Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook

Resting Here:

OK―I must admit that if The Golden Notebook had randomly dropped off the bookshelves and bumped me on my unsuspecting bookstore-browsing head, I probably would not have purchased it. I might have picked the book up. I might have caressed its front cover. I might have read the back cover with great interest and even excitement. I might have plopped myself down on the bookstore’s carpeted floor and pored over the first chapter to see if the writing would pull me in. But, pages into it, I would have realized that―despite its socialist bend and “classic feminist text” hype―this novel is about a woman who obsessively complains about the men she refuses to live without. And I would have put the sucker down. I would have purchased something by Octavia Butler or Toni Morrison or another Doris Lessing novel instead.  Because as both a feminist and a reader, I don’t find stories that claim a war between the sexes relevant or useful. I cringe when a writer insists that men are idiotic, innately cruel and hopelessly so. I want to read about politics, humanity and love, yes. I want to read stories that show me how the hyper-capitalist patriarchal system makes it hard for all people―whether they have penises or vaginas or both―to be full human beings and true lovers. I want to read stories that inspire men and women to triumph over the real-life systems that break and fail our hearts. I want to read stories that offer affirmation or balm.

Maybe this is because I am not yet 30 years old? Or because I am a hopeless romantic? Or because I’ve been seeing and enjoying too many signs that read “Yes We Can” and “Hope.”

Nevertheless, I found The Golden Notebook to be both dated and―dare I suggest?―abusive. Somewhere in the middle of the text, I started joking to friends that “You almost couldn’t pay me to read this thing.” I disliked having to pick it up everyday. And as I diligently plowed through page after page of the central character’s pessimism, homophobia, gender self-loathing , muted racism and madness, I felt like I was being sucked into a vortex of nihilistic despair. I find it telling that although I am not white or straight or rich, weeks after reading the book, I have been renting a series of cheesy, optimistic romantic comedies about white, straight and rich people just to balance some of the bummer images the novel pushed into my psyche.

What can I say? I need to believe in love. I need to believe that love is possible between people despite their differences. I need to believe that men and women, rich folks and poor folks, the straight and the queer(ed), the mainstream and the marginalized have that mysterious, wonderful love thing in common. We are so well-rehearsed in anger, hate and spitting debate. I am going to fight for love in life and in literature.

The Golden Notebook pushed my race-class-gender-sexuality-wanna-be-Buddhist-Third-Wave-feminist buttons. I would not call this book feminist. And, frankly, Lessing herself wouldn’t call this book feminist. Feminism is not about women complaining about the men they refuse to live without. I am a feminist because I care about gender, question power and work for equality. I hold concern for women’s bodies and all bodies that are “othered.” Do we feel safe in our bodies? Are people denying or disrespecting us because of the labels they tag onto our bodies? Are we healthy? Have we eaten? Do we have shelter? Are we sexually satisfied? Do we feel that our bodies reflect who we are on the inside? These are my feminist concerns. I think about how systematic racism and classism collaborate with and even depend on gender oppression. I think about how patriarchy undermines the complex humanity of my little brothers and father and former step-father and grandfather who feel great shame when they cry. I want to read stories about men who weep in the face of injustice, as loudly as the women have been allowed to weep. I am interested in new models of masculinity because the stiff, warring, W. Bush, invincible, Marlboro Man act bores me. I want to love all the characters in a book, regardless of their sex or gender, and to see myself in them. I so struggled to identify with Lessing’s portrait of Anna. And I struggled to identify what attracted Anna to all the men she couldn’t stop pining after, resenting and serving. I worry that people will read this book and think, “This is what women think of men.” Anna is not every woman.

I am lucky to have more options than Anna had. I am grateful to the brave women who came before me, who worked with other women and alongside men against various forms oppression . I am grateful to those who continue to work for social change.

The Golden Notebook often made activism seem so futile…

But as painful as it was for me to read my physical copy of this very thick, very sad, very violent book, I had a good time logging in and sharing my thoughts, reading fellow readers thoughts and responding to each other. I think of the seven featured readers as a team. We didn’t have a uniform or a united goal. There was no opponent or scorekeeper. But we were a kind of team, yes? We all met in person―once―before the project went live which helped me to become curious about the members of our circle. I couldn’t have participated without that initial face-to-face meeting. I might have participated more if we had met more than once.

I explained this to someone recently: I love this project but I prefer live group discussions for their casual, unedited and unapologetic spontaneity. In person, a participant’s meaning is reinforced by gesture, intonation, ellipses and eye-contact. As a theatre artist, I find this invaluable. When I can see who I’m talking to, I feel freer to process things aloud, to ebb and flow between eloquence and incoherence, to go off on tangents, to joke and to riff. I also find that live listeners are more forgiving than online readers. The web-world seems a bit more impatient and judgmental. I think it’s because we often use the internet to garner and share information. Online readers demand brevity and accuracy. Even social networking sites have a summarizing efficiency. When I contributed to The Golden Notebook Project, I often felt a self-imposed pressure to be precise, clean and clear. I felt this, in part, because I knew there was a wider audience
tuning in. For me―against our best efforts―communicating with each other online always felt formal. It would have been different (more intimate? less formal?) if the seven of us had sat by a fire three times a week to hash out our thoughts. As of now, I’m still not convinced that a conversation about a book is possible online. A discussion? Yes. A conversation? Not yet.

I think The Golden Notebook Project works because the novel is something a diverse group of readers can still get riled up about. First published in 1962, Lessing’s text flaunts controversial ideas about gender roles, sexuality, class and activism. Her main character Anna is consistently maddening―always making a grotesque or grandiose statement that I just had to log in to kvetch about. I was always curious to see if other readers felt my sadness, sympathy, confusion and outrage. I think the “curiosity to see” is the key.

I often read, considered and sometimes referenced forum comments but I didn’t contribute to the forums as much as I hoped to. This time, it was too much for me to fully engage with the potential thousands of faceless wonderful people visiting the site. Next time, it might be easier. Unless they are in a course that requires the text or are in a book group that requires me to log in to TGNP, I’m not sure how much fun it is for forum participants to read what seven random women writers have to say about this book. It might have been more interesting if there were podcasts  available or if both featured and forum readers had the option to video blog.

I think there should be a Round Two. I think it would be interesting to have the seven of us come together again to read whatever the opposite of The Golden Notebook would be. But I’m not yet sure what I mean by “opposite.”

In the meantime, I’m going to go re-read one of my favorite stories: The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing.

Author avatar

Lenelle Moïse
on February 16th, 2009 at 9:26 am

One Comment

  1. Naomi Alderman February 17th, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    Oh Lenelle, you’ve said a lot of things I wanted to say, but so much better than I could say them. It is the absence of love in the novel that I found so hard. Not Hollywood-style fantasy romantic love but the simple affection and kindness that surely is the root of human beings’ ability to live together. It’s funny, because Lessing comes over as such a ‘realistic’ novelist in her intense observation of fleeting emotions but she somehow leaves out affection.

    As for an encore… now you’ve got me trying to imagine the opposite of the Golden Notebook. How about the Bible! (Or selections thereof.) Or a group of men reading Iron John? Or, for thematic opposition, The Taming of the Shrew, or Middlesex?