When I bought The Golden Notebook in Sheffield last January, it was an unlikely choice. I somehow hadn’t thought about a specific book I might want to buy while in the UK, so I picked it up on a whim. I felt like buying a classic, and I also remembered that my Mum has a few books by Doris Lessing on her bookshelf, so The Golden Notebook intrigued me. I then proceeded to be put off by its heftiness for several months (my edition has 576 pages).
When I finally mustered the courage to attack this huge and very complex novel, I was at first pleasantly surprised. During the first 150 pages, I learned more about wartime and post-World War II Britain and its colonies than in all my years of living in the UK. It’s an excellent portrait of British society during that time, and especially of the more progressive parts of society, of which Lessing herself formed part. The Golden Notebook is quite autographical, and noticeably so.
As I said, the book is rather complex: it consists of a framework novel entitled Free Women, which could in theory be a standalone. Free Women tells the story of Anna and Molly, two single, left-wing women in 1950s and 60s London. But intercalated between the sections of Free Women, the reader finds Anna’s notebooks. There are four of them, and in each one she attempts to compartmentalise one part of her life to maintain her structure and sanity. The red notebook thus contains her political development, the blue one records her daily life, the black one her literary life, and the yellow one her emotional life.
You may be able to tell from this obsessive compartmentalisation that Anna is not very well. She is continuously sliding towards mental breakdown, not aided by the fact that she is surrounded by other people who aren’t very well either. Molly’s son tries to kill himself, the wife of Molly’s ex-husband – who, incidentally, is also Anna’s ex-lover – is a sentimental alcoholic, and so on. The continuous switching of notebooks and the drift towards insanity makes The Golden Notebook difficult to read at times. Especially the final part, just before Anna decides to unite her four notebooks in one – the Golden Notebook that gives the novel its name – delved a bit too deep into a very disturbed mind for my liking. Maybe you need to be slightly off your rocker yourself to really get into the flow (I’m not saying I’m sane, just crazy in a different way 😉 ).
Doris Lessing also really made me hate men for parts of the book. She lays out their neuroses and condescending habits towards women in such an incisive way that, at least for a woman, I don’t think it can be otherwise. What’s worse is that 50 years on, you can still spot remnants of the way some men take women for granted that Lessing so aptly described in 1962 (but that’s just a side note). The edition I bought (Harper Perennial) includes an interview with the author at the end, and a short text about the novel by herself. Interestingly, she didn’t mean to write The Golden Notebook as a feminist novel. But given the radicalness of its content for its time, I was quite surprised she apparently didn’t see that it would be read this way.
Of course, the novel is also interesting in political terms (which, it seems, was its main intention) – although of course the political and social situation Lessing aimed to portray are intricately linked with the political situation of the time. As I said, I learned a whole lot, from life and the colour bar in the British Colonies to the rise and fall of British communism and its struggle to accept (or, in many cases, deny) the atrocities going on in the Soviet Union at the time.
Undeniably, The Golden Notebook is a highly instructive classic that still bears meaning nowadays. For us younger generations, it also includes a vivid history lesson. Personally, I didn’t enjoy the psychological intricacies of the novel too much, but they do bring home one of the main points Lessing wanted to make: caged by society and belittled by their husbands or men in general, many women of her generation were slowly losing it behind closed doors. And even those who were supposedly living a ‘free’ life were constantly being exposed and submitted to such strong pressures it was difficult to stay sane.
German Title: Das goldene Notizbuch
Spanish Title: El cuaderno dorado