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On Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook”

Jan Delden/AFP/Getty

In recent years the life of cultivated people has been marked by a fierce attachment to "personal values." I put the phrase in quote marks to point toward something more problematic than the usual web of involvements that appear when human beings live together in society. The condition I have in mind—perhaps new for us, though hardly unprecedented—can be observed in the cosmopolitan centers of the West and increasingly in the more advanced totalitarian countries; indeed, everywhere but in certain underdeveloped nations which are forcing their way into history and therefore are still in the grip of a national mystique or total ideology.

"Personal relations" as the very substance and sufficient end of our existence; "personal relations" as a surrogate for transcendence through religion, fulfillment through work, satisfaction through community; "personal relations" as a fragile shelter for sensitive men, a bulwark against the nihilist void, an ideology of privacy to replace the lapsed ideologies of public action—all this has become a style of life in New York and Moscow, London and Warsaw, accepted by some intellectuals with a tiresome literalness and by others with a skeptical grin. Among ourselves the devotion to "personal relations" seems at times like a malaise eating away at personal life; in the Communist countries it can serve as a rallying call for marginal freedoms. But in both parts of the world, psychological man begins to replace social man.

Hundreds of novels have been written in the last few decades reflecting this concern with "personal relations." Some are works of distinction, but many suffer from a narrowness of perspective that approaches claustrophobia. Just as Marxist writers will too often apply the corrosive test of the "sociology of knowledge" to everyone but themselves, so the novelists of sensibility too often see no need to question their own assumptions—and understandably, for these assumptions are not merely tokens in a literary game, they form part of a desperate though perhaps noble way of survival. The novelists of sensibility, unlike such of their masters as James and Forster, can seldom see or move beyond the chosen limits of their style of observation. They seldom realize that the values they bring to bear during their close scrutiny of "personal relations" have already been strongly conditioned by their choice of a few kinds of experience to scrutinize.

It is a particular distinction of The Golden Notebook, a long and ambitious novel by the gifted English writer Doris Lessing, that while dealing with some of the materials favored by novelists of sensibility, it escapes their constrictions of tone and outlook. Both Miss Lessing and her characters are deeply caught up with the cult of "personal relations," yet she is able to keep some critical distance from her material and to look upon it as merely the latest turn in the confusion of modern history. She yields her sympathies to those of her characters who fall back upon "personal relations" in order to get through their days, but she tries not to settle for the limitations of experience they must accept. She understands that the idea of "personal relations" has been shaped by the catastrophes of our time and, in the form we know it, is not to be taken as an absolute or uncontaminated value. It is a further distinction of Miss Lessing's novel that its action is carried mainly by that rarity in modern fiction: a heroine, Anna Wulf, who is a mature intellectual woman. A writer with a sophisticated mind, sharp tongue and an abundance of emotional troubles, Anna Wulf is sufficiently representative of a certain kind of modern woman to persuade us that her troubles have a relevance beyond their immediate setting; she is also an intelligence keen enough to support the public combativeness and personal introspectiveness that Miss Lessing has given her. At the very least, Anna Wulf is someone who has measured the price for being what she chooses to be—"a free woman," she would say with pride and irony— and who is prepared, no matter how much she groans, to pay it.

Miss Lessing has a voice and a mind of her own. She is radically different from other women writers who have dealt with the problems of their sex, first in that she grasps the connection between Anna Wulf's neuroses and the public disorders of the day, and second in that she has no use either for the quaverings of the feminist writers or the aggressions of those female novelists whose every sentence leads a charge in the war of the sexes. The feminine element in The Golden Notebook does not become a self-contained universe of being, as in some of Virginia Woolf's novels, nor is the narrative voice established through minute gradations of the writer's sensibility, as in some of Elizabeth Bowen's. And Miss Lessing is far too serious for those displays of virtuoso bitchiness which are the blood and joy of certain American lady writers.

