Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook

Philippa Levine

Philippa Levine grew up in an upwardly-mobile, left-wing, working-class family in London. She received her doctorate in history during the Thatcher era when academic jobs were thin on the ground so after a brief stint teaching at the University of East Anglia, she took a post-doctoral fellowship in women's studies in Australia where she combined academic work with radio broadcasting. In 1987 she moved to the US where she has lived since. Her publications include The British Empire, Sunrise to Sunset (2007), Gender and Empire: Oxford History of the British Empire Companion Series (2004) Prostitution, Race and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire (2003). Her current projects include a study of colonial nakedness, and of evolution, eugenics and empire.

Recent comments by Philippa Levine:

On the blog  February 10th, 2009
Trying to wrap up what the experience of sharing The Golden Notebook in an online conversation has meant has proven harder, in many ways, than reading and commenting on the book. Did it change the way I read? Not really. Did it make me want to join a book group? No, not at all. Did I enjoy the experience. Yes. Did I learn anything from it. Absolutely yes. As someone else said in a recent post, this may well have been more fun for the formal readers than for those dipping in and out of our conversations. But I for one loved hearing what others had to say, loved being forced to reconsider my own reactions as a result of thinking through what others had to say. I liked the mix of readers, folks from differing backgrounds, generations, experiences, even if we are all women. We didn’t bring a common set of other readings or narratives to the exercise, and that meant we often really did read passages strikingly differently.It was those lengthy, sometimes tangled conversations in the margins which were the most exciting feature of the project. I learned, I sometimes changed my mind, and perhaps most especially figured out that there really are myriad ways to read a book! Hardly a major revelation but knowing in principle and in practice can be remarkably different. Like Nona, I ended up disliking Anna quite a lot, something I don’t recall feeling when I read the book in the 1980s. And like Naomi, I came away with a deep sense of the pessimism that pervades the book – but it didn’t seem hugely relevant to the concerns of contemporary feminism. I read the bleakness that to me typified the book (not just in sexual relations but in political ones too) as a product of the nuclear age, of the viciousness of the early Cold War, of the 1950s backlash against the gains women had made in earlier years and during the war. That’s the historian in me, of course, and maybe that training makes me read fiction as historically-bound text rather than as a form which speaks to some more universalisable rendering of human relations. I didn’t read the book that way twenty years ago: then it did seem more a manifesto. What that tells me, I suppose, is that reading is a dynamic business, which is also a way of saying that a forum such as this has to be a good thing -- it opens up our forms of reading (online, in book form, whatever) and the kinds of interactions that reading might catalyse. I'd do it again, and I hope others would too.

Page 503  December 31st, 2008
I suspect you're right about this, Laura. It's an incredible achievement to have written something that coheres this much and this well in such an incredibly short space of time, no doubt about that. But it did make me think, I'm realising, about how often novels disappoint me right at the end, how often they seem to fizzle, going out with a whimper rather than a bang. I've a hunch this is a modern novel problem. Maybe those "truly" realist novels of the 19th century had more options for resolution than the late 20th and early 21st century can muster. Anomie, anyone?

Page 410  December 31st, 2008
I don't know how much difference it would make if we were to see more female bylines, to be honest. I totally agree with Harriet that women still get marginalised, that the days of the old-boy network are far, far from over, and that allegedly "masculine" topics get pushed to the fore. But that doesn't mean that a female presence (whatever that is) would herald change or improvement. Women, as Harriet has noted, have got where they are now by "writing like men" -- but that doesn't mean, does it, that there's some essentially female way to write that's different, some biological tick that produces different ideas or values? I would like to see more recognition of women's talents -- but I'd also say that recognition of different issues and different values, whoever espouses them, would probably have as marked an effect. I'm really really wary of biologising or essentialising male/female difference, even while I'll go to bat endlessly to ensure women don't get the short end of the stick.

