Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook

dorislessig
I kept postponing writing this review because I had no idea where to start. I hoped reading other reviews and another book might have helped me. It didn’t. I’m falling back on the technique of telling that I had no idea how to start the review and feminism. I, too, wish I had a more original approach.

Lessing said she didn’t view this as a ‘feminist work’. Others have agreed with. They pointed to Anna Wulf’s character, who is overflowing with flaws. Her whole mind is in fragments and she can’t help but be attracted to guys who have no problem cheating on their wives. Then there is Africa and communism and a story-within-a-story. It’s like someone took that Tove Lo concept album, mixed it with a Rage Against the Machine and Drums of Death record and didn’t trim the weaker tracks.

My interpretation of feminism is different than others. Many think feminism is giving a female character a gun and letting her shoot everyone down. You can teach a man to fish, but it doesn’t mean you know him. Whether we’re putting women in the kitchen, factories or in the front lines doesn’t matter. We’re still putting them in roles.

What Lessing does here is what many a male author did – Salinger, Bellow, Heller. She dumps all her problems and the ugliness inside on the page with hope of making sense of it all. These type of novels can be cathartic, but they can also lead to a lot of rambling if there’s no idea to bind them together.

Lessing at least attempts that. The whole structure is an attempt to look at every problem on its own. It means every album gets the spotlight for a considerable page-count. It also means that it takes a long time before we return to it, which forces the reader to re-focus, recall a lot of previous details and push back what he just read.

The problem is that Lessing has a lot to say about everything. Paragraphs stretch for pages. If this was a small novel that gave a brief taste of everything and asked us to focus on the big picture, it’d be fine. The problem is that you’re always zooming in. When you spend hours staring at a fifth of a painting, it becomes the painting itself. It’s full of big pictures.

There’s a reason connected novels are published separately. That’s because each has to be readable and be read on its own. It has to be a big picture, too. Chapters should also stand on their own, of course. However, they can’t be a big picture on their own. Cut them from the novel and you lose something.

Lessing reminds me of George Martin (only with far more writing skill). She has so much information to convey, but much of it is too separate to allow you to focus on it. Each of the sections could stand on their own as a novel. Maybe making this a series where the line between novels isn’t chronology but the subject would make it easier to read. It’d be a pretty cool idea that many others will imitate, too.

It’s a shame, because Lessing is otherwise a great author. She rambles, of course. Her labyrnith of thoughts doesn’t flow as well as Auster and is too big. Still, her ideas are fascinating. The section about communism is one of the more mature treatment of the subject I’ve seen. We often encounter either pro or con. We’re told that either communism failed or that it just wasn’t really tested. Sometimes there are even rational arguments to back these up, but Lessing has empathy for all sides. She critiques isn’t pointed at who’s right, but at what causes the discussions to fall.

Her writings about The Female Experience are even better. This is where the whole feminism thing rears its head, and where I find Anna Wulf’s dysfunctional character as feminist. If men are allowed to have their labyrniths of thought, so do women.

Lessing doesn’t care about empowerment. Like Atwood, she just thinks a woman’s life deserves as much attention as a man’s. If men are allowed to psychanalyze themselves using literature, so do women. If there is any conclusion here, it’s that men and women are more similar than they are different.

It seems there is no actual difference between men and women. They all have the same wants and needs. The problems are when we take gender seriously. The two gay men aren’t very different, but the fact they’re attracted to men rather than women casts a shadow over them. It’s this little thing that disgusts Anna Wulf, although they are otherwise fine.

It’s also interesting how the romantic struggle isn’t with loneliness, but with Bad Guys. That seems to be a common theme in any female work of art that deals with heartbreak. Males are trapped in loneliness. There is suffocating loneliness in songs like “Forget Her”. Then you read this, Atwood and listen to Tove Lo’s album and it’s a world where nobody is lonely. There is always someone giving you attention and wanting you. They just don’t want you in the way you want them to want you.

Me and a friend discussed this often. What’s worse? The unwanted attention or the loneliness? We haven’t found an answer yet. Maybe we don’t need to. Maybe asking questions like these are what set up the barriers between men and women. Even if Lessing’s character and Tove Lo will never know the loneliness of being invisible, we somehow all end up with hearbreak and frustrated with the ideal of romance.

I wish Lessing was more brief and focused with these themes. Her labyrniths of thoughts are so dense that you’re too busy figuring out where you are to stop and enjoy the ideas she scattered around. I don’t want a literature of answers. I don’t mind it an author throws me to a maze full of ideas that I will never understand 100%. When an author makes you feel too lost, you give up looking.

There are also a bunch of interior monologues. I keep thinking that intenral monologues are either your whole story, or you don’t put them at all. She’s a bit more stylish, but the whole method goes against what she’s doing. She’s bringing her characters to life using interactions and sitations. There are plenty of these that are amusing enough. A monologue only serves to stop the story to tell us what’s happening. Interior monlogues only work if the whole story is supposed to trap us in the character’s head, like the film Pi. In books like this or the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, the action is the core of the story.

Her character also lives a relatively good life. She just lives off royalties from a book she published and rent money. She ‘struggles with ideas’, but it feels like the typical struggle of a privileged person who got it all sort out. Anna even have guys falling for her all the time. I’ve had those ‘philosophical struggles’ too, and I also come from a privileged background. Just sitting around and thinking doesn’t help. It’s self-defeating. You won’t get anything resembling an answer if your questions aren’t directed at the world. My whole life right now is a ‘philosophical struggle’, trying to make sense of everything. I won’t get anywhere lying around like Anna though. That’s why I read all these books and write all these reviews. Maybe if Anna did something other than talk to herself her ‘philosophical struggle’ would have been more engrossing. Talking to yourself often becomes a sick cycle of self-affirmation.

Although it’s a deeply flawed work, it’s also one that’s overflowing with ideas, interesting situations and good writing. The word ‘overflowing’ is truly the best description. There is enough here to make it worth reading, and it is something I want to return to later. It’s too much, however. It lacks the elegance of a truly brilliant work, one with a focus that can’t be swayed.

3 cheating husbands out of 5

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