Doris Lessing may have followed the least likely path to success
of any of the Nobel laureates in literature.  Her nomadic life began
in Iran (then still known as Persia), where her father served as a
clerk at the Imperial Bank.  Before her tenth birthday, her family
had moved to present-day Zimbabwe, where they pursued a
failed attempt at maize farming.  Lessing's education ended at
age 14, and she supported herself as a nursemaid and later a
telephone operator.   After her divorce from Gottfried Lessing,
she moved to London, with no degree, not even a high school
diploma, and few obvious skills beyond a passion for political
issues and an intense desire to write.

Even after her early successes, most
notably her ambitious, sprawling novel
The Golden Notebook, published in
1962, Lessing seemed determined to
subvert her own rising fame. She wrote
books under a pseudonym, to show
the difficulties unknown authors face
in finding an audience, and saw her
own UK publisher turn down a manu-
script from their star author.  She also
published science fiction novels, at a
time when that genre was viewed as
escapist literature unsuitable for serious
readers—a view that hasn't entirely disappeared, judging by the
books shortlisted and longlisted in the prestigious competitions.  
When grad students wrote her about their theses and dissertations
on her books, Lessing encouraged them to read other authors,
and not spend so much time on her writings. "The fact that you
have to spend one year, or two years, on one book, or one author
means that you are badly taught."  She considered herself
fortunate, in retrospect, to have skipped a college education.  

In retrospect, Lessing was ahead of the academics.  
The Golden
Notebook
is packed to the brim with thematic material and
techniques that would later dominate literary studies—although
not until another ten or twenty years had elapsed.  The first
women's studies course at a major university wouldn't appear
until 1969, when Cornell made the plunge, and the first programs
in women's studies, at San Diego State and SUNY-Buffalo, were
launched a year later.  When this new discipline finally emerged
and gained legitimization over the following decade, Lessing's
writings were precisely the kinds of literary works championed
and studied by their students and professors.  

But Lessing anticipated future trends in still other ways.  
The
Golden Notebook
adopts numerous techniques that would later
be classified as postmodern.  Here we have the arcane meta-
narratives, the deliberate fragmentation, the conflict and juxta-
position of different styles of discourses, the critique of absolutist
value systems, characters with changing identities involved in
conflicting accounts of the same events—all of them destined to
serve as mainstays of the fiction writers' toolkit a few years later,
but none of them at the core of the literary mainstream at the dawn
of the 1960s.  For someone so indifferent to academics, Lessing
showed an uncanny sense of what they would later want from her.  

The two most common labels applied to
The Golden Notebook
classify it as a feminist novel or a political novel.  Yet both of these
rubrics give potential readers a misleading notion of the book.  A
feminist novel, a political novel, a philosophical novel….when we
hear these terms, we anticipate a book filled with answers and
certainties.  We expect to encounter a work of fiction that aspires
to objectivity, or borrows on the verities of non-fiction.  Yet Lessing
rejects all these assumptions, and delivers a novel filled instead
with questions, doubts, reconsiderations and the careful weighing
of conflicting claims and views.  Lessing's break with the
Communist Party, a few years before she wrote
The Golden
Notebook
, was spurred, at least in part, by its operatives' constant
denunciations of literary subjectivity and their jargon-laden claims
to objectivity, often accompanied by a gross disregard of the
available facts. The solution is not the eradication of the individual
perspective, she concluded, but rather its cultivation, and the
understanding that "one’s unique and incredible experience is what
everyone shares.”  Or as Kierkegaard once paradoxically put it:
subjectivity is objectivity.

This autobiographical material is reworked into several of the
plots of
The Golden Notebook.  The main character Anna Wulf,
is disillusioned with the results of her blind commitment to the
proletarian revolution—or at least to its intellectual overseers.  
But she faces a personal crisis at the same time, perhaps even
an existential crisis, as she tries to define herself as a 'free
woman', not beholden to traditional values or definitions of male-
female relationships.  When her affair with Michael comes to a
sudden end, she struggles to move beyond the emotional pain,
and her ensuing relationships—almost always with married
men—prove unsatisfying and sometimes mentally destabilizing.

Anna is also a novelist, who suffers from acute writer's block.  
But she attempts to transform her own dilemmas and uncertainty
into fiction, constructing a story around a protagonist named Ella,
whose problems echo Anna's own—and to some extent, Doris
Lessing's as well.  But processing such a jumble of conflicting
feelings and experiences requires Anna to separate her writing
into different notebooks.  