Page 486  December 31st, 2008
I do think of it as a realist novel, yes. We're not talking 19th-century realism here, palpably, but I think it's a variation on a theme, as it were. Almost like a series of "nested" realist novels (novels within novels, notebooks, within novels) but all of them about the here-and-now and about a consciousness that strikes me as markedly different than you see in Joyce. What anchors the book, for me at any rate, is as much its materialist politics (the concern with the bomb, with wars and revolutions and revolutionary politics, and with racism and injustice) and it seems to me much more foregrounded here than in other experimental forms. That is, I see this as a realist novel that's consciously experimenting with (but not necessarily attacking) that form but never wholly laying it aside. I like that.

Page 503  December 29th, 2008
For me this was a deeply depressing ending. Molly's marrying (never a good thing in this novel) and moving to where else but Hampstead; Marion and Tommy are joining the business world; and Anna's going to teach night classes. Integrating into "British life at its roots" indeed -- but is this where we would have expected these characters to be at the end of a harrowing 600 pages? Is this the fate of ex-communists in middle-class 1950s London? Or of women who have defied the status quo too long by exploring (if not always succeeding at) a measure of independence? Of course there's no reason why "ordinariness" should not be a perfectly good resolution to all sorts of problems, but somehow here, it feels just like the resignation that Molly expresses (admits to?) here. I don't think I was assuming, hoping for or expecting great feats of heroism, but I just don't quite see this "return to the fold" as a necessary resolution.

Page 457  December 29th, 2008
At this point it suddenly hit me what an incredibly angry novel this is. I've been resisting the idea of Anna as mad; when I reached this bit, it seemed to me that it was fury (at the state of the world, at the state of heterosexual relations, at her own behaviours) and not madness that was driving Anna and -- by extension, and perhaps more critically too -- Lessing.

Page 410  December 29th, 2008
While I don't think the era of the feminist publishing house is completely over (although it's a shadow of its former self), I think Laura's right that women involved in publishing (and at the editorial level, this is still a surprisingly female world) are caught up in the corporate maelstrom, and their jobs depend upon their behaving in allegedly gender-blind ways. Like Laura, I see very little difference between men and women when they're inside the corporate structures that dictate so much of our lives. As for Lessing's turn to science fiction, it's an interesting choice for her to have made as a woman conscious of gender issues. It remains even now a pretty masculine world (despite a few iconic women writers), no?

Page 410  December 24th, 2008
Please no, Harriet! If masochism is a female tendency (and I really don't buy it), then surely it's a learned one and snot something "innately" female. But since Laura mentions the phenomenon of the dominatrix, we should remember that there's an awful lot of men willing to pay to indulge their masochistic predilections -- and that -- for me -- puts the lie to the idea that women are somehow more masochistic than men. I suppose one might argue that men's fascination with masochism is fascination for "the other" and that therefore this is identified female, but then one would have to apply that argument to a whole host of other preferences that might be coded differently. I worry that reading masochism as female essentialises female sexualities. In any case, Saul's multiple personalities bump him from sadistic domination to all kinds of vulnerabilities which Anna notes and acts upon. Lessing offers a us ambiguity here even while she explores Anna's alarming predilection for bullying overly-egotistical men.

Page 499  December 22nd, 2008
Maybe brutalman could help us here?

Page 438  December 19th, 2008
"the cold vindictive anger of the sex war" -- and Lessing later wondered why the book became a feminist icon? It's by no means the sole theme of the book, obviously, but it's hard to read past such a powerful phrase and not see the book as deeply, centrally and critically about the vexed relations of heterosexuality.

Page 492  December 19th, 2008
This section, where words confuse Anna, where she fights the idea (but still knows) that they can be "faulty" and "inaccurate", seems to me to belie the idea of her as slipping into madness. To me this seems a section in which Anna's sanity seems rock-solid. She recognises the allure and the danger of words -- and after all, we know she's been collecting them (the newspaper clippings that line the walls in this section and which are all over the notebooks) and we know she knows (or knew) how to use them. She writes, whether as a novelist or in the notebooks. She parodies, she describes, she glories in words. Maybe I'm just resistant to the idea of mad Anna, but to me this segment, where she papers the walls (ok, it's a bit obsessional) and considers the impact of words, says she won't end up fearful amd mad, that she can and will push through the fears.

Page 499  December 19th, 2008
Is the terror of Saul mitigated by the healthiness and honesty of Milt? And, Laura, is Milt, too, a version of Clancy Sigal?

