Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

The Golden NotebookThe Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I heard that Doris Lessing died, I immediately resolved to read one of her books, since I felt as if I’d been missing my rendezvous with her work for years. I bought an old mass market paperback copy of The Golden Notebook during my freshman year of college from the now-defunct bookseller in front of the William Pitt Union. I recall drunkenly reading the first twenty pages of that paperback in the middle of the night in my dorm room and being struck by what I then regarded as its artlessness. At the time enrolled in a course on James Joyce, in the middle of Ulysses, I was in no mood for the stark, slow realism of the novel’s opening. Later that semester, though, I discovered that the Joyce course’s professor, Colin MacCabe, referred in a powerful essay to none other than Lessing herself in his retrospective judgment that the modernist dismissals of literary realism or mimesis in all its variants, from naturalism to science fiction, is aesthetically and politically limited:

If it is possible to understand this [“a utopian circulation of texts outside of any hierarchies of authority or meaning”] as an ethic, and indeed I think that it is an ethic to which I would subscribe, it is simply and baldly insufficient as an aesthetic, and this for two different reasons. First, it is completely unable to deal with a wide range of the writing that the latter part of the century has developed. In the late sixties, contemporaneously with the production of De la Grammatalogie and L’Archeologie du Savoir, Doris Lessing published her Children of Violence novels, which end with the terrifying The Four-Gated City. Lessing’s work, with its determination to make public a whole range of experience that had, as yet, been too little recorded, mocked any aesthetic that would attempt to abolish the referent in favor of the signifier. And in the final volume, she began to draw on the resources of science fiction in the hope of reclaiming a utopian vision from the wreckage of Stalinism and from experiments in personal relations that, whatever the intensity of experience they offered, provided little long-term consolation. In turning to science fiction (and her next decade of writing would confirm this with the Canopus in Argos series), Lessing was turning toward what has, in my opinion, proved the most interesting and productive of the pulp genres produced by the massive new reading public, themselves products of the universal education that had been ushered in at the end of the last century.  (Colin MacCabe, “A Defense of Criticism,” boundary 2 28:3 [2001]: 4.)

I resolved to give Lessing another chance. But by the time she died, I still had not done so, even though a friend of mine, on the morning of Lessing’s Nobel Prize win, had regaled me with a vivid retelling of The Grass Is Singing that impressed upon me the apparently extraordinary force of that novel. So two weeks ago, I decided it was now or never: I would read The Golden Notebook, and I have. Here follow, in homage to the novel’s own commitment to the fragmentary, some disorganized thoughts on it.

1. Spoiler

Almost the last thing one notices about The Golden Notebook is that its formal experimentation goes much further than its reputation or the back cover copy suggests:

Anna is a writer, author of one very successful novel, who now keeps four notebooks. In one, with a black cover, she reviews the African experience of her earlier year. In a red one she records her political life, her disillusionment with communism. In a yellow one she writes a novel in which the heroine reviles part of her own experience. And in the blue one she keeps a personal diary. Finally, in love with an American writer and threatened with insanity, Anna tries to bring the threads of all four books together in a golden notebook.

That’s all true, but there’s a rather startling revelation in the golden notebook itself: the frame narrative, the third-person story of Anna and her friend Molly entitled “Free Women” in which the five notebooks are embedded, is itself a fiction written by Anna at the impetus of her American lover, Saul Green. Green also comes up with “Free Women”‘s first line—in fact the first line of The Golden Notebook itself. This means that there is no realism in The Golden Notebook, no meta-language that would finally organize the disparate texts the book gathers. (Because the entire novel proceeds from the American male’s sentence, there is also no authentic “feminine” voice here, nor any national stability that would make of this a latter-day “condition of England” novel.) Everything in the novel comes to us through the agency of the writer Anna who appears only in the text itself and can occupy no stable point outside it; the entire text is, as it were, in the first person, with the first person anchored nowhere, generated processually by its very discourse. This goes beyond even Ulysses as a formal gesture to reveal the constructedness of all consciousness and language; it is one of the most radical experiments of the twentieth century, despite first appearances.

