The Notebooks

The Yellow Notebook

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For some time she sat, listless, at the window, watching the darkening but blossoming city, and told herself she should make herself walk through its streets, and force herself into talking to people; she should let herself be picked up and flirt a little. But she understood she was as incapable of walking down the hotel stairs, leaving her key at the desk and going into the streets, as if she had just served a prison sentence for four years in solitary confinement and then been told to behave normally. She went to bed. She was unable to sleep. She put herself to sleep, as always, by thinking of Paul. She had never, since he had left her, been able to achieve a vaginal orgasm; she was able to reach the sharp violence of the exterior orgasm, her hand becoming Paul’s hand, mourning as she did so, the loss of her real self. She slept, overstimulated, nervous, exhausted, cheated. And using Paul thus brought close to her his ‘negative’ self, the man full of self-distrust. The real man retreated further and further from her. It was becoming hard for her to remember the warmth of his eyes, the humour of his voice. She would sleep beside a ghost of defeat; and the ghost wore, even when she woke, briefly, out of habit, to open her arms so that his head might come to her breast, or to lay her head on his shoulder, a small, bitter, self-derisive smile. Yet when she dreamed of him, asleep, he was always to be recognized in the various guises he chose, because his image was one of warmth, a calm masculinity. Paul, whom she had loved, she kept sleeping; awake she retained nothing but shapes of pain.

Next morning she slept too long, as she always did when away from her son. She woke thinking that Michael must have been up, dressed, and breakfasted hours ago with Julia; he would be nearing his lunchtime at school. Then she told herself she had not come to Paris to follow in her mind the stages of her son’s day; she reminded herself that Paris lay waiting for her outside, under a light-hearted sun. And it was time for her to dress for her appointment with the editor.

The offices of Femme et Foyer were across the river and in the heart of an ancient building that one must enter where once carriages, and before then, troops of privately owned soldiers had pressed under a noble carved archway. Femme et Foyer occupied a dozen soberly modern and expensive rooms in decaying piles of masonry that smelt even now of the church, of feudalism. Ella, expected, was shown into Monsieur Brun’s office, and was received by Monsieur Brun, a large, well-kept, ox-like young man who greeted her with an excess of good manners which failed to conceal his lack of interest in Ella and in the proposed deal. They were to go out for an aperitif. Robert Brun announced to half a dozen pretty secretaries that since he would be lunching with his fiancée he would not be back until three, and received a dozen congratulatory and understanding smiles. Ella and Robert Brun passed through the venerable courtyard, emerged from the ancient gateway, and set out for the café, while Ella enquired politely about his projected marriage. She was informed in fluent and correct English that his fiancée was formidably pretty, intelligent and talented. He was to marry her next month, and they were now engaged in preparing their apartment. Elise (he spoke the name with an already practised propriety, grave and formal) was at that very moment negotiating for a certain carpet they both coveted. She, Ella, would have the privilege of seeing her for herself. Ella hastened to assure him that she would be delighted, and congratulated him again.

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The Yellow Notebook

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  1. Naomi Alderman November 29th, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    “She would sleep beside a ghost of defeat; and the ghost wore, even when she woke, briefly, out of habit, to open her arms so that his head might come to her breast, or to lay her head on his shoulder, a small, bitter, self-derisive smile.”

    Oh poor Anna/Ella. She cannot even allow herself to grieve without deriding herself. As Nona says on page 196, she hates her own self-centredness. I feel such compassion for her here. She hates her orgasms, she feels she’s lost her ‘real self’. She cannot even see that when you wake in the night and look for your lover and realise he’s never going to be there again, it is OK to feel sad.

    What is it that she wants of herself? To experience no emotions, to have no need for fiction (page 189), to live only through the ‘realness’ of newspaper clippings? Does she hate herself for being a woman, or simply for being human?

  2. Nona Willis Aronowitz November 30th, 2008 at 8:29 pm

    Yes, she (Ella but really Anna, I believe) does seem to want to shield her vulnerability and emotions to an extreme you don’t often see in female protagonists. It’s striking (also depressing) that the woman’s psyche we’re trapped in has a terrifyingly high and rigid standard for what constitutes happiness, what happiness “should” be. As Laura said a few pages back, this kind of life endures this looming joylessness that’s hard to avoid.

  3. Philippa Levine December 1st, 2008 at 10:13 am

    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.

  4. Naomi Alderman December 1st, 2008 at 3:11 pm

    Do you think we could read the orgasm as a metaphor here? Or am I being too kind? But the distinction between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ seems to me to signpost where Ella feels she is having genuine experience and where experience that is false and violent. Her notebooks are similar. The notebooks, inward-looking, not to be shared with others, are genuine. Her novel, outward-directed, she feels is false.

