Friday, March 19, 2010

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

It’s impossible to know even where to start in reviewing a book of such immense power, volume and scope. As an avid Lessing fan, I believe this to be her best work, and one which allows her to explore all of the themes that preoccupy her: love, relationships, politics, feminism, race, class, psychology…

Human complexity is one of Lessing’s greatest concerns, and she explores this with great depth and clarity in all of her novels. However, in ‘The Golden Notebook’ we are privileged as readers to get inside the human psyche and actually experience the complex nature of the protaganist, Anna Wulf as she lives from day to day (blue notebook), as she engages in political life (red notebook), as she feels emotionally (yellow notebook)*, and as she thinks and lives as a writer (black notebook). As we read and engage with these various fragments of her life, we get an immense understanding of her character, her feelings, her motives, and we understand how each of these separate fragments are present simultaneously within her. However, while these various threads are demarcated in the various notebooks, it becomes clear that they cannot be streamlined in such a distinct way. For life is complex, and the more aspects in Anna Wulf’s life become enmeshed to the point of ‘meltdown’, the more she (and we, the reader) see the need to unite and integrate the various ‘streams’ into one life, which she records in one notebook, The Golden Notebook. The very structure of the novel, ie. the four notebooks as well as Anna’s story recorded in the third person, is an excellent device on Lessing’s part, as it shows, by its very fragmented nature, the process of writing a novel.

Lessing writes with a sublime combination of intellectual clarity and psychological compassion, and this is evidenced in ‘The Golden Notebook’. She focuses very vividly on the range of emotions that one person can feel, and how their emotions drive them to act as they do. It is Lessing’s descriptions that encompass the minute details of feelings and actions of a character, right down to their very dreams, that makes Lessing such a great writer for me.

While I loved the novel as a whole, there were various elements that stood out for me, some of which I will mention:

In the black notebook, she writes about the character, Willi, who features strongly in the novel she has just published: Frontiers of War:

“Willi however was not weak. On the contrary, he was the most ruthless person I have ever known.
Having written that I am astounded. What do I mean? He was capable of great kindness. And now I remember that all those years ago, I discovered that no matter what adjective I applied to Willi, I could always use the opposite. Yes, I have looked in my old papers. I find a list, headed Willi:
Ruthless Kind
Cold Warm
Sentimental Realistic
And so on, down the page; and underneath I wrote. ‘From the process of writing these words about Willi I discovered I know nothing about him. About someone, one understands, one doesn’t have to make a list of words.’
But really what I discovered, though I didn’t know it then, was that in describing any personality all these words are meaningless. To describe a person one says: ‘Willi, sitiing stiffly at the head of the table, allowed his round spectacles to glitter at the people watching him and said, formally but with a gruff, clumsy humour’: Something like that”

The above extract, for me revealed so much about the greatness of this novel, The Golden Notebook, that is, not Frontiers of War! It showed Lessing as a thinking writer, even though it is through Anna Wulf that this, the process involved in trying to convey reality in a meaningful way, is conveyed. Words alone cannot do this as Anna Wulf says. It also returns to the idea which obsesses Lessing: that of disintegration or multiple, often opposing facets of personality all existing simultaneously.

It is interesting, however, that she applies this idea to Willi, a man, as it is usually women she describes as capable of endowing such diverse aspects within herself. In fact, later on in the book, she mentions the idea of a ‘real man’, claiming that there are still some left in the world and she will find one for Janet, her daughter. This idea left me somewhat disconcerted as it seems to imply that most men are not ‘real men’, or that if a man fails to manifest all the qualities that she deems essential for him to qualify as a ‘real man’ (which she doesn’t outline so far as I can see), then he’s not a real man. It seemed either an oversight on her part, or more likely, an unfair double standard, which, can be forgiven in light of her being such an honest writer, allowing us to discover the ideals of her heart’s desire. In my mind, the idea of opposing traits existing within a single body, or a schizoid aspect to ones personality, exists no less in men than it does in women, and it does men an injustice to simplify them thus. In fact earlier in the book, she states such fragmentation as a human condition, rather than that owned exclusively by women, when she says:

"Human beings are so divided, are becoming more and more divided, and more subdivided in themselves, reflecting the world, that they reach out desperately, not knowing they do it”

Another part of the novel that stood out for me was when Anna, in her blue notebook, outlined in minute detail, every aspect of a particular day. She begins this extract with:

“I am wondering if the fact that I chose to be very conscious of everything that happened yesterday changed the shape of the day. That just because I was conscious I made it a special day?”

In this extract, marked 17th September 1954, we are led through the interior mindscape of Anna, and how she integrates this with her exterior world. We are brought through the mundane routines, about which she comments, and we learn her frustrations, angers and resentments as well as her moments of joy, relief and peace. Through such explicit detail, such brutal honesty and unashamed subjectivity, I identified very strongly with her character, recognising such thoughts, feelings and actions as my own.

Despite this wonderful honesty, Anna comes to realise that her attempts to record the truth, however close they come, nevertheless fail. The further she compartmentalises the various elements of her life, the more she realizes that no one approach or theory will allow an individual to recognize the whole person. People are more wholesome than this, and the idea of ‘writing’ a life, in fact falsifies the very essence of life. Life is chaotic, shifting. Words name, label, and once words are committed to a page, it’s assumed that this defines the person. Lessing, through the writing of the various streams of this book, posits the notion that a person’s overall nature can never be fully realised on paper. This, to me was what made the book so special. It’s the magical quality of presence that is the strongest medium of truth. Change, for me, is humanity in its greatest sense…a constant striving towards development, and while writing goes so far in expressing certain aspects of a person’s life at a certain stage in their life, it can by no means be absolute.

* The yellow notebook consists of an ongoing novel describing the lives and loves of Ellie, a fictional character, but one with whom Anna Wulf strongly identifies, as she uses her own emotional experience to inform the novel.

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