The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing

January 17, 2008

The Golden Notebook was by no means the first book I read in 2008, but it was the one I finished most recently, so it’s on my mind.  I read this book for a book club I am in.  I picked it, so I have no one to blame but myself for the time I wasted reading it.  I wanted to read it because Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, and TGN is considered a seminal work.Ugh.  First of all, I knew it was a bad sign when I found myself dreading it.  I discovered that I would rather do anything than read it:  laundry, clean the litter, fold clothes (!), anything.  My copy was 666 pages, fitting, I thought once I finished it.  I ended up being the only person in book club who finished it.  No one else completed more than 100-200 pages of it.  Yes, pin a rose on my nose.  I have a hard time not finishing a book once I’ve started it.  

TGN is set in the 50s in London and is the story of Anna Wulf, a writer, single mother and former Communist.  She wrote one best-selling novel about her experiences in Africa during WW2 and hasn’t written anything since.  She doesn’t need to work because she is living off the royalties from her book, for which she feels guilty.  She and her friend Molly are “free women”, meaning they aren’t married and do what they want which seems to be having lots of affairs with (often married) men.  However, Anna is a romantic and wants to find love.  The structure of the book is very confusing.  Part of the book deals with Anna’s reality and her interactions with Molly, Molly’s ex-husband Richard, Richard’s wife Marion and Molly’s son Tommy.  The majority of the book is excerpts from the four journals Anna keeps.  One journal recounts her time in Africa; another journal contains clippings from newspapers; another journal is her diary; and a final journal has her ideas for stories.  Very confusing.

Throughout the novel, Anna struggles with her identities as a mother, a woman, a Communist and an artist.  I believe she has a breakdown at the end of novel that brings her some sort of clarity, but since I lacked clarity as I read the book, I wasn’t sure what was going on.  What was especially confusing is that at the end of the book it is revealed that Anna has an idea for a new book, the first sentence of which is the first sentence of the novel.  What does that mean?  Was the entire novel Anna’s new book?  Or does that explain why there were contradictions in some of the parts set in “reality”?  For example, in one section, Tommy tells Anna about a friend of his who worked in a coal mine for 2 years and dated a sociologist, but in another section, it is Tommy who does those things.  

It was a frustrating book.  I could tell that Lessing was doing a lot and was trying to impart many important points, but I didn’t get it.  I also wonder if the book has stood the test of time.  I am sure it seemed quite revolutionary and shocking in 1962 when it was published, but it seemed much less so now.  It’s also hard to identify with the socialist/Communist leanings so prevalent at the time. I think it would have been a better book if it’s structure had been less confusing.

Oh well.  At least I can say I read it

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