    1. Laura Kipnis December 2nd, 2008 at 7:23 am

      “Metaphor” is an interesting way to put it. Yes, a metaphor in the sense that it’s not just a random physiological event, like sneezing, it takes on such a host of connotations and meanings. But that’s the peculiar thing about bodies, and the experience of having one–how coded with meaning certain parts of the body become, particularly the orifices, which are these liminal sites, the entry to the interior, potential contamination zones, points of vulnerability and so on.

      1. Naomi Alderman December 2nd, 2008 at 2:08 pm

        How *fascinating*, Laura. I wonder in relation to this, and your comment on page 179 that “there are sexual fashions or prevailing ideologies, and we always experience our bodies in relation to them” whether Ella’s sad relationship with her own body at this time can tell us things about women’s lives at this moment in history.

        [This is in no way to suggest that we've reached some nirvana state now. I'm certain that in 50 years from now people will be able to read back insights into the way we talk about our bodies - and our orgasms - today.]

        I’m thinking it through still but… Lessing is insistent that the internal is preferable to the external. The internal is real, the external is false. One way of reading it: Lessing is protesting about the lack of acknowledgement of women’s internal lives. All the letters from miserable women which are brushed aside by the doctor are another example of this.

        Another reading: the external orgasm is ‘forced’ onto Ella/Anna almost brutally. I liken this to the various roles she’s forced to adopt. Among communists, she feels obliged to keep up the appearance of loyalty. To Michael/Paul, she must be the devoted domestic goddess wife. To the TV executives she must be “the writer”. And in bed she must experience pleasure in a particular, easily comprehensible fashion. Her complex internality is constantly denied.

        [I shall now try to find something other than orgasms to talk about in this book...!]

      2. Nona Willis Aronowitz December 2nd, 2008 at 5:23 pm

        It just occurred to me while reading Naomi’s comment that Lessing really could have meant the internal orgasm as a more autonomous, controlled, decisive act as compared to an external one. Even though it is caused by penetration (the ultimate way to “force” a woman/orgasm/whatever), it is directed exclusively by the woman’s psyche. The clitoral orgasm here can be perceived as involuntary, the work of the man rather than the woman. Not that I agree with this, but I think Naomi might be onto something in interpreting Lessing’s idea of an external orgasm as something harsh and unnerving.

        Orgasms, again! Never ceases to spark conversation.

  5. Harriet Rubin December 2nd, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    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.

  6. Harriet Rubin December 2nd, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    “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?

    1. Naomi Alderman December 2nd, 2008 at 6:16 pm

      I’m sure your question was rhetorical, Harriet, but I can’t help but go back to Anna and Tommy’s conversation (UK 237).

      “Would you go to an undeveloped country and run a country clinic for fifty people?”
      All the Reds would answer: “No, because what’s the point of improving the health of fifty people when the basic organization of society is unchanged?”

      This sort of thought process (which Anna admits she has) is I think part of the reason Anna lacks compassion for herself, derides herself, tries to prove her unimportance using newspaper cuttings. Mother Sugar says: ‘write’. Anna says, in effect, ‘what’s the point of writing when the basic organization of society is unchanged?’.

      TGN seems to me to be arguing for the vital importance of small action. Of changing one’s own life. Of letting freedom ring not *only* through political upheaval but also by personal change. The CP Anna’s involved in do not, cannot change the basic organisation of society. But maybe Anna could make a difference in the lives of 50 people.

  7. Harriet Rubin December 3rd, 2008 at 11:42 am

    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?

    1. Naomi Alderman December 5th, 2008 at 8:15 am

      Well here’s a question: does a novel need to tell us the purpose of life?

      I know Lessing tells us she loves the ‘philosophical novel’, but I’m not necessarily sure that a novel with a strong philosophical ‘message’ is better than one which is just incisively, realist (as I think this one is) or plain fantastical escapist fun.

      I agree with you that it’s really hard to tell from this novel what Lessing thinks. At times she seems to be so close to Anna or Ella that they speak with one voice. At other times, I have a sense of more distance between them, that she’s criticising their behaviour and attitudes. And sometimes I just want to turn to her, sitting there behind the text, and say “but what do you THINK?”

      But… I can’t in all honesty perceive that as a terrible flaw in the novel. When I come to the end of it, I might feel that it’s a flawed book (can never tell till the end), but I respect a fiction writer’s right to say “I’m not going to tell you what I think. That’s not my job. My job is to present the questions.”

      So, has TGN changed anyone’s life? I don’t know. Books change people’s lives in all sorts of unpredictable ways and as a fiction writer one really never can tell what readers will find in one’s work. Has it changed mine? Not so far to any deep degree. Except that I’m having more conversations about orgasms with my friends!