The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

Review:

The Golden Notebook - Doris LessingFirst let me say that I cheated a bit and listened to this 27 hour audiobook and that part was a mistake. It made the divisions in the story more difficult to understand and I ended up going back and getting the ebook to make sense of it afterword.

The book hit me much like Madame Bovary did back when I read it first but I understand the problem now and can honestly say that I see why it is considered a feminist classic and how it contributed to the body of work that eventually won Doris Lessing the Nobel Prize in Literature. To get us started, here’s the back cover information on the book:

Anna is a writer, author of one very successful novel, who now keeps four notebooks. In one, with a black cover, she reviews the African experience of her earlier years. In a red one she records her political life, her disillusionment with communism. In a yellow one she writes a novel in which the heroine relives part of her own experience. And in a blue one she keeps a personal diary. Finally, in love with an American writer and threatened with insanity, Anna resolves to bring the threads of all four books together in a golden notebook.

Doris Lessing’s best-known and most influential novel, The Golden Notebook retains its extraordinary power and relevance decades after its initial publication.

The book is incredibly problematic in many ways right from the start. The point of the book though, is the introspection into the four notebooks where the main character looks at all the ways in which the bubble of her life as an upper middle class white heterosexual in the society of England just afte WWII is problematic. While I’m sure problematic would not be the word Lessing would have used at the time, this is where we’ve come in looking at books and feminism and all the intersections of life. As part of this, there is also a diversity problem throughout. Nevertheless, we do get to see some people who still have representation issues and though the characters aren’t treated well, it’s a part of the book that the main character spends time writing in the notebooks about her treatment of them, her feelings about it, and sometimes debating other tactics. None of this makes her noble, but it definitely makes the book ahead of its time. For the record, it was originally published in 1962, which is a year before The Feminine Mystique. Along with the aforementioned notes about people, she also takes a long and introspective look at her life, her role in society, the way society treats her and the things expected of her by everyone.

Like I said, it was a book ahead of its time. It’s problematic in many aspects right from the start but the point is looking at her life. For me, that makes the nature of the problems a part of the plot and not an afterthought or something the writer neglected to care about. The whole point is seeing for yourself if you are a racist or sexist or hetero-sexist.

If you haven’t read the book and are going to get it, stop here. Pick it at the library or Amazon or the Book Depository and come back and see me.

Some minor spoilers ahead.

To elaborate on what I was getting at above, this book is great in that it so well explains that plight of women in several walks of life during it’s time. The part that bothers me is intricate to what makes it great. It’s so true.

Yes, it gets quite complicated and it may be difficult to understand what I mean by that in a review and I did think at first that maybe it was just me and I just really identified with the women the story is about. But it’s not. I know that because I also get the ebook, as I mentioned above, which has two introductions that were written by the author, one in 1993 and the other in 1971. She has received enough fanmail and letters stated this that I know I’m not alone in that.

What I mean by the “plight of women” is that there are things that we all know happened back in the time that this book was made that we like to gloss over. We watch old movies where men say things that we would not consider a compliment if said now and the women laugh and then we laugh as if it’s okay because those aren’t real women anyway, right? Well, many of those very things had to be a part of the culture, it only makes sense when it pops up in, literally everything made in the time. Let’s go ahead and add in the feeling that there is a requirement to have sex with a guy who buys you dinner now, let alone in a time before the Women’s Liberation movement.

So yeah, what made me squirm as I read the story wasn’t that I didn’t like it as a masterful piece of work with a beautiful prose that just makes you feel what the characters feel, but the idea of living and breathing in that world terrifies me. A lot. Like, A LOT. It’s not Hunger Games level, but it’s not necessarily far off either.

I grew up knowing that there were lots of women around me that felt like they had to just be happy with the man they married despite affairs and poor treatment because they were unemployable and he was a decent provider for their kids. And just like with some of the men here, it was her kids, not their kids together. These guys don’t feel anything for their children, they aren’t a part of their lives. Having kids was a favor they did for the women they kept all but chained to the house. Now, don’t get me wrong, house-wives are great. It’s the idea of a man looking at his housewife as if she exists as a burden to him and having children with her solely to give her life meaning because he won’t “let” her do that by any other means or because she feels bound by society to make that the meaning of her life that I have a problem with.

Part of what makes this so clear is that the book itself isn’t about a housewife, it’s about a serial mistress. She doesn’t want to be married. I don’t want to spoil all the details of why and her circumstances, but this gives us the window through which we get to see these men. Married men in pursuit of her as their girl on the side and then we get to walk through her thought process and whether or not she wants to sleep with them and whether or not she does in spite of desire but out of obligation. All of these things leave her in positions that I would loathe finding myself in as well as most of the other women in the book. Before I get accused of making the distinction, though I don’t think it should be necessary, I do understand that this is her circle and the people she finds herself around. I’m sure there were plenty of perfectly happy marriages with men who didn’t sleep around. This book isn’t about those marriages or those men.

What makes it a truly interesting book despite all the things that terrify me is that what makes the plot move along is Anna’s introspection that is brought on by her notebooks. She has written a successful book and is compartmentalising in an effort to find adequate inspiration for a new book. Her introspection makes her take a second look at everything, even the most menial, repetitive, or normal things. For example, she mentions washing up several times a day while on her period and changing out her tampons. She doesn’t just mention it but thinks on how it makes her feel, how it effects what happens throughout the day that she has to take this extra precaution.

The commentary on communism is an interesting one that I’ve never really heard before. It makes sense to see it in the beginning as something hopeful on that level but I love that it is also broken down into people and how people can so easily break a concept like communism. My dad once said (and he was probably quoting but he’s my original source) that communism is a great idea until you add people to it. I remember working to figure out what that meant and realizing that it does sound like it should create a better world, then later realizing that some greedy people will always come along and destroy it all. This, of course, was well after the Cold War ended and that cat was out of the bag. I’m sure I was watching something that mentioned something about it.

Due to her experience in Africa and the nature of her first novel, Anna does also get introspective about racism and even colonialism. The plot of that first novel would be considered very problematic these days and she realizes it in the book and spends some time on why and how and what she could have done differently but that it would not have sold that way. No one would have believed it or wanted to see it if she had told the real truth.

I found her dreams toward the end with the projectionist interesting. I had a similar, though different, experience recounting events in my life as I had started to become better versed in feminism these last few years and started to see all the little ways that I had bought into internalized misogyny. I had been a girl who said that I wasn’t like other girls because I genuinely didn’t like many other girls at the time. The list of faux pas from back then goes on, but the introspection was an important part of it. It’s a little jarring when you sit down to it, at least it was for me and I appreciate that it was equally so for Anna.

Has anyone else read this? What did you think?

 

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