Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Golden Notebook

A few weeks ago I finally finished the novel I'd been slowly moving through for months, Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook.  The novel follows Anna Wulf, a one-time best-selling novelist, semi-committed communist, divorcee, and single mother living in London in the 1950s.  In an attempt to prevent herself from slipping into mental and emotional chaos, she divides her writing into 5 different journals: a black notebook for her creative life, a red book for her political life (get it?  Red!  She's a communist!), a yellow book for her emotional life, a blue book for her day to day life, and eventually a redemptive golden notebook (hey, that's the title of the book!)  Through Anna's eyes we see the fall of the communist ideology in the West during Stalin's reign, and the moral ambiguity that formerly ideological socialists undergo when they realise that the implementation of communism does not match their idealism.  We also witness a time of slow change for the marital state and women's position in society.

The novel is 576 pages of tiny print, and with no dominant plot-line, it moves very slowly.  Not a book for literary lightweights.  The narrative is meandering and incredibly dense, which might not sound like a good thing, but fortunately the narrative is delightfully meandering and dense.  Initially, I found my attention wandering to other books as I questioned the relevance of the novel, and was slightly put off by the choppy format.  What eventually hooked me in was Lessing's detailed, complex, and vivid character sketches.  Let's be honest, wonderful and compelling characters are very common in children's literature, but become rarities in adult literature.  Lessing broke through my lack of expectations with beautifully drawn secondary characters, but most importantly with the complicated, shrewd, and intensely relatable, Anna Wulf.  Anna's wit, intelligence, and insight lead you through the novel when the narrative slows down.  A million little clever insights run through Anna's narrative and make it impossible to breeze through the lengthy novel; each one deserves focus and thought.

This book is a writer's book.  The format is comprised of five different journals and a short novella, chopped up and alternated throughout the text, making the novel a narratological academic's dream.  The book is as much about writing as it is about psychology, feminism, and political commitment.  It's the kind of book that makes you want to put pen to paper.

The Golden Notebook is very much of it's time: we watch the reaction in the communist party to Stalin's death, and pity Anna and her single friend for being branded loose women simply because they are not married (they are a bit loose, but that's not the point). But there is plenty in the novel modern readers will find relatable, from Anna's struggle to commit to a political cause and her weary attempts to balance political idealism and realism, to her attempt to distance her own self-perception from the misogynist, Madonna/whore perceptions of her held by the men she sleeps with. 

The only real part of the novel I felt distanced from was the ending, involving a disturbing sexual partner and Anna's further descent into madness.  I felt less connected to Anna in this section; as she loses herself in her partner, she lost a bit of her relatability.

However, there are not many 576-page long novels that you don't want to end.  I spent a long time meandering in Anna's mind, and I would have happily meandered longer.

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