Struggling with The Golden Notebook? The hard work is worth it

For every moment of high drama, there are also sections of intense tedium. But Doris Lessing’s masterpiece delivers a big payoff

In my edition of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, the text that forms the titular volume arrives on page 531. These climactic thoughts, supposedly recorded by the novel’s central character, Anna Wulf, take up only 26 pages. That’s not to say Lessing’s title is a misnomer. The story builds towards these 26 pages and finds a kind of resolution within them.

Lessing’s decision to divide her novel into many sections is crucial to the book’s power. She very deliberately split her novel across different aspects of Anna’s personal story and her fractured psychology. The result still seems unique in fiction – it makes for a strange, troubling and difficult reading experience.

The black, red, yellow and blue notebooks of the novel are Anna’s different approaches to making sense of herself. In the black one, she reflects on her writing life. In the red, she tracks her political development. Yellow contains her attempts to write (highly autobiographical) fiction, while blue is a diary of her daily life. Meanwhile, the Free Women sections describe Anna in the third person, taking us outside her head in an attempt to record her scattered thoughts.

It would be impossible to discuss everything in these sections in a single article. The book features hilarious pastiches about mid-20th-century literary London and bitter satires of film and television producers. There are agonised accounts about the end of the communist dream, and frank commentaries on sex, male impotence and female desire. There are shocking descriptions of the racist politics of white colonialists in Africa. There are insights into both inequality and the privileged bohemian lives of Anna and her friends. (It’s bewildering to read the book in 2019, and encounter all those young artists who have spurned regular employment but live in huge houses in London – that they own!)

Sections from each notebook are interspersed throughout the novel, providing numerous cliffhangers and sometimes keeping readers waiting for dozens, even hundreds, of pages before there is a resolution. At the end of the second section, comes one of the biggest shocks I’ve encountered in fiction for a long time. We learn, via a frantic, confusing phone call, that something dreadful has happened. Then we’re cut off, and because of the way the book is set out, if feels only natural that we should have to wait before we get answers. But this just gives Lessing another opportunity to set up more surprises.

Alongside this high drama, there are also sections of intense tedium. Even once I was fully invested in the story it could be hard work. Reading the section entitled The Golden Notebook often felt like chewing concrete.

But this book is meant to be hard work. There would be something wrong with an entirely enjoyable account of a nervous breakdown. The novel’s longueurs are also partly why it works: Lessing makes us slowly climb this mountain of a story so we can better appreciate the view from the top.

Sometimes, I needed to be reminded that there’s a real person writing this story. As we watch Anna writing about her fictional character, Ella, we are reminded of Lessing writing about Anna (and, I suppose, Ella). How much of Lessing’s life feeds into Anna’s, in the same way that Anna’s life feeds into Ella’s’?

We can’t know. It seems prurient to demand the exact correspondences between events in Lessing’s life and scenes in her novel. But it would be equally wrong to ignore the importance of the actual world to this fiction. And that isn’t interesting only because of the natural curiosity we have about the author’s life. It is because it raises the stakes, and makes the politics, the madness, the emotion, all more feel more real. Anna’s suffering is not confined only to this novel. It also happens out in the world, to people like Ella, Anna, Lessing – or you and me.

Contributor

Sam Jordison

The GuardianTramp

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