Page 486  December 19th, 2008
Precisely because the novel sets itself up as a realist novel, I found the Golden Notebook section unconvincing – not to say I didn’t find it disturbing (I did, tremendously), but something about it didn’t ring true for me. I just don’t see Anna descending into madness – she’s too shrewd, already too prone to self-criticism and analysis to descend so quickly into madness, surely. Thus her experience in these pages felt constructed, unreal, experimental to me (as much, by the way, in literary terms as in terms of Anna’s experimentalism) but in the end more an exercise than a reality, if that makes sense. I don’t know if this was Anna “trying out” ‘madness’ or if this was Anna trying to work out what Saul experiences. Maybe it’s something else entirely, but it didn’t work for me within the structures of a realist novel. Maybe that’s Lessing’s point – don’t rely on my realism, I’ll let you down in the end, just like everyone (including soon-to-be-married) Molly lets Anna down. (Even her psycho-analyst lets her down…)

Page 376  December 17th, 2008
Well, if Saul is the "real" man, give me unreal (or no) men any day... The scenes with Saul were for me amongst the most terrifying in the novel. And if Naomi's right about both Anna and Saul having a fantasy of realness going on, they're doing a pretty poor job at it all told. The whole episode with Saul seems to me to have an unreal quality to it that Lessing exploits brilliantly -- the walls, the floor, even the curtains in Anna's big room becoming unreal, dissolving into menace and danger and clamminess.

Page 450  December 14th, 2008
"And I knew that the cruelty and the spite and the I, I, I, I, of Saul and of Anna were part of the logic of war." What an explicit linking of the different modes of violence being explored in the novel. Interesting that she also wants to read war in the same register as (male?) egoism.

Page 452  December 14th, 2008
Anna says: "last night I had known, finally, that the truth for our time was war, the immanence of war." The book really is overshadowed by war and by violence, whether it's psychological or corporeal violence, whether it's violence in people's relationships with one another or between states, whether it's in Anna's dreams or in the life she leads awake. Right around here, I really began to feel terror in this novel: Anna and Saul unhinging together, and Lessing telling us that the world of 1962, too, is sufficiently unhinged to be on the verge of destruction. 1962 was the year of the Cuban missile crisis. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was huge. The Cold War was mad. No wonder Lessing feared for us...

Page 419  December 14th, 2008
This page just hit me between the eyes: it seems to me so much of what the novel is about is right here, squeezed onto one page and just challenging the reader to drink it all in! We've got the creation/destruction motif, both in the material (political) world and in the psychological (Mother Sugar's session) world. There's the lousy marriage we've come to expect in this novel, but here it's also presented as something which presents restraints and rules with significant effects, that is Nelson's fears of the obligations to society his wife represents. (And, by the way, is it only women who represent these obligations within marriage? There are times in the novel when that seems so, and Lessing seems to me to be railing against that.) And there's the subtle weaving of the political and the personal which I'm coming to appreciate more and more as I near the end of the novel. Isn't Lessing (here and throughout) really putting on the table for dissection the whole question of whether public and private are detachable, separate, even real as categories? That's pretty amazing for 1962 and to me it's beginning to seem like the most radical feature of the novel.

Page 398  December 14th, 2008
"I feel the weight of the British empire on me like a gravestone." What a perfect description of the effects of imperialism on colonised peoples, and what a perfect antidote to those who would have us believe the British ran a benign Empire.

Page 376  December 14th, 2008
Hmmm, this is a hard one. I want (really want!) to agree with Laura but I'm not sure I do. This theme about the "real man" emerges over and over again, and in a whole bunch of different contexts, that I'm beginning to think it's something with which Lessing herself keeps struggling in the novel, recognising the mobility of the phrase that Laura so beautifully points out, but endlessly coming back to a depiction of the real man that isn't so flattering. I do think she keeps also trying to undermine that sense of the real-man as the masculine-man, for example in the many instances where men appear as creators (but almost always as destructors simultaneously). And then there's what she calls the "men-babies" (UK ed. 424, so right here), a phrase that really struck me and which seemed to speak to Anna's growing disillusionment and anxiety about her heterosexual relationships. Does that make me more pessimistic about Anna's state of mind, perhaps, than Laura is right now?

