Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Today In Literary History - Doris Lessing Publishes The Golden Notebook

On April 16, 1962, Doris Lessing published The Golden Notebook, still the most highly praised and bestselling of all her books.

The Golden Notebook tells the story of writer, Anna Wulf and the four notebooks in which she keeps a detailed record of her life, and her attempt to tie them all together in a fifth, gold-colored notebook. The structure of the novel is postmodern, complex, and non-linear. The book intersperses segments of the lives of Anna and her friend, Molly, their children, ex-husbands, and lovers, entitled Free Women, with excerpts from Anna’s four notebooks – one colored black (Anna’s experience in Central Africa before and during WWII); one colored red (Anna’s experience as a member of the Communist Party); one colored yellow (an ongoing novel based on the painful ending of Anna’s love affair); and one colored blue (Anna’s personal journal).

Each of the four notebooks is returned to four times, thus creating a non-chronological, overlapping narrative that interacts with every other narrative. This structure can make the book seem rather playful, but Lessing has insisted that her readers pay attention to the novel’s serious themes, among them women’s rights and struggles, the Cold War, and the threat of nuclear conflagration.

In Volume Two of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade, Lessing details her regret that The Golden Notebook became a “Bible of the Women’s Movement” and says, “A book that had been planned so coolly was read, I thought, hysterically.”

Strangely – or maybe not so strangely - Lessing has always considered the book a failure:

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.

Born in Iran in 1919, when Iran was still Persia, Lessing’s younger years were spent in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where her father failed to make his fortune at farming maize. At fifteen, Lessing left her parents home in Britain and became a nursemaid. At twenty-one, she was a wife and the mother of two children, but she divorced in 1943. Following her divorce, she joined the Left Book Club, a Communist book club in which she met her second husband. That marriage, too, ended in divorce, but not before Lessing had a third child.

Because Lessing was so vehemently opposed to nuclear arms and South African apartheid, she was banned from that country, in which her two oldest children lived with their father, and also from Rhodesia, for many years. Eventually, she settled in London with her youngest child, a son.

The winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature, and just about every other literary prize, Lessing was offered the title Dame of the British Empire, but she turned it down, saying that there was no British Empire, and that being a “Dame” was a tradition she did not care to join.

Lessing heartily dislikes being called a “feminist” author. “So I became a feminist icon,” she says. “But what had I said? That any kind of singlemindedness, narrowness, obsession, was bound to lead to mental disorder, if not madness.”

Lessing is a versatile writer. Her work ranges from novels to plays to poetry to nonfiction to opera libretti to short story collections to comics. Now, ninety-one, “The Times” in 2008, ranked Doris Lessing fifth on a list of “The Fifty Greatest British Writers Since 1945.”

My own favorite “Doris Lessing” works are The Grass Is Singing, The Golden Notebook, and the short story collection, The Grandmothers. What’s yours?


Irma said...

There are so many books I would like to read and so little time! The Golden Notebook is one of the books waiting for me.
I will let you know how I like it, when I read it.

Gabrielle Renoir-Large said...
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