Book Review: The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing


Before reading The Golden Notebook I had read two other novels by Doris Lessing. The Summer Before The Dark I really enjoyed. I also enjoyed The Fifth Child, and it was so disturbing. But I felt like I hadn’t really read Lessing yet–The Golden Notebook is the only Lessing title people seem to know. And by saying that people know the title, I mean very literally that, people know the title. Hard to find someone that has actually read the book. And of course Lessing’s 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature means that legions more know the title but not the book. So I felt I had a mission. Kind of like I did with that other, much thicker, door stop I read this year War and Peace. I read it because it was there. And because one can’t claim to know the author until the magnum opus is read. And because I narcissistically wanted to be able to say, “oh yes, I’ve read that.”

And like War and Peace, The Golden Notebook was at times brilliant, and enthralling, and well, at times, a bit of a slog. I had also read about 200 pages of this 635-page book when I picked up the 1358-page War and Peace. So I think I first started The Golden Notebook back in September and have read eleven other books since then. Needless to say my reading experience suffered somewhat from such a long, drawn out read. The good thing is that there were so many things that made me stop and think along the way, that I put post-it notes through the book as I read. So now as I crack open the early chapters to see what I was thinking about months ago, I hope there is adequate fodder for a decent review.

To sum up the story (and the whole notebook thingy). Anna Wulf is keeping four notebooks. A black one where she writes about her experiences in Africa. A red one in which she writes about her political life as a member of the Communist Party in Britain. A yellow one that contains a novel she is writing. And a blue one in which she keeps her diary.  And then at the end she chucks all those aside and writes a golden notebook where she decides to tie it all together. (I think this may be the source of the title…)

I know there are bloggers out there who love this book, and I can understand why. There is much to like and be fascinated by, and much that is intellectually and emotionally engaging. By the time I got to the end I found it somewhat hard to really say I liked this book, even though I know there were about at least 400 pages that I really did enjoy.

And since this “review” is starting to become as sprawling as Anna and her amazing technicolor notebooks I am going to go back and look at my post-it notes and just take the thoughts as they come.

Post-It Note #1
An entry in the black notebook which takes place in Africa during World War II, has the following interesting insight which had never occurred to me before:

There was another reason for cynicism…This war was presented to us as a crusade against the evil doctrines of Hitler, against racialsm, etc., yet the whole of that enormous land-mass, about half the total area of Africa, was conducted on precisely Hitler’s assumption–that some human beings are better than others because of their race.

Post-It Notes #2, 3, 4, and 5
I have no idea why I thought these passages were important enough to tag. At some point I felt I had something I wanted to say about these, but as I go back and read them, I have no clue what that might have been. I guess next time I should write something on those post-its.

Oh god, I have lost track of the number of post-its that make no sense to me now. I remember being struck as I read by how serious the whole Communist thing was back in the 1950s and 1960s. Not just the “menace” to the capitalist West, but the fact that the Communist Party had (and has) legs in Europe that it never really grew in the U.S. Of course we had those delightful communist witch hunts that might have put a damper on things

And there was one passage that I really wanted to write about, that I now seem to have misplaced, that occurred in the yellow notebook–the one in which the main character is writing a novel. As I read this particular passage I was struck by the levels of the narrative. It made me want to make a graphic. Without being able to find the passage I think I have it characterized correctly below:

Did you follow all of that? Doesn’t this beg a really big question? Why in the world did Lessing have to bury the story behind so many layers of narrative? I know that a big part of the story is the complexity of Anna’s life and mind and writing and everything else, but it just seemed to me after about page 500 that it could have been done differently. I know, I know the book is genius, I am being too simplistic, etc. Lessing tackles so many things, gender, sex, mental health, racism, politics, and so on. But by the end I just didn’t care. There is also much, especially in the last 200 pages that just seems way to overwrought with meaning. If my everyday life was full of the much portent I think I would need to be admitted to care.

Lovers of The Golden Notebook, don’t be too hard on me. There were many things that I got and appreciated. This is truly a book that deserves close study in any number of disciplines. But overall I got to the point where I just didn’t care. I will continue to read Lessing’s novels. They are fascinating, and so far no two have been alike. And even this one that I found frustrating had way too much that was good and interesting to give it a bad review. Although I realize it may sound like that is exactly what I am doing. Like Anna, I am a complex, confusing, person.