Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook

Harriet Rubin

Harriet Rubin is best known as the author of The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women, a little bullet of a book on power that is now in its twelfth paperback printing. The book has been published in 27 languages and has been a bestseller in several of them. Rubin currently writes for The NY Times and other publications. She was the founder and publisher of Currency Books/Doubleday, which changed the science and soul of economic thinking. In late Fall 2008, she is launching an on-line publishing program devoted to business, power and leadership.

Recent comments by Harriet Rubin:

On the blog  February 9th, 2009
Laura, you've said more clearly what I meant: that Brutalman's appearance brought the conversation to life; his disappearance exposed the narrowness of the on-line forum. I don't think that this TGN experiment has begun to explore the possibilities of an online book group. If friendship and intimacy do not link the participants, then perhaps they should be fellow seekers reading a book to understand some current issue, like Gibbons' Decline and Fall for a literary parsing of shifting hegemonies. And market the event; really plan it and alert schools. Give talks; go on the road; write a piece in Salon...get thinkers and policy makers involved. It would be nice to have a book that was of its time but also more than a period piece. I often felt TGN, for all its genius, did not adequately reward the diligence of reading.

On the blog  February 5th, 2009
I enjoyed this experience of reading in public for a great while and learned a lot from the other readers. But around the time Brutal Man stuck his nose under the tent, the experience became suffocating. Something about that real-world intrusion made the whole effort of reading this book online seem small and artificial. I can't be more revealing than that right now but I will think about this and post a more considered critique of the experience and the process. What might be better: to fashion a course based on a next book in which readers do more than react to random passages, and in which a small group of readers is present online periodically and simultaneously in a real-time conversation directing their comments to specific themes.

Page 410  December 30th, 2008
I wish I could make my point better, because I think it is essential for women writers to appreciate how marginalized if not ghettoized they are now. Masculine categories of thought and attention predominate, and they are not limited to gender. So women in publishing, and in other arenas, promote male authors and rational voices. Politics outsells poetry, history fills the shelves over analyses of the American or global soul, when in fact spiritual matters have more consequences upon how we live. Does the attention to war and sport increase the incidences of war and the fortunes made by the NFL, etc? Moreover, there are very few editors who would publish a Dworkin or Lessing today: female writers who happen to take on feminist issues. Without a market for tough, female voices, women today are writing like men, articulating male concerns in male literary and publishing forms, not for experimental reasons but for royalties and power. I rarely see women's bylines in the major media. I think a lot goes unreported because of this absence.

Page 410  December 29th, 2008
Laura, I wish we "sex positive" women would think more about the meaning of subjugation. Andrea Dworkin not only thought about it; she lived her recognition of what the hetero/male world demands of women: she abdicated from it. She was Sumo sized, dressed like the farmer in the dell, and never used a tweezer. She was confrontative and loud--She turned herself into a poster freak for an argument against a male world where a woman has to lie about everything in order to succeed...or perhaps survive. The hetero world has gotten only more colonizing since Dworkin's first book. The evidence: how many voices like Lessing's and Dworkin's are there now? One of the most pointed "messages" in TGN is that masochism is not just a symptom but is essential to female survival. How can it be otherwise than that we eat our young. The male world demands male ideas, voices, and designs. I suspect that Lessing, after the nihilistic work of TGN, decided to remove herself from the domineeringly male media/publishing world and plunge into science fiction, a publishing category that evades critics paid by male editors, that befuddles publishing conglomerates run by male beancounters, and that defies expectations of a male careerist, ladder driven world.

Page 410  December 26th, 2008
Writing requires determination, yes. But I also remember that in writing my first book, there was a moment when the material or something took over and began writing itself. I could feel the absence of my will and to the extent it vanished, the other voice took over. I remember it as quite a practice, to be so humbled in an act of ego, which is what writing is.

