Well, this is not an easy read: it’s dense, complex, polemical, and humourless. But for all that, it’s worth your time — though make sure to allow plenty of it.
Doris Lessing is an important writer but reading her is a bit like taking your vitamins: you know it’s good for you. It’s more in hindsight that I found the effort of reading it was worthwhile. She writes fearlessly about the usually unspoken feelings people have in intimate relationships. No character is romanticized: all are portrayed as flawed to varying degrees. People’s politics, work, and relationships are — of course — entwined with their inner lives. The multiple facets of the protagonist’s life are reflected by the different notebooks in which she writes.
The text of the book cycles through the four notebooks. Anna Wulf writes about different aspects of her life in the nineteen-forties and -fifties: her wartime life with an intellectual but decadent group of friends in Africa; her political life in post-war England; a semi-autobiographical work of fiction; and her journal. The notebooks become one in the end, in the golden notebook.
There are insights about a certain group of women at a certain time in history. They are heterosexual feminists, pre-feminism — at least, before the movement that gained momentum in the nineteen-sixties. Lessing calls them free women. They believe that they do not need to be in a conventional relationship with a man. However they spend a lot of time agonizing over their unconventional relationships with men.
There are insights about followers of Marxism in the fifties, both in America and in England. These Marxists are initially bound uncritically to “the Party.” Their beliefs are deeply held — not easily dislodged, in spite of a growing disillusion with Stalin. There are degrees of commitment and correctness, of course, and lots of infighting and you can see how, even with a passionate dedication to the Party and its principles, cracks in the solidarity begin to appear.
There are insights about what the book calls madness. Anna and her lover Saul experience an unhealthy relationship in which they both move in and out of different kinds of mental illness and are bound to each other in spite of and because of it. Anna’s experience of breakdown is compellingly written:
The sunlight — it was a pale winter sun, was remote. What went on in the street was remote from me, the people passing were not people, they were marionettes. I felt a change inside me, a sliding lurch away from myself, and I knew this change to be another step down into chaos. I touched the stuff of the red curtain. And the feel of it on my fingers was dead and slippery, slimy. I saw this substance, processed by machinery, dead stuff, to hang like dead skin, or a lifeless corpse at my windows. …
She feels she is inside Charlie Themba:
I was in a hut, in the Northern Province, and my wife was my enemy, and my … friends, were trying to poison me, and somewhere, out in the reeds, a crocodile lay dead, killed with a poisoned spear, and my wife, bought by my enemies, was about to feed me crocodile flesh … I saw the eyes of my wife peering through the reeds that made my hut, judging to see if she could safely enter. She came bending through the hut door, her skirts held to one side with the sly, lying hand I hated, and in the other hand a tin plate where shreds of stinking flesh lay ready for me to eat.
There is no lightness or frivolity in The Golden Notebook, but there are compensations. Lessing’s writing is powerful and passionate. She’s aware of the complex intimacies of human relationships, the unromantic realities, the things we really think, how betrayal and loss feels, what it is like to lose your grip on reality, how people search for meaning in their lives.
So it was worthwhile. But now I am up for a light mystery.