Page 370  December 7th, 2008
Sorry if responding to my own comment is an indulgence -- but I was just re-reading what Laura says on the very first page of the book about the centrality of form vs. formlessness in the novel, and what Naomi says on the blog (1/12/08) about fragmenting and cracking up. This comment Anna makes to Mother Sugar is part of that larger theme Naomi and Laura identify: Anna seeking shape in both her life and in her art, but resistant to the idea that such a possibility is achievable, perhaps more especially in as unstable a world as the late 1950s must have seemed in Europe. And I see the second dash in my first entry on this page is wrongly placed -- read it as intended to be after "unfinished" rather than where I've placed it!

Page 274  December 7th, 2008
I came back to this section after I read the pigeon-shooting scene (UK edition, 367-384) because there, too, the smell of blood is important to the scene. Maryrose complains that the smell of blood will make her sick, and she does so, some few pages after Lessing makes quite sure we know that the group can smell it. On 375 (last line of the page in the UK edition), Lessing has a one-sentence paragraph that reads simply, "There was a smell of blood." And at 384, "We were slightly sick with the smell of blood." When she's talking about menstrual blood she does certainly invoke something more gender-specific than is perhaps the case in the later scene, but still, even here the other smells she enumerates are bodily smells rather than specifically female ones. I do think there's a kind of self-hating gender thing going on, but I suspect blood also occupies a more elemental space in Lessing's imagination now I've read this later scene. It may be that women's regular bleeding for her yokes them to the unfettered nature that's conjured in the shooting scene, but I am now wondering if it isn't a lot more complicated than the fear of being "smelled out".

Page 370  December 7th, 2008
When I got to the end of the session Anna has with Mother Sugar I was exhausted, profoundly exhausted. This is an incredibly relentless scene, so much going on here. I was particularly struck by the idea of people as cracked or split, and thus open to possibility. Wholeness is irrelevant here -- but the discussion of form looms large -- and unfinished as the session ends.

Page 339  December 7th, 2008
Can anyone help me out here? These few pages of parody (UK edition, 384-386)have me puzzled. I don't know what to make of them. how to read them, what to do with them.

Page 258  December 7th, 2008
I'm going to have to disagree a bit here, Harriet. I think there's a way in which this is an important moment for Ella/Anna -- the guy may be an uncouth dimwit (love that word!) with little appreciation for women's sexuality, but for Ella the act of taking charge, of being (literally and metaphorically?) on top is a liberating experience. She doesn't do much ego-stroking, and to me she comes across here as determined and self-possessed. Sure it's a pity to waste that on a philistine, but it seems to me to mark less a moment of subservience than a moment of independence -- really critical for her at this time, surely?

Page 324  December 7th, 2008
Anna says, "my brain contains so much that is locked up and unreachable." So often in these pages, Anna is "reachable" only when "true love" (certainly an unstable element in this novel...) "unlocks" her, and yet that love also always destroys her in some way. So here again, as so often in the novel, it's in a dream that she can fathom some of the links between her emotional and her writing life. But that moment is born of a disturbing set of violent scenes -- pigeon kicking, followed by pigeon shooting. I'm amazed how often "birth" and violence/destruction are intertwined in the novel.

Page 318  December 4th, 2008
"She will grow up in England, a country full of men who are little boys and homosexuals and the half-homosexuals … but this tired thought vanished in a strong wave of genuine emotion — By God, there are a few real men left, and I’m going to see she gets one of them. I’m going to see she grows up to recognize a real man when she meets one. Ronnie’s going to have to leave." So my hard time got even harder with this paragraph. Of course, I don't want to attribute these sentiments to Lessing in an overly simplistic way, and perhaps Lessing wants us to raise an eyebrow at Anna's lack of grace here, or to see the vulnerability that her attachment to particular forms of masculinity implies -- but this was just so tough to read...

Page 308  December 4th, 2008
Oh, I had a hard time here -- Ivor isn't a real man? Anna berates herself for this thought but, still, this and the following pages don't, in fact, deconstruct Anna's initial thoughts much at all. Ivor's consort, Ronnie, bears the brunt, far more than Ivor, but this was a really uncomfortable few pages for me to read. The depiction of gay men as spiteful, greedy, and effeminate had me wincing and drooping...

