The 100 best novels: No 81 – The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (1962)
Hailed as one of the key texts of the women’s movement of the 1960s, this study of a divorced single mother’s search for personal and political identity remains a defiant, ambitious tour de force
Monday 6 April 2015 05.44 BST
verything’s cracking up”, says Anna, the protagonist of Lessing’s masterpiece, a novel that takes its place in this list for its odd, visionary engagement with the issues and anxieties of its time and also for its extraordinary grip on the literary imagination of the late 20th century, when Lessing (who lived to November 2013) was in her prime.
The Oxford Companion to English Literature describes this novel as “one of the key texts of the women’s movement of the 1960s”, a reductive description that would have infuriated Lessing, partly because she hated to be pigeonholed, and also because she understood fiction to be infinitely more varied and complex than one “movement”. Lessing’s work has always been difficult to define: a mix of classical realism, science-fiction, parable, memoir, fantasy and polemic. The Golden Notebook has many of these elements.
Anna Wulf is a divorced single mother, and a novelist afflicted with writer’s block, who keeps four notebooks – black, red, yellow, and blue – in which she explores her literary/childhood, political, emotional, and everyday/psychological lives. She does this, says Lessing, “to separate things off from each other, out of fear of chaos, of formlessness – of breakdown”.
This is a novel that hovers compellingly on the edge of madness, exploring the idea that a writer who fashions a unified narrative somehow betrays the truth of existence. In the closing part of the blue notebook describing her emotional life, Anna falls in love with her American lodger, Saul Green, a cathartic crisis that will finally release her from writer’s block. Now she resolves, in her own words to “put all of myself into one book”.
This becomes The Golden Notebook, the one coherent volume that will liberate Anna and her lover, and hold the key to her recovery. This theme of “breakdown” or “crack up” and psychic “self-healing” is Lessing’s declared “central theme”. Her novel, she insisted, was never intended to be “a useful weapon in the sex war”.
The Golden Notebook is about one woman’s search for personal and political identity, told in several voices. A tour de force of multiple narratives, it is not exactly a masterpiece of English style, but a great fictional rooming-house with many inhabitants, heartbreaks and arguments – a defiant and ambitious work that remade many readers’ idea of fiction and its uses.
A Note on the Text
In June 1971, Doris Lessing wrote a fascinating preface to a new edition of The Golden Notebook in which she did something typically contrarian, and something most novelists don’t like ever to do: she explained herself. “The shape of this novel is as follows,” she wrote. “There is a skeleton, or frame, called Free Women, which is a conventional short novel, about 60,000 words, and which could stand by itself. But it is divided into five sections and separated by stages of the four notebooks, black, red, yellow and blue. The notebooks are kept by Anna Wulf, a central character of Free Women…”
Lessing continues: “I was so immersed in writing this book that I didn’t think about how it might be received… The actual time of writing, then, and not only the experiences that had gone into the writing, was really traumatic: it changed me… My major aim was to shape a book which would make its own comment, a wordless statement: to talk through the way it was shaped. As I have said, this was not noticed. One reason for this is that the book is more in the European tradition than in the English tradition of the novel. Or rather, in the English tradition as viewed at the moment. The English novel after all does includeClarissa and Tristram Shandy – and Joseph Conrad. But there is no doubt that to attempt a novel of ideas is to give oneself a handicap: the parochialism of our culture is intense… Finally, this novel continues to be, for its author, a most instructive experience.”
Lessing also devoted a substantial part of this preface to repudiating any association with the feminist movement. She never saw herself as anything but a writer who worked in many genres, for herself alone. As she expressed it to theNew York Times in July, 1982: “What the feminists want of me is something they haven’t examined because it comes from religion. They want me to bear witness. What they would really like me to say is, ‘Ha, sisters, I stand with you side by side in your struggle toward the golden dawn where all those beastly men are no more.’ Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women? In fact, they do. I’ve come with great regret to this conclusion.”
The Golden Notebook probably explains why, in 2007, Lessing was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. In its prize citation, the Swedish academy described her as “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”. Less grandiose, it’s also worth noting that Doris Lessing was the 11th woman and the oldest person ever to receive the Nobel prize for literature.
Three more from Doris Lessing
The Grass is Singing (1950); Memoirs of a Survivor (1974); The Good Terrorist (1985).
THE 100 BEST NOVEL WRITTEN IN ENGLISH
023 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884/5)
024 Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
025 Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome (1889)
026 The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle (1890)
027 The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891)
032 Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)
076 On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)
077 Voss by Patrick White (1957)
078 To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
080 Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
081 The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (1962)
082 A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)
083 A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964)
085 The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1966) KISS