Page 422  December 24th, 2008
And to be presumptuously forensic, who but the author of at least two personal books--on mom and shrink--could authentically claim that Sigal had NOT written a memoir. Who but the author would know how much was, in these books, fictionalized or omitted. Until you identified the real-life Saul, Laura, I thought that Lessing was crafting Anna's ultimate counterpart, her heroine's male'est version: an Anna who was childless, American, who could slip in and out of relationships and truths and lies at will, and who was unbound by a female morality. Now, I'm persuaded by the opposite possibility: Maybe these journals and TGN are ripped from her life. If you read Clancy Sigal's report on being a patient of RD Laing's, you find the same shifts from adventurousness and acceptance to anxiety and distrust that characterize Saul, and via your explication, Brutalman.

Page 410  December 24th, 2008
Do you think masochism is "a female tendency" and not a human taste? Sorry to keep referring to the book of my own life, but the Saul Greens of my world have had a deep substrate of passivity and desire for punishment lurking in the swagger. A dungeon-madame in Silicon Valley whom I once met claimed to have a flourishing business in whipping CEOs. Still, your comment about masochism cuts deep. Anna is such an extreme case of it. I wonder if masochism is less a complication now for women who can choose experiences without the mediation of men. And from a different point of view: A writer's task is to suspend the will, to write what happens, to be swept up by destiny. Isn't this partially what Anna is *choosing*? Isn't this the cost of being a writer, to suspend the will?

Page 410  December 23rd, 2008
I am tempted to disagree, Naomi. I think the best work Lessing wrote is the first volume of her autobiography, in which, as I recall, these churls do not appear. Just think of how much more productive and perhaps even effectively political a writer could be without the distractions and demands of the Sauls of the world.

Page 422  December 23rd, 2008
A quick search reveals not just one Sigal memoir, but two: one about his childhood and his union organizer mother, and the other about being a patient of R.D.Laing's. Sigal also wrote the script for Frida, if you want to talk about a man who knows his "brutal sexual inspection" number, the Diego Rivera character is another brutalman. If this is Sigal weighing in, it's fun to hear his tough, direct tone in the midst of our intellectualization of TGN. A sort of in your face difference either of men's voices and women's, or of the presence of powerful men from an earlier time versus men now. The big shouldered guys who were "my" Clancy Sigals--my assessors-- were money guys and CEOs whose personas would easily crumble. Brutalman sounds much more fibrous and insightful.

Page 407  December 22nd, 2008
In these pages Lessing overuses the words "meanwhile" and "then" to insist that time sometimes runs in what appears to be a conventional sequence. For Lessing, using these words seems like a pastiche, seems to suggest that these events in which one thing appears to follow another are the way to have a very boring life, as Harry Matthews has.

Page 410  December 22nd, 2008
Fascinating how Lessing outlines Anna's experiences first as a writer, and then in the few dozen pages that follow we get the conventional explanatory narrative of how Anna met Saul. This technique should suggest that Anna has distanced herself from the catastrophe of this affair with Saul. A less bold storyteller than Lessing would have given us the facts first, then the story ideas. But instead of distancing us, this technique brings us closer to the doomful affair of Anna and Saul. Lessing is playing with time and sequence in ways that are so unconventional. This time-warped form reminds me of how Anna has no will to change what happens to her. Things are decided for her. They are "written" for her. The short stories are the universal stories women live out; our lives are merely versions of this Master Plot or Cliff's Notes of a Woman's Life. It's becoming popular in current bestsellers like Black Swan and Outliers to suggest that human will accounts for nothing. TGN is a brilliant study in how other forces move us. In that way, TGN is an echo of Tolstoy and his view of history.

Page 383  December 22nd, 2008
Fascinating, Laura. Those were the good old days, when women could shriek and go berserk. See what therapy has done? Tamed us. Anna keeps mentioning that film producers court her. Was there ever a movie of TGN? Bob Stein: here's a project for you. Films of the great lost books starting with TGN.

