Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook

Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi was born in Nigeria in 1984 and raised in London. Her first novel, The Icarus Girl, is about a young girl and her imaginary friend. Her second novel, The Opposite House, is a nominee for the 2008 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Her third novel, White is for Witching, will be published in 2009.

Recent comments by Helen Oyeyemi:

Page 219  December 22nd, 2008
‘We all have mad flashes about being dead on the pavement, or cannibalism, or committing suicide or something.’ ‘They aren’t important?’ ‘No.’ ‘The tomatoes and the quarter of tea is what is important?’ ‘Yes.’ I was moved by this; still working out why. Until I've got it I'll just say that it might have something to do with the way that Tommy had been leafing through the pages of Anna's notebooks and automatically attempting to interpret the fragments as a continuous narrative. Maybe it exposed the size of the internal leaps Anna takes from notebook to notebook in a way that the actual presentation of the notebooks to the reader can't. Until this point I'd forgotten that Anna writes the notebooks in a fragmented way - that the sections of them are presented whole, but actually, a week or so in her life is compressed into a couple of sentences in one notebook, non-existent in another and alluded to in lengthy dream narrative in yet another. Faced with Tommy's insistence that she present him with a 'real' and single anger (shrieking 'why aren't you honest with me' - pressure, pressure) she opts for the Anna she feels it would be best to be. It feels as if, despite all this grappling with her fear and anger and death fantasies, she's asserting that what's essential is a refusal to be complicit with the impulse to name the shadow self as the truest self.

Page 206  December 22nd, 2008
'It was a small green crocodile with a winking sardonic snout. I thought it was the image of a crocodile, made of jade, or emeralds, then I saw it was alive, for large frozen tears rolled down its cheeks and turned into diamonds.' I underlined this hard and scribbled alongside: I. CROCODILE TEARS ARE LUCRATIVE CURRENCY II. LINKING ANNA'S FEAR & CONCERN FOR THE WORLD WITH A MASK FOR HER OWN ANOMIE i read the crocodile dream as revealing something about Anna's not allowing herself to write. she fears inauthenticity - one of the only things she appreciates about her first novel is that it conveyed a genuine, compelling emotion - yet the manufacture of emotions has both material and psychical value - she can 'cheat the businessmen' with such manufacture, divert their attention from what's really the matter; Anna can win at the cost of becoming reptilian.

Page 217  December 22nd, 2008
'It’s as if I were fighting something, fighting some invisible enemy. She could almost see the enemy — something evil, she was sure of it; an almost tangible shape of malice and destruction, that stood between her and Tommy, trying to destroy them both.' I think what Anna fears so intensely here is the prospect of Tommy's 'becoming a man', or in other words, performing a masculinity that forces her into opposition and makes adversarial behaviour necessary. I like that Anna struggles with scripted behaviour, that she succumbs to it with horror and her eyes open - it makes everyday conversations critical - both in the sense of an emergency (emergency! gender war!) and in the sense that it highlights just when things begin to go wrong in a conversation and people begin talking to each other from across a gap in perceptions that grows wider with each exchange.

Page 232  December 22nd, 2008
the statement 'Blue Bird brings screenplays of living verity to the ordinary man, woman and child', immediately contradicted and brought to light as hypocrisy by the later warning: 'Blue Bird will not consider screenplays dealing with religion, race, politics or extra-marital sex' I find the black notebooks, or Anna's notebooks dealing with the paraphernalia of being a professional writer, the most bitingly funny indictments of the industry surrounding art. Beneath all the accounts of her meetings with film people and publishing people there's a kind of Emily Dickinson-esque scorn/pain - 'Publication is the Auction/ of the Mind of Man' stuff, and a dark look at the process of handing stories over to people whose primary interest is in commodifying them. I don't sense a denial of the necessity of commodification of art to an extent, just a keen awareness of the circus of it. In her psychoanalytic notebook Anna seems to experience it as psychic damage though.

