Review: 500 pages into this novel I have a moment of déjà vu — I realize I’ve read this section before. In fact, I’ve read the entire remaining portion of the novel, though I have no context for this epiphany. I try to determine when I’ve read this section (was it for a class? was it after my undergrad?). I diligently kept a livejournal for 5 years but a search yields no mention of the novel. It’s an unnerving experience, this not knowing. But it’s fitting as Anna Wulf’s spiral into madness also causes her to lose all sense of space/time. As she strives to keep her “Golden Notebook” her diary entries become dream narratives, in which her unconscious creates scenes between a demanding therapist and a vulnerable Anna. Repeatedly questioned about the authenticity of her work and her ability to determine past accounts as former experience versus fiction, Anna’s dreams reveal her own struggles with her identity as a “writer.” Even in her re-claiming of self — when she rejects her madness because she feels a responsibility to become a “normal” mother — Anna seems stuck in the fiction of her own creation, representing not a feminist figure but a fragmented women on the fringes of construction. In fact, as I describe below, Anna is the supposed writer of the entire novel, making all her disjointed selves illuminated by her journals and the “Free Women” section as a writerly projection. Thus, the “true” Anna is dis-embodied, existing neither in the outer narrative or her own inner journals. So, the question becomes: Who is Anna Wulf? The answer is both ambiguous and complex — for she is all her identities/roles and none at the same time.
While I would recommend this book, I would encourage interested readers to also research Lessing’s first published novel, The Grass is Singing. Last summer I read the novel while on vacation. I wasn’t sure how to analytically approach the narrative but was fascinated by Lessing’s use of omission to propel the story forward. The story deals with colonialism and racial politics, marriage, displacement, anxiety, and a slow unraveling despair and heat that ends in a moment of violence. Incredible.
Analysis: In Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, Margaret Atwood spends considerable time discussing the theme of the “paralyzed artist” in Canadian literature. Concentrating on Canadian novelists writing during the 1960s, Atwood examines fiction in which protagonists appear to act as surrogates for their authors’ own insecurities. In her analysis of three prominent Canadian writers, Atwood determines that the dilemma of the “paralyzed artist” manifests into a debilitating strategic move, in which the writer/protagonist feels obligated to either “stay in the [Canadian] culture and be crippled as an artist; or escape into nothing” (189). Unsatisfied with these routes, Atwood proposes a third option: “[to] write from the centre of the dilemma” (189). Presenting Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women as a successful example of this possibility, Atwood asserts that the protagonist, Del Jordan, is a “functioning artist” because she “chooses to write from the centre of her own experience, not from the periphery of someone else’s, and she sees her act of creation as an act of redemption” (193), thus attributing accomplished artistry to fictional characters as well as their creators.
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (TGN) pre-dates Atwood’s collection of essays by thirteen years. Like the writers examined in Atwood’s collection, the protagonist Anna Wulf is a published novelist who states she no longer “believes in art” (221) and admits to suffering from writer’s block. Initially, it appears that Anna is a thematic example of a “paralyzed artist” as she believes that to keep one personal notebook would create chaos (262) and chooses to identify as a stunted writer incapable of expressing “truth.”
In the second half of the novel, Anna’s identity as a “failed artist” changes to a “functioning artist” as she embrace Atwood’s alternative option three. This transformation is briefly mentioned in Lessing’s 1971 introduction to TGN when Lessing states the central theme of the novel is “breakdown” and describes this term as “sometimes when people ‘crack up’ it is a way of self-healing, of the inner self’s dismissing false dichotomies and divisions” (xii). This explanation fits contextually with Atwood’s concept that successful artists/authors/protagonists reveal the “center” of his/her own experience through writing. When Anna keeps a “Golden Notebook” in an attempt to un-catalogue her life, she embraces the “chaos” she feared. What emerges is a continual stream of consciousness in which Anna loses track of time and reality, creating a narrative devoid of centrality. Anna’s “golden notebook” represents both a personal descent into madness and a retrieval of authorial self as she realizes that “truth” can never be contained or fully recognized/illustrated:
“During the last weeks of craziness and timelessness I’ve had these moments of ‘knowing’ one after the other, yet there is no way of putting this sort of knowledge into words. Yet these moments have been so powerful, like the rapid illuminations of a dream that remain with one waking, that I have learned will be part of how I experience life until I die. Words. Words. I play with words, hoping that some combination, even a chance combination, will say what I want … The fact is, the real experience can’t be described … The people who have been there, in the place in themselves where words, patterns, order, dissolve, will know what I mean and other won’t.” (604, my emphasis).
By de-stabilizing her own identity, Anna rejects social notions of “normalcy” and constructions of truth. In this section Anna writes from the “centre of her dilemma” (Atwood 189) and materializes as an accomplished writer.
The “Golden Notebook” section offers another complexity to the Atwood comparison. In this journal Anna relates her romantic and emotionally exhausting relationship with Saul Green, her boarder. When Saul Green provides Anna with the first sentence of her second novel, “The two women were alone in the London flat,” this line is familiar to the reader as it also appears as the first line of TGN’s outer narrative framework titled “Free Women.” “Free Women” postulates as chronological context for Anna’s notebooks, but it is also a fiction. Thus, the reader realizes that Anna is the “author” of the entire novel, not just the segments that contain her notebooks. While this comprehension strengthens Anna’s position as a “functioning artist” it also de-stabilizes Anna’s identity. Lessing constructs Anna’s life through separate but joined narratives, creating an identity reliant on words/text. But words, as Anna has warned, can never explain “real experience” (604). This leaves the reader grappling with the same questions Anna asks throughout the text – what is truth? What is fiction? What is the role of an artist? What is an author? In TGN Lessing re-writes Atwood’s third option by arguing that to be a “functioning artist” is not to write from the “centre of a dilemma” but to acknowledge that no such center exists.