good two years. I *had* to write down what I feel about it, though you have to remember that I’ve had a *very* stressful week!
I am going to get a hell of this wrong, I know, but this is more or less how I figured it all went. Please, excuse any massive blunders and remember I’m not an academic, I’m just a reader, reading for pleasure.
The book is divided into four notebooks, each supposedly detailing a different strand of Anna’s life, and the stand alone story of “Free Women” (a play on her ‘maiden’ (hate that phrase but only appropriate one can think of right now) name Freeman?). The book covers a twenty year period, focusing mainly on Anna’s life in Central Africa during the Second World War, and the 1950s in London with her daughter Janet.
The book starts with Free Women, followed in turn by the notebooks. The writing style within the notebooks varies depending on themes, and also includes references to letters, newspaper clippings and other printed sources stuck within the pages. I would love to see a art project of the notebooks as they actually appeared, as I believe that the state of Anna’s unravelling mind directly compares to the disorganised and frantic way the notebooks change over time.
Also what interested me is the emphasis on the different notebooks in terms of length; at the beginning, when Anna starts the experiment, the black notebook, that supposedly chronicles her ‘writing life’, but which I see as more of her remembrances of the past and of Africa in general starts off as long sections talking about her first novel and how it was influenced by real-life events in Africa (I know its really bad to just say ‘Africa’ when its a continent with a wide variety of cultures and countries, but that’s what she says in the book.)
By the end of the novel it is the blue notebook which is sprawling and massive. The blue notebook is supposed to be a diary and concentrates more on day to day events, thoughts and fears and dreams, particularly those to do with her mental health and how this relates to how she sees herself sexually, and how other people do. I believe this is because Anna has been taken in by psycho-analysis, to such an extent where she cannot just ‘be’, but everything has to mean something and every man she meets must have a context within her life purely as a sexual being. I hated the blue notebook as it frustrated and confused me. I don’t agree with the notion that dreams are vastly important in deciphering who we are and where we’re going as I believe there is such as thing as being up oneself to the point where one is blind to reality, and I feel uncomfortable with self-analysis to the extent Anna has it (counselling three times a week at two hours a time? Talking about yourself and your life exclusively for six hours a week? For over ten years? Come off it love you’re not fucking Jordan).
The Yellow Notebook was my favourite. Actually, complete lie, the first bit of the black notebook was my favourite but the yellow notebook on a whole was excellent. As far as I can figure out, this was a story version of Anna’s life, much like her book Frontiers of War was a story of her earlier life in Africa. The yellow notebook is also more or less chronological so a lot easier to digest that the blue notebook, which you need a map to navigate, to be honest, or the black notebook which is threads of memories of false experiences that Anna can no longer recall clearly to the extent where at the end it is a movie she keeps seeing where she is convinced she has remembered the plot but hasn’t.
Ella lives with her son Michael in the flat she shares with her friend Julia (Anna, Janet and Molly in Free Woman). She works on a magazine answering letters for a medical advice column. At a party given by her boss she meets Paul (who corresponds to Michael in Anna’s life. Lessing only uses about three male names throughout, which is confusing, but probably Very Relevant (is it? I don’t know!)), who she later finds is married. They have an extremely involving affair for five years, which she dedicates her life to, even though she knows he will never leave his wife (she sees their home once and realises that, actually, he isnt ‘her’s’. Really? You think?). When, of course, he leaves her for a job abroad, she becomes depressed, having only had him as her emotional compass for the last five years, despite living with her best friend and her son. She goes to Paris for work where she meets a American man who she ends up in bed with after they have a near-death experience on the flight home. She realises that she will never be able to experience sexual pleasure with anyone but Paul, because she is still in love with him. She continues to have several affairs, moves into a new flat with her son, which nearly causes an end to her friendship with Julia. The notebook ends with Ella having a conversation with her father about his relationship with her mother, and with herself. It becomes apparent that they really don’t have much of an emotional relationship.
Now when I look at the yellow notebook incomparsion with the blue is becomes apparent to me that this is another response to Freudian psycho-therapy; because Ella doesn’t have an emotional relationship with her father she has planted that love onto another man, Paul, who cannot give it back because he is not in love with her enough to leave his wife and career for her (or, as I like to put it, he is a Bastard). When she is rejected by Paul she is unable to find sexual fulfillment (because of course that’s the only possible thing one could possibly want in ones life, there is No Point proceeding otherwise-what utter utter self obsessed tosh. Have a wank, love, its not hard).