2. Phallus

Lessing is more than lucky that her radical textualism absolves her of any claims to omniscience and allows us to read her work as a marvelous historical constellation without having to take it as scripture. When she won the Nobel, Harold Bloom denounced the choice as “political correctness.” But this is a judgment forty years out of date; The Golden Notebook is, by present standards of gender and sexual politics, almost fascist in its depiction of male/female relations. The English novelist who most comes to mind when reading Lessing’s book is D. H. Lawrence, and in both authors—the famous “feminist” and the famous “misogynist”—we find the same complaint about the enervation of the English man and the repressed sexuality of the English woman. Molly, Anna’s best friend, says at one point in the novel that eight of her last ten lovers either couldn’t get erections or came too soon.  Male impotence—and the male propensity to blame women for it—is the specter that haunts the novel from its first pages, in which Molly’s ex-husband says that he can no longer sustain an erection with his present wife. But impotence is just a stop on the way to the terminus of the bourgeois Englishman’s decline, which is homosexuality. As Anna observes of her gay tenant, whom she overhears making fun of a girls’ school when reading a story to her daughter:

Because the mockery, the defence of the homosexual, was nothing more than the polite over-gallantry of a “real” man, the “normal” man who intends to set bounds to his relationship with a woman, consciously or not.  Usually unconsciously.  It was the same cold evasive emotion, taken a step further; there was a difference in degree but not in kind.

In other words, the novel envisions male homosexuality as misogyny’s final frontier, the ne plus ultra of man’s refusal to work through the woman-in-himself by recognizing women as autonomous subjects. Lessing arraigns the gender system—the staunch separation of male and female spheres—for alienating men and women from each other to such a degree that the male is effectively neutered, unable to get it up with a real and free woman, forced by his own over-indulged desires to spend himself on whores and boys. Lessing is notorious for celebrating the vaginal orgasm over the clitoral, but this is entailed by her implicit celebration of the penis, however temporarily detumesced.  Hers is a feminism that mourns the phallus. This variant of feminism has officially been defeated in today’s culture due to its essentialism and homophobia, though it survives in vernacular feminism’s exhortations about “manning up” and the like. The Golden Notebook provides an unusually frank expression of such a now-proscribed worldview, which, like any other worldview, could return at any time if historical conditions become favorable again. But Lessing’s textual scrupulousness, her formal reminder that the novel is situated, fortunately prevents us from having to dismiss it as mere out-of-date ideology. On the other hand, couldn’t we say that the novel’s broken form, its inability to consummate its own meaning, is Lessing’s particular mode of elegy over the postmodern west’s fallen column?