Page 383  December 21st, 2008
Nelson and his wife remind me of George and Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," the first evocation I can recall of a couple yoked together by anger and batt;e, rather than by any semblance of romantic or plain old dutiful love. The title is a joke based on"who's afraid of the big bad wolf." It's interesting that the play was first produced in 1962, the same year as the original publication of TGN.I wonder if the institution of marriage was showing the first signs of disintegrating, the winds of the sexual revolution starting to be felt by "first responders" like playwright Edward Albee and Lessing. The way Lessing saw marriage--as a sham and a fraud--is sort of the way we are seeing all kinds of institutions, like banks, government, even the American empire. "Hope" says Obama. Well, there is so little hope when you really start to look at how much air or illusion everything is based upon.

Page 449  December 19th, 2008
TGN has, so far, been an indictment of everything: sex, love, relationships, writing, psychotherapy, home decorating, thinking and acting, the will and passivity. Has Lessing left anything out of things to be scrutinized and found wanting? The book's theme may be that we are overwrought in ascribing meaning, in making categories. in intellectualizing and in not intellectualizing. It may be offering a pean to nihilism, Lessing's version of Fathers and Sons.

Page 376  December 18th, 2008
Paul, Michael, Nelson, Saul...I can't figure why Anna doesn't recognize men are not gifts bearing love. She searches for love but finds nothing but horror. The Nelson episode rings dismally true to me. The afterburn for me of reading these pages is that I want to go swear off men once and for all. I wonder why, after reading TGN more than two decades ago, I married twice more. Anna is like a character in an epic, driven by destiny to experience every flavor of "real man" and find they all offer the same shallow and poisonous taste. Perhaps if women took literature more seriously, they would save themselves (we would save ourselves) for our work or for something of greater benefit to the world than relationships can provide.

Page 376  December 16th, 2008
"people do use false certainties to hold together worlds they feel to be unstable." Laura, are there certainties that are not false? "Real men" seems to me a neat oyxmoron. Men are our creations, too--fantasies of our limits--and we have become their creations, their fantasies, their disappointments. Lessing is constantly playing with projections and introjections of the genders and suggesting that, like her characters, we can never really know any truths. Having spent years in business working with captains of the universe, I've come to see men as Anna and Ella describe them: brutal and weak, predatory and dependent on women's ideas and generosity, and typically on the verge of wanting to destroy women, just flat out wiping the earth clean of them. These "real men" are pretty unreal, especially to themselves. They haven't a clue about what's going on in them or between them and women. Gender is both a special kind of blindness and light.

Page 370  December 11th, 2008
"Words mean nothing." Interesting, Laura, about the frequency of "form," formlessness and orgasms. Orgasms are the great moments of shattered form, timelessness and unity. But what are we to make of Anna's statement that "words mean nothing"--another theme in this novel? Anna continually despairs over words' ineffectiveness in capturing truths. Are we to take Anna at her word, even if words means nothing? I once had a Jungian therapist tell me he was not listening to my words but to the formlessness leaking through my stories and to the energy in my presence--quite a comedown when I thought my narrative was so perceptive. There is a technique in family medicine called Balint in which doctors listen not to patients narrate symptoms--patients always lie--but listen for metaphors and pay attention to their own reaction to the patients--and base their diagnoses on these techniques of downplaying the intentional meaning. I mention this because I wonder if there a way to read this novel that allows us to do two almost contradictory things: accept that words mean nothing and yet mean something?

Page 319  December 10th, 2008
Yes, misogyny happens, even and especially among women. The Washington Post journalist who upbraided Hillary Clinton for showing three centimeters of cleavage during the recent political campaign was a woman. But to me, what Lessing captures so frighteningly well here is how a few trivial and cliched comments like Ronnie's and Ivor's unnerve Anna so thoroughly that she feels doomed and acts vindictively, telling Ivor that Ronnie has to leave. Why can't Anna draw on some of her artfulness as a writer and tell herself a different story about these men's childishness and spare them? I think you have to look to the writings of saints (even secular saints) to find people who don't pass along slights and worse forms of violence. I think of Simone Weil who tried to let the blows stop with her, but she couldn't survive not passing on the horrors she saw and felt.

