Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Doris Lessing, "The Golden Notebook"


Read from November 18th to December 13th 2012
My rating:

While living under Ceausescu's regime, in those days that even today I'm not able to remember without a combination of sadness and irritation, I used to be very angry with Western Socialist and Communist Parties that dared to continue to exist in spite of the big revelations of the Gulags and the murders and the terror. I was thinking then that the persistence of such organizations could be explained either by a naive and blind idealism nurtured under the wing of a comfortable capitalist democracy, or else by a pragmatic acknowledgment of such horrors (errors happen!), since to protest against them would signify to deny the success of this ideology – meaning that the famous phrase, "The Party is never wrong" had the same power outside the communist countries it had inside them.
Both my assumptions were, unfortunately, true, and are widely illustrated in Doris Lessing’s remarkable novel, The Golden Notebook; in a particularly significant scene, Michael, learning that three friends of him were hanged in  Czechoslovakia,
... explained, with much political subtlety, why it was impossible that the Party should frame and hang innocent people; and that these three had perhaps got themselves, without meaning to, into 'objectively' anti-revolutionary positions.

Of course, the political idealism isn't the only myth desecrated by the author: page after page she proves to us that there is no such thing as liberated woman, free spirit, true love...
Using an ingenious narrative composition, Doris Lessing builds her novel using, apparently, two different voices: an impersonal one (the omniscient narrator) when telling the story of two "Free Women" – Anna and Molly, but also when explaining or describing the notebooks, and Anna's voice (first person narrator) for the four notebooks (black, blue, yellow and red) and also for the fifth, the golden one, for Anna, seeing herself as a "woman of parts", keeps four notebooks that compartmentalize her life in four sections, in a desperate attempt to find a refugee in one of them whenever she feels like failing another.
The black notebook is the portrait of successful-Anna: she had published a novel, Frontiers of War, very well received by the public. In this notebook, she keeps a summary of the novel and also the description of some events in her life that inspired it. She records propositions she received to make films TV series, etc., based on her story, which she usually refuses. Some amusing reviews from Soviet papers are also gathered in this notebook, that keep complaining about the lack of revolutionary life in her novel in a parody of the wooden language well-known in the socialist countries. The final entry tells of a dream she dreamt about a TV film in which she didn't recognize her story anymore, dream that implies the author-Anna ceased to exist, estranged from her work the moment it was finished.
The red notebook shows (of course) the communist-Anna. It begins with her decision to adhere to the Communist Party even if her enthusiasm is somehow shattered by the events in the Eastern Europe:
...while most of the criticisms of the Soviet Union are true, there must be a body of people biding their time there, waiting to reverse the present process back to real socialism.
This is a Anna who fights hard to conserve her illusions, despite the evidence of dishonesty, cruelty, terror, a Anna who keeps lying herself that Stalin and other communist leaders didn't know about all the murders and abuses because to accept they did would mean to admit that there is no such thing as decent democracy (We thought this of Ceausescu, too, for a while). Finally she has to accept it, however, and she leaves the Party, because  
... the one form of experience people are incapable of learning from is the political experience.
Therefore, communist-Anna is also an illusion.
The yellow notebook reveals the in-love-Anna who tries to give a sense to her feeling translating it into art. Her story becomes Ella's story, a love-story destined to end just from the beginning because she chose not to see that her relationship with Peter Michael was barren and limited. However, the dénouement leaves Ella ̸ Anna disoriented and nor even literature can offer the cathartic liberation:
Literature is analysis after the event.(...) The physical quality of life, that's living, and not the analysis afterwards, or the moments of discord or premonition.
So the attempt to ennoble and free Anna by objectifying her feelings failed:
I see Ella, walking slowly about a big empty room, thinking, waiting. I, Anna, see Ella. Who is, of course, Anna. But that is the point, for she is not.
Finally, the blue notebook, the inner-Anna is a diary in which the same problem arises: Anna's true identity and her possible salvation. But the others Annas crowd this notebook as they crowded the others, and the same stories are reanalyzed and the same answers not found. No wonder the last entry confesses about a dream of multiple Annas, all menaced to disappear forever.
Like firmly and noisily shut doors, every notebook chapter of Anna's life closes with a black line: the end of another illusion. And this is where I agree with Llosa – this is no feminist book, even though feminist groups tried to appropriate it as such – this is, in fact, a very pessimistic novel about failure on every level: social, sentimental, political.
The golden notebook is the last attempt towards freedom. And freedom seems to be order, and order is Art.
I was faced with the burden of re-creating order out of the chaos that my life had become.
And now the five sections under the title "Free Women" make sense: the impersonal narrative voice could be Anna's auctorial voice and the narrative structure could be meant to illustrate the complicated  relationship between author, narrator and character when the character is the author and the limits between art and life (within the story, though, don't forget this!) are blurred, and the creation is a two-way street from  the author creating the character  to... the other way around.
As some character says: "There are the two women you are, Anna. Write down: The two women were alone in the London flat.'" There are in fact, at least, three.


  1. Wow, 5 stele! N-am citit nimic de Doris Lessing, recunosc că nu prea m-a atras până acum în mod deosebit, dar mi-ai trezit interesul cu recenzia ta. N-am citit până la final, de teama spoilerelor, însă ideea acestor caiete prin care personajul și-a compartimentat viața mi se pare tare interesantă. Nu mă așteptam să conțină și o temă legată de comunism. Ai mai citit și altceva de Lessing care ți-a plăcut?

    1. Haha, cum se văd diacriticele de pe tabletă!

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Tot ce am citit de ea mi-a placut. Scrie excelent, este una dintre preferatele mele. Foarte interesant (si in cu totul alt registru) este The Fifth Child

      cred ca te-ar interesa si pe tine