The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

The Golden Notebook

Anna Wulf is a writer with one published work to her name. The book was fairly successful, enabling Anna to support herself and her young daughter with the profits from the royalties, as well as taking in boarders in her London house. Although she hasn’t gotten anything else published, Anna keeps up her writing, keeping four different notebooks. In a black notebook, she writes about her time as a young woman in Africa when she first became involved with the Communist Party. A red notebook describes her later disillusionment with the movement in the 1950’s. In a yellow notebook, she writes a novel that’s basically a fictionalized version of an affair she once had. A blue notebook is for her personal diary. Additionally, several chapters are titled “Free Women” and are a third-person description of Anna’s conversations with Molly, a friend from her Communist days.

This was a slog, and not just because it’s essentially just 635 pages of people sitting around and talking. The structure reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, so that was an automatic strike against this book, because The Blind Assassin does the whole blending-fact-and-fiction schtick a hell of a lot better than The Golden Notebook does. It seemed like the more interesting notebooks got fewer pages than they deserved, while the less interesting parts took up too much space – I could have read an entire book just about Anna’s experiences in Africa, but the stuff about her later disillusionment with Communism was kind of like reading a blow-by-blow description of paint drying.

But the biggest problem with this book was, I’ll admit, mostly my fault. I went into this book knowing one thing: this is a Very Important Feminist Text, so I read it with that mindset. And you know what I found?

Dudes. Lots and lots of dudes. Seriously, for a “feminist book” – or, hell, just a book written by a woman and featuring a female protagonist – there is a hell of a lot of page time wasted on male characters. I say “wasted” because no one in this story is even remotely interesting, except for maybe Anna’s friends from her Africa days. But like I said, they get kind of shafted by the narrative and instead we have to read pages and pages about Anna having a series of dismal affairs – Anna seems incapable of having a relationship that’s satisfying in any way, and a mean part of my brain starting thinking, hey Anna, you know how they say that if everyone you meet is an asshole, that means you’re the asshole? Maybe there’s a reason everyone you date is bad at sex and emotionally unavailable.

Anyway, we hear A LOT about Anna’s many, many, boring and terrible relationships, and the worst of them comes at the end of the book, when she starts having an affair with an American man named Saul Green. Saul Green is the living worst. Saul Green makes Fitzgerald Grant seem lovable. Saul Green is the opposite of Batman. But Anna loves Saul Green, for absolutely no fucking reason, and so we have to read chapter and chapters of Anna dating this terrible person and talking about how much she loves him, and I hated every moment I had to read about his character. The worst part? At the end, Anna buys the golden notebook featured in the title, and Saul, because he is The Worst, tells Anna that he wants the notebook for himself. Because he is The Worst. And Anna, unable to see that she’s dating a spoiled two-year-old who somehow managed to pass for an adult man, just laughs, like, Oh Saul, you’re so funny when you joke about denying my personal autonomy! But he’s not joking, because guess what Saul does? He gets his hands on Anna’s golden notebook and writes his own name on the inside cover. If my boyfriend wrote his name on a notebook that I specifically told him I was saving for something special, I would probably beat him with my own shoe. Anna’s reaction?

“It made me laugh, so that I nearly went upstairs and gave it to him.”

No. No no. No no no no noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

(I’m sorry, I completely lost my train of thought there. That’s how much I hate Saul Green and every minute I wasted reading about him while Doris Lessing tried to convince me he was charming.)

The “Free Women” scenes were my favorite, because they were all about Anna and Molly and their frienship, but guess what they talk about in every. single. scene? Molly’s ex-husband, and her son. And then I realized that the “Free Women” sections were primarily concerned with the male characters’ storylines, and then I had to lie down for a while until I stopped wanting to set this book on fire.

The one shining bright spot of this book: as you can tell from the following excerpt, the writing is very good, and the characters are all solid. They’re just boring and/or infuriating.

“‘In what way are you different? Are you saying there haven’t been artist-women before? There haven’t been women who were independent? There haven’t been women who insisted on sexual freedom! I tell you, there are a great line of women stretching out behind you into the past, and you have to seek them out and find them in yourself and become conscious of them.’
‘They didn’t look at themselves as I do. They didn’t feel as I do. How could they? I don’t want to be told when I wake up, terrified by a dream of total annihilation, because of the H-bomb exploding, that people felt that way about the cross-bow. It isn’t true. There is something new in the world. And I don’t want to hear, when I’ve had encounter with some Mogul in the film industry, who wields the kind of power over men’s minds that no emperor ever did, and I come back feeling trampled on all over, that Lesbia felt like that after an encounter with her wine-merchant. And I don’t want to be told when I suddenly have a vision (though God knows it’s hard enough to come by) of a life that isn’t full of hatred and fear and envy and competition every minute of the night and the day that this is simply the old dream of the golden age brought up to date…I want to be able to separate in myself what is old and cyclic, the recurring history, the myth, from what is new, what I feel or think that might be new…’ I saw the look on her face, and said: ‘You are saying that nothing I feel or think is new?'”

Verdict: two out of five stars


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