Dan Sandman

49: The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

In Books, Fiction on 06/12/2013 at 12:00 pm

The Golden Notebook by Doris LessingIt is possible to divide our lives up under different headings. But what if you divided your life up into four notebooks to write about four areas of your life? For example, personally speaking, I could write about the following five areas of my life: –

  1. Work (guitar teacher devoted to my students)
  2. Artist (composing music and writing lyrics)
  3. Family and Society (social interactions with the wider world)
  4. Emotions (something mysterious within the wider universe)
  5. Life (all of the above)

This could form a book that if well written, would draw a portrait of my life as a three dimensional human being. This is what Doris Lessing did with her character Anna Wulf in two stages. Firstly, Lessing presented Anna’s story as a short novel of around sixty thousand words. And secondly, she composed a series of diary like notebooks, each with a different topic and style like so: –

  1. Black (young woman living in Africa before and during WWII)
  2. Red (member of the communist party during the cold war)
  3. Yellow (a story Anna has written about a woman called Ella)
  4. Blue (experiences with psychoanalysis and newspaper cuttings)
  5. Golden (an attempt to bring everything together)

By forming Anna’s story in such a manner, Lessing brings to the forefront of the book – from what I can deduce – three major themes: what Lessing has referred to, in the book’s introduction, as ‘the artistic sensibility’; a strong critique of the politics of the time; and a focus on 1950’s sexual relationships. Essentially, by breaking up the traditional form of the novel, I think Lessing was able to highlight both the personal and political problems of a generation.

During the course of the long novel, Anna suffers from bad mental health and has problems integrating with society in a positive way. Although she is a brilliant and intelligent woman, Anna struggles with anxiety and – as Lessing has said – what Marxist refer to as ‘alienation’. Writing the notebooks is a way for Anna to ‘find herself’ again and to reinvent herself as an artist. By transforming her world into words, Anna is able to look at herself clearly in the mirror and come to terms with her place in the wider world.

But this important book is far more than ‘writing as therapy’ or simply an experiment with form in order to prevent writer’s block. It is a deeply layered, challenging (in the best possibly way), Nobel Prize winning (not that prizes are always fairly given) book that encourages its readers to think deeply about what it means to be alive.

This year Doris Lessing died: her work lives on.


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