Anna Wulf and her old friend Molly understand perfectly well that modern women do face crippling difficulties when they choose one or another role of freedom. But they do not fall back upon their charm, wit or headaches; they take their beatings, they ask no quarter, they spin and bear it. They are tough-minded, generous and battered—descriptives one is tempted to apply to the author herself, formerly close to the English Communist movement and still a lively radical, a woman whose youth in southern Africa had shaken her into a sense of how brutal human beings can become, a novelist who has published extensively and taken the risks of her craft. One feels about Miss Lessing that she works from so complex and copious a fund of experience that among women writers her English predecessors seem pale and her American contemporaries parochial.

At the center of The Golden Notebook is a series of remarkable conversations between Anna Wulf and Molly. Meeting in one another's London homes, they talk again and again about "personal relations," but always with a muted irony, an impatience with the very topics they know to concern them most. They are alternately open and guarded, sometimes wounding but usually honest. Simply as precise and nuanced dialogue, this is the best writing in a novel that never stoops to verbal display and  is always directed toward establishing a complete and visible world.

When they discuss their failures in love, their problems as divorced women with children to raise, their disillusionments as former Communists who would still like to needle the Establishment, their inability to talk with the passionless and apolitical young, their contempt for the new gentility of intellectual London, their difficulties in reconciling the image they hold of a self-sufficient human being with the needs they feel as anything but self-sufficient women—when these conversations between Anna and Molly recur throughout the book, one turns to them with the delight of encountering something real and fresh. My own curiosity, as a masculine outsider, was enormous, for here, I felt, was the way intellectual women really talk to one another when they feel free and unobserved. It makes the Bloomsbury writers seem a little quaint.

Though their interest in politics has lessened, both Anna and Molly feel themselves to be voices of a baffled generation, those people who gave their youth to radicalism and ended not knowing how to live. This could be, it so often has been, a sticky self-pitying kind of subject; but not in The Golden Notebook, for it is a virtue of these deeply interesting women that even while suffering neurotic torments they can still regard themselves as objects of laughter. And also, as figures of hope. History, they feel, has left them stranded, but on the beaches of disillusion there must still be other stranded ones, there must be men of strength, to help them.

For both women remain interested in men with a curiosity that is almost archaeological: as if there were so few good ones left that it is necessary to hunt for them amid the ruins. Both Anna and Molly, in a wry and pleasing way, are frank about their sexuality; both are ready to have affairs when their emotions are stirred. Yet, as they feel it, men somehow "fail" them. Their men do not "come through," and the more pliant they seem, the less dependable they prove. All this serves as a subject for jokes between Anna and Molly, but jokes with an edge of desperation.

In temperament the two women are sharply different: Anna morose and burrowing, Molly cheerful and extrovert; but they share problems, needs, failures. Both try hard to preserve their independence, which means not a refusal of relationships but a hard decision not to delude themselves when they do take up with second-raters and even more, a strict watch, mostly within themselves, against the mediocre, the resigned, the merely comfortable. At the end Molly does give in to a marriage of convenience, though with a characteristic quip: "There's nothing like knowing the exact dimensions of the bed you're going to fit yourself into." Anna, reduced to hysteria by a disastrous affair with an egomaniacal American writer, still keeps pushing ahead, deciding to go into Labour Party work and—a nice touch of irony—to take a job as a marriage counselor ("I'm very good at other people's marriages.") She remains loyal to that refusal to compromise which had bound the two women in friendship.

Refusal to compromise with what? It is not easy to say, since the answer depends at least as much upon Anna's visceral reactions as her conscious ideas. Miss Lessing, with the patience of a true novelist, keeps returning to the problem, not explicitly but through a series of narrative variations. Sick as Anna is, trapped as she often finds herself in a pit of anxiety, she still commands a burning sense of the possibilities of life. That this very restlessness of hers may itself be a function of neurosis, she also knows; for she has undergone the inevitable analytic bout, with a spiderish lady doctor she calls "Mother Sugar."

Yet she clings to her saving difference. She demands from her men the completion of her being. She demands that they provide those elements of strength and assurance which she, as a woman, cannot. She wants in her men both intimacy and power, closeness and self-sufficiency, hereness and thereness. Modernist in sensibility, she is traditional in her desires. And no matter what she must settle for at a given moment, she does not delude herself; she will not compromise with the idea of compromise. Her demands upon life are utterly impossible, completely unreasonable, beyond the soothing of therapy; and not to be dismissed.