Page 296  December 9th, 2008
Tommy is a fascinating figure. He's a conscience figure, first poking at the lies and delusions that Anna, Molly, and Richard live for. But now that he's lost his sight, his presence alone is speaking, the wound speaks, Sphinx like. I wonder if what Lessing is describing through Tommy's "fate" is what happens when one makes a crusade of one's wounds. Isn't the CP also a stigmata; it's treated as such in these pages. Tommy now is his blindness, as Anna is her vulnerability. Art is pain, Lessing tells us. And isn't pain a kind of auto erotica? Public women are so different now, so much less identified with their disabilities, and so warrior like. I heard a bit of gossip the other day. Apparently when Judith Regan, the famous former book publisher, would call her boss Jane Friedman, Jane's secretary would always ask, "Who is calling," an unforgivably stupid kind of preening. And then to one-up the secretary and Jane, Judith would say, "It's the King." Then they both went about destroying each other, something strong women are able to do with increasing competence. But this is the most unusual thing about Lessing's characters: they become their sorrows.

Page 280  December 9th, 2008
"And so on and so on; and I think how terrible this talk is, and how dishonest, sitting in safe, comfortable, prosperous London, with our lives and freedom in no danger at all. And something happens I get more and more afraid of — words lose their meaning. I can hear Jack and me talking — it seems the words come out from inside me, from some anonymous place — but they don’t mean anything. I keep seeing, before my eyes, pictures of what we are talking about — scenes of death, torture, cross-examination and so on; and the words we are using have nothing to do with what I am seeing." How sharp and brave of Lessing to describe her relationship to words evoking almost the same pathology as she experiences with men. Words leave her; words are always abandoning their meaning just when she clutches at them. What an immense challenge it is to find a language true to women's experience. It is almost impossible to say anything not filtered and predetermined by male voices, ideas, and expectations. What would our stories sound like if we could speak without this filtering?

Page 258  December 7th, 2008
"Ella in charge." "Ella teaching." Ella Geisha! Except she's not even getting paid for pleasuring this guy and listening to his dimwitted tales. I know so many Ellas that to read these pages makes me feel faint. I don't so much care why Ella gives up her time, energy and pleasure for this lout who seems a walk-on from a Philip Roth novel--as much as I wish she could channel her despair into more useful and satisfying activities. I realize I keep reading TGN as if it were Pilgrim's Progress.... but that's how I read it first, years ago, as a primer for how to live. Have things gotten better, as Naomi hopes? The growing numbers of divorces in the US suggests that male sexual inepitude is not on the wane.

Page 246  December 3rd, 2008
Naomi, yes, Lessing appears to put her trust in small differences and in the occasional revolutionary upheaval. But she is such a spinning dervish of a narrator, I never know quite where she's facing or what readers are to take as "true" either to her characters or to the author herself. Small changes are extolled by several characters, as you rightly point out, but Lessing is a big, epic narrator, having written TGN and lots of science fiction which is as lofty and removed from small human studies as a writer can get. She's extolling small but working big. So my earlier question--what is the point of a woman's life (or a writer's life)--is not rhetorical. Anna's "what's the point of writing" echoes through my mind. You say "TGN [is] arguing for ... changing one's own life." I don't think I know from this book what might change one's life; the characters so far seem fixed. And I would go further: has TGN changed anyone's life?

Page 246  December 2nd, 2008
"The internal is preferable to the external," Naomi? Isn't Lessing showing us the falsity of most/all dichotomies? The lonely letter writer who becomes Ella and Paul's challenge is beset by rheumatism, and in fact loneliness is calcifying her body. Lessing is parsing all kinds of pleasure--orgasm AND Marxism--and so far all are proving to be shallow. So what is the purpose of a woman's life, according to TGN?

