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The Golden Notebook ()

Westchester Women's Book Club

I've previously read a little bit of Lessing, The Good Terrorist, which I enjoyed & her science fiction opus Canopus in Argives which was a very tough read.  Both Golden Notebook and Briefing for a Descent into Hell are widely praised & had been on my list to read.  So I started this book with every intention of enjoying it.  I hated it. I just found the characters to be so morose and self-obsessed that
it was impossible to care what happened to them.

However, my broader concerns with the book are cultural and political. The edition of the book that I read included an author's introduction, written in 1971,  wherein Ms Lessing said a couple things that were interesting, because they are so profoundly wrong:

    (1) A novel "is alive and potent and fructifying and able to promote thought  and discussion only
    when its plan and shape and intention are not understood, because that moment of seeing the shape
    and plan and intention is also the moment when there isn't anything more to be got out of it."

    (2)  it is "not possible to find a novel which described the intellectual and moral climate of a
    hundred years ago, in the middle of the last century, in Britain, in the way Tolstoy did it for Russia,
    Stendahl for France."  So she decided to "give the ideological 'feel' of our mid-century" and in
    order to give that feel, "it would have to be set among socialists and Marxists, because it is inside
    the various chapters of socialism that the great debates of our time have gone on."

As to the first point, this attitude has been a blight upon much of Modern Literature (and the Arts in general).  Up until fairly late in the 19th Century it was possible for any well-educated person to speak intelligently on virtually any topic.  With a comprehensive College education and a reasonable amount of reading, you were likely not just to know & be able to discuss Literature, Music and Art, but also to understand most of Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Medicine and Mathematics and Economics.  But as Man's understanding of science deepened, and theories became increasingly abstract (cellular biology, particle physics, relativity and the like), it became necessary to specialize in these fields in order to truly understand them. And so, we had a situation where Einstein could discuss Shakespeare, Da Vinci and Bach intelligently, but what could Monet add to a discussion of the behavior of molecules?  Scientists could still weigh in on the shared Cultural heritage, but in addition they now had access to specialized branches of knowledge that were inaccessible to non-specialists.

And so, starting around the turn of the century, artists began to make their work less and less intelligible, in order to claim a similar sort of secret knowledge.  The result was works such as Joyce's Ulysses (see review) and Finnegans Wake (see review), Picasso's paintings & atonal music by Stravinsky, Berg & the like.   The public either reacted angrily to these works (there were riots at the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring) or greeted them indifferently, when's the last time anyone voluntarily attended a Beckett play (see review).

Meanwhile, these works were greeted as manifestations of genius by many of the artists peers and in the halls of academe.  There's a veritable cottage industry of intellectuals explaining to the public
why they are wrong to loathe Modern Art--itês not that the art is bad, it's that the great unwashed masses don't share in the secret knowledge that's required to decipher it's deeper meanings (see Orrin's review of Tom Wolfe's Painted Word & Our House to Bauhaus).

Lessing's Introduction patiently explains that critics of the book simply failed to understand it.  This defense brilliantly excuses an artist from any responsibilty for the failures of their work to communicate to the audience. "I wrote it well, you perceived poorly."

I find little merit to this claim.  The book is just incoherent.  Lessing apparently intended Free Women to be readable as a self contained novel and then the Notebooks represent various unintegrated portions of Anna's psyche.  But the notebooks add little to the story and often stall it's narrative drive.  The
final Golden Notebook is supposed to represent the wholeness achieved by Anna & Saul, but it's hard to see how there have been any appreciable changes for the better in any of the characters.  Ultimately, Lessing is asking for more leeway from the reader than the story warrants.

