There could be many potential answers to the question, ‘What is Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook about?’ Almost like a literary Rorschach test, what you find in its pages may reflect your own interests and circumstances. Protagonist Anna Wulf is the writer of a novel published to great acclaim, now attempting to work her way through writer’s block via four notebooks of different colours. The blue one is her personal diary of life with flatmate and actress Molly, their men and their children. In the red notebook, she reflects on the political situation around her as a member of the British Communist Party following Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin. Her younger days in Africa during the war, also the subject of her novel, are examined in the black notebook and in a yellow one she tries to work on her next project, based on the ending of an affair.
It is always fascinating to spend time in Doris Lessing’s world, so completely of its time – with Louis Armstrong on the stereo, communism unravelling and the sexual revolution not quite sizzling yet – while remaining fully focussed on the same fundamental questions that concern us in our own haphazard times: how to live, how to love and how to create.
Throughout the four notebooks, Anna is tormented by the gap between life as it is lived and how it appears on the page. She makes notes about things that catch her eye from the wider world such as segregation and African independence, the Second World War, Cold War and possible nuclear annihilation, left-wing politics, all of which Lessing considers while surveying the place of women in these movements and society itself: the dance between roles of mother, wife, lover and colleague that all must perform.
But for all the filling up of the pages, Anna is feeling stuck. Not only suffering from writer’s block but blocked in life, with politics, relationships and the news filling her with gloom. Unsatisfactorily undergoing therapy and attempting to make sense of the world and her place in it, she tells therapist Mother Sugar:
I can’t pick up a newspaper without what’s in it seeming so overwhelmingly terrible that nothing I could write would seem to have any point at all.
Words which could have easily been written this year as well as over 50 years ago – or any of the ones in between – just as these could:
The fight with my various forms of dissatisfaction tires me; but I know it is not a personal fight. When I talk about this with other women, they tell me they have to fight all kinds of guilt they recognize as irrational, usually to do with working, or wanting time for themselves…
It is no doubt passages like this which have led to The Golden Notebook being hailed as a feminist novel (Lessing herself had other ideas) and while it certainly does have more than a few things to say about existing as a woman, that is only one element and not the whole story. For anyone who spends any time thinking about it, life encourages the fragmentation Lessing has Anna attempt with her notebooks. It is in our natures to attempt to break life up into more manageable or convenient topics, or to think that if we get a handle on one area of life, the others will drop into place. But doing so soon leads to a similar fragmentation of the self and the scenes where Anna and her lover and fellow writer Saul seem to be dragging each other down into a torrent of madness are, at times, a difficult read.
Yet without being so open to following their thoughts to their most extreme conclusions, the realisation and creation contained in the Golden Notebook itself (a unique journal which will make any stationery addict’s heart swell with envy) cannot begin. Anna realises that:
…these marvellous, generous things we walk side by side with in our imaginations could come into existence, simply because we need them, because we imagine them.
There are many different strands to the stories in The Golden Notebook and when this multi-layer story technique is used it can often lead to the reader wishing they could stay with one they like best, but here I found all of them to be as engrossing as the others. Lessing is a frank and surgical observer of characters and even the ‘minor’ ones have depth and ring true. You could as easily see Anna, Saul, Molly and her son Tommy existing with smartphones and status updates as they do with pens and notebooks and jazz. Tommy himself could be every angry young man who has ever railed against his parents’ generation, until he acts out the angst with tragic consequences. The bitchiness of groups endures through the ages, as it appears Anna is as much put off communism (as was George Orwell) by the dreadfulness of the other communists they have encountered.
There are other more telling anachronisms. Anna’s feud with her homosexual lodger quickly veers into homophobia of the kind that was probably more commonly expressed in 1962, just five years before decriminalisation, than it would be now. Similarly, it is almost completely laughable (with a bitter edge at times) how sexually available they as previously married women are expected to be. All while most of the men Molly, Anna and blue notebook character Ella encounter are truly awful to their wives, mistresses and secretaries while being nowhere near as dapper and charming as the Mad Men were. Molly’s ex-husband Richard seems particularly in need of some karmic retribution.
Still I found that these things did not detract from my enjoyment of this thought-provoking read, which captures life in all its messy unpredictability.
Anna tells Saul – referring to life, but also to writing – in words that remain as true now as they were then:
‘We’ve got to believe in our beautiful, impossible blueprints.’
‘Right. What next?’