Page 306  December 7th, 2008
I'd rather Richard than Tommy. This entire scene where Richard attempts coercion of Anna and then lets her fumble at the door shows Richard as a clumsy child, whereas Tommy, the actual youngster, parodies 'adult' manipulation quite chillingly. Basically Richard and his son are both manipulative shits but Richard carries less force somehow. It feels like Lessing is making a depressing generational commentary with these two.

Page 274  December 7th, 2008
I don't think anxiety about smelling bad during your period is necessarily to do with wanting to erase one's femaleness. It's true that the mainstream media places a v unsubtle emphasis on women keeping the sight, smell and experience of their time of the month out of their everyday narrative, presenting periods as comically monstrous, like shabby werewolves, and obviously that's no good for girls. (Naomi I laughed aloud reading about that terrible ad). But I felt closer to Anna reading about her menstrual discomfort - I'm pretty similar, stomach turning at the feeling and smell of bleeding, and I think I feel this somewhat independently of media messages that periods are yucky- I don't care where the blood's coming from or wherefore it arrives, whether that's from my ladyparts, my thumb or my elbow! I think it's more to do with a sense of being pathetically enfleshed (i hope enfleshed is a word - if not, let's have corporeal) and spilling out inner juice. It's probably misguided of Anna to try and smell like the idea of a woman instead of allowing herself to smell like an actual woman, as Naomi says, but surely it's still possible for Anna to embrace, or at least not renounce her femininity whilst preferring not to smell of sex, sweat, skin &c? I like Lenelle's point about her not wanting special treatment; I think Anna wants to be a woman on her own terms and in some essential way that can't be interfered with or condescended to by other people she interacts with socially.

Page 110  November 28th, 2008
Lenelle - I think George's ability to take the black women around him as lovers is more to do with a colonial power dynamic than to do with symbolism of skin colour and connotations of sexuality attached to that (though of course this does feature). Maryrose and Anna are in George's world - they are women, yes, but they stand with him as Brits and in relation to Marie, one of the colonized....different rules and a whole other code of exchange - each male-female exchange is demeaning in a vital way (based on assessments of the female's sexual attractiveness), but still, different when it moves from exchanges between George and Maryrose to George and Marie. Who knows how willing Marie really is? I'm not talking physical coercion, but there are status and financial factors over and above those usual to male-female relationships of the time that could compel Marie to accept sexual advances from George when she otherwise wouldn't have. Her mysteriousness/lack of detail could also be Lessing's commentary on the absence of her true consent. After all, in contrast, women like Maryrose, who can express their will and their past, say their 'no's with some level of consequence, are afforded physical description. The way in which Marie would respond to George's advances would be as much an acknowledgement of the prominence that the desire, any desire, of a colonial master would have in the society he's, yes, penetrated, as it would to do with the rampant, mindless sensuality George might think he sees indicated by Marie's skin. Ugh I hope I haven't overthought this...

Page 221  November 28th, 2008
Harriet I thought of Obama too! but also of Lincoln/Wilberforce and Marx's harnessing of the idea of Geist, the spirit of a time, and connecting it to the convulsive progress of human history...and to think there's more and yet more to come - definitely a wonderfully hair raising passage, but also an assertion that there is nothing futile in choosing a side, in engaging with an idealization of the world. Many of the passages recounting Anna's involvement with and detachment from the Communist party seem dubious as to how far Anna's political activities really express her will and how far her 'political personality' integrates with her other aspects, but this is encouraging in that it suggests that Anna's perspective on politics is, like her perspective on lifestyles and relationships and writing, a way of choosing to choose something that isn't available yet, something that isn't much more than a feeling until it is suddenly reached, whether by breakdown or by some other lurch...

