The Golden Notebook, p.1Doris Lessing
The Golden Notebook
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY THE AUTHOR
FREE WOMEN: 1
Anna meets her friend Molly in the summer of 1957 after a separation
FREE WOMEN: 2
Two visits, some telephone calls and a tragedy
FREE WOMEN: 3
Tommy adjusts himself to being blind while the older people try to help him
FREE WOMEN: 4
Anna and Molly influence Tommy, for the better. Marion leaves Richard. Anna does not feel herself
THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK
FREE WOMEN: 5
Molly gets married and Anna has an affair
P.S. Insights, Interviews & More…
About the author
Meet Doris Lessing
Q & A: Doris Lessing Talks to Sarah O’Reilly About The Golden Notebook
About the book
Guarded Welcome by Doris Lessing
Have You Read? More by Doris Lessing
Other Books by Doris Lessing
About the Publisher
This novel’s progress continues to surprise me, because it keeps putting its head up in new places, and often not where one would expect. The most recent was China, where I was on a trip at the invitation of the main Chinese writers’ association. An edition of 80,000 has just been published, not a large number in that vast country, a small edition for them. It sold out in three days. It had been published once before, and had done well. “Everyone has read it,” they say, meaning, as this usually does these days, mostly people in universities. The universities I visited in Beijing, Shanghai, Shi’an, and Canton (Guanjou) have a most lively and informed interest in British and American literature. Only now has it occurred to me that universities are more and more our equivalent of the medieval monasteries, keeping things of the mind alive and well in countries where people are too poor to buy books. (Not that China can any longer be described as a poor country.) Recently I got a letter from a waitress in a hotel in Rio saying, “I can’t afford to buy books. My husband works in the university and he is allowed to use the library and he got The Golden Notebook for me and I feel I must tell you…”
I hear that the book is being assigned in history classes and politics classes in schools and universities. This pleases me, since one of the reasons I wrote the novel was that I felt there are blank spaces where novels ought to be, particularly in nineteenth-century literature. For instance, I would like to read novels that give the taste and flavour of the Chartists, and their personal lives, their discussions, their conflicts, and perhaps, the small revolutionary groups that flourished in London in the nineteenth century, most of them dedicated to fomenting revolution in Europe. I think The Golden Notebook is a useful testament to its time, particularly now that communism is dead or dying everywhere, or changing its nature. Nothing seems more improbable than what people believed when this belief has gone with the wind. Novels give you the matrix of emotions, give you the flavour of a time in a way formal history cannot.
A Yugoslav woman student said to me (this dates the reminiscence), “How interesting to read about all those old politics.” Old and exotic in communist Yugoslavia, but you may hear too, “It describes what happened in my political group in the seventies” or “The Golden Notebook describes my life as a woman.”
When it first came out it was considered quite an advanced book, but recently it was given to girls of fifteen in a school in North London and they took it in their stride. This year it is being read in a class in the University of Zimbabwe, at the request of black and white students, male and female. They were surprised, so said the teacher, a friend, that the talk of the young communists was idealistic and optimistic in those ancient days before there was a communist regime in Zimbabwe. They associated communism and communists with self-seeking and opportunism. It had not occurred to them that communism had begun as a genuine dream for a better world.
I continue to get letters from men about The Golden Notebook—as many as from women. They may say that it opened their eyes to the feelings and experiences of women, or that what interests them is the politics, or the “style” of the main American character, who now seems to them quite ridiculously macho. Or a woman writes to say—and this has happened often—that her boyfriend or husband gave her the book, saying it influenced him. I also hear the other side of this when a man says he has just read such-and-such a book and liked it. He was at a university where Doris Lessing was the property of the women’s movement, and so he did not bother to read my books and now he was sorry he didn’t and was writing to tell me so.
