Doris Lessing: The Golden Notebook
This is one of the great English novels and essential reading for anyone vaguely interested in the novel. It is so complex that Lessing herself complained that people did not understand it. Of course, the response to that is that it works on many levels and different readers see different things in it. Is it a feminist novel? A socialist novel? A psychological drama? A battle-of-the-sexes novel? A novel about racism? Of course, it is all of these and much more and, like all great novels, the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts and, indeed, is probably far more than the author realised or intended.
The novel consists of a story, Free Women, and excerpts from a series of coloured notebooks kept by Anna Wulf, a novelist who is struggling with writer’s block and who has had a series of failed relationships. Her notebooks are divided by subject. The black notebook is about her novel-writing – she has written a novel called Frontiers of War, an interracial love story set in Africa – and is about her current writer’s block. The red notebook is, of course, about her political activities. She joined the Communist Party but left because she was disillusioned. However, she remains deeply troubled about what is happening in the world, in particular the threat of atomic war. The yellow notebook is her own recounting of tales based on her own life. Finally, the blue notebook tries to be a diary. Of course, these don’t always work, particularly as we learn from them and the Free Women story that she is heading for a breakdown, which leads her to pour everything into a single notebook, the golden notebook.
Lessing was adamant that this book was not intended as a feminist tract. However, the feminist movement rightly saw it (as well as other Lessing novels) as a key text and clearly that is one of its strengths. Its political stance – about racism, McCarthyism and the Cold War – are also important. But it works best as a novel and is a great novel because of the very clever portrayal of Anna Wulf both as a complex individual, struggling with her life, her politics and her art, as well as representing the difficult role that a creative artist and, in particular, a female creative artist has to face in the world. An essential work.
First published 1962 by Michael Joseph