Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

I'll lay it out right upfront (and I'll probably end up repeating myself a gazillion times): Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (originally published in 1962) was a chore to read. I bought the book in 2000, when I was still on an estrogen-high from all my college women's studies and literary theory courses. The Golden Notebook (much to Lessing's chagrin from what I understand) was hailed as a feminist novel. And as someone who completed an independent study toward my degree in sociology on the various feminist theories (radical, liberal, socialist, etc., etc.), I felt I had to read it.

Maybe it was my disillusionment with feminism and the need for our society to categorize everything (and the mentality that if you do not agree with all the tenets of the popular feminist ideology, there is no place for you), or maybe it was simply because I found the book boring, I abandoned it on page 153. (There are 635 pages.)

I came across the book on my weighted-down shelf a couple of months ago and decided I should pick it up again and finish it already. I didn't want to waste the $15 I spent on the book, but now I understand why much of what I read now comes free, courtesy of the county public library.

I pushed through all 635 pages, falling asleep numerous times during the three weeks it took me to read it all. Part of me is glad I finished it (I guess I got my $15 worth), but part of me wishes I'd listened to my daughter, who at nearly 7 years old, told me she didn't understand why I'd read something I wasn't enjoying--especially if it wasn't for school. (Sometimes I curse my love of reading classics simply because they ARE classics, books that are deemed important, but by whom I don't know.)

At any rate, it's done, and I was never so glad to reshelve a book in all my life. (Though I'll admit the lengthy period from the time I finished reading until the time I wrote this review meant I had to pull it out again for reference.) There was no sadness at leaving the characters and their stories behind, no desire to learn what happened to them after the story ended.

It's taken me a month or more to break down and write this review. My hesitance stems from not wanting to deal with this book anymore, as well as the confusing aspects of the multiple notebooks and shifting stories. But I felt I had to say something about it, at the very least to help me sort out my conflicted feelings.

The Golden Notebook is divided into many parts, each one long and so detailed that by the time you revisit each of the notebooks, it's hard to keep track of what they're about and what happened previously. (If it weren't for introductions from Lessing from 1974 and 1993, I would've been really clueless! Normally, I skip introductions so they don't cloud my experience of the book, but thank goodness I read them this time!)

Each section begins with "Free Women," which chronicles the life of writer Anna Wulf (the author of the notebooks) and her interactions with her best friend, Molly; Molly's ex-husband, Richard; their adult son, Tommy; Richard's new wife, Marion; and to a lesser extent, Anna's daughter, Janet. It opens in 1957 England. Much of the story has to do with Richard cheating on his alcoholic wife and Tommy's confusion about what to do with his life. Should he follow in Molly's and Anna's footsteps by finding a cause and fighting for it (in their case, they joined the Communist Party in their youth), or should he enter the world of capitalism and take a job in his father's company?

After each "Free Women" section comes the notebooks. Anna keeps a black notebook to chronicle her early years in the Community Party in Africa and the novel she wrote about her experiences there (her only well-known work). Her disillusionment with the Party is detailed in a red notebook, while a novel based partly on her life is contained in the yellow notebook. A blue notebook also is kept--a personal diary broken up by newspaper clippings related to the Communist Party that chronicles her descent into madness. Before the final "Free Women" section is the Golden Notebook, in which all of her other notebooks are pulled together, blurring the lines of truth and fiction--and she ends up writing partial stories in it with her lover, who takes ownership of the notebook in the end. (Like I'd ever give up one of my gazillion notebooks to a man! Or any person, for that matter!)

What is the truth in this novel? The Golden Notebook? Free Women? The other notebooks? All of them? Hell if I know.

This book was, to put it bluntly, boring. I know nothing of the Community Party in Britain or British-African relations, so I'll admit those parts were well over my head. It was impossible, however, for me to learn anything about them from this book because the narrative was so slow, so convoluted that it was hard to keep my eyes focused on each line. Reading The Golden Notebook can be compared to trying to walk 100 miles through quicksand or being given 10 seconds to read a 1,000 page instructional manual on a subject you do not know just before taking the certification test. In short, slow and confusing.

In the introduction, Lessing mentions how some readers only see the feminist aspect of the book, or the political, or the theme of mental illness. Feminism and insanity are some pretty interesting topics to me, but they alone could not redeem this book.

