Monday, July 2, 2012

The Golden Notebook

1962, 1973 Bantam edition
Doris Lessing
The Golden Notebook
Original price $1.95, purchase price $1.30
Very worn paperback

Despite the condition of the book, I don't think I've read it more than once or twice in the last quarter century.  When I first read it in my early 20s, I'd only neck+ed with one person, so I assumed that love/sex/romance generally were the way Lessing described them, or at least had been in the 1940s and '50s, the timeframe of the book.  Reading it now, I think that it's no more insightful into women's sexuality and emotions than, say, Catch-22.  Women's nipples "burn" when they feel desire, and they feel desire when they're repulsed by a man.  They only date married men who've had several affairs, and then wonder why none of the men can commit.  Or at least these are the conclusions to be drawn if we assume that the heroine is Everywoman.  But having split personalities does not make you an Everywoman.  It doesn't even make you an Anywoman.

The protagonist Anna is a writer with writer's block.  Now, I've never seriously had writer's block (quite the opposite, as I'll talk about when we get up to 2005's The Midnight Disease), but my impression is that it makes it difficult to write anything resembling what Lesley Conger would call "The Book I'm Supposed to Be Writing."  Shopping lists, letters to friends, rants about pet peeves, no problem.  But Anna can write fiction, at least in pieces, without much trouble.  Her main protagonist is Ella, who has a writer's block and sleeps with married men.  I think Ella has a heroine she's writing about, too, but I lost track.

For over 600 pages, Lessing/Anna/Ella tells the same stories in different forms but, again like Catch-22, not gaining anything through repetition.  At many points she/they contradict her/themselves, and not just because things change as they become fictionalised.  There is no good reason for Tommy, the son of Anna's friend Molly, to be 17 in 1950 and 20 in '57.  Is he married to a "Tory Socialist," or is he single, living with his mother, and having an affair/ intense platonic friendship with his stepmother?  

There's a streak of homophobia in the book, with Anna worrying that having gay roommates will have a bad effect on her preteen daughter, as opposed to the straight mind-fuckers that Anna brings home.  Anna also worries that she and Molly will become lesbians, not because they're physically attracted to each other (which they don't seem to be), or because they're the only people that understand each other (even though Anna doesn't confide in Molly all that much and Molly can disappear for months without contact), but because they like to bitch about men.  If that were the case, wouldn't most women be lesbians?

I found Molly the more interesting and likable of the two "free women," but that may be because we spend much less time with her.  The summary of the shortest and last section is "Molly gets married and Anna has an affair."  No, actually, Molly just talks about her engagement to a man that Anna and the reader have never met, and Anna has a one-week fling with Max/Saul, the American we just read about in the most horrific part of her notebooks.  (Characters change names for no reason sometimes.)

Oh yeah, the notebooks.  Anna keeps four notebooks as diaries, each reflecting a different side of herself, e.g. for red for Communism and other politics.  The fact that they overlap in content confuses the issue, for her and the reader.  In the end, she buys a golden notebook, to reflect her now supposedly more integrated self.  Then she gives it away to Max/Saul so he can write a novel in it.  They give each other starting lines, and it's awful to realize that his line for her is the first line of The Golden Notebook.  (His novel sounds equally dreadful, and I assume it's meant to be ironic that it's successful.)

So why aren't I giving this a lower grade?  Well, there are moments when Lessing has a genuine insight, like about Hollywood or colonialism.  I like the times when Molly and Anna are sitting around talking, and not just about men.  I did at first think I was going to give the book a C+, but it just got more and more painful as it went on.  On the other hand, it does mention Lloyd Bentsen, so that's of historical interest.

Wikipedia says, "In 2005, the novel was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels from 1923 to present."  Suffice to say, it would not make my list.

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