I’m not sure there’s ever been a blurb written more to my tastes than the one I found on the back of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook: “Bold and illuminating, fusing sex, politics, madness and motherhood, The Golden Notebook is at once a bold and perceptive portrait of the intellectual and moral climate of the 1950s – a society on the brink of feminism – and a powerful and revealing account of a woman searching for her own personal and political identity.” Yes, please!
(Yes, the cover of this edition is gold, which is a little heavy-handed, but whatever.)
As if that blurb weren’t enough, Margaret Drabble (of The Oxford Companion To English Literature) said that The Golden Notebook forms part of Lessing’s body of work she called “inner space fiction”, exploring mental and societal breakdown. I’m hooked, reel me in! The author bio alongside that little gem has a huge list of other titles: novels, drama, short stories, poetry, and non-fiction. If I’ve done my maths right, that makes Lessing a quintuple threat!
Lessing herself wrote the impassioned, illuminating preface to this edition. In it, she covers a lot, perhaps even more than the novel itself: from writing The Golden Notebook, to Women’s Lib, to Marxism, to education, to literary criticism, and back again. If you can find an edition with this preface included, it’s well worth a read. It’s also a bit scary how familiar and relevant it all is, despite having been written decades ago (the more things change, the more they stay the same, after all). The only disappointment was how many words Lessing devoted to denying any association with feminism. She says, repeatedly, in the preface and in other works, that she never wanted to be anything other than a writer across many genres, and she wrote for herself alone, not to fan the flames of any “movement”. But let’s not hold that against her, eh? Here’s how she describes the novel’s structure:
“The shape of this novel is as follows… 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… kept by Anna Wulf, a central character of Free Women…”Preface, The Golden Notebook
If you’re thinking ‘yeah, that’s going to need more explanation’, I don’t blame you! I’ll do my best. Basically, The Golden Notebook is a novel within a novel. The story is told in several different voices, but all of those voices come through the same central character, Anna.
Anna is a novelist, afflicted with another dratted case of writer’s block. She keeps four notebooks, each with a different theme and purpose. That’s where the different “voices” come from; she’s real good at compartmentalising her thoughts (at least at first). So, there a segments of a realistic narrative (a would-be stand-alone story that Lessing called Free Women). That story follows Anna’s life and weaves in her friends, their children, ex-husbands, and lovers. Then, in between each segment of the story, are excerpts from Anna’s notebooks. This strange structure is what makes The Golden Notebook such a weird, and fascinating, read.
In the black notebook, Anna records her recollections of her time in Southern Rhodesia, before and during WWII. Those experiences were the inspiration for her best-selling novel, the one she is currently trying to follow up. This notebook is like a long, political, Mrs Dalloway-esque stream of consciousness, full of recollections and philosophising.
The red notebook is reserved for her experiences as a member of the Communist Party. Yes, again, having that particular theme for a red notebook is heavy-handed, but to be fair if the notebook had been green or purple, that wouldn’t have seemed “right” either.
The yellow notebook contains the novel that Anna is trying to write, based on the painful ending of her own real-life love affair. That makes it a novel within a novel within a novel; much meta, very wow.
And then, in the blue notebook, Anna records her personal memories, dreams, and other minutia of her emotional life. It’s exactly what you’d expect of a stock-standard diary.
So, where’s the titular golden notebook, then? Stick around to find out.
With all this swapping back and forth between narrative and notebooks, the stories do start to overlap, which helps the reader keep track of what’s going on. Even though the timeline is (inevitably, given this structure) non-chronological, it all still holds together. Obviously, this unique post-modern style prompted much discussion and critical attention, but Lessing went to great lengths to remind everyone that it wasn’t a gimmick. She wanted reviewers to pay attention to the content of what she was saying, not the way she was saying it (maybe don’t write such a weird book then, eh?). The structure itself was one part of her wider statement: that authors who try to make a single cohesive story out of life betray the truth of the lived experience. Put that in your pipe!
Between the black and red notebooks, Lessing (through Anna) has much to say about war and Stalinism. The Golden Notebook is a political critique, an analysis of the Communist Party (as distinct from the philosophy of communism) in England around the mid-20th century. The other notebooks, along with Free Women, form a different piece of commentary: an examination of sexual liberation and women’s liberation, and their implications for gender roles in a patriarchal world. She wanted to depict the struggles of a divorced single mother, defiantly seeking a personal and political identity in a world that was changing too quickly for her to get a foothold.
In the final entries of the blue notebook, Anna’s diary, we learn that she’s fallen in love with her American flat mate, Saul Green. That realisation sends her nose-first into an emotional breakdown. But, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, it is that mental health crisis that actually pushes her to break through her writer’s block. She decides to stop compartmentalising (it was a shitty idea to begin with, tbh), and put all of herself into a single volume, which is (drumroll please) contained in a golden notebook. Through writing that notebook, she puts her broken pieces back together, and liberates herself from her romantic entanglements. This is what Lessing wanted us to focus on, instead of using her writing as (in her words) “a useful weapon in the sex war”.
Given that Lessing was so intrigued by fragmentation (of Anna as a character, and society as a whole), it makes sense that she would resent being pigeonholed. She understood fiction – and, I can safely assume, life – to be more complex and varied than one particular movement, or one aspect of identity. I suppose we could say that makes her an early intersectional feminist, though she probably would have hated that reductive description, too. Her resentment of categories extended as far as genre, even: The Golden Notebook is a hybrid of realism, parable, memoir, fantasy, and polemic, straddling all the boundaries between them.
This novel is probably one of the main reasons Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. She was the eleventh woman to get the gong, and the oldest person ever at the time of receiving it. In its citation, the academy said that she wrote epics of the female experience, and “with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”. For once, I actually agree with them wholeheartedly.
The Golden Notebook is a mixed-up novel, and my feelings about it are mixed-up too. On the one hand, there’s a whole bunch of reasons I shouldn’t have liked it: it’s spiralling, it’s confusing, it’s indulgent, it’s full of women making shitty decisions because of the shitty men in their lives, it’s got a jumpy timeline – all things I’ve really hated in other books I’ve read. But, on the other hand, I really enjoyed it! I looked forward to sitting down with it each day. I loved peeling back its layers, and seeing what new treasures lay underneath. By the time I got to the penultimate chapter, in which the contents of the titular golden notebook are revealed, my breath was positively bated.
Look, it’s a strange one: good-strange, but strange nonetheless. It’s not one I’d recommend blindly, because I think it takes a certain taste and outlook to enjoy properly. I liked it for myself. And I’d say that if you’re going to give it a go, make sure to allow yourself plenty of time. Don’t try to rush through it all at once. Let each section percolate in your mind a while before you go back for more.