Anna is the kind of woman who would send D. H. Lawrence into a sputter of rage: so much the worse for him. To be sure, many of the complaints he might make of her would be accurate. She whines, she is a bit of a drag, she often drives her men crazy. She does not inquire closely enough as to her own responsibility for the failures of her men or why she seems so gifted at picking losers. In her steady groaning about her writer's block, she does not ask herself whether it is caused by a deep contempt for the whole idea of the intellectual life—like many women of her sort, she has fitful passions for cooking and domesticity—or whether it is caused by overweening ambition—at times one suspects her of wanting to write a novel as good as The Golden Notebook. More can be said against her. Indeed, she is open to almost every judgment except that of having died before her death.

In its structure The Golden Notebook is original but not entirely successful. Miss Lessing has wanted to show the relation between Anna's past and her present, as well as between both of these and her fantasies, but she has wanted to show them not simply through the usual juxtaposition of narrative strands which might, for her purposes, lack tension and the effect of simultaneity. She therefore hit upon the ingenious device of carrying her narrative line forward in the present while inserting long excerpts from several notebooks Anna keeps, each a different color and representing a distinct part of her life. The advantage of this scheme is that Miss Lessing can isolate the main elements of Anna's experience with a sharpness that might not be possible in a traditional kind of novel; the disadvantage, that she has had to force large chunks of narrative into a discursive context.

In a black notebook Anna returns to her youth, sketching a group of English radicals astray in a provisional African town and preying on each other's nerves. This is the least vivid section of the book, and one that does not justify the length given it. In a red notebook Anna looks back upon her political life, drawing a number of amusing vignettes of left-wing intellectual circles in the London of the fifties. In a yellow notebook she writes a fictional version of her own experience, focusing on a love affair which has, in the narrative present, already reached its end. And in a blue notebook she keeps an objective record of her daily life, which comes to a brilliant climax in a detailed account of a single day. Bit by bit she builds up the mosaic of her anxiety: how she must face early in the morning the conflicting needs of her lively child and sleepy lover; how she copes with the irritations of work in a fellow-travelling publishing house; how she gives way to the compulsion of repeatedly washing her body for fear that her period causes her to have a bad smell; how she returns home at night to the nagging of her thoughts.

Finally there comes the golden notebook which is to record the reintegration of the various Annas who appear in the other notebooks. But as the love affair on which she stakes her hopes begins to crumble, the golden notebook turns into a record of collapse, and in pages of nightmarish power Anna is shown entering a psychotic episode, locking herself into her bedroom where she pastes alarming newspaper items on the walls and slowly tastes the progress from despair, in which she abandons herself to the vividness of remembering what she has lost, to desolation, in which the image of loss becomes dim but the pain, feeding on itself, lives on.

Doris Lessing is a natural writer: she has the prime novelistic gift of involving one so deeply in the desires and frustrations of her characters that one reads with a positive yearning to spend more time with them. Some of her failures, however, I found disturbing. The cumbersome structure of the novel allows for a rich interweaving of complexities but does not fully encourage the free flow of emotion which her story demands. She writes about Americans with the astigmatism peculiar to certain English leftists: she has no ear for American speech nor eye for American manners. More important, at the end of the book she fails to keep a sufficient distance from her heroine, so that Anna's hysteria comes dangerously close to taking over the narrative. Perhaps Miss Lessing faced an insoluble problem at this point: she achieves enormous intensity through surrendering herself to Anna's suffering, but the price she pays is a loss of the critical objectivity she had maintained in earlier pages. It is a feat of evocation, but not matched by steadiness of control.

By any final reckoning The Golden Notebook is a work of high seriousness.That I have omitted to mention important characters and elements of plot hardly matters, for this novel willbe discussed repeatedly in the years to come. It is the most absorbing and exciting piece of new fiction I have read in a decade: it moves with the beat of our time, and it is true.