Page 296  December 4th, 2008
I'm still chewing on what the message of blind Tommy fully is, if that makes sense. But in the meanwhile I was struck by the way in which he becomes, with blindness, this rather sinister force who humours "difficult" women -- distinct from his father who gets red in the face, or Michael who's callous, or pretty much most of the other male characters in the book. And of course different from the seeing Tommy with his moods and his rages and his sullenness. I'd love to know how others are reading post-suicide Tommy; I'm really puzzled by him still.

Page 290  December 4th, 2008
Like Naomi, I'd scribbled here about the enormous burden of women's guilt, and then (guiltily!) focused on the fact that it's not that much easier in the 2000s than it was in the 1960s in some way for women who want to juggle apparently incompatible elements of lifestyle. it's no surprise (at least to me) that the guilt paragraph follows so closely after a section where we see Janet close up, and experience her childhood. Lessing doesn't say this, at least not right here, but one of the overwhelming areas of guilt, as Naomi points out, is precisely about how to effect motherhood and adulthood, motherhood and career, and so on.

Page 279  December 4th, 2008
Lessing seems to be linking Anna's leaving the Communist Party and the end of her relationship with Michael quite intimately here, I think. And the way Anna describes Jack as always understanding (that is,sensitive as opposed to cruel, which is how Michael always seems) implies an intimacy that she yearns for but does not achieve with Michael. It's on this page, where she praises Jack's sensitivity, that Michael makes the snide remark about saving souls. The contrast between the two men -- both idealists, of course, but in every other way vastly unlike one another -- is interesting. Anna, in the end, can have neither: her relationship with Michael is fast closing down, and her quitting the CP will end her relationship with Jack.

Page 271  December 1st, 2008
I have to think that Lessing was doing something pretty radical in 1962, with this surprisingly lengthy disquisition on menstrual blood and "lavatory smells". I'm guessing that such material would not have been common then.

Page 264  December 1st, 2008
There's something deeply violent going on here. Anna feels the "substance of my self... thinning and dissolving" as a result of Michael's attack on her. Michael, we are told, dislikes "the critical and thinking Anna" the most. Men are the organising principle not just of her life, then, but of her personality, her psyche, her capacity to move in the world and to choose how to do so.

Page 259  December 1st, 2008
Orgasms again (sorry!). "Integrity is the orgasm." So the orgasm is transcendent, it's less about physicality than about "truth", a truth only realisable through heterosexual love.

Page 246  December 1st, 2008
The orgasm as that which reveals "truth" again -- I was struck here by the distinction Lessing draws between the "exterior" and the "vaginal" orgasm, the former about physical and mechanistic relief, the latter revealing some deep truth, or reality. Ella experiences "sharp violence" and mourns "the loss of her real self" in the "exterior" orgasm, a poor substitute, we gather, for the "real" thing.

Page 120  December 1st, 2008
It's harassment, and it's naked power. Jackson, as Lenelle points out, has no choice -- when Paul decides he wants to befriend Jackson, the African man has no choice in the matter. He can only do as he is told, whether the "telling" issues from his white employer or from the white socialist for whom he becomes a symbol of freedom -- yet the freedom is all Paul's, and impinges on Jackson only in disastrous ways.

On the blog  December 1st, 2008
Or could it be, Naomi, that Lessing's intent here is to use fictional fragmentation to depict the fragmentation that's so apparent in Anna's life, and which seems to be worsening with every new episode? Rather than one notebook, Anna breaks up her experiences into several notebooks doing different work : does that offer Lessing a way to document, to describe, to explore a psychological fragmentation in her main character?

Page 227  December 1st, 2008
Laura (and others!), Did you think that here (and indeed when we get to the corrupt leftists in the next section) that Lessing was maybe over-indulging the temptation to stereotype?

Page 258  December 1st, 2008
Ella in charge! Ella teaching! Ella not acquiescing to Paul's demands and needs! There's something interesting going on here, I think, where Ella's sexuality assumes an adult, even a tutorial, role.

