Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook has won the vote and will be the subject of this month’s Reading group. On the whole, this is excellent news. If we’re going to read Lessing, we might as well go for the big one: the 1962 novel regarded as her masterpiece and described in The Oxford Companion to English Literature as “one of the key texts of the women’s movement in the 1960s”.
The only possible reason for hesitation is that this world-shaker is also challenging. It’s long and involved and features far more mid-20th-century Marxism than most modern readers are used to. But that should also make coming to terms with this book all the more fascinating.
Lessing herself composed a handy guide to reading The Golden Notebook. In 1971, when the novel was approaching its 10th anniversary, she wrote an amusingly bad-tempered preface berating those she thought had misunderstood it.
“The shape of this novel is as follows,” she wrote. “There is a skeleton, or frame, called Free Women, which is a conventional short novel, about 60,000 words, and which could stand by itself. But it is divided into five sections and separated by stages of the four notebooks, black, red, yellow and blue. The notebooks are kept by Anna Wulf, a central character of Free Women. She keeps four, and not one, because as she recognizes, she has to separate things off from each other, out of fear of chaos, of formlessness, of breakdown.”
She considered the novel to be a triumph of structure. By fragmenting the story, she said, she wanted to show the danger of compartmentalizing one’s thinking, the idea that “any kind of single-mindedness, narrowness, obsession, was bound to lead to mental disorder, if not madness.”
Lessing also tells us what the book is not. It isn’t, she writes emphatically, “a trumpet for Women’s Liberation”. (More fool The Oxford Companion to English Literature.) She angrily complains that reviewers missed the fact that the book was about a “crack up” and instead “belittled” the book as an account of the “sex war”.
A sample of reviews from 1962 renders Lessing’s arguments moot at best.
In The Guardian, Anne Duchêne wrote: “This book is essential reading for anyone who tries to study the mechanism of the modern consciousness and see why it is such a mess.” Meanwhile, in the Observer, Francis Hope said: “She is also trying to convey, directly the schizophrenia and alienation which make living and writing today difficult.”
Ernest Buckler in the New York Times said the book is about “the transcendental spaces where the spirit soars and the terrible dark corners where it crouches at the point of ‘crack-up’ so scarifyingly described it makes Fitzgerald’s similar account sound like nettle rash.”
This doesn’t mean we should discount Lessing’s furious preface. Like most of her writing, it is fantastically entertaining and contains some blistering one-liners. If The Golden Notebook were coming out today (1971), she writes, “it might be read, and not merely reacted to”.
Kapow! Pity the critics who were knocked down as such straw men, especially when so many of them seemed to value the book so highly. Buckler had even noted her “special genius” for observation, and said “a firkinful of scorching aphorisms could be culled from nearly every page”.
Mind you, Buckler did have one criticism that could have made Lessing more righteously angry. “The book,” he said, “is too long.”
Personally, I’m all for mighty tomes by fiercely intelligent female writers and I’m enjoying this one already. I’m hoping you’ll join me. I also hope that those who have already experienced this extraordinary work of art will add their thoughts as we progress through the month. This is a book that matters.
Thanks to Harper Perennial, we have five copies to give to the first five people from the UK to post “I want a copy please”, along with a nice, constructive suggestion in the comments section below. If you’re lucky enough to be one of the first to comment, email the lovely folk on firstname.lastname@example.org, with your address and your account username, so they can track you down.