3. Marx/Jung

No aspect of the novel will try the contemporary reader’s patience more than its lengthy discussions of communism and the almost as insistent focus on psychoanalysis. The Golden Notebook is a novel about the final collapse of the western intellectual’s ability to believe in Marxism following Khruschev’s secret speech and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. As such, it is about what happens to artists and intellectuals when their sense of a collective project and a beautiful purpose falls apart. What will they make of the ruins? The clue is to be found in what Lessing holds Marxism responsible for, namely, the dismissal of the personal, the subjective, the interior, the irrational—the forces of nature and the unconscious. An especially arresting sequence in the black notebook shows Anna and her communist friends during World War II in Rhodesia collectively coming to understand Marxism’s inadequacy when they confront the abyss of nature and western humanity’s drive, whether capitalist or communist, to destroy nature. This intersection of human consciousness with the alien that it is (the unconscious, the body) and the alien that enfolds it (nature in all its insectoid foreignness) makes absurd the attempt to rationalize it forcibly through some strong subject-centered philosophy like Marxism, which is bound to end up in oppression and devastation because reality can never otherwise conform to its insane idealism. Lessing also spends a lot of time mocking Marxist aesthetics for its relentless classicism, its sense that art should be upbeat and progressive—a Stalinist legacy that of course lives on in so much “social justice” criticism on the Internet today. The novel further provides a valuable reminder that orthodox Marxist literary theory in fact made no distinction between naturalism and modernism, considering both as decadent abrogations of the artist’s responsibility to present the dialectical truths of the historical process by ruthlessly selecting only the “essential,” the “typical,” and the “healthy” for artistic representation. As The Golden Notebook is naturalist in its content and modernist in its form, this is an important metafictional statement. Lessing dwells at length on psychoanalysis and finds it wanting in turn. For while psychoanalysis may be an improvement on Marxism in that it recognizes the unconscious, it too is a rationalizing and normalizing discourse, particularly in its myth-oriented Jungian variant, which can’t account for the subjective process of the everyday. The avatars of committed Marxism and committed psychoanalysis in the novel are both German—I mean the characters of Willi/Max and Mother Sugar—which may lead us to observe counterintuitively that Marx and Jung were engaged in the same doomed project: that of trying to forge a positive science out of the beautiful ideals of German Romanticism. Lessing combats both Marxism and psychoanalysis with her lengthy subjective depictions of singular states, from menstruation to psychological breakdown to dreams. The novel’s fragmented and plotless form gives us these states unassimilated to a teleological narrative and under the sign of textuality in the strong theoretical sense. Their subjective veracity is their own and only justification, and, for all the novel’s linguistic casualness and resistance to beauty, it outdoes even the likes of Nabokov at putting Marxism and psychoanalysis in their place as dangerously naive ways of thinking.

4. Gloom

But Lessing’s laudable political purpose exacts a high aesthetic price, for The Golden Notebook is an unrelievedly unpleasant novel. The overall tone or affect of a 600-page book is very hard to discuss, and it can’t really be proved by quoting, only by assertion. I assert that the novel is largely without humor (except of a painfully ironic kind), largely without depictions of joy (except for the ersatz joy of hysterical excess), largely without leavening linguistic play (despite its large-scale structural experiment and a few mirthless stabs at parody, the prose at every point is little more than functional), and largely without a hint toward an escape from the social and psychological impasses it points out (a desire for which it associates with a Stalinist and totalitarian attitude). When I picture its settings, all I see is gray. Even its scenes in nature, its African mock-pastoral, are washed-out and dry. No one would read this book for pleasure; none would wish it longer; and, given its violation of contemporary gender theory, no one would read it for its politics alone. There is some X-factor, some je ne sais quoi, missing from this novel that makes one feel it isn’t a masterpiece despite its staggering and forbidding intelligence. It’s a novel that argues for something beyond intelligence in the approach to human affairs, and yet it can’t deliver much beyond a stunning portrait of intelligence in disarray, in ruins. If you believe that bourgeois art is under the obligation to  destroy itself absolutely to prepare the way, via some negative dialectic, for the coming of the Other or of Utopia, then you should admire Lessing’s novel unreservedly. It is much more thorough in this absolute negativity than are, say, Beckett or Bernhard, at whose novels I am always too busy laughing to feel properly chastened. The Golden Notebook is without consolation and without compensation; it is utterly remorseless, it makes you want to jump off the nearest bridge. I am myself incorrigibly petit bourgeois, so I can’t think this anything but an artistic fault, if a minor one; but people of greater revolutionary rigor than myself ought to ditch the court jesters of western civilization that they typically champion and hand out copies of The Golden Notebook on street-corners instead.



  1. […] Knut Hamsun’s Hunger is the testimony of a brilliant, deranged male intellectual, one in a long line from Hamlet to Baudelaire to Bernhard, who passes through a period of starved mania and impoverishment in Oslo; it’s one of those prophetic books that defines the themes of the next century, and encouraging in that Hamsun came from an obscurity very like his hero’s to write it.  I next read Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, both of which I treated at length on my blog (see here and here).  […]

Comments are closed.