"I keep four notebooks," Anna explains to herself, "a black note-
book, which is to do with Anna Wulf the writer; a red notebook,
concerned with politics;  a yellow notebook, in which I make
stories out of my experience; and a blue notebook which tries to
be a diary." These volumes are filled with diverse bric-à-brac:
clippings from newspapers, budgetary matters dealing with
Anna's writing, letters from friends, ideas for stories, different
types of memoir from the superficial to the intensely detailed.  
The fragmentation mimics the equally discordant emotional and
mental state of the woman who is collecting these bits and pieces,
and struggling to put them into coherent order.  At times, Anna
finds that her lifeline to sanity is not her writing and journaling, but
her normal, well-balanced daughter Janet.  The responsibilities
of motherhood give her an anchor that neither men, books or
politics can provide.  

Lessing's novel is labyrinthine and fractured, sometimes unwieldy
and frustrating.  But it is never formulaic.  Above all, this is an
honest book, painfully honest at many points.  Rarely will you
encounter a narrator—and, by extension, an author—who more
willingly questions her own assumptions, or second-guesses her
own past with greater vigor.  Yet just when you think that Lessing
will abandon traditional narrative for a quasi-psychoanalytical
confessional memoir, she pulls back and delivers a taut, almost
cinematic interlude that could stand on its own as a short story or
novella.  My favorite section here is a long story-within-a-story
recounting Anna's experiences among a group of disenchanted
radicals who gather in an out-of-the-way Rhodesian hotel,
run by British ex-pats during the height of World War II.  Every
party here is practicing a different sort of deception, from the
establishment proprietors who try to evoke a faux British sensibility
in the midst of a racially polarized community, to the young
communists who speak of class warfare but battle more with
each other than the ruling powers.   

If Anna's situation is mirrored in her notebooks, it is equally
reflected in the situation of her best friend Molly.  Molly is almost
an alter ego—she too is a disenchanted communist; she also
has a failed marriage, to the financier Richard, and a child to
raise;  she also prides herself on her status as a 'free woman'.  
But while Molly increasingly finds solace in a sarcastic, catty
denunciations of men, and a bitterness that seems increasingly
an anticipation of spinsterhood rather than feminism, Anna holds
out for something better, something redeeming, something that
can bring coherence to her fractured life.

In an attempt to forge this order, at least from words if not actual
lived experience, Anna purchases another notebook, an expensive
golden one, with the hope that it will replace the others, and
substitute a unity for the multiplicity of her current life.  Yet even as
she embarks on this mission of self-healing, a new man arrives
on the scene who is even more psychically fragmented than
Anna.  Saul Green is so changeable that he may actually deserve
a clinical diagnosis of 'multiple personality disorder'.  His hold
on reality is so weak, that he can longer gauge the passage of
time, sometimes thinking only a couple of days have elapsed,
when actually a week has transpired. Again and again, he
echoes Anna's own character and failings on a larger level,
almost to a frightening degree.

Can Anna rescue him?  Or will her own path to healing and
wholeness be eclipsed by this new alter ego?  Can the promise
of unity in her golden notebook be fulfilled? Or would the most
heroic action be to give the notebook to Saul, and let him use it
for his own path to coherence?  Should she move closer to this
man whose struggles match, to a disturbing degree, her own?  
Or should she break off the relationship before it destroys her?

As I said above,
The Golden Notebook is a novel of questions
rather than answers, of openness to experience rather than an
embrace of well-honed certainties.  Perhaps some readers are
disappointed by this refusal to wrap up platitudes in neat
packages, but I suspect that those who are most critical of
Lessing's novel are those who find it the most unsettling.  
Because this is, above all, a frightening book, scary in the way
that the openness of real life is scary—because no one hands
us our self-definition or our destiny; these we must build ourselves,
and usually in adverse circumstances with no assurances of
success.  Above all, no one can hand them to us in the form of a
novel.  But, yes, a novel can force us into the self-examination
and boldness to take these steps for ourselves.  Of course,
that's a rare kind of book. But that’s the kind of novel, singular
and unforgiving, that Doris Lessing has daringly delivered in
The
Golden Notebook
.  


Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture.  His most recent book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.


Published on April 15, 2013
a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
fiction with a particular focus on the
rise of modernism and its aftermath.
Still Golden After All These Years
A Look Back at Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook

by Ted Gioia
To purchase, click on image
fractious fiction
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