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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 22 May 2020

"The Golden Notebook" by Doris Lessing

Anne Freeman (the surname must mean something) lives off the earnings of her first, best-selling novel while doing volunteer work for the communist party and trying to decide whether to write another one. Her friend Molly, an actress, has a son called Tommy, a grown-up teenager who is living with his mother while he tries to decide what to do which probably won't involve working for Richard, his industrial tycoon father. Both Anne and Molly are mothers living with their children but separate from the fathers of their children.

Anna is trying to record her experiences (possibly in preparation for writing another novel) in a series of coloured notebooks. These notebooks hold stories that she is writing about other independent women in circumstances similar to those of Anna and Molly, but sometimes reversed. Thus, by dipping in between the notebooks, we can get a variety of perspectives on the experience of women. Mostly, it would appear, these women have affairs with married men. The men are seeking sex, a bit on the side, although many of them (eight out of ten one of the female characters estimates) are impotent or ejaculate prematurely, but the women are seeking love, or at least sex which has sufficient emotion within it for them to achieve an orgasm. At the same time the women have a variety of jobs, although they all seem to be tangentially artistic, and are endeavouring the make the world a better place, mostly through the communist party which itself is undergoing fractures and schisms as Stalin dies but the old guard survive.

She thinks a great deal about the relationships between men and women but she never describes any long-term relationship in which the partners are not busy betraying one another. Male-female relations are, in this book, temporary and shifting alliances and nobody is satisfied because men are seeking to dominate and women are seeking fulfilment which they can't get because all the men are too damn childish.

I think it is meant to be post-modern. We have more or less the same story told from a number of perspectives. This is the device of the notebooks:

  • The black notebook is about Anne Wulf, nee Freeman. We learn about her psychiatric sessions, and about her dreams, amongst other things. She has a lot of very exciting dreams. It got to the stage where my heart sank as she recounted yet another dream.
  • The red notebook is about politics.
  • The yellow notebook holds stories made from Anna's experience.
  • The blue notebook tries to be a diary.
  • The golden notebook is about her relationship with an American lover which is recounted in moment-by-moment detail. There is an awful lot of moments of insight ... or are they just psychological claptrap. Mostly, I couldn't be bothered to analyse them.

At one stage Anne is dreaming about a film being made of her novel (or are they her memoirs?).
Then I understood that the director’s choice of shots, or of timing, was changing the ‘story’.” (p 461) This is a critical statement of the post-modern creed. She also realises that:
  • what I ‘remembered’ was probably untrue.” (p 462)
  • It doesn’t matter what we film, provided we film something.” (p 462)
Post-modernism in a nutshell?

There is an awful lot of pretentious dialogue. It starts with a huge block of dialogue between Anna and Molly and scarcely any action; this evolves into a three-way dialogue when Richard arrives.

It can be very tell don't show. For example (p 46):
"When the children were small she never saw you. Except when she had to entertain your business friends and organize posh dinner parties and all that nonsense. But nothing for herself. Then a man did get interested in her, and she was naive enough to think you wouldn’t mind—after all, you had said often enough, why don’t you get yourself a lover, when she complained of your girls. And so she had an affair and all hell let loose. You couldn’t stand it, and started threatening. Then he wanted to marry her and take the three children, yes, he cared for her that much. But no. Suddenly you got all moral, rampaging like an Old Testament prophet."

Doris Lessing says it is about fragmentation. OK. Certainly Anna seems to have a hard time making sense of her life and splits herself up into the first four notebooks; whether she us able to find coherence for the fourth is a moot point. There is one section where Anna's notebook contains the outlines for about twenty (I couldn't be bothered to count exactly) short stories. They all seem more or less the same and they seem connected to one another but Anna treats them as separate.

It is very much of its time (the early 1960s before the Beatles) . There are a lot of references to Jazz, particularly late Armstrong. There are multiple references to the McCarthy witch hunts of Communists and 'reds' in America. Stalin dies during the novel and the British Communist Party continues to split. There is concern about African independence and the shadow of total annihilation through an atom bomb war hangs over everything.

I imagine it was a great success when it was published because of the passages in which she discusses sex from a woman's point of view with great frankness.

It reminded me quite a lot of the work of William Burroughs. It has the same technique of using fragmentation to achieve multiple perspectives. It is equally explicit about sex (in his case gay sex). There were moments when it was just as self indulgent. The difference is that a novel by Burroughs is short, so you can hang on to the coherence while you explore it; but this book is much, much longer.

It will be said that I didn't relish this book because it was written about feminism and I am a poor benighted male, trapped in my inadequacies. Perhaps. But writers are, first and foremost, professional communicators and they should be able to do more than preach to the choir.

