Book #54: The Golden Notebook
Call me cynical, but when I hear the term “experimental novel” I just assume that the author got bored and wanted to do something different.
Really, it’s probably just a different way of interpreting what we call the traditional novel. And one of the ways an author can do that is through structure.
Pale Fire, which I reviewed last month, is a novel that fits that bill. And, two novels later, completely out of coincidence, The Golden Notebook is another one.
The novel focuses on Anna Wulf, author of a famous novel who, after suffering from writer’s block, decides to record her thoughts, reactions to events and news stories, and all sorts of interesting stuff, into four colored notebooks.
The red notebook tells about her experiences as a communist and, eventually, ex-communist in England. The black notebook covers Anna’s time in Africa—experiences that were the basis for her best-selling novel. The yellow notebook is Anna’s ongoing work-in-progress, essentially a sad romance in which she has an affair with a married man and gets rejected in the end. Then there’s the blue notebook, which covers a little bit of everything—Anna’s dreams, memories, news events, and so on.
The book culminates with The Golden Notebook, which is Anna’s attempt to fit all these journals into one short story. I’m not sure if it works, but that’s what she sets out to do.
This book is all about its structure, and its structure is unique. So it’s easy to get lost in the different stories and the stops and starts that Doris Lessing throws at you.
What you’re left with is a good example of how an author might go about writing a novel. A novel about writing a novel? Yep, that sounds about right. So postmodern.
Don’t misunderstand. The Golden Notebook isn’t a bunch of bland tips on how to write a novel or how to develop characters and set a scene. But if you were to pick up an author’s work in progress—including everything that inspired her to write the novel—what you see might be something similar to The Golden Notebook.
If I could sum up the novel in one sentence, I would say it’s about ex-communist women having affairs with married men. That’s your plot right there.
One passage late in the novel pretty much sums up the way I see the entire book:
“Don’t you think it’s extraordinary that we are both people whose personalities, whatever that word may mean, are large enough to include all sorts of things, politics and literature and art, but now that we’re mad everything concentrates down to one small thing, that I don’t want you to go off and sleep with someone else, and that you must lie to me about it?”
Obviously, with the unique structure, this isn’t a linear novel. Like the structure, the thematic focus also jumps from topic to topic—Lessing talks about communism, feminism, socialism and all kinds of other –isms. So, yeah, it’s a bit heavy.
In the end, the novel basically chronicles Anna Wulf’s decline from best-selling author into a lonely “hermitish” woman who hardly ever leaves her London flat. It’s her process of “cracking up,” as she would call it.
So, did I enjoy the novel?
Yes, I did. Oh, but no I didn’t either. I liked the novel more than I anticipated, just based on my perception of it before starting.
But eventually, the “inner dialogue”—Anna’s rambling thoughts and emotions—got to be a little too much toward the end. The first 500 pages or so, I thought, were pretty well done. The last 100ish, not so much. The novel gets repetitive at that point.
I particularly enjoyed Anna’s summary of the experiences that formed her best-selling novel—told in the black notebook. Though she seems almost ashamed of the novel, calling it “nostalgic” and “sentimental”—those experiences played a huge role in shaping who she is—and who she is not.
Who is she? A progressive. A feminist. A “free-thinker.”
The problem with Anna Wulf, though, is in her desire to be known for standing for so many causes, she loses sight of her own identity. She becomes a feminist who finds her identity in her relationships with other men.
“For with my intuition I knew that this man was repeating a pattern over and over again: courting a woman with his intelligence and sympathy, claiming her emotionally; then, when she began to claim in return, running away. And the better a woman was, the sooner he would begin to run. I knew this with my intuition, and yet I sat there in my dark room, looking at the hazed wet brilliance of the purple London night sky, longing with my whole being.”
The Golden Notebook, to me, felt about 100 pages too long. I’ve read longer novels that didn’t feel as lengthy as this one. The reoccurring them of communist woman meets married man, talks politics with married man, has affair, feels guilty, continues having affair, feels guilty, hates married man, loves married man, continues having affair—all that just became too much.
On my most optimistic of days, I’d probably put The Golden Notebook somewhere in the middle of my highly subjective and totally meaningless rankings. But, realistically, it will be somewhere in the bottom-third.
It’s a 600-page book that, for the most part, kept my attention. But, at the end, I was just left wondering, “Meh. What did I just do with all that time?”
The Opening Line: “The point is,” said Anna, as her friend came back from the telephone on the landing, “the point is, that as far as I can see, everything’s cracking up.”
The Meaning: Trying to pinpoint the “meaning” of this novel is difficult, but I’ll say it’s about a woman who, in standing for so many “causes” and so many political beliefs, loses sight of her own identity. In an ironic twist, Anna Wulf is a feminist who ultimately finds her identity in being loved by men.
Highlights: The structure works, though it’s different. Doris Lessing is my new hero, and I just love her style of writing. Though Lessing has a background in communism and the novel has communist tones, I never felt like she was hitting me over the head with those views.
Lowlights: The last quarter of the novel gets repetitive. I know Anna is depressed. I know she’s going crazy, and I’m shown that over and over and over again. Outside of Anna, there’s little character development, but she is clearly the focus of the novel.
Memorable Line: “Art is the mirror of our betrayed ideals.”
Final Thoughts: I’ll remember The Golden Notebook more for introducing me to Doris Lessing than for the novel itself. It’s a long 600+ page novel, and it feels that long. I’m glad to have said I’ve read this novel, but I won’t be reading it again.