100 novels: The Golden Notebook

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list, and my latest review is about The Golden Notebook. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

The Golden Notebook

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This is going to be one of the most difficult novels for me to write a review about, because I’m still not sure I really understood what it was about.

First up, Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and The Golden Notebook is generally considered to be her most influential book. It’s also a ‘feminist classic’, although Doris distances herself from that title in her introduction, saying:

But nobody so much as noticed this central theme, because the book was instantly belittled […] as being about the sex war, or was claimed by women as a useful weapon in the sex war.

I have been in a false position ever since, for the last thing I have wanted to do was refuse to support women.

The central theme she refers to is that of ‘breakdown’ or ‘cracking up’. In other words, what we now refer to as ‘mental illness’.

And yet, reading through The Golden Notebook, it is easy to see how people arrived at the conclusion it was about the plight of women; the way women are driven by mad by circumstance and by the double standards they are held to. She also, in her introduction from June 1971, mentions her belief that:

the whole world is being shaken into a new pattern by the cataclysms we are living through: probably by the time we are through, if we do get through at all, the aims of Women’s Liberation will look very small and quaint.

Alas, reading the book in 2014 we seem to be tackling many of the same issues: endless (confusing) wars, a complete lack of faith in any ideological movement, an absence of hope… and of course, the same old problems of racism and sexism.

The solution that the central character arrives at is to go mad; perhaps the only sane response in a world of increasing horror.

And yet, despite tackling issues still alive today, such as racism and sexism, the book does seem to be written from a time long long ago. An enormous gulf separated me from the central characters. Their obsession with the Communist Party, for a start. Few people I know would ever invest much time and energy into supporting a political party. We are too aware that they are all corrupt, all ‘as bad as each other’. We support certain aims, we accept that one might be slightly less evil than another about issues we care about. But on the whole, nobody really believes politicians care about the country, or the citizens of a country… let alone the state of the world.

So where are the solutions? We face a crisis in terms of climate change, with people already dying. We are so addicted to petroleum that we are prepared to blow up swathes of the country to extract it. And the level of inequality between the wealthiest and the poorest is such that the top 0.7% of people own 41% of the worlds wealth.

We can’t trust our political parties to sort it out, revolutions rarely work and have a high cost in blood shed and violence, and peaceful protest is ignored.

If there is an answer, I believe it lies in each of us striving to be better, to think outside our own circle of friends and family, to use whatever power and privilege we have to push forward our collective wellbeing.

In The Golden Notebook, however, Anna — and to a large extent Doris — is dealing with the failure of the dreams of peace and plenty that the Communist Party promised. In it’s own way, as well, it’s about the loss of teenage naivete. We all believe we can change the world when we are teenager, and then we grow up and find ourselves trapped in the same patterns of power that our parents dealt with. Yet I think, for that generation that came of age during the Second World War, it was a far more crushing blow.

In many ways, The Golden Notebook is a depressing, hopeless book. Several characters make reference to the silent despair of the majority, quietly going crazy all across London. Yet perhaps there is some hope, that complete breakdown and reformation is the only solution… and in that, the breakdown of Anna Wulf and Saul Green represents the greater breakdown of society. When they give each other the first lines of the next novel, it is the formation of something new.

I found the book tough going. The characters are not sympathetic. Doris accurately represents the part of mental illness that has you endlessly circling the same ideas and motifs, again and again… and again. By the third ‘affair with a married man’ you are frustrated and slightly bored with the whole scenario. And yet, despite that, I found myself unable to put the book down. It opened my ideas to a world very different from mine, and forced me to think about things that made me uncomfortable.

All in all, I would recommend The Golden Notebook to others, with the caveat that you probably won’t actually enjoy it.

Other reviews of The Golden Notebook