Page 179  November 23rd, 2008
I don't see a lot of evidence for a constant reinvention of male sexuality (well, ok, at least not male heterosexuality) historically, to respond to Naomi's question. And I suspect this is about the distinction (not often articulated) between "sexuality" and "female sexuality," that is, that male sexuality is normative, natural, healthy, uncomplicated while female sexuality is endlessly a problem. Hence the kinds of reinvention and redefinition Laura's talking about -- after Freud, Koedt's clitoral orgasm theory, after that, the G-spot, and so on. It seems to me that the "(hetero) male-as-normal" -- and thus needing little definition or qualification -- is not so different from the ways in which whiteness is "normal" and definitive, that is that race and sex categories sharea lot of the same sets of assumptions about "the natural'.

Page 89  November 22nd, 2008
I think that wrestling with this problem is really a central motif here, Nona. Anna and Molly have a really strong bond and can do the sideways-glance thing about men, but there's a vulnerability in their relationship too (not that there isn't when they're in relationships with men, of course!). The difference I'm seeing is that the female protagonists in the novel calculate their relationships with men, expend (too much) energy wondering what behaviours do and don't work in their sexual relationships, and seem to know that all such relationships will end. Conversely Molly and Anna can be disappointed in one another, can understand weaknesses and irritations in one another, but it never seems to them that theirs is a finite relationship, while impermanence seems to define their sexual bonds with men.

Page 149  November 22nd, 2008
"their disinfecting phrases" -- an incredibly effective demolition job, this one. Lessing so quickly and vividly sums up what she sees as the sterility of bourgeois conformity, something really key in the time she's writing. Backed up against the struggle Ella's having with the word 'nice' (that oh-so-bland, oh-so-damning term!), it's such an effective and painful moment. I felt my skin crawl as Ella moved from the hallway and the polite introductions to a living room full of faces.

Page 237  November 22nd, 2008
Does anyone know whether the novel was available in the United States when it first came out? The devastating vignette of the American television executive, Edwina Wright, shocked by Anna's admission of her Communism made me wonder if in a society only just emerging from McCarthyism, The Golden Notebook would have been either available or welcome. I wonder when the book was first available in the States, and what kind of reception it had.

Page 63  November 22nd, 2008
I was thinking about what Naomi and Lenelle had posted here as I read on p. 211 what Lessing has to say about fiction as evasion. For Anna it becomes obvious that the process of fictionalising is "a means of concealing something from myself," and it's this that catalyses her decision to keep a diary. But I wonder if Lessing is pushing here, that is, not just giving us Anna's mental state and her ideas about her role as a writer, but wanting us to think about fiction's place, its relevance, its putative universalising qualities and so on.

Page 175  November 22nd, 2008
This is such a surreal moment -- Paul effectively giving birth, but destroying at the same time. That opposition is itself powerful enough, but Lessing pushes it further. He gives birth to the naive Ella while destroying the sophisticated Ella, putting her intelligence to sleep -- and, as Laura notes, she's complicit in all of it. Some metaphor for the relations between men and women! A really dark moment in the novel.

Page 143  November 22nd, 2008
The phrase, "somewhere in the future lay her own taste," haunted me here. It came back to me a few pages later when Ella dismisses the decor at the West's house -- too bright, too colourful, tasteless. Lessing spends a good deal of time on these small aesthetic questions. When Anna moves into her own flat, we get a good description of her decor, as we do of Julia's house, the point where we're also told Anna's taste lies in the future. What function is "taste" playing here? There's clearly a class element (bohemian vs. bourgeois and so on) but it seems also as if 'taste' can act as the visual mark of slavishness or independence.

On the blog  November 22nd, 2008
Like Naomi, I'm more depressed than bored. I think Nona's right that the forlorn formlessness Laura identifies here is deliberate, and maybe it doesn't work as a fictional form though she's hardly the first novelist to experiment with different varieties of bleakness. I think what I find most depressing overall is a nagging sense that things may not have changed as much as we like to think they have, that our brave new 2008 isn't, when it comes to human relationships, all that much better, and that women still all too often tie themselves in knots to "get it right" in heterosexual relationships. (Lessing doesn't give us anything other than heterosexual, so I'm running with the novel here, and not assuming all women are heterosexual.)

