The Golden Notebook —By Doris Lessing

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Book Review

This novel incarnates an amazing power and a vast relevance to these days. It is easy to forget that it was written in the 50s, as we are still discussing the subjects of the book, which are all different, although they make part of the same woman’s life. These woman’s thoughts are full of contradictions between being a communist and racist, between being a feminist and a homophobic, between being a good partner to her men and a lousy mother to her daughter.

The book narrates the life of Anna Wulf, an independent writer, communist and in a certain way a feminist. She has a dear friend, Molly. I found this friendship to be dysfunctional, or at least to accentuate the dysfunctional personalities of both women individually, which causes great damage to them and their children. The entire book is narrated by Anna. It is not divided in titles or chapters, which made the reading difficult. However, it is interesting how the author changes subjects, dividing the book in notebooks, black, red, yellow and blue. It is still disorganised, as she changes subjects and colours as she writes, but one can follow the sequence of the changes when getting used to what she is talking about.

Anna, the protagonist,  writes in the yellow notebook (essays about Elle, a fictional character she comments about) of the struggles of women on relationships and motherhood. It is raw, the description of the predatory behaviour of men, especially the married men, who are never satisfied at home, who are always looking for affairs to escape the routine of their wives and their children, who they barely see. It is not only the fact that the whole responsibility lies on the wives to keep the house clean, the children cared for and the husband happy. It is also the fact that when they find the affair, they also leave an emotional mess on that side of the spectrum. The blame not only goes to men, but to the women on the other side of the story, financially independent, well educated women, who despite thinking they are in charge of the situation of being mistresses, they are naïve. At the end, not only they end up in love, disappointed and abandoned, but also they cannot leave the pattern they started with. They are, one time after the other, picked up by the same type of men, to have the same story, with the same devastating results. In some conversations between Elle and her friend Julie, they discuss the fact that sometimes they have to sleep with men they are not attracted to, only because men have fragile egos, and it is better not to offend them. Even when sleeping with them, women get blamed for their malfunctioning. Women are ‘castrating’, or ‘not good in bed’, or ‘too emotional’. They tend to over analyse the reactions, the phrases, the attitudes of men, only to quickly forget about the signals showing the abuse and the lack of love.

It was important though, and I think it created a stir in the 50s, Lessing’s discussions about frigidity, menstruation and orgasms. She comments as a problem that women can only have vaginal orgasms with men they actually love (a theory of the author, quite disturbing as it is traditional), which limits completely their freedom. She said that a woman has the right to move from one man to the other if she finds no pleasure (again back to progressive). She also talks about menstruations, (very progressive, a difficult subject to address), but she picture it as a problem, something that make women smell bad, feel backward, depressive and not themselves.

In the black book one find notes about ‘The Frontiers of War’, a book that Anna wrote after her experience in Africa with a group of English men and women who were trying to ‘instruct’ the African population to rebel against racism and colonialism. This story was not a favourite to me, but it was rebelling on the fact that despite these people went to Africa with good intentions, they could not overcome their own biases. They were the ones supposed to teach the Africans how to organise themselves, they were supposed to teach them what to do and how to start a rebellion. They were arrogant, they could not get over the feeling of being superior to the locals. This story intertwist with the red book. Anna hated her book ‘The Frontiers of War’, a story of that time in Africa, as she thought that part of the past was swallowing her present situation. The book sold pretty well anyway, what supported her financially while she committed her time to volunteer her work for the English Communist Party. Since Africa, she was a believer. Apparently many people were in the 50s in the UK. However, as time passes by and she returns to London, she starts realising the abuses of Stalin back in the URSS, she starts hearing rumours of East Berlin being a ‘terrifying place, bleak, grey, ruinous, but above all the atmosphere, the lack of freedom like an invisible poison continually spreading everywhere’. She, and her lover, (who had friends tagged as traitors for no reason and killed in the URSS) discussed all the time the contradictions of being a communist. At the end one of the characters (Molly) screams at her superiors, after receiving no answer about the killings of communists in the URSS, ‘…You’ve got to learn to tell the truth and stop all this hole-and-corner conspiracy and telling lies about things’, Sentence that could be presently applied to both left and right political parties around the world.

The blue book is no less contradictory, although no less important. It is based on Anna’s relationship with her friend Molly, a character much more dominant, sometimes reckless and stubborn. Molly is more ‘wordily-wise’, while Anna is more ‘talented’. It seems to me that Molly was just grabbing Anna into her messy life. Molly had been married to Richard and both shared a son, Tommy. Molly and Richard had many differences, including their political believes. Molly was a convinced communist while Richard was an entrepreneur and a capitalist. Richard was married to Marion, but constantly having affairs, which caused Marion to become an alcoholic, and that was another part of the fight. But the most important was the disagreement on how to raise Tommy, that at his 20s was nothing of the character of each. He was resentful of being raised as a political entity, but constantly abandoned with his emotions to leave on his own. His father wanted him to work with him in his company but his mother disapproved, and he did as well. But Tommy was not a communist, we was a confused teenager trying to do the right thing. He felt scrutinized in every part of his life (which he was) and he ended up being a bad student, a resentful person, who could not trust anyone. Anna got caught up in the middle, always supporting Molly, without even agreeing to her, something she never told her. Tommy looked up to Anna, but she feared him, his facial expressions full of hate, his erratic behaviour, his depressive character. Tommy tried to kill himself, which made things more complicated. After that, Molly was having breakdowns one after the other, especially when she and Anna discussed Tommy’s cynicism and the fact that he was happy being blind and ruining his and his mother’s life. In this story there are conflicts of motherhood, of friendship, of the twisted relationships between couples, of the homophobic feelings that were awakening on Anna towards Ivor, her roommate, and his partner.

I truly realise the importance of this book. It is precisely the contradictions on Anna’s thoughts, feelings and reactions what give us a glimpse into the English society of the 50s. My astonishment is that we are not any different now. Women are still not free, not equal, to men. Racism and homophobia are still out there creating discrimination and abuse. And we might think communism has been already beaten by democracy. Probably. But not the conspiracy theories, not the fake news. They are still here. Dominating, making people confuse, making people follow.

I have read some reviews where the author, Doris Lessing, gets personally blamed for what Anna, her character in the Golden Notebook thought about men, women, communism, racism, homophobia. It is not clear to me that those were the personal feelings of the author. I see it more as a critic to a society’s corruption. To the way of doing things. To how things were made and are still being made.

Great reading! 100% recommended.

Luz

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