As to the second point, setting aside her dismissal of Dickens and Trollope, the forces of History have played a viscious trick on Ms Lessing and her ilk.  It turns out that the Marxist, Socialist, Atheist,
Freudian Left was not the fountain of ideas that would shape our Century.  They turned out to be more like the cloistered medieval monks of the Dark Ages who argued about theoretical minutiae that
mattered only to themselves.  While Ms Lessing and her friends debated the necessity of Stalin's show trials and the Gulag, a generation of Conservative leaders (Pope John Paul, Thatcher, Reagan, Mulrooney, Kohl, Nakasone) was about to burst onto the scene and systematically repudiate Marxism, Socialism, Atheism and  Freudianism.  The great debate was not occuring within the Left; rather the debate was whether the Left had anything of value to offer.  By and large, the answer in the second half  (or at least the last third) of the century has been a resounding--No!  Today, in the England that Lessing hoped to capture by portraying the Socialist milieu, the head of the Labour Party, Tony Blair, is more conservative than Winston Churchill.

It seems to me that there are a few moments in the novel when Lessing herself exposes the faulty premise (that to understand England in the 20th Century you must understand the Left)
upon which the novel is structured.  In Anna's first Black Notebook entry she writes:

    I don't think people who have never been part of a left movement understand how hard the
    dedicated socialists do work, day in and day out, year in and year out.

In the first Red Notebook entry she writes:

    ...somewhere at the back of my mind when I joined the Party was a need for wholeness, for an end
    to the split, divided, unsatisfactory way we all live.

When Molly is discussing Tommy & his stepmother moving in together, she says:

    ...the generation after us are going to take one look at us, and get married at eighteen, forbid
    divorces, and go in for strict moral codes and all that.

Anna tells her psychoanalyst that because sheês an independent woman:

    I believe I'm living the kind of life women never lived before.

And in Saul Green's novel, he writes of the Algerian soldier that:

    He recognized, had recognized for years, that he never had a thought, or an emotion, that didn't
    instantly fall into pigeonholes, one marked 'Marx' and one marked 'Freud'.

Taken together, these quotes paint an accurate indictment of Lessing and her characters.  They perceive themselves as the first truly "Free" generation of humankind.  They are valiant fighters on the
cutting edge of a movement--Lenin's Vanguard--and they work heroically to bring about a new society.  But all of this is mere illusion.  In fact, they are not free; they are rigidly bound by the doctrines of Freud and Marx.  They have abandoned God and abandoned free will and erected these false deities with their dangerous doctrines.  Inevitably, as Molly said, the generations that have come after them have repudiated everything that they believed.

We end up with a book whose value lies in a depiction of the delusions that the "Free Women" labored under at mid-Century.


Grade: (F)


Doris Lessing Links:

    -ESSAY: The Jewel of Africa (Doris Lessing, 4/10/03, The New York Review of Books)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ESSAY : A guide to life (Doris Lessing, booksonline uk)
    -ESSAY : Which authors, or books, do not enjoy the standing they deserve? Continuing our series on underrated reputations, the novelist Doris Lessing nominates Jean Rhys's The Wide Sargasso Sea  (Doris Lessing, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of The Peppered Moth by Margaret Drabble (Doris Lessing,  booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of The Englishman's Handbook by Idries Shah  (Doris Lessing,  booksonline uk)
    -Doris Lessing: Retrospective
    -INTERVIEW : Doris Lessing's fiction has been based on truth as she has seen it, experienced it and, above all, lived it. Due to appear at next week's Dublin Writers' Festival, she tells Eileen Battersby how she has used her writing over the past 50 years to find out who she is (Irish Times)
    -Literary Research Guide: Doris Lessing (1919 -)
    -A moving target (Mail & Guardian Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : Doris Lessing (booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of Walking in the Shade Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949-1962. By Doris Lessing (Frank Kermode, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  WALKING IN THE SHADE: 1949 to 1962. By Doris Lessing  Lessing reveals little about life in autobiography (ELIZABETH GREGORY, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Love, Again  by Doris Lessing (Roseann Lloyd , Hungry Mind Review)
    -REVIEW : of Doris Lessing: A Biography by Carole Klein and   Ben, in the World by Doris Lessing (Elizabeth Lowry, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of  The Sweetest Dream by Doris Lessing (Lisa Allardice, booksonline)