Page 246  December 2nd, 2008
I wonder how I could not have read this passage in my youthful first reading of TGN as a blatant warning, not just against the Pauls and Roberts of this world but also against women's susceptibility to self criticism in the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. And how vulnerable we are to introjecting the criticisms of men into our own identities. Ella, in going on a few pages from now to sleep with the brainless brain surgeon, is spending her life as if it were worth pennies. That is how worthless the men she encounters see women. Ella is Anna in train wreck mode. I hope Lessing steps in and saves her soon.

Page 221  November 28th, 2008
"It seems to me something like this — every so often, perhaps once in a century, there’s a sort of — act of faith. A well of faith fills up, and there’s an enormous heave forward in one country or another, and that’s a forward movement for the whole world." This passage gives me shivers. I thought of Obama and could imagine what Indians felt when Gandhi was finally taken seriously by the world community--especially today, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, when India needs a new figure to provide what Lessing calls "the lurch forward." There always are such figures, and they rely upon us, the people, to believe in them. As Gandhi wrote of his opponents and disbelievers: "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win." Brilliant of Lessing to convey prophecy in the language of history. After a rough start of reading TGN, I find now something revelatory on almost every page.

Page 189  November 26th, 2008
Nona, I'm curious: do you keep a diary? Do diaries still prove useful to fiction writers, or is Anna's ideal form defunct? Times when I have kept a diary, I believe I've been a more careful, perhaps even compassionate reader than in non-diary times. I don't believe blogging is the same as writing a daily in a private notebook. Perhaps when we've finished our blogging about Lessing, we might each try writing a diary.

Page 188  November 25th, 2008
How to write a love story? The Yellow Notebook has taken me by surprise. The aborted relationship between Ella and Paul, Ella's lack of will to control her destiny, Paul's self-knowledge of his flaws--it's all riveting and told, as Lessing says, without sentiment or a wasted word. Lessing does something shocking here: she holds the mirror up to the reader by describing her characters' doomed affair and then by describing what it is to write about a doomed affair. This self scrutiny led me, in my reading, to ask myself: why I am so intrigued by this story of pain and dissolution? There is no hiding from yourself while reading this book. I thought too of that other reader who is shadowing me as I read these pages: what did Obama observe in reading this notebook: If he hadn't already had a vision of how politics may be the only pure love--Lessing calls it "service"--this notebook would have shown him how politics is love writ large through small deeds. Hannah Arendt's phrase applies: "amour mundi," love of the world. We are our best in amour mundi. Good politics redefines family to mean community. Ella and Paul are at their best, I think, when they are unselfconsciously engaged in a form of service, Ella struggling to write helpful letters to sufferers who read her women's magazine, and Paul going to Nigeria to do practical doctoring, even to sacrifice Ella and his wife to his new found cause. It's clear he was capable of loving neither woman, but devoted to a cause, he is capable of loving. Is political engagement the truest love one can offer?

On the blog  November 20th, 2008
WRITE FOR YOURSELF or for the reader? Interesting post, Laura. Lessing appears to have a very unusual relationship to her readers. She can push their tolerances, extend a narrative to punishing extremes of detail, and in so doing test her readers as a marathon course tests a runner, sort of the way Francis Ford Coppola remakes a viewer's sense of time (patience) with a narrative that doesn't quit. This artistic choice seems almost a defiance of the reader which becomes more pronounced in Lessing's esoteric science fiction, which I find tough going. One of the fashionable MFA rules of writing is that to convey formlessness, avoid formlessness. Is Lessing writing for herself or for the characters and not for the reader? I wonder what it's meant for Lessing's development as a writer to write (only?) for herself?

