The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing, Simon and Schuster, 1962, 568 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Anna is a writer, author of one very successful novel, who now keeps four notebooks. In one, with a black cover, she reviews the African experience of her earlier years. In a red one she records her political life, her disillusionment with communism. In a yellow one she writes a novel in which the heroine reviles part of her own experience. And in the blue one she keeps a personal diary. Finally, in love with an American writer and threatened with insanity, Anna tries to bring the threads of all four books together in a golden notebook.
My Review: I have read eight books by Doris Lessing, mostly in order of publication. Each one has had an impact on me. The Grass Is Singing, her first novel, is still my favorite but all the others remain important to my reading life and to me as a woman.
One of the things I admire is her utter disregard for the critics. She has never pandered to them or to the Western white male dominated literary establishment, possibly not even to her readers. It is an entire travesty that she had to wait until she was 88 years old to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. But as she said at the time, "Oh Christ. It's been going on now for 30 years, I can't get more excited." This was after she had won almost every other prize!
That down-to-earth lack of vanity has got to be what makes her books so meaningful to me. She was a woman, born in the same year as my mother, possessed of a brilliant mind and a high level of courage. All of that comes through in her writing.
The Golden Notebook is a tough read. I don't recommend it lightly. The structure is odd but does serve to illustrate how a woman who wishes to be independent of men, who is creative, who is raising a child by herself, and who at the same time loves men, sex, being in love and being loved, has to compartment her very psyche in order to handle it all. I found that truthful.
Anna's four notebooks are where she records these fragments of herself. Only four, I thought? I must be a basket case because I have many more notebooks than that. Her golden notebook is a symbol of the successful integration of her disparate selves.
The copy I read, procured from the library, is big and heavy. I've had a crick in my neck ever since I finished it. It also has a new introduction, written by the author in 1971, nine years after the novel's original publication. In this introduction she refutes the reviewers, friendly and hostile, in their belittling claim that the book is about the sex war. Nor did she intend for it to be a "trumpet for Women's Liberation."
Her main intent was to present the broad range of women's thoughts and emotions and experiences. Also she worked with the theme of a breakdown being a way of self-healing and rearranging false dichotomies. She admits that "here (the writing) is rougher, more close to experience...more valuable perhaps because it is rawer material."
Anna's breakdown is made so visceral, so disturbing, and yet it was so understandable, at least for me. I would say that Doris Lessing was about 40 years ahead of her time in writing to expose the female psyche.
Due to my upbringing, or possibly my horoscope, who knows, I have been a woman dedicated to "keeping it together" in front of others. I have had the idea that unlovely emotions and breakdowns were something to be ashamed of and should be hidden. Reading this novel was healing for me because, though I will probably still keep it together in front of most people, I no longer feel ashamed of my emotions or breakdowns.
(The Golden Notebook is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)