Going on Fifty:
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
By Roberta Rubenstein
Since its publication in 1962, The Golden Notebook has never been out of print. Doris Lessing’s groundbreaking—and form-breaking—depiction of the female condition during the mid-twentieth century became a primary text for an entire generation’s thinking about their lives as women (and men). It covered everything: heterosexual relationships, female friendship, motherhood and single parenting, political engagement, madness and unconventional forms of consciousness, and the pathologies of politics and history. During the half century since the novel’s publication, the sociopolitical situation of women in the West and the political context within which its protagonist, Anna Wulf, obsessively examines her life have changed dramatically. Half a century ago, women were virtually invisible across the range of professions. Currently, it is unremarkable to see women in senior positions as TV news anchors, astronauts, and Supreme Court justices. Hence, in this golden anniversary year of The Golden Notebook, one may well ask: does the pre-eminent novel by the 2007 Nobel Prize recipient in Literature still have something to say to contemporary readers?
During the second decade of the twenty-first century, as virtual realities impinge upon our psyches from all directions—Facebook, texting, tweeting, blogging, e-mail, and other forms of social media and electronic communication—one might regard as rather unremarkable Doris Lessing’s attempt in 1962 to give imaginative verbal form to events and experiences that appear to have occurred only just before her novel’s protagonist, Anna Wulf, records them. At the time, though, the only mediums through which a writer could convey experience were by handwriting or typing—the latter conducted on that now-quaint artifact, the typewriter. Moreover, given the extended time gap between composition and publication, no novelist could achieve the instantaneity of journalism. The Golden Notebook expresses both thematically and formally the limits of traditional narrative forms to capture the immediacy of experience. Through multiple narrative styles, voices, perspectives, and mediums, the novel captures the tension between the “raw material” of Anna’s experiences and the aesthetic shaping that makes their articulation appear spontaneous.
Anna Wulf bears more than a few resemblances to her creator: each grew up in southern Africa, moved to London as a divorced mother of a toddler, and published a first novel set in southern Africa during the Second World War. (Lessing’s The Grass Is Singing was published in 1950, shortly after she immigrated to England from what was then Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe; Anna Wulf repudiates her first and only novel, Frontiers of War, published during the same decade, as nostalgic and naïve.) Yet unlike Doris Lessing—who has published nearly three-dozen novels in both realistic and speculative modes, to say nothing of nearly a dozen volumes of short stories, a graphic novel, several plays, two volumes of autobiography, London sketches, librettos for opera scores, and two collections of pieces devoted solely to the subject of cats—her fictional protagonist is unable to write another novel because she is emotionally and aesthetically blocked. She feels incapable of writing the only kind of novel that interests her—one “powered with an intellectual or moral passion strong enough to create order, to create a new way of looking at life,” as she says. Indeed, while Anna may fail in that endeavor, Doris Lessing succeeds in it with The Golden Notebook.
Early in the novel, Anna expresses to her good friend Molly Jacobs a series of oppositional terms, a drastically oversimplified and parodied skeleton key to the novel itself: “Men. Women. Bound. Free. Good. Bad. Yes. No. Capitalism. Socialism. Sex. Love.” Subsequently, each of these opposing terms is complicated as Anna attempts to record her struggle to be a “free woman.” Clearly conveying Lessing’s own concerns at the time, Anna feels that novels have become “a function of the fragmented society, the fragmented consciousness.” Accordingly, The Golden Notebook expresses—indeed, imitates—that sense of fragmented consciousness and social breakdown. Anna literally compartmentalizes her experience by writing about it in four notebooks, segments of which provide the novel’s structural organization: the Black notebook, which concerns her earlier life in southern Africa and as a writer; the Red notebook, which focuses on politics; the Yellow notebook, in which she fictionalizes her intimate relationships; and the Blue notebook, which functions as a diary. Close to the end of the novel, readers discover that Anna Wulf is also the author of the apparently omnisciently narrated “Free Women” sections that bookend the narrative and are intercut with each group of notebook segments. The multiple narrative frames and scrambled chronology, inventively mirroring its protagonist’s inner divisions, ultimately convey the underlying premise that there is no objective perspective from which to describe events, for all experience is necessarily filtered through an interpreting consciousness.
