more golden notes

THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK
Doris Lessing

Harper Perennial 2007

About the homophobia of these characters. Anna admits in the first notebook set that she’s repulsed by homosexuality and views it as a political fad. Far later on, in the yellow notebook, Ella, the protagonist of The Shadow of the Third, is bothered by how salient the criticism of men has become as the basis of her friendship with Julia; she fears this makes them lesbians, “psychologically,” at least. Anna bases Ella off herself, but Ella is heavily unpoliticized as a person while Julia is still a red. Anna has the political orientation, which she voices in Free Women 1: namely the sexual division of labor. The men in their life coast on a labor-saving household run by a labor-saving wife, and the labor-saving secretaries they fuck. The open secret in this bizarre postwar Britain (where two good friends can share a therapist), is that marriage as an institution leads to affairs while the wife and kids are sequestered in a second house. Given our sanctity debates, this relation between homophobia and marriage was really interesting.

In each of the long dialog scenes in the novel, the narrator can pack in so many different sexualities, which is really apparent is the black notebook’s Colony memoirs. The thoroughness of observation is amazing, even something as simple like how Maryrose, after making a stinging comment against the boys after another unproductive meeting, feels the need to pander to their political thought (they use the jargon, she doesn’t): “I’m not saying it right, but you see what I mean…” (99).

Ella is a novelist who wrote a book about suicide. In part, it’s a sublimation of Tommy’s suicide attempt that blinds him. Mental illness and radicalism across the generation gap are two more issues explored just as resourcefully. Both Tommy and Janet are unsatisfied with their free mothers. The freedom (which they paid a dear price for) these children inherit is scary. It’s the rapid flux of issues, all crying for attention and acknowledgement of the other issues, which in a mental storm show us the limits of knowledge, after which follows collapse. In the Colony narrative, Paul gets blind drunk before his first mission and walks into a propeller. It’s a nihilist sublime, which Anna places near the beginning of the story, which in her memory is dyed with a “nostalgia” for death, a “longing for death.”

A sequence I loved was in later set of the black notebook, where we get a taste of the London literary world, “so prissy.” Anna’s cynicism makes so much sense here; even the most austere Communist Party would be more appealing. Actually it’s the world of TV and film producers looking for adaptations. One of them an American woman, after another stretch of bourgeois postwar conformist tedium (still tons of fun to read), this passage:

‘Are you thinking of visiting the States? I would be so happy if you would give me a call and we could discuss any ideas you might have?’ I hesitate. I almost stop myself. Then I know I can’t stop myself. I say: ‘There’s nothing I’d like better than to visit your country, but alas, I wouldn’t be let in, I’m a communist.’ Her eyes snap into my face, wide and blue and startled. She makes at the same time an involuntary movement — the start of pushing her chair and going. Her breathing quickens. I see someone who is frightened. Already I am sorry and ashamed. I said that for a variety of reasons, the first being childish: I wanted to shock her. Secondly, equally childish, a feeling that I ought to say it — if someone said afterwards: Of course she is a communist, this woman would feel as if I had been concealing it. Thirdly, I wanted to see what would happen. (266)

We’ve all been there, but maybe I shouldn’t speak for us. She reflects on her own inconsistency, one that mirrors her comrades in the Colony, who would physically touch the cook within Mrs Boothby’s sight, but had plenty of patience for working class racists at other instances.

“Of course things are quite different here in England,” the poor lady spits out as she tries to recover. Anna realizes she could be endangering her job. But she also reacts sharply against this being “embodied” by other people, ie embodied in their presence as a communist the moment she outs herself. But what the hell is a communist anyway? In mid-paragraph Anna switches to a memory of a Russian writer she met two years ago. The spoke “the same language — the communist language.” But “The fact was that the phrases of our common philosophy were a means of disguising the truth. The truth was we had nothing in common, except the label, communist.”

I glossed the final blue notebook set, with Anna’s encounter with Saul. The psychoanalytical issues didn’t age quite as well, and the dream sequences were tedious. This was the only spot in 600 pages that was anywhere close to dragging. But Saul, after inscribing some doggerel in the golden notebook Anna buys, gives her the first sentence for writing. It’s the first