The Golden Notebook is a complex narrative. The writer, Anna Wulf, uses four notebooks to record different aspects of her life, and at the end of the novel attempts to unite them in a fifth, gold-coloured, notebook. The novel waves together several parallel narratives, and at times it can be hard to work out whether we are reading Anna’s personal account of her life, or her fictionalised version. In addition to the ‘realistic’ narrative of Anna’s life – Free Women— the four notebooks – black for her adventures in Africa before World War 2, red for her time as a on/off member of the British Communist Party, yellow for a fictionalised account of her relationships, which sometimes run ahead of the real life telling of her story, and at others behind, and blue for her personal journal of memories and dreams.
The non-linear narrative Lessing uses was ground breaking for its time – there is little in the way of conventional story telling. When the novel was first published the focus in many critical responses was on Lessing’s frankness in sexual matters, and what were seen at the time as her feminist characters. 50 years and more on, the presentation of sexual relationships in the novel seems dated – perhaps inevitably. As a feminist character Anna in particular is utterly defined by her relationships with men – and while she is sexually liberated, her emphasis on being sexually available to men who pay her very little regard shows her vulnerability. In the final section of the novel, the apparently unifying golden notebook, where the tale of her relationship with Saul Green is fictionalised, virtually every encounter with Green, however strained or disagreeable, almost always ends with the throwaway line “and then we made love”.
In a Guardian piece written to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the novel’s publication, Margaret Drabble put this point more clearly:
“As a feminist and a free woman, living a life of what was then striking promiscuity, her protagonist Anna Wulf displays some curiously traditional female behaviour, which is even more puzzling on rereading. On one page she can declare, shockingly but truthfully, that “every woman believes in her heart that if a man does not satisfy her she has a right to go to another. That is her first and strongest thought, regardless of how she might soften it later out of pity or expediency.” But this same woman (albeit writing in a different notebook, about a later period in her life) is discovered preparing a meal for the man she loves and knows she is about to lose. Much care is lavished on this memorable set piece describing a breaded veal escalope with mushroom in sour cream, a dish that the defaulting man never turns up to eat. Throughout the novel it is the women who do all the cooking and make all the cups of tea, even for men to whom they owe less than nothing. …. And yet it seemed liberating at the time.”
The novel has a number of other dominant themes: the Cold War and the decline of the British Communist Party, the end of Empire, and not least the personal breakdown of the central character. Often the novel seemed increasingly self-referential – so for example the novel’s opening lines are “The two women were alone in the London flat”; much later, to help relieve her writer’s block, Anna is given an opening line for her novel, which of course is “The two women…” etc. Novels which have as their central character novelists are always going to go down this road.
To be frank I found ‘The Golden Notebook’ very hard work. It is very long, very repetitive (to read about a dull relationship is one thing – to read about it twice, once in the central character’s diarised version, and then again in her fictionalised, slightly changed but essentially the same, version – is quite another. I doubt I would have troubled to finish were it not for a reluctance to admit doing so in this blog, which I think says it all. Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007, 45 years after ‘The Golden Notebook’ was published – 45 years in which Lessing published a great deal, but was never to repeat the critical or commercial success of her earlier work. It looks a little like a lifetime achievement award, which is understandable, but doesn’t make this novel any easier to read.