Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 22, 2018

Doris Lessing’s “Golden Notebook” Still Challenges Readers

In 1979, acclaimed British novelist, Doris Lessing, published a novel in a genre new for her: science fiction. I’d never read any of Ms. Lessing’s work, and I bought the book, Shikasta. I looked forward to my first reading of Doris Lessing.

I found it heavy going at first, then I was flummoxed and finally utterly bamboozled by the alternate reality of Shikasta. I struggled to grasp just what Lessing was up to, finally set it aside and never picked it up again.

Neither Shikasta nor the four subsequent books in the series named Canopus in Argos: Archives found critical or popular success.

Lessing’s reputation, though, seems secure. She received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, among numerous other awards. Her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook appears on most lists of the important novels of the 20th century.  Ms. Lessing died in 2013, aged 94.

Now, exerting myself to catch up with “major novels” and other works in the western canon that I’ve missed, I read The Golden Notebook.

I’m interested in your comments. What do other contemporary readers think of this book 55 years after its publication?

The book’s British protagonist, Anna Wulf, has published one successful novel. Divorced, with a young daughter, she’s determined that she’ll live as a “free woman.” She won’t be simply “divorcee,” “single mother,” “writer,” but a fully integrated, independent person. Anna is relatively well educated, an intellectual, a onetime member of the Communist Party. Much of what matters to her is the life of the mind, the world of ideas.

In the book’s 640 pages, we learn a great deal about Anna’s past, what she thinks and how she feels. How Lessing shows us that is one of the aspects of The Golden Notebook that establishes it firmly as an “important” book. Lessing undertakes an audaciously ambitious project, telling the story from a variety of points of view, all of them different representations of Anna’s perspective over a period of about 20 years. That seems counterintuitive, but it’s not. The book is structured through five separate representations of what Anna sees, thinks and feels, now and in the past.

Narrative Approaches

In five segments of a limited third person narrative subtitled “Free Women,” we get a relatively straightforward telling of the events of Anna’s life in London. Her daughter is 12 or 13 and Anna’s friend Molly, another divorcee, has a son in his late teens. They, jointly, are the “Free Women,” determined to live independently, not defined by marriage, motherhood or partnership with a man whose accomplishments and career were the traditional focus of a woman in the late 1950s.

Anna’s best-selling novel provides her with a moderately adequate income, but she’s unable to imagine writing another one. She’s dismissive of her accomplishment in writing the first one, and has no appetite for doing it again.

She does, though, keep notebooks: four of them. Entries in those notebooks — each a different color — provide our other ways of discovering Anna.

We get four excepts (some quite lengthy) from each of the notebooks, which are grouped between the five segments of “Free Women.”

One notebook is Anna’s intermittently kept record of daily life. Another relates her experiences in her early 20s as a member of a group of Communists in Rhodesia before and during WWII. It was that experience that formed the background for her novel. In another notebook she makes notes for a possible second novel based on an unhappy and failed love affair of her recent past. The fourth is reflections and observations on the ongoing nature of the Communist Party, events in Russia and world socialism in general, subjects she’s deeply engaged in.

It’s a daring attempt, the portrait of one life reported from five separate inner points of view. It’s an outrageously ambitious scheme, and I’m at a loss to think of anything in literature that matches it.

A Flawed Protagonist in a Flawed World

What we discover through these separate refractions of Anna’s life and thought is that she, like the society she lives in, is fractured. Anna is cracking up into separate ways of thinking, feeling and being that she can’t reconcile — mother, lover, activist, writer. The world she was born into — colonial Britain, the promise (or threat) of a new socialist order, traditional roles of men and women — have failed or are crumbling.

Anna is lost. Her only anchor is her daughter, now away at school, and a succession of lovers. Ah, you men who read this book, gird yourself. There isn’t a man here who represents the gender at all well: dishonest, disloyal, cowardly, impotent, insecure —  we come off badly. Writing in 1962, Lessing might just as tellingly be writing today.

