The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

At the outset I want to post a disclaimer: I am not good enough a thinker / writer to review this book as comprehensively as I am sure it has been reviewed elsewhere. These are my personal thoughts on the book.

The Golden Notebook is Lessing's most well-known work, a novel about a woman (Anna Wulf). The book tells us about Anna's current life and the people in it, as well as the notebooks Anna writes in: a black notebook about her experiences in Africa as a young woman; a red notebook about her politics; a yellow book that is a novel-within-a-novel, or autobiographical stories of the main character Ella written by Anna; a blue notebook that is Anna's personal diary; and finally, when these notebooks seem to Anna to not inter-connect at all, she writes in one notebook, the golden notebook.

My first thought upon finishing the book is, how did Lessing keep this extremely complicated technique straight in her head as she wrote this book? It was amazing to me how she took us through this maze of thoughts / stories with such ease. The book is not at all inaccessible or confusing or boring (because of the author's energetic writing?) despite how much substance one goes through. If for nothing else, one is impressed by the technical brilliance of this book.

The novel is a deconstruction of the person known as Anna Wulf. It talks of Anna the writer, the mother, the communist, the ex-communist, the lover, the ‘unthinking’ female when she runs after ‘happiness’ with men, the landlady (!), the friend, the psycho-analysis patient, and the person fighting madness. Every single dimension of Anna is dealt with in immense detail. It is not simply what Lessing the author writes of Anna; it is what Anna thinks of herself, what the men in her life think of her, what other people perceive her to be. At times I get the feeling that Anna is the very center of a sphere, and Lessing allows the reader to circumnavigate the sphere that is Anna – her physical, emotional, social, intellectual state. It is obvious that when you finally put the book down, you feel that you know Anna as well as you’ll ever know a person besides yourself. There are aspects of the book that any woman reading it has always known, and yet for them to be thrust onto the reader’s conscious thinking is, for me, the brilliance of this writing. For example, when Anna / Ella has a negative thought that she immediately suppresses, or irritation about something banal and everyday that she will deal with but that changes her by an immeasurable amount, one empathizes and (speaking for myself) one has flashes of similar memories from one’s own life. I do not understand men, and therefore do not know if this rings true for male readers as well.

The novel became an important piece of feminist literature, and one understands upon reading it why that would be true. The story is very female, and unfortunately the male characters are extremely weak. I found this irritating toward the end of the novel, because it seemed like a string of really spineless men repeatedly popping into Anna’s life. Admittedly I did not judge Anna for any of this (my feminist bias?).

Of course the book isn’t simply about Anna. The layers include discussions on history, war, politics, individual and social values (and how they vary among say Africa, England, America), sexism, and the extremely difficult topic of relationships between man and woman. The book is lengthy and meaty, and is not a quick read. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and would recommend it very highly. It is truly deserving of the accolades it has received. It definitely makes me want to read more of Lessing’s work.


chica said...

I don't think I would ever read this book so am glad to read this review :).
The whole different books for different things sounds very interesting. I wonder how Anna got down to doing it this way. I see similar things in the blogosphere.. where some people have more than 5 blogs, each one catering to different interests. Here I find it difficult to write on 2!
What is the time period of the book?

Swati said...

The story is in the 1950s. It's post-WWII McCarthyism time period. I think the book first came out in 1962. I know what you mean about multiple blogs etc - sometimes it's easier to compartmentalize your life I guess... I don't know. To be honest with you, I am exhausted after this book, and can only read Calvin and Hobbes the remainder of this month!

Stella said...

Sounds very intersting. I'm adding it to my reading list.

So don't judge your reviewing skills too harshly :)

GO! Smell the flowers said...

Agreed stella, us flowers enjoyed the review...we're about to review Shantaram over at GO! Smell the flowers after our mind blowing trip to Bombay.....

All welcome at GO! Smell the flowers guys and keep uo the great work Chica...

Rockshu said...

That is a brilliant review , and i must say i am tempted now to read this book; ever so much.
Weak/spineless that may detest me from giving it a real go (my innocent male ego *ahem* )...but i think Anna is enough a characterto pick this book up for.
Cheers for such amazing words..

with love from Lessing's own country..

Kasthu said...

I'd love to read this book, and it's been on my list of books to be read, but I keep putting it off because I keep thinking it'll be too dense for me. Your review sounds highly intriguing, so maybe I'll give the book a shot!

Dewey said...

I need to reread this book, because reading your review makes me realize how much of it I've forgotten! And I love your disclaimer. That's how I feel whenever I blog about a particularly "important" or "classic" book.

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