Book Review of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 1/20/08
There is an old joke among writers, poets mainly, about how one of the worst types of poems is that which involves a speaker talking about sitting in a café writing a poem about writing a poem. The Golden Notebook is essentially the novel equivalent of that—only this is about a writer trying to write a novel. Although Lessing is a much more skilled writer than many of those young poets who write poems about writing poems, The Golden Notebook is a novel which takes risks yet fails at them. Ironically, Lessing really is a great writer, and I’m not just saying that simply because now she’s got the Nobel to her name. She’s written some terrific short stories, and although I’m not very familiar with her long fiction, one can tell just by reading this book that she has a skill with words and a natural insight. The problems that reside with this book isn’t that she plays it safe or lacks insight, but that structurally the book is just a mess. First off, it is way too long—finishing at 635 pages it was one of those reads that felt that long. Just upon first read, I felt like at least half could have been cut.
The novel is centered around these four notebooks, and in them we have different things going on. The writer and main character in the tale is Anna Wulf, who is gathering her memoirs. Each notebook carries a different slant—such as the black one where she speaks of her early years in Africa, the red one where she speaks of her positions on Communism, a yellow one where she has a “novel within a novel” a character that is Anna Wulf’s alter ego, named Ella (also a writer), and finally the blue one where she has a personal diary. The thrust of the entire book then, is dependent upon gathering these four books together into a “Golden Notebook.”
As a writer myself, I admit to finding many of Anna Wulf’s thoughts on writing interesting, such as where she digresses on art and philosophy and a woman’s place within society’s guided strictures. Yet despite this, the character’s observations tend to get banal as she rambles a bit too much, and here is where the story begins to lack coherence. That is not to say that parts don’t cohere well—because certainly there are sections that flow smoothly. As a whole, however, reading all the character’s digressions felt more like an artistic experiment, as her tangents began to outweigh the focus of the tale. This, however, does not mean I think the work is lacking due to a straightforward “plot” but because the work itself is so embroidered by all this added flourish that focus becomes not necessarily lost, but forgotten.
This is where I thought that concision would have allowed her philosophical insights to resonate more, rather than causing them to drown in banal detours. For example, there are literally portions of the book where you are reading the character’s outlines for future short stories and writing projects. Chunks of the narrative become irrelevant and too much to bear. A lot what this book reminded me of, actually, is The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. Although Lessing is far better prose writer than Plath is in her diary (and in general), there were portions of this novel that felt like I could have been reading Plath’s journals. Why, do you ask? It is no surprise that writers will often talk about future writing projects as well as everyday minutia mixed in with existential queries on life within their diaries. And that is just what The Golden Notebook does. Someone might then claim, “yes, but that’s what she was intending to do and so because it really felt like a real diary in parts, then that means her structure worked.” Well no. First of all, although Plath’s journals have interesting and insightful moments, they are often drowned out by the minutia of her daily life—all 800 or so pages of it. Ditto goes for The Golden Notebook. And the “novel within the novel” portion of The Golden Notebook causes the reader to go back and forth between the real life character (Anna) to that of her alter-ego (Ella). Both are suffering from anxieties about their writing and so what one is left with is reading a book about a writer writing about her writing but also writing about a character who is a writer writing about her writing. Get all that? And as you are reading, one is forced to go back and forth between Anna and Ella, the non-fictional and the fictional. Unfortunately, having this constant switch off only leads to detachment felt for both characters.
I commend this book for taking risks and pushing boundaries. Yet the risks do not seem to work that well, for overall, as I mentioned, the novel is not a very coherent read. Again, that is not to imply I would have rather it been some safe, plot-driven piece of fluff. On the contrary. It just is way too long. Yet on the surface, with the philosophical and literary insights littered throughout, The Golden Notebook certainly sounds like an intriguing book, and to any lover of Lessing, I certainly recommend you giving it a shot. (Yet chances are you have already). But for those who want an introduction to Lessing, I do not believe that many would enjoy reading this. That’s not to say that readers would not enjoy parts, for I certainly enjoyed parts to it as well. But having said that, there were far too many moments where I found my eyes and mind wandering away from the matter at hand. The Golden Notebook reads far too much like a book about a book, a tale about a tale, an outline instead of a solid narrative one can latch onto. The meat is certainly there—that one can be sure of. Yet to catch it will require wading through far too many detours, and more than likely the walk back will feel too far to carry.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
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