March 17, 2018

Lessing's Golden Notebook

On this day in 1962, Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook was published. It is the most highly-praised and still the best-selling of her two-dozen books. Lessing described it as an attempt "to break certain forms of consciousness and go beyond them"; she also said that the novel became "an albatross" hung around her neck by a feminist misreading. In this excerpt, Anna Wulf (the autobiographical heroine, writer of the notebooks) talks with her friend, Molly, about how others perceive the two of them superficially, and as almost interchangeable people:
    . . . 'When we're so different in every way,' said Molly, 'it's odd. I suppose because we both live the same kind of life--not getting married and so on. That's all they see.'
    'Free women,' said Anna, wryly. She added, with an anger new to Molly, so that she earned another quick scrutinising glance from her friend: 'They still define us in terms of relationships with men, even the best of them.'
    'Well, we do, don't we?' said Molly, rather tart. 'Well, it's awfully hard not to,' she amended, hastily, because of the look of surprise Anna now gave her. There was a short pause, during which the women did not look at each other but reflected that a year apart was a long time, even for an old friendship.
    Molly said at last, sighing: 'Free. Do you know, when I was away, I was thinking about us, and I've decided that we're a completely new type of woman. We must be, surely?'
In volume two of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade, Lessing elaborates on her regret that ""Feminists discovered the book, in Britain, in the States, in Scandinavia, and it became the 'Bible of the Women's Movement.' A book that had been planned so coolly was read, I thought, hysterically":
    That novel had a framework made by thinking. The thought was to divide off and compartmentalise living was dangerous and led to nothing but trouble. Old, young; black, white; men, women; capitalism, socialism: these great dichotomies undo us, force us into unreal categorisation, make us look for what separates us rather than what we have in common.... That is why I have always seen The Golden Notebook as a failure: a failure in my terms, of what I had meant. For has this book changed by an iota our tendency to think like computers set to sort everything -- people, ideas, history -- into boxes? No, it has not.
Lessing's autobiography describes a lifelong struggle with boxes: flight from her parents at fifteen; from her husband and two children at twenty-one; from Rhodesia, her Communist beliefs and her second husband at thirty; from bourgeois living and predictable opinion throughout. Even in interviews given while in her eighties, it is hard not to hear Lessing's impatience or to imagine her sitting still. When offered the title of Dame of the British Empire she refused, saying that there was no British Empire, and that being a Dame was a "pantomimey" tradition which she did not care to join. She did accept the Golden PEN Award for a Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature (2002), because it was awarded by writers and by an organization which she respects (though, in presenting the award, Hermione Lee referred to The Golden Notebook as "a key moment in feminist writing"). In a newspaper article just after her 2007 Nobel Prize, Lessing was still shaking her head: "So I became 'a feminist icon.' But what had I said...? That any kind of singlemindedness, narrowness, obsession, was bound to lead to mental disorder, if not madness."

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