Page 113  November 20th, 2008
This line--Anna's belief that a romp with George could teach her something uncanny--also stopped me in my tracks. It is desperately symptomatic of how lost Anna is at this stage in the novel and her own notebook journey. She also believes there is a better politics, not just a better form of sex. Why do women keep believing that there is a superior knowledge, and that men have it? I once went to one of the great men of my profession, literally sat at his feet while he stood to speak, and he farted in my ear. I think Lessing is being ironic in this statement about George, but Philip Roth's The Dying Animal, is an entire novel built on the "truth" of this statement.

On the blog  November 20th, 2008
Am I the only reader bored by this great work? What is Lessing doing to us? Is she telling us that story doesn't matter, but repetition of events, minute descriptions, and ideas that trail into the ether take us beyond character, into some other state of mind or perception? It's as if she's cauterizing the sense of the reader that expects a grand plot on which to be swept up. It's as if she's trying to create a NEW KIND OF READER. But what kind of reader is that? Who is her ideal reader? What is her intent in not giving us what we expect a novel to deliver? Does anyone know?

Page 63  November 14th, 2008
Naomi, Fascinating post. I wonder if one of the studies Obama made in reading Lessing is how to integrate emotional or sacred story elements with social/political ideas to give each a new authority. Stories are such a big part of the Obama agenda. Dreams From My Father echoes The Aeneid, an epic tale of a young boy going out to finish the country-rebuilding work his dead father prompted him to do. I wonder if Obama studied features of the epic, which seems to me what The Golden Notebook is: a woman's epic. Lessing, in drawing upon so much looseness teaches us a new respect for time in storytelling: to your point of tightness in novels. Maybe that's an unnecessary value for storytelling, even in a sound-bite world. I wonder what advice Lessing would give to Obama about how to tell A Big New Story.

Page 70  November 14th, 2008
But this has been the most perplexing thing about growing up! That no sooner have I adjectivized someone or something than I realize the opposite is true, too. Lessing keeps throwing me back on what language cannot do, which seems to me more now than when I first read her nearly 30 years ago. If we know nothing about anyone, how then do we convince ourselves to write anything?

Page 64  November 13th, 2008
Yes, Laura. We're all Saturn devouring our children. I would take back all my books if I could, just wipe them from existence. I admit there are times in rereading The Golden Notebook that I wish Lessing could take this novel back too. I wish she could revise it now. I'd like to see authors rewrite their canonical texts. Would they reduce them to a phrase?

Page 63  November 13th, 2008
This statement stopped me, too: that the novel is the outpost of journalism. It seems that everything is the outpost now of journalism. People increasingly sound as if they had media training, as if everyone was an aspiring pundit or reporter. But there is something admirable in the kind of writing Lessing has achieved: she is telling a story but trying not to shape a story. Lessing seems to be confiding that she is trying to get beyond style and capture her characters in the moment. It is so hard to do. And yet in writing, style is the great befuddler. To avoid it, to simply see and write without bits of other writers--or our own ego-- running through our brains, that's the challenge. To write simply, to capture the truth and not "story" it up makes for prose that seems, in this book, very loose, even baggy.

Page 5  November 10th, 2008
Jon Meacham noted in last week's NY Times Book Review that one of the books Barack Obama lists as important to him is The Golden Notebook. I am interested in the education of leaders and one of my tasks here to imagine how Obama read this book, what he saw and learned from it. Lessing may reveal part of the link right here: the artist as hero. What kind of empire does a poet build? A sense of artistry--poetry--channeled King and Gandhi into Obama's rhetoric. Abraham Lincoln steeped himself in Shakespeare and Mark Twain; artistry helped him change the world. Winston Churchill wrote his speeches in psalm form, following the lyric style of the king of the Jews, David. When I first read The Golden Notebook in 1974, it struck me as a book about how to live powerfully as an artist, and I went looking in the shops for a golden notebook of my own. I'm still looking for it. Can we find in this novel something about what public poetry requires, what it is to speak with a voice that calls rather than commands or demands?