Anna says, “It seems to me like this. It’s not a terrible thing — I mean, it may be terrible, but it’s not damaging, it’s not poisoning, to do without something one wants. It’s not bad to say: My work is not what I really want, I’m capable of something bigger. Or I’m a person who needs love, and I’m doing without it. What’s terrible is to pretend that the second-rate is the first-rate. To pretend that you don’t need love when you do; or you like your work when you know quite well you’re capable of better.”
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing is a well-known piece of literature. Published in 1962, the book was considered an immediate feminist classic, though Lessing rejects the association. Often, when I hear people referencing this novel, the reaction falls firmly on either side of the love/hate binary. The book is impressionable not to mention hefty, totaling 635 pages. Currently, I’m on page 269, with the intent (read: mandatory deadline) to finish it by Wednesday.
To begin, the narrative orchestration of this novel is fascinating. The protagonist, Anna Wulf, has kept four diaries since her early twenties, each marked by a different color. The black journal details Anna’s experience in Central Africa, where she lives with young men training to be pilots. Set prior and during World War II, this journal primarily focuses on Anna’s failed relationship with Willie — a man she married though she abhorred his touch — and the colonist politics that reveal white European landholder’s internalized and externalized racism towards the black community. It is this experience that sets the backdrop for Anna’s famous novel, solidifies her identity as a writier, and propels her towards Communism. Her association with this latter political ideology serves as the basis for her second journal, the red one. The third journal is yellow and contains a fictional narrative that rewrites personal memories (documented in the last journal) and creates the framework for a potential second novel. In this journal, Anna is revisiting her own failed love affair with a manipulating man named Michael. The final journal, the blue one, embraces and defies conventional notions of a diary, as it elaborates on personal experience, while also containing detached months in which the only recordings are newspaper headlines focused on war, violence, politics, and nationalism.
The outer framework of Lessing’s novel is called “Free Women.” Based in present day, it provides context for the content found in Anna’s notebooks. In this section Anna repeatedly revisits her notebooks and eventually attempts to merge the four diaries into one “golden notebook.” Thus, Lessing repeatedly returns to the diaries in each chapter of the book, creating a narrative that is disjointed and non-linear.
In the outer narrative, Anna and her best friend Molly spend considerable time discussing their children (they each have one child), their past relationships, their former ties to the Communist party, and identity issues. In this section, Lessing is questioning the meaning of the word “free,” the assumptions of marriage and heteronormative behavior, the intimacy and characterization of male and female relationships, and the desire to make order out of chaos. The latter point is paralleled in Anna’s own journals that seem to represent “phases” (259) of her life, rather than one continual stream. Anna, in her conversation with Molly’s son Tommy, acknowledges that she has created four distinct notebooks because merging them together would create “chaos” (262). Anna seems obsessed with the unintentional fictionalization process of memoirs even though she simultaneously relies on this construction to discuss her life:”Why do I never write down, simply, what happens? Why don’t I keep a diary? Obviously, my changing everything into fiction is simply a means of concealing something from myself” (217). Although Anna uses stories to re-tell her personal life, she also shows frustration at her inability to capture the “truth.” In a conversation with Tommy she laments, “It’s because I keep trying to write the truth and realizing it’s not true” (261). Thus Lessing is also asking her readers, what is “truth”? How is it a construction? How does it exist?
While I’m not finished the novel (expect another post soon!), I’m most interested in Anna’s relationship with Tommy. In conversations with Anna, Tommy assumes the role of both bully and devoted pupil. Tommy pushes Anna to confront her own vulnerabilities and chauvinistically attempts to deconstruct her self-purported complexities. In these discussions Anna reacts motherly and terrified, justifying her own life decisions and writing style with candor. In one interrogation scene, Anna tells Tommy that she tries to live optimistically/fully in an attempt to keep “the dream alive. Because there’ll always be new people without — the paralysis of will” (263). And while Anna is someone confined by her “paralysis of will,” the roles she repeatedly assumes force her to re-assess and boldly rewrite this fear into something akin to empowerment.*
*I’m not sure yet how fully I believe this last statement, though it’s worth re-mentioning that this novel is often perceived as “feminist.” Lessing rejects this association and states a central theme is that of a mental breakdown. Lessing seems more focused on emphasizing the fragmentation of life, the will to create order out of chaos, than a feminist manifesto. Still, I won’t judge this novel’s central commentary until I finish it.