I must admit that I was ignorant of Doris Lessing until only a few years ago when she was name dropped by Robert Fripp in an interview for Mojo Magazine. In the interview he recalled how one night on tour in the US with King Crimson he brushed off a waiting groupie after the gig and instead went back to his hotel room to read his Doris Lessing novel! He didn’t mention which one, but I wonder if it was The Golden Notebook? (no doubt it was one of her science fiction novels...). My ignorance about Lessing is reasonably shameful because she is a significant writer and a cultural figure of some renown. Lessing won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007 and was listed in fifth place on The Times list of the fifty greatest British writers since 1945. Lessing was also outspoken about feminism, culture and politics and was for a time in the 1950s a member of the British Communist Party, which resulted in her being spied on by the MI5 for twenty years. She even collaborated with composer Philip Glass, writing lyrics for two operas based on her work.
The Golden Notebook is one of Lessing’s most recognized novels and as I was soon to discover also one of her most challenging. The principle protagonist is Anna Wulf, a writer suffering from writers block and also a particular kind of mental anguish that comes with living in the 1950s; confused gender roles, the cold war, nuclear weapons and a stifling conservatism that is already beginning to crumble. The narrative is highly structured; divided into sections according to notebooks - black, red, yellow and blue, finishing with the golden notebook that unites them all. At regular intervals there are sections ironically titled ‘Free Women’ (or “ironical” - a word that Wulf uses incessantly throughout the novel), which feature Wulf, her friend Molly, their children and a host of male characters, most of whom are reprehensible. Like Lessing herself in the 1950s, Wulf is a member of the Communist Party and the red notebook reveals a deep disillusionment with the Soviet Union as the revelations about Stalin’s reign become too hard to ignore. The black notebook explores Wulf’s writing life, with all its inherent frustrations. Wulf is psychologically unable to accept her life as a writer and resents its bittersweet rewards and suffocating writers block. The yellow notebook records her emotional life and the blue her every day life. Both are fraught with the pressures of life and reveal a woman very much on the edge of a nervous breakdown, a theme that Lessing notes in her preface from 1971 as being more significant than the political and feminist themes.
Within the notebook sections there is further experimentation with form, with Wulf creating fiction that explores what is actually happening in her life. There are significant motifs that are repeated throughout: Wulf endlessly wants to leave the Communist Party and she is constantly drawn to married men, or they are drawn to her. Lessing explores changing gender roles in post war Britain, in which female identity is in flux. The irony inherent in the Free Women sections is that whilst the female characters live independently of men, they continually define themselves by their relationships with them. The male characters are generally dissatisfied and are prone to misogynist behavior that is unfortunately all too believable. Some hard ‘truths’ are explored throughout The Golden Notebook and Lessing is rightly admired for having been so bold in both her themes and her execution. However the novel is also flawed, containing a great deal of stilted dialogue. Many of the scenes are designed to put ideas across and then to repeatedly hammer them home. At times the novel is turgid, filled with endless character ruminations about their own situation or the plight of society as a whole. Also it doesn’t help there is absolutely no humour in the novel whatsoever. A mere one hundred pages into the novel it occurred to me that it was the most neurotic writing I’d ever read and Wulf was the most neurotic character I’d ever encountered. The narrative is painfully self aware and is intensely psychological in an uncomfortably way; it just never lets up and is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It took me two hundred pages to finally become absorbed by the narrative. The middle third, although unrelentingly demanding, was almost enjoyable, yet by the last third I once again felt like I was wading through narrative quicksand.
This uncompromising book is certainly a challenge, but is it a challenge that is worthwhile? To answer that question requires writing endless pages of rumination in several notebooks, followed by periods of angst and the obsessive cutting out of articles from newspapers to stick onto the walls. Actually, whoops, that’s the book! Curiously, however, reading The Golden Notebook was a rewarding experience, although exactly why is hard to pin down. The novel is certainly significant culturally both for its impact on the feminist movement and its brave experiments with form; but the novel has dated significantly, being very much a product of its times and in that context it can perhaps be viewed as an anthropological document of one woman’s struggle to make sense of her life against the backdrop of history.