There is a part of me that feels brazen and shameless for daring to write reviews of literary classics. Who am I to judge Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example (which I did for Cannonball Read 5)? The Golden Notebook is another such a book, but it is also one of those novels that I have wanted to read because it appears on so many “must read” lists, particularly among feminists. So I will boldly proceed with this review in the hope that I do not gravely err in my presentation and interpretation of this great work.
If you decide to tackle The Golden Notebook (and I hope you do), you should be sure to read Lessing’s 1971 introduction to the reissue of her 1962 classic. Lessing was frustrated that no one really understood the point of her novel. I figured I wouldn’t do much better, but I’m glad I forged on. When The Golden Notebook was published, reviewers dubbed it a feminist novel, ignoring Lessing’s bigger themes. As Lessing writes in her introduction, “…this novel was not a trumpet for Women’s Liberation. It described many female emotions of aggression, hostility, resentment. It put them into print.” Given the time in which she wrote, I suppose it’s not surprising that readers, unaccustomed to such frank discussions of sex and women’s desires, abilities and aspirations, saw that as the overall point. It was shocking and new. These days, that part of the story would hardly raise an eyebrow. I think reading this novel now, when we are so much more open about sexuality and some barriers (though not all) for women have been removed or diminished, it’s easier to see the bigger theme of The Golden Notebook, which is about alienation or, as the main character Anna calls it, “breaking up.” Lessing wrote this novel about 15 years after the end of WWII. It was a time when Europe was being rebuilt from rubble, when nationalist movements were growing in Africa and Asia, when major ideologies were struggling with the new reality. In particular, Lessing highlights the division and disarray within the communist party (of which she had been a member). Lessing depicts the disillusionment of those who had been sure of some great change coming, of Stalin being incapable to the atrocities ascribed to him.
The story is set in 1956 and our main character Anna Wulf is a single mother, a disaffected communist party member and the writer of one successful novel, “Frontiers of War,” loosely based on her time in North Africa during World War II. Anna’s close friend Molly is an actress who has also been a party member and is divorced with a 19-year-old son named Tommy. She, her ex Richard (a wealthy and successful businessman) and Anna have contentious discussions about Tommy and his future. Anna’s former lover Michael is another important figure in the story, although he is already gone by 1956. This part of The Golden Notebook, which Lessing calls “Free Women,” could stand alone, but what makes the novel so unusual is the organization which allows Anna to cut in and out of “Free Women” through her notebooks.
The Golden Notebook is primarily a psychological novel, with emphasis on the break-up/alienation theme, but it is also a novel about writing, writer’s block and the creative process. Anna’s four notebooks are the way she divides up herself. The black notebook has to do with Anna the writer; the red notebook is about politics; the yellow one is made up stories from her own experiences and the blue is a diary (which she describes as the least truthful of all four). Ultimately, Anna has to put aside the four divisions and make herself a whole person, whether that involves writing or not.
The Golden Notebook is also an historical and political novel, providing a rare glimpse into the conflicts and contradictions facing Western communists at the end of the Stalin era and at the height of McCarthyism in the US. In her 1971 introduction Lessing writes that novels should have “the quality of philosophy,” and The Golden Notebook has that. I was struck particularly by her keen political observations, which I think are apropos today.
Very few people really care about freedom, about liberty, about the truth, very few. Very few people have guts, the kind of guts on which a real democracy has to depend. Without people with that sort of guts a free society dies or cannot be born…. Because in all of us brought up in a Western democracy there is this built-in belief that freedom and liberty will strengthen, will survive any evidence against it. This belief is probably in itself a danger.
That quote illustrate’s one of Anna’s previous musings, that “…the one form of experience people are incapable of learning from is the political experience.” While Anna’s frustration was with the communist party, I think this expresses a truth about the world we live in today as well, where women’s rights and freedoms in particular are being circumscribed by “democratic” means. Hello, Texas!
I can’t claim to have completely understood this novel. There are sections involving Anna’s dreams, her “breaking up” and “vertigo” experiences that were fascinating to read but sometimes impenetrable for me. But with great novels such as this, they provide food for thought for years to come, and perhaps at some point, a breakthrough to understanding. Highly recommended.