Page 196  November 21st, 2008
Curious as to what you guys think the function (if there is a function) of the newspaper cuttings replacing diary entries for the next eight pages is...? I find it numbing, but it would feel too disappointingly easy for these entries to stand for Anna's individual consciousness dispersing into a 'world consciousness' as international politics begins to terrify her. This is probably far-fetched, but given Anna's discovery that she is crying in her sleep, i.e. that she is in much more psychological distress than she can ever allow herself to be aware of when awake, maybe the newspaper cuttings serve as withdrawal from further discussion of the tears while asleep? Much the way people talk about 'non-personal' topics to maintain polite distance between themselves and a stranger, we're being held at arms length as readers?

Page 132  November 21st, 2008
Nona, I love the parts where Anna tries to identify and regulate her own process as well, the self-deprecation but also her attempts to understand what she was written and why she can't write anymore, why she is sacking herself from her position as a writer. Elsewhere (page 65 of the online edition) she reflects that Frontiers of War may have been successful because it was fuelled by an emotion (probably the same nostalgia she talks about on this page) that compelled over and above the subject matter. I loved that idea of a book that batters reason, demanding attention with the urgency as a child screaming on a pavement...never mind what the child's screaming about, go-go-go &c Anna seems troubled that the nostalgia takes her the same way as she transmits it.

Page 106  November 17th, 2008
Willi's telling Anna that 'things are different for men and for women' reads to me as a sort of peace know, you stay in your 'agreed' locus of experience and I'll stay in mine and thus we'll shock each other in our deepest feelings and instincts less. Old boy's actually holding out an olive branch! Ahhh olive branch sexism. Part of the trapped feeling could also be because rejecting the constructed differences makes you the troublemaker and the sex-warmonger and it's wearying for that always to be the case.

Page 130  November 17th, 2008
an interesting switch to 'passion' on Willi's part. This from Jena Pincott's 'Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?', page 299-301: 'Seen from a purely genetic perspective, it's a bad deal for a man if his time and resources go into raising another guy's kid. That means his instinct, honed over centuries of to respond with agitated passion to the prospect of you (the female reader) having sex with another man. As a result, he might push to make love as soon as possible after he sees you, so his sperm would compete against your lover's. If you were to get pregnant, he would have a better shot at being the baby's father.' Quite apart from this the sex between Anna and Willi is contemptuous, it feels like part of the aftermath of the ugly words Mr Lattimore is hurling at his wife.

Page 24  November 7th, 2008
Richard is immediately ridiculous, the urban man in sporting clothes, aware that the affectation is unnecessary but bullishly trying to force that fact to work in his favour. I can see him having fallen for Molly precisely because of her air of mockery (and I still feel something of a sympathy for him at present...)

Page 20  November 7th, 2008
trest. do you think the details of Molly and Anna's appearance might be set up as factors that they're fighting against? the thing about describing people's clothes and facial features &c is that you end up with an image of them sitting/standing completely still, in fact holding still so that they can be inspected like a kitchen counter or some other piece of homeware that's on sale. And maybe in contrast Anna's problem, and her eventual separation of her life into notebooks seems to be about being dynamic, in motion, and an ability to inhabit lots of different selves...

Page 19  November 7th, 2008
I can see why Molly doesn't want to be the same as Anna - the part about Marion talking to Anna and occasionally calling her Molly by mistake is disquieting, as if the people Molly and Anna are 'close' to have no idea who either of them are, they only know that the two fulfil similar functions in the lives of their friends, a person to consult and make confessions to. Thinking this way, Molly could disappear and no one would miss her because they'd consider Anna sufficient! And vice versa.

Page 15  November 7th, 2008
Molly and Anna seem so adept at making Richard into an uncomplicated creature and making their antagonistic relationship with him as simple as possible that I feel sorry for him even before he arrives on the scene. It's like they're co-directing their friendship and solidarity as a production that requires a villain as an opposing force.

Page 16  November 7th, 2008
I think having established them as, er, clients of the same therapist is an interesting way of setting them up as sisters, recipients of psychological nurture and instruction from the same mother figure. it makes their monitoring of each other's speech and behaviour even more understandable - molly as worldly older sister, anna as angular and defensive 'baby' sister