Page 196  November 22nd, 2008
I was astounded by this section, though numbed a bit too, like Helen. It does go on a long time...The news cuttings certainly do act as a veritable scrap book of a moment. But for me what really stood out was how these headlines -- about the Cold War, bombs, war, armaments, and overall annihilation -- were sandwiched between descriptions of her meetings with her psychoanalyst. That blew me away (sorry for the pun on the bombings...)

Page 179  November 22nd, 2008
For me, this was one of the moments when I realised I was in an earlier feminist world where the vaginal orgasm still existed!

Page 83  November 13th, 2008
I'm with Naomi: this is not a likeable bunch of characters and surely Lessing deliberately sets the book up that way. I like the way this subverts easy identification with any character: their comments, behaviours, activities are not all that predictable, making it hard for readers to do that "oh my, I see myself in this person" thing. (Yes, I'm often guilty...) The inconsistency (even Willi!) of the characters makes them, for me at least, more real, even if not necessarily people I want to meet (yeah, yeah, I know they're fictional, but I hope you know what I mean by that). As a historian, I often find myself loathing, liking, admiring etc. the people I'm researching -- in that arena, I often get to read their letters, sometimes their diaries, and often other people's reactions to them -- not that different, of course, from how Lessing "archives" her characters' lives and personalities. What price the distinction, then, between grimly realist fiction (even given its psychoanalytic element) such as this and the work of the historian, I wonder? I wandered off Naomi's point there, but I do think the question she implicitly asked about what we demand of our fiction (characters we like, characters with whom we can identify) has a great deal of resonance, and maybe well beyond fiction too.

Page 128  November 12th, 2008
I found this long scene intensely painful to read: the slow, painful crescendo of white privilege, marked always and inevitably by its concomitant, white carelessness -- and there's no one here who isn't complicit among Lessing's white characters. Do the left-wing sensibilities of the main characters make their actions somehow worse than those of the Boothbys and others who don't critique the system under which they live?

Page 89  November 9th, 2008
Not betraying June to the men -- another point where Lessing plays with all the loyalties that drench this tale. This one is in no sense a reciprocal loyalty, more a largely unspoken understanding. And of course, Lessing complicates it for us by asking whether its base is female loyalty or rather female unease about the failings of men.

Page 63  November 9th, 2008
Interesting. Is the fragmentation around truth a product of a media-saturated world which also keeps telling us (not so convincingly...)that its goal and rationale is to uncover truth? It is, as Lenelle says, seductively comforting to think that we can get at an unvarnished truth, a "real" experience, but it's too often an excuse for one-dimensionality, for a flattening of complexity, a simple answer that comforts but can hardly tells all. And Lessing knows that, no? She constantly pulls the rug from under your feet, and just as you're starting to get comfortable... Can't speak for others but that's what I want from fiction, a creative, imaginative kick that keeps me from too much complacency.

Page 85  November 9th, 2008
Back to that thorny question of loyalties here, although in a rather different register. I always find Lessing really interesting on political loyalty and the emotional and indeed physical toll that the Communist Party took on its members. I like the way this dimension complicates how she's presenting her readers with the questions of loyalty which surface over and over as the novel starts to unfold.

Page 52  November 9th, 2008
Just when you might be starting to feel warm and fuzzy about feminist loyalties, Lessing whips out a critique: "our real loyalties are always to men, and not to women." Ouch. But she nailed a dilemma that many women did face (and still face forty-plus years on).

Page 29  November 9th, 2008
I love the phrase, "the little fishpond of the upper class"!! It's still applicable today and it's a perfect description of the bubble of privilege which Lessing always wanted to prick.

Page 15  November 9th, 2008
I was really fascinated by the way gossip serves, right at the start of the book, as a form of intimacy between the two women. It's something that threatens and mystifies and frustrates Richard -- he can't get past it and can't understand it. Is it serving, I wonder, as a kind of "women's language" (that's certainly an argument that gets made about how women relate to one another)? Richard certainly gets tripped up by it over and over again, although Tommy finds ways (later in this section) to slide by it.