Despite this, Anna insists on attempting to sustain one doomed relationship after another. It’s still early in the midcentury rise of feminism, and not a time when it was easy for women to forge a place for themselves — if, in fact, it’s any easier now. Men keep appearing and Anna succumbs, ignoring their obvious faults and selfishness, often at great personal cost.

That’s the most puzzling aspect of this challenging book. Why does a woman determined to carve out her own destiny continually resort to relying on men she knows won’t measure up? It makes identifying with the protagonist a genuine challenge.

The answer is that she’s broken, fragmented into these disparate points of view, not whole. That is, after all, the theme of western 20th century literature: The struggle of the imperfect individual against a universe which itself is crumbling into disorder and entropy.

As a final attempt to grasp control, Anna discards all four notebooks and starts a new one, the Golden Notebook. A notebook for integration and wholeness. What does she make of it? Not everything, but something. There’s no resolution in any of 20th century literature, but Lessing did devise a stunningly powerful way to depict that theme.

Problems, Yes, but Impressive

I struggled with portions of The Golden Notebook. Despite the ability she shows in her stories to portray believable characters who speak like real people, her scenes with Anna and Molly come across as clumsily wooden constructs. Long passages of the notebooks are freeform stream-of-consciousness writing by Anna in which chronology and sequence aren’t clear. We get impressions, emotions, but can’t always place them accurately in the flow of Anna’s life.

Still, I have to say, The Golden Notebook is also a gloriously imagined tour de force of narrative structure.

Have you read it? I welcome your comments. Or, if you read it, come back and give me your reaction.

For views and appreciations of The Golden Notebook by four noted female writers, read The Guardian’s article on the 50th anniversary of its publication at this link.

© Brad Nixon 2018


  1. I’ve not read the book, and honestly can’t remember hearing anyone discuss it, but this comment of yours did pique my interest: “It’s a daring attempt, the portrait of one life reported from five separate inner points of view. It’s an outrageously ambitious scheme, and I’m at a loss to think of anything in literature that matches it.”

    Despite obvious differences, I thought of Lawrence Durrell’s four-volume set, The Alexandria Quartet. Each of several narrators tells the novels’ complex tales from their own viewpoint. The first three novels are three versions of the same story, set in Alexandria, Egypt, on the eve of World War II, and the fourth considers events of the first three from a point in time removed from the events themselves.

    It’s interesting that Durrell completed his four-volume set in 1960, and Lessing’s novel was published in 1962. Durrell made clear that thoughts about general relativity and the time-space continuum had contributed to the way he structured his work. I wonder if Lessing was influenced in the same way. Maybe she was working with the inner-space-time continuum.

    Liked by 1 person

    • An interesting idea. Lessing had a lot of topics on her agenda. Honestly, I’m no expert on her work whatsoever. Interestingly, she had no formal education after age 13, and it’s probably especially difficult to account for what paths an autodidact may have pursued. There are always innumerable currents that influence writers, so who can tell. Thanks for the thought. It’s been decades since I read the Quartet, and I always think I will again.


  2. If you enjoy the challenge of wading into the dense thicket of the inscrutable, perhaps you should take up the late works of Jean-Paul Sartre. They were too much even for Camus.


    • Perhaps I should. On the other hand, I try to follow the wisdom of Dirty Harry: “A man’s got to know his limitations.”


      • In the same vein, I think it was the great Yogi Berra who said “Anderson’s limitations are limitless.” He intended this as a compliment, but it had the opposite meaning!


      • There you have 20th century American philosophy in a nutshell: Yogi and Clint.


  3. I need to correct the record. My quote was actually attributed to Phillies manager Danny Ozarks who was commenting on one of his star players. Yogi was colorful; but Danny could turn a memorable phrase, too. This was the time of the glory days of baseball. Now, everyone is managed and packaged by their agents and sponsors. Boring.

    Liked by 1 person

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