THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK

FICTION BY DORIS LESSING

Harper Perennia
ISBN: 0-06-684-85075-3
How many novels can be said to have an impact on readers almost 40 years after their publication? Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook is one of them; her words have resonated through the years and continue to illuminate and enlighten the lives of men and women all over the world. The words which comprise The Golden Notebook have breath even after the book is closed. The human issues are clear; the life of Lessing’s main character, told in quiet prose through the four notebooks, offers an understanding of issues such as political repression, sexual abuse, single parenthood, writer’s block, and the women’s movement. These problems, presented with a quiet virility, give strength to readers even today.  
     “Knowing was an illumination. During the last few weeks of craziness and timelessness I’ve had those moments of knowing one after the other, yet there is no way of putting this sort of knowledge into words. Yet, these moments have been so powerful, like the rapid illuminations of a dream that remain with one during waking, that what I have learned will be part of how I experience life until I die.”  
     It’s lines like this that give substance and meaning to the life-driven chaos felt by all people at some time in their lives. Anna Wulf, the protagonist in the story, is a writer, a single mother—and more than she had imagined. She uncovers and dissects the pages of notebooks that sit side-by-side on a simple desk, a quiet retreat in a dark room in her flat. She lives alone with her young daughter, occasionally renting out a room; this is the way to fill some of the empty space around her and to keep the empty walls of her home from closing in on her. It’s the warm pitter-patter of feet up above that keep her from feeling the loneliness she has denied for most of her life.  
     Writer’s block has taken her over and choked the love for writing and searching she once had. Her first novel, an autobiographical story about a group of Communists in colonial Africa, was immensely successful. Though, as she says, “It’s almost as if someone else wrote it…”  
     Now, the four notebooks contain the moments of Anna’s life. Each of the colored books presents a facet of her existence. A part of her self is contained within their pages. The black notebook contains her experiences in Africa; red her thoughts on the currents politics in England. The yellow notebook is for her fictionalized version of herself and a blue notebook is her diary, her release, her intimate message to the world.
     Anna, the writer, the single woman, the political activist, struggles to find a way to integrate her multiple selves, a way to make her life seem less painful and to pick up the broken pieces that surround her. She’s motivated to keep these four notebooks out of "fear of chaos, formlessness—of breakdown." Although framed by a conventional novel called Free Women, the point of the novel, according to Lessing, is the "relation of its parts to each other."  
     By separating the parts of her life, Anna carefully probes each layer of her consciousness and is eventually able to bring it all together in one notebook, The Golden Notebook. She unifies her existence and identity into one. By going over her experiences, her responses to life, she eventually comes to terms with her growing disillusionment, her self-induced sexual betrayal, and her feelings of social and emotional rejection.  
     In 640 pages of well-written prose, Doris Lessing tries to come to terms with all that she has or hasn’t created in life. She’s up against the same choices many of us have to make: deciding what’s important in her life and what isn’t. The main character, Anna, is in the midst of a breakdown and a breakthrough which are evident through the plot elements presented in each notebook.  
     Ms. Lessing’s novel broke the mold in 1962 when it was first published. Even now, it’s hard to imagine another piece of work that fuses sex, politics, and emotional breakdown so completely and with such honesty and frankness. What is most astonishing and intriguing about this novel is how it takes the reader through the essence of a true emotional breakdown. The very form of this novel is what provides such an intimate glimpse of something to which almost any reader can relate at some point in this novel. And it isn’t even recognizably a novel at all. Instead, the reader is shown fragments, memories, emotions, and opinions thrown together—but the relationship they all eventually form together is what the reader is forced to figure out and learn from.  
     Even with the nontraditional form that Ms. Lessing chose, the novel is not difficult to understand or follow. The author finds a quiet beauty in the simple language. It’s not hard for the reader to find him- or herself settled neatly in the midst of Anna’s troubles. Ms. Lessing exposes her character in such a way that’s it’s much like looking through a pane of glass at a character and her plight for emotional balance.  
     When she becomes aware that these four books fail to capture her whole self, Anna attempts to convey the totality of her experience in a new (golden) notebook. Bewilderingly, the reader now discovers that he or she has been reading this novel all along—a glimpse of what Ms. Lessing presented at the beginning, Free Women. This new novel, or rather the one that has been hidden beneath it all, is a realistic one in which Anna Wulf appears as a relatively sane, whole human being. Free Women forces the reader to abandon their preconceptions. Though almost forty years old, this book is contemporary in its concerns.  
     Doris Lessing wrote once that she considered this novel something of a failure because it only names the issues, exploring briefly, but not solving. But The Golden Notebook, if read carefully, soulfully, and with introspection, will force the reader to struggle right along with Ms. Lessing’s Anna Wulf in search of the real self. If you let it, this book will change you.