Yes, I do get a lot of feedback, and I am always interested, particularly when it is unexpected. In Vermont there is a bookstore called The Golden Notebook…
I re-read the novel the other day and remembered the fury of energy that went into it. Probably that is why the book goes on and on as it does—because of its “charge.” It does have a remarkable vitality. Some of it is the energy of conflict. I was writing my way out of one set of ideas, even out of a way of life, but that is not what I thought while I was doing it. Inside that tight framework is an effer-vescence. Sometimes the energy in a book contradicts its apparent message. The first time I thought about this was when I read Dos-toyevski’s The Devils and found myself invigorated and optimistic when in fact a more pessimistic story can hardly be imagined. The other of my books written with the same intensity could not on the face of it be more different than The Golden Notebook. It is The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight. Both books mark limits.
I meet women in their fifties who say, “I was influenced by this book and I gave it to my daughter and she loves it.” Or a young woman says, “My mother gave me this book because she said it was important to her and now I understand her much better.” I used to hear, “My mother read it and now I do”—so that’s two generations, but the other day I was told of a grandmother who gave it to her son who gave it to his daughter. Three generations. Yes, I am indeed flattered.
Currently I am writing volume one of my autobiography, and thinking about some of the people and events that went into The Golden Notebook, I have to conclude that fiction is better at “the truth” than a factual record. Why this should be so is a very large subject and one I don’t begin to understand.
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 long, and which could stand by itself. But it is divided into five sections and separated by stages of the four Notebooks, Black, Red, Yellow and Blue. The Notebooks are kept by Anna Wulf, a central character of Free Women. She keeps four, and not one because, as she recognises, she has to separate things off from each other, out of fear of chaos, of formlessness—of breakdown. Pressures, inner and outer, end the Notebooks; a heavy black line is drawn across the page of one after another. But now that they are finished, from their fragments can come something new, The Golden Notebook.
Throughout the Notebooks people have discussed, theorised, dogmatised, labelled, compartmented—sometimes in voices so general and representative of the time that they are anonymous, you could put names to them like those in the old Morality Plays, Mr Dogma and Mr I-Am-Free-Because-I-Belong-Nowhere, Miss I-Must-Have-Love-and-Happiness an
This theme of “breakdown,” that sometimes when people “crack up” it is a way of self-healing, of the inner self’s dismissing false dichotomies and divisions, has of course been written about by other people, as well as by me, since then. But this is where, apart from the odd short story, I first wrote about it. Here it is rougher, more close to experience, before experience has shaped itself into thought and pattern—more valuable perhaps because it is rawer material.
But nobody so much as noticed this central theme, because the book was instantly belittled, by friendly reviewers as well as by hostile ones, as being about the sex war, or was claimed by women as a useful weapon in the sex war.
I have been in a false position ever since, for the last thing I have wanted to do was to refuse to support women.
To get the subject of Women’s Liberation over with—I support it, of course, because women are second-class citizens, as they are saying energetically and competently in many countries. It can be said that they are succeeding, if only to the extent they are being seriously listened to. All kinds of people previously hostile or indifferent say: “I support their aims but I don’t like their shrill voices and their nasty ill-mannered ways.” This is an inevitable and easily recognisable stage in every revolutionary movement: reformers must expect to be disowned by those who are only too happy to enjoy what has been won for them. I don’t think that Women’s Liberation will change much though—not because there is anything wrong with their aims, but because it is already clear that the whole world is being shaken into a new pattern by the cataclysms we are living through: probably by the time we are through, if we do get through at all, the aims of Women’s Liberation will look very small and quaint.
But this novel was not a trumpet for Women’s Liberation. It described many female emotions of aggression, hostility, resentment. It put them into print. Apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, experiencing, came as a great surprise. Instantly a lot of very ancient weapons were unleashed, the main ones, as usual, being on the theme of “She is unfeminine,” “She is a man-hater.” This particular reflex seems indestructible. Men—and many women—said that the suffragettes were defeminised, masculine, brutalised. There is no record I have read of any society anywhere when women demanded more than nature offers them that does not also describe this reaction from men—and some women. A lot of women were angry about The Golden Notebook. What women will say to other women, grumbling in their kitchens and complaining and gossiping or what they make clear in their masochism, is often the last thing they will say aloud—a man may overhear. Women are the cowards they are because they have been semi-slaves for so long. The number of women prepared to stand up for what they really think, feel, experience with a man they are in love with is still small. Most women will still run like little dogs with stones thrown at them when a man says: You are unfeminine, aggressive, you are unmanning me. It is my belief that any woman who marries or takes seriously in any way at all a man who uses this threat, deserves everything she gets. For such a man is a bully, does not know anything about the world he lives in, or about its history—men and women have taken infinite numbers of roles in the past, and do now, in different societies. So he is ignorant, or fearful about being out of step—a coward…. I write all these remarks with exactly the same feeling as if I were writing a letter to post into the distant past: I am so sure that everything we now take for granted is going to be utterly swept away in the next decade.