There are lots of great moments:
  • “At the back of my mind I always thought, well, I’ll get married, so it doesn’t matter my wasting all the talents I was born with” (p 27)
  • “What is this security and balance that’s supposed to be so good? What’s wrong with living emotionally from hand-to-mouth in a world that’s changing as fast as it is?” (p 31)
  • “Why do I always have this awful need to make other people see things as I do? It’s childish, why should they?” (p 31)
  • “After all, men have certain practical difficulties ...  I couldn’t get a hard on with Marion. Is that clear enough for you?” (p 47)
  • “His mouth moved in the act of eating as it did in the act of speaking, every word separate, each berry whole and separate.” (p 50)
  • “His lips even made small preliminary movements before a mouthful, like an old person’s. Or like a blind man, thought Anna, recognizing the movement; once she had sat opposite a blind man on the train.” (p 50)
  • “Sightless eyes that seemed as if they were clouded with introspection.” (p 50)
  • “I know what I don’t want, but not what I do want.” (p 53)
  • “If I have to earn money, I can always be a teacher.” (p 53)
  • “You write and write in notebooks, saying what you think about life, but you lock them up, and that’s not being responsible.” (p 55)
  • “I’m angry about all the people I know who fritter themselves away.” (p 57)
  • “He’s no worse than some of the morons I’ve slept with.” (p 59)
  • “When you’re eating with the devil the spoon has got to be not only a long one, but made of asbestos” (p 74)
  • “This war was presented to us as a crusade against the evil doctrines of Hitler, against racialism, 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.” (p 78)
  • “Right through the war, the correspondence columns of the papers were crammed with arguments about whether it was safe to put so much as a pop-gun into the hands of any African soldier since he was likely to turn it against his white masters” (p 79)
  • “Inherent in the structure of a Communist Party or group is a self-dividing principle. Any Communist Party anywhere exists and perhaps even flourishes by this process of discarding individuals or groups; not because of personal merits or demerits, but according to how they accord with the inner dynamism of the Party at any given moment.” (p 80)
  • “He was a man who had understood from the beginning that there is one law for the rich and one for the poor. “ (p 124)
  • “Every woman believes in her heart that if her man does not satisfy her she has a right to go to another.” (p 142)
  • The second notebook, the red one
  • “the literary world ... is a world so prissy, maiden-auntish; so class-bound; or, if it’s the commercial side, so blatant, that any contact with it sets me thinking of joining the Party.” (p 151)
  • “We believed everything was going to be beautiful and now we know it won’t.” (p 155)
  • “We all of us seem to have this belief that things are going to get better? Why should they?” (p 158)
  • “There are hundreds and thousands of people, all over the country, simmering away in misery and no one cares.” (p 165)
  • “The weight of ugliness that is London in its faceless peripheral wastes” (p 168)
  • “The upper-middle-classes communicate with each other in inaudible squeaks, like bats.” (p 177)
  • “So you’d like to put a giant bulldozer over it all, over all England? ... Leaving just a few cathedrals and old buildings and a pretty village or two?” (p 179)
  • “We spend our lives fighting to get people very slightly more stupid than ourselves to accept truths that the great men have always known.” (p 196)
  • “You and I are the boulder-pushers. All our lives, you and I, we’ll put all our energies, all our talents, into pushing a great boulder up a mountain. The boulder is the truth that the great men know by instinct, and the mountain is the stupidity of mankind.” (p 196)
  • “The vaginal orgasm is a dissolving in a vague, dark generalized sensation like being swirled in a warm whirlpool.” (p 200)
  • “But her prospective novel about suicide envisaged the end as being the consummtion of the life.” (p 210)
  • “Literature is analysis after the event.” (p 210)
  • “I’ve spent three years, more, wrestling with my precious soul, and meanwhile… It’s just a matter of luck that I haven’t been tortured, murdered, starved to death or died in a prison.” (p 228)
  • “Am I saying that I can never come except with a man I love? Because what sort of a desert am I condemning myself to if that’s true?” (p 292)
  • “That ugly little jerk of Richard’s well-clothed buttocks matched her own just-concealed turmoil; and therefore it was hypocrisy to feel distaste.” (p 345)
  • “It is the majority of mankind who have their beings inside a religion, the minority who are pagan.” (p 387)
  • “Every man I’ve ever known has spoken with relish—either openly or unconsciously, about Lesbians. It’s an aspect of their incredible vanity: seeing themselves as redeemers of these lost females.” (p 399)
  • “What’s the use of us being free if they aren’t?” (p 404)
  • “It’s a question of form. People don’t mind immoral messages. They don’t mind art which says that murder is good, cruelty is good, sex for sex’s sake is good. They like it, provided the message is wrapped up a little. And they like messages saying that murder is bad, cruelty is bad, and love is love is love is love. What they can’t stand is to be told it all doesn’t matter, they can’t stand formlessness.” (p 417)
  • that are for the minority?’
  • “The generation after us are going to take one look at us, and get married at eighteen, forbid divorces, and go in for strict moral codes and all that, because the chaos otherwise is just too terrifying…” (p 448)
  • “A caricature of that young American we see in the films—sexy he-man, all balls and strenuous erection.” (p 484)
  • “I was lying in bed examining the phrase ‘in love’ as if it were the name of a disease I could choose not to have.” (p 488)
  • “In all of us brought up in a Western democracy there is this built-in belief that freedom and liberty will strengthen, will survive pressures, and the belief seems to survive any evidence against it.” (p 496)
  • “It is so dark in this flat, so dark, it is as if darkness were the shape of cold.” (p 530)
  • “It was unbelievably beautiful, the shape of death; and we stood watching in silence, until the silence was slowly invaded by a rustling, crawling, grating sound, and looking down we saw the grasshoppers, their gross tumbling fecundity inches deep, all around us.” (p 536)
  • “They have always known, they have known for ten thousand years, that to lock a human being into solitary confinement can make a madman of him or an animal. They have always known that a poor man frightened of the police and his landlord is a slave. They have always known that frightened people are cruel. They have always known that violence breeds violence.” (p 537)
  • “And I was unable to distinguish between what I had invented and what I had known, and I knew that what I had invented was all false.” (p 538)
  • “There’s only one real sin, and that is to persuade oneself that the second-best is anything but the second-best.” (p 562)
  • “There’s something about a man with a whacking great erection that it’s hard to resist.” (p 573)
May 2020; 577 pages

Books reviewed in this blog which have the word 'Golden' in their title include:

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