The man-woman relationships in The Golden Notebook were very annoying. I get the irony of calling the sections "Free Women" when in fact Anna and Molly weren't actually free but (at least in Anna's case) defined by their relationships with men, particularly those they worked with in the Party. But is it accurate to portray every man in the book (except Anna's gay housemate) as an adulterer? Anna's character was annoying as well. Almost every man with whom she becomes intimately involved is married, and she wonders why things didn't work out.

The Golden Notebook, despite its themes of feminism, politics, and mental illness, is largely about how we categorize ourselves. Part of Anna's problem was the she couldn't fully label herself a feminist, a communist, a writer--no one fits perfectly into any one category. In the end, I couldn't completely hate her because I've always had a soft spot for crazy writers.

The Golden Notebook is a classic. I won't dispute that fact. The book is so deep, so complex, so intellectual that I couldn't possibly do it justice in a review. I think at this point in time, I just couldn't grasp it or fully appreciate it. I got bogged down in the narrative, and it was hard to keep track of all the different Annas. If I were brave enough to re-read this book in 5 years or so, I bet I'd understand more, and the review I'd write would be completely different. I can't recommend it (watching Anna go crazy and struggling through the book myself almost drove me mad as well), but I can't deny its importance in the literary canon.

I'm confident Lessing had a lot of important, profound things to say about men and women, about politics, about shifting realities. I think I just barely scratched the surface with my reading and interpretation of it, so I know I'm not the one to flesh them out.

If I'd given up reading The Golden Notebook early on, I would've missed a line toward the end that spoke to me, that made me say, "I sort of get it now." (Notice the key words, "sort of." Then again, as I write about the book, it seems as though things I didn't notice or understand before are hitting me.)

"...when I can see from a tense brow or a knot of pain that a world of disorder lies hidden there and marvel at the power of human beings to hold themselves together under pressure." This was something I could understand. I certainly know what it feels like to have stresses, anxieties, eccentricities that must be kept under the surface--not just to keep up appearances, but also to prevent my insanity from getting out of hand and taking control.

The one important lesson I learned from The Golden Notebook is not to suffer through books just to say I've read them. I'm not in college anymore, and while I like to exercise my mind, expand my intellect, reading should be fun.

Disclosure:  I purchased my copy of The Golden Notebook.


Serena said...

AH, the infamous golden notebook review! I have not read the book but here are my thoughts on the review.

1. the whole topic of Feminism ousting those that only share a portion of their beliefs is exactly what I think Beth was attempting to get at in her post long ago, though I could be wrong about that.

2. Men created the canon and therefore selected the classics they wanted! I'm kidding, I have no idea who created it either.

3. perhaps the confusion is the point of the book, the confusion we all feel about ourselves in relation to others and ideals...our inability to categorize ourselves, even though we often see fit to categorize others as feminists or communists for example. Perhaps this inability to categorize herself (anna) led to her breakdown and could lead to our own should we obsess about it in this way.

4. have you read other Lessing books? If so, were they as hard to get through as this one? and if not, would you read another of her books or has this one discouraged you?

I agree reading should not be torture.

Anna said...

I'm not sure I was supposed to be confused about EVERYTHING. LOL Lessing really did say a lot about the Communist Party at the time, and I really didn't understand much of that part of the story. If I did understand it, then I could tell you whether the confusion was the point. LOL I certainly know Anna's (the character, not me LOL) confusion was part of the book. My own, not so sure.

I read a short story by Lessing in a Women in Literature course with Dr. Mandl. I don't even remember which one, it's been so long. I'm not sure whether I bought the book because I like Lessing or because I wanted to read a book about feminism. LOL

Serena said...

Hmm....so you do not know if you like her writing...that does not bode well for her future works...does she have others that are famous. I have no idea...

Jenners said...

Hi! I came over to check this out. There is no way I am going to read this ... I seriously don't think that books that are impossible to understand should be lauded as classics. If a well read and smart person like yourself can't make heads or tails of it, then what is the point? Why was this even published? Why did I have it in my head that Doris Lessing was some kind of important writer I should read? At least I started with the very short "Fifth Child" and even that didn't make me want to read more of her work. Thanks for giving me this link...I found it very interseting!

Anna said...

Jenners: I loved your comment! I read a short story or a novella by Lessing in a class in college (I don't remember which story) and it was okay. There was a blurb about The Golden Notebook that made it sound interesting. I'll have to Google and see if any book bloggers reviewed it and understood it better than I did.