The Pequod Review:
The Golden Notebook is the story of Anna Wulf, a struggling young writer who keeps four notebooks, each one a different color. The black notebook records her youth in war-torn West Africa. The blue notebook is a more conventional diary, describing her romantic relationships and personal reflections. The red one covers her life in London, with a focus on her intellectual and political development. The yellow notebook is used to record the novel she is trying to write. A fifth book, the golden notebook, emerges later in the novel and attempts to integrate all of Anna’s experiences.
Doris Lessing does so much so well in this book. Through Anna’s notebooks, she deals with big themes in an intelligent and refreshingly original way. She discusses the growing disillusionment with communism (especially following Khrushchev’s 1956 address), the rise of feminism and sexual politics, the difficulties of modern motherhood, and the tensions between women’s intellectual interests and biological needs. She deals with small themes too, like body odors, the reluctance of most women to discuss sexual matters even with close friends, and the practical difficulties of obtaining birth control.
Throughout the novel, Lessing offers honest and perceptive commentary on the conflicting desires of modern women — desires that don’t fit neatly into conventional political/feminist categories:
Sometimes I dislike women, I dislike us all, because of our capacity for not-thinking when it suits us; we choose not to think when we are reaching out for happiness.
I am always amazed, in myself and in other women, at the strength of our need to bolster men up. This is ironical, living as we do in a time of men’s criticizing us for being “castrating.” For the truth is, women have this deep instinctive need to build a man up as a man… I suppose this is because real men become fewer and fewer, and we are frightened, trying to create men.
For with my intuition I knew that this man was repeating a pattern over and over again: courting a woman with his intelligence and sympathy, claiming her emotionally; then, when she began to claim in return, running away. And the better a woman was, the sooner he would begin to run. I knew this with my intuition, and yet I sat there in my dark room, looking at the hazed wet brilliance of the purple London night sky, longing with my whole being.
Elsewhere, Anna describes her inability to express herself and the inadequacy of the written word:
I don't know why I still find it so hard to accept that words are faulty and by their very nature inaccurate… Words. Words. I play with words, hoping that some combination, even a chance combination, will say what I want. Perhaps better with music? But music attacks my inner ear like an antagonist, it's not my world. The fact is, the real experience can't be described. I think, bitterly, that a row of asterisks, like an old-fashioned novel, might be better. Or a symbol of some kind, a circle perhaps, or a square. Anything at all, but not words. The people who have been there, in the place in themselves where words, patterns, order, dissolve, will know what I mean and others won't. But once having been there, there's a terrible irony, a terrible shrug of the shoulders, and it's not a question of fighting it, or disowning it, or of right or wrong, but simply knowing it is there, always. It's a question of bowing to it, so to speak, with a kind of courtesy, as to an ancient enemy: All right, I know you are there, but we have to preserve the forms, don't we? And perhaps the condition of your existing at all is precisely that we preserve the forms, create the patterns - have you thought of that?
And I imagine both men and women will experience the shock of recognition in her discussions of youthful insecurities and educational dogmas:
Because I was permanently confused, dissatisfied, unhappy, tormented by inadequacy, driven by wanting towards every kind of impossible future, the attitude of mind described by 'tolerantly amused eyes' was years away from me. I don't think I really saw people then, except as appendages to my needs. It's only now, looking back, that I understood, but at the time I lived in a brilliantly lit haze, shifting and flickering according to my changing desires. Of course, that is only a description of being young.
Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: 'You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being molded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.'
These insights are a constant delight throughout the book, but unfortunately they exist within a structure that doesn’t quite work as a novel. The four-book framework is forced and awkward, and despite Lessing’s generally solid prose, her dialogue is often stiff and unrealistic. But it’s a great book anyway, a courageous and honest one that captures the conflicting emotions of modern life.