Doris Lessing died in November last year, aged 94, with more than 50 published novels and a Nobel Prize for Literature to her name. And at that time I hadn’t read anything she’d written. (Actually, now I’ve typed it I’m beginning to think I might have read one of her novels for a tutorial at University. But as I can’t say for sure – let alone name the book – it doesn’t really count*.) So where better to start, I reasoned, than with her seminal 1962 novel The Golden Notebook?
The central character is best-selling novelist Anna Wulf. The events of Anna’s ‘real’ life and those of her actress friend, Molly, are told in sections entitled “Free Women”. These script-like narratives are interrupted by extracts from four notebooks that Anna uses to record her life. The Black Notebook records her experiences in Rhodesia before and during WWII, on which her best-selling novel is loosely based, and also her rejection of proposals to film the book. The Red Notebook records her experiences as a member of the Communist Party and her sensitivity to international conflicts. The Yellow Notebook is a fictionalised account of the recent breakdown of Anna’s relationship with her married lover. The Blue Notebook is Anna’s personal diary/journal.
In the preface to my edition Lessing notes that the most important theme in the novel is fragmentation. Anna notebooks are her attempt to separate her life into compartments – writing, politics, love, and emotions. Inevitably she is unsuccessful. Events ‘leak’ from one notebook to another; they overlap and interact. Her continuing attempts to order and segregate are both a symptom and a symbol of her mental breakdown that progresses as the novel unfolds.
After reading Anna’s notebooks Molly’s son, Tommy, blinds himself in a failed suicide attempt. He becomes an ominous presence, all-knowing and judging, like some twenty-something Tiresius. Anna’s own decline accelerates as she begins a sexual relationship with her new lodger, a schizophrenic American called Saul. Her disintegration is played out against the wider fragmentation in the book. Men and women, spouse and lover, black and white, gay and straight, conventional and bohemian, capitalism and communism, communism itself, nation and citizen, the family and the individual – art and life, even: everything is at odds, splitting and splintering into opposing factions.
The final section of the novel sees Anna reject her four notebooks in favour of a single notebook, the Golden Notebook of the title. The Golden Notebook would seem to represent her attempt to conquer her illness – to literally “pull herself together” – but her decline continues. Saul’s departure and the anticipated return of her daughter from boarding school do hold out the promise of future healing, though.
I’ll admit, I found it a hard novel to get into but once I’d tuned into the voices of the various sections, I was hooked – until I reached the final, Golden Notebook, section, that is. The title made me think it would be a reworking what had gone before in the four notebook sections, drawing together their disparate strands and making Anna whole again, somehow. Perhaps that was too simplistic an expectation, but I can’t help but feel it would been more satisfying than Anna’s acceleration into madness, which became a bit…err…(dare I say) boring.
** Worth reading
*Reading through a list of her works, Martha Quest seems to ring a bell. But the point still stands.