However, I feel so much for Ella I’m going to completely ignore this interpretation and continue in my sobbing for her. The poor poor love. Paul is clearly a Massive Massive Bastard, he assumes straight away that Ella will fall madly in love with him, and does nothing to dissuade her, even though he is married. He treats her dreadfully throughout, yet she always comes back because she loves him, and there’s not a lot she can do to stop herself. I loved loved loved Lessing’s use of simile in the book, the whole thing is gorgeous but the line that stood out as most poignant for me was “his going has left me like a snail that has had its shell pecked off my a bird” which is one of the very few things I’d seriously consider getting permanently marked on my body for the trueness of it. If you’ve ever had your shell pecked off yourself, you’ll understand why.
The bit where Ella is contemplating suicide on the plane grabbed me by the throat a bit in how well realised it was. There is a reason not to allow yourself to be that emotionally attached to another person, they can make you feel that shitty even years after they’ve trodden your heart in the mud. I wanted Ella to find happiness, but I loved how Lessing wouldn’t let her. This is the rest of her life now, all because some Bastard just couldn’t be honest to her, or his family.
The black notebook is in my opinion the most beautifully written on the notebooks (though this is appropriate when the content reflux Anna’s writing, as opposed to emotional or mental state). The stories surrounding the group of Communists who find each other and become friends during the war is so so beautiful and moving. Each character I could see, and know. Paul, the charismatic, young, bully of a pilot was such a good anti-hero, and that we know about his death from quite near the beginning of the story makes it even more so.
I loved the way Lessing describes relationships in the black notebook; I agree that in every group there is a central couple; having been part of a similarly insular group of friends myself I recognised instantly a lot of the intricacies and dangers apparent with such groups. Anna and Willi I particularly liked, they are together, as far as I could see, from want of anything better to be.
The book as a whole, in my opinion (and again, I’ve probably got this horribly wrong) was about failing to deal with disappointment. Anna is socialist by nature, and intellectual. She knows and lot of people and supports a lot of causes. She is disappointed on many levels throughout the book; most prominently by her politics (the red notebook is one long fall out from Stalin, and heartbreakingly sad, especially for a lefty to read) and emotionally by the various men (for the most part married, which riled, but its set in the 50s when you were even more of a failure if you were single than you are now) that she ties herself to. But not just these two major themes; Anna is also disappointed by motherhood (her daughter Janet wants to go to boarding school and is normal, despite her bohemian upbringing and being from a “broken home”). Her friendship with Molly/Julia is constantly under strain, mostly due to Molly using her as an emotional crutch and then getting upset when she gives advice (I really didn’t like Molly, almost as much as I didn’t like Tommy, both of which again need to Get Over Themselves a bit. Though Tommy’s story is incredibly sad, he then punishes his mother and rips the piss out of his step mother for no reason other than he can, as far as I could see. Couldn’t quite forgive him for that. At least Richard is honest; he wants to have lots of money and shag young beautiful women and so he DOES make lots of money and shag young beautiful women. Molly wants to teach the world to sing and all that but at the end of the day she doesn’t).
By the end of the book, Anna has had a breakdown. This is not helped by her falling in love with her lodger, Saul (or is it Milt? Again, the chopping and changing of names, whilst brilliant, confused the help out of me). Saul is an emotionally abusive man, even more or a bully than Paul from the black notebook. He torments Anna with emotional blackmail because he is weak and pathetic and it is the only way he can get his kicks, by demeaning someone far more successful and intelligent than he is on the basis on their gender, which he deems lessor than his own. Saul is also mentally ill and going through a breakdown of his own, or “cracking up” as Lessing calls it.
The abuse of Anna by Saul extends to his taking over her life to the extent that she starts a brand new notebook-the golden notebook, which he claims for his own. Exploring how they hurt each other, Anna finally asks him to leave her. She returns to her main priority being her daughter, gets a job working for a relationship counsellor and joins the Labour Party.
I LOVED this book. It was so thought provoking, so well crafted and structured, I could have happily spent two days reading it to re-emerge re-born, and will do that exact thing one day. Anna terrified me; if I had been born in the 1920s to middle class parents I would have probably gone down a similar route. It terrified me that this intelligent, intellectual, thinking woman could allow herself to be involved with such pricks of men, and not receive any support whatsoever from her women friends; Molly doesn’t even know that Anna is having the affair with Saul, or that is is mentally breaking down. This disgusted me, as I would hope that my friends would never allow things to get that bad for me.
This isn’t a “feminist” novel, apart from that it illustrates just how horrible and constricting a place Britain was, for both sexes. But this is because it is about the 50s, rather than explicitly about the struggle for equality of the sexes and an end of socially constricted gender roles. One line, however, massively stood out for me as still relevant today and that is when Anna says to Saul,
“In a society where not one man in ten thousand begins to understand the ways in which women are second class citizens, we have to rely for company on the men who are at least not hypocrites.”
There is so much more I could say about this book and I would love to have a very long and in depth conversation with someone slightly more academic than I am about every part of it. But I have waffled on enough here. If anyone has any recommendations as to further reading into this book, they would be gratefully received.