(So why write novels? Indeed, why! I suppose we have to go on living as if…)
Some books are not read in the right way because they have skipped a stage of opinion, assume a crystallisation of information in society which has not yet taken place. This book was written as if the attitudes that have been created by the Women’s Liberation movements already existed. It came out first ten years ago, in 1962. If it were coming out now for the first time it might be read, and not merely reacted to: things have changed very fast. Certain hypocrisies have gone. For instance, ten, or even five years ago—it has been a sexually contumacious time—novels and plays were being plentifully written by men furiously critical of women—particularly from the States but also in this country—portrayed as bullies and betrayers, but particularly as underminers and sappers. But these attitudes in male writers were taken for granted, accepted as sound philosophical bases, as quite normal, certainly not as womanhating, aggressive or neurotic. It still goes on, of course—but things are better, there is no doubt of it.
I was so immersed in writing this book, that I didn’t think about how it might be received. I was involved not merely because it was hard to write—keeping the plan of it in my head I wrote it from start to end, consecutively, and it was difficult—but because of what I was learning as I wrote. Perhaps giving oneself a tight structure, making limitations for oneself, squeezes out new substance where you least expect it. All sorts of ideas and experiences I didn’t recognise as mine emerged when writing. The actual time of writing, then, and not only the experiences that had gone into the writing, was really traumatic: it changed me. Emerging from this crystallising process, handing the manuscript to publisher and friends, I learned that I had written a tract about the sex war, and fast discovered that nothing I said then could change that diagnosis.
Yet the essence of the book, the organisation of it, everything in it, says implicitly and explicitly, that we must not divide things off, must not compartmentalise.
“Bound. Free. Good. Bad. Yes. No. Capitalism. Socialism. Sex. Love….” says Anna, in Free Women, stating a theme—shouting it, announcing a motif with drums and fanfares…or so I imagined. Just as I believed that in a book called The Golden Notebook the inner section called the Golden Notebook might be presumed to be a central point, to carry the weight of the thing, to make a statement.
Other themes went into the making of this book, which was a crucial time for me: thoughts and themes I had been holding in my mind for years came together.
One was that it was 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, Stendhal for France. (At this point it is necessary to make the obligatory disclaimers.) To read The Red and the Black, and Lucien Leuwen is to know that France as if one were
Of course this attempt on my part assumed that that filter which is a woman’s way of looking at life has the same validity as the filter which is a man’s way…setting that problem aside, or rather, not even considering it, I decided that to give the ideological “feel” of our mid-century, it would have to be set among socialists and marxists, because it has been inside the various chapters of socialism that the great debates of our time have gone on; the movements, the wars, the revolutions, have been seen by their participants as movements of various kinds of socialism, or Marxism, in advance, containment, or retreat. (I think we should at least concede the possibility that people looking back on our time may see it not at all as we do—just as we, looking back on the English, the French, or even the Russian Revolutions see them differently from the people living then.) But “Marxism,” and its various offshoots, has fermented ideas everywhere, and so fast and energetically that, once “way out” it has already been absorbed, has become part of ordinary thinking. Ideas that were confined to the far left thirty or forty years ago had pervaded the left generally twenty years ago, and have provided the commonplaces of conventional social thought from right to left for the last ten years. Something so thoroughly absorbed is finished as a force—but it was dominant, and in a novel of the sort I was trying to do, had to be central.
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