Moreover, The Golden Notebook pivots on a narrative irony: the same Anna Wulf who suffers a writer’s block, lamenting the impasse between living and giving aesthetic form to her experiences, nonetheless writes—indeed, writes obsessively—in the notebooks that mirror her multiple self-divisions and her efforts to express different degrees of distance from her experience. Through her, Lessing relentlessly examines the problem of language itself: can the “raw material” of experience be authentically expressed when the very fact of giving it aesthetic shape necessarily changes it into something else? Ultimately, all versions of Anna’s experience are revealed to be fictions, though each is true in its own way. Her hard-won discovery may give pause to contemporary readers who take electronic social communication for granted: even though Facebook and Twitter may be used for less aesthetic purposes than are Lessing’s fictitious “notebooks,” verbal articulation necessarily distorts and simplifies, even as it attempts to capture, spontaneous experience.
Lessing describes The Golden Notebook, in a preface, as her attempt to “write a book which would make its own comment, a wordless statement: to talk through the way it was shaped.” The novel is hardly “wordless”—if anything, it is stuffed to overflowing with words. Yet, paradoxically, Anna Wulf’s artistic paralysis reflects Lessing’s view at that time that the very function of the novel seemed to be changing, from the philosophically profound narratives of the great nineteenth-century European realists to what Anna describes as “an outpost of journalism. . . . We read [novels] to find out what is going on” (emphasis in original). Accordingly, contemporary readers can read The Golden Notebook—among other reasons—to find out what was “going on” in the 1950s in America and Britain.
For starters, consider the vexed relations between women and men, then termed the battle of the sexes. Anna, divorced and the mother of a nine-year-old daughter, mourns the end of her love relationship with a married man who has left her after five years, not to return to his wife but—a cause of even greater pain for her—for another woman. Indeed, most of the male characters in the novel are sexually promiscuous and almost casually adulterous, one of several manifestations of the double standard that permeates Anna’s experience. As she laments, “women’s emotions are all still fitted for a kind of society that no longer exists.” Yet to her psychiatrist, Mother Sugar, with whom she discusses her emotional pain and paralysis, Anna comments, “‘There is something new in the world. . . . I want to be able to separate in myself what is old and cyclic, the recurring history, the myth, from what is new, what I think or feel that might be new.’”
However, the men in Anna’s life cling to the “old” patriarchal arrangement of male privilege, expressing contempt or fear of changes in traditional gender roles. Anna herself is unconsciously complicit in this arrangement. It takes most of the narrative for her to recognize that the destructive patterns in her relationships originate in her neurotic attraction to precisely those men who bypass her intellect and appeal to traditional emotional needs of which she is not entirely aware. In a particularly telling passage, she expresses the crux of the double sexual standard through a dialogue between fictionalized versions of herself and her good friend: “‘My dear Julia, we’ve chosen to be free women, and this is the price we pay. . . .’ Julia responds, ‘Free! What’s the use of us being free if [men] aren’t?’ Ella rejoins, ‘Free, we say, yet the truth is they get erections when they’re with a woman they don’t give a damn about, but we don’t have an orgasm unless we love him. What’s free about that?’” Despite five decades of evolving gender relations since those words were written, one may ruefully recognize vestiges of such inequities in contemporary intimate relationships. Lessing’s representations of women’s emotional divisions—even if no longer predicated on the double sexual standard or explicit social inequality—remain provocative and timely in 2012.
Contemporary readers should recognize that during the period just prior to the turbulent decades of what was then termed the women’s liberation movement—the important middle term fell away at a later point—in the United States and Britain, women were only beginning to acknowledge the cultural “givens” of sexual, social, and economic gender inequity. “The personal is the political” had only recently emerged as a mantra from consciousness-raising groups, in which women examined their own lives and advocated for major social and political changes, and in which The Golden Notebook was virtually a text. Although many of her readers recognized aspects of themselves in Anna Wulf’s inner divisions, Lessing was irritated by what she regarded as the novel’s appropriation by feminists. In an introduction that appears in later editions, she complains that The Golden Notebook was not read in the “right way” when it was published: its ambitious experimental structure was virtually overlooked, she wrote, as the book was co-opted as “a useful weapon in the sex war.”
Some years later, at a reading of her work that I attended in Washington, DC, in 2004, Lessing chided the young women in her audience for lacking a sense of history and taking for granted what she called “the greatest revolution of our time”: not the women’s movement, but rather the development of effective methods of birth control, which liberated women from fear of unwanted pregnancy. Readers of The Golden Notebook in 2012 can only wince. At this very moment, the backlash against battles one thought had been won long ago—contraceptive choice and access to legal abortion—now rages in our politically divided country during this election year.
Since The Golden Notebook appeared in 1962, many areas of the world have changed not only with regard to female sexuality, and social and economic independence, but also politically. Given the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the official end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994, the sections of The Golden Notebook that chart Anna Wulf’s inner political divisions during the 1950s, particularly her disillusionment with Communism, may now seem dated. Like Lessing, Anna was attracted to leftist politics as a way to press for racial equality. However, as both Lessing and her fictional stand-in discovered, the gaps between ideology and action, the discrepancies between what people profess and what they actually do, dictated against social and political change in southern Africa at that time. The novel dramatizes the appeal, along with the cost, of utopian political thinking and naïve engagement—realizations that remain timely even though the specific circumstances have changed.
Moreover, despite the momentous geopolitical changes since 1962, it is startling for readers in 2012 to come across certain passages in The Golden Notebook—including clippings from newspaper stories that Anna pastes into her notebooks when she is unable to write—that easily could have appeared in this morning’s newspapers. An item dated 17 October 1951 may suffice as an example: “MOSLEM WORLD FLARES. . . . [Express]” (caps in original). Although not all of the newspaper clippings strike such a contemporary note, together they suggest that Anna Wulf/Doris Lessing was symbolically “cutting up history,” creating a verbal collage to reflect the political and social divisions she observed. Either Lessing was extraordinarily prescient in 1962 or “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” Indeed, some of both.
In a March 15, 2008, Wall Street Journal interview, Lessing hazards the opinion that her novel will “stay” because “[I]t’s a very good report of the time. . . . [N]o one could write The Golden Notebook now, because the time has gone.” As a form-breaking imaginative literary creation, The Golden Notebook offers a vivid record of a pivotal moment in the social history of the previous century, particularly but not only for women. The sheer ambition of its experimental structure eventually received its due attention and critical understanding. And The Golden Notebook retains the power to provoke its readers afresh. Recently, a student of mine remarked that she found the novel one of the most exciting, albeit at times confusing, reading experiences she had ever had. Other readers testify to the fact that one doesn’t simply read The Golden Notebook; one experiences it, drawn ever more deeply—as into a whirlpool—into psychological depths from which one is released only after having been challenged and changed by Anna Wulf’s relentless self-scrutiny.
Just as Anna emerges from that process with a profound new understanding of her own consciousness, as well as of the limits of verbal expression, so too may Lessing’s contemporary readers. Her literary masterpiece may now be understood as, if not strictly a historical novel, a historically significant novel. Lessing’s penetrating insights into female experience, filtered through the lenses of gender, politics, and creativity, anticipated the transformative women’s liberation movement; her rendering of the “raw materials” of one woman’s life as mother, lover, friend, and writer is reason enough to read, or reread, The Golden Notebook during this year of its well-earned golden anniversary.
Roberta Rubenstein, professor of Literature at American University in Washington, DC, is the author of five books on women writers, including The Novelistic Vision of Doris Lessing: Breaking the Forms of Consciousness (1979) and, most recently, Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View (2009). She is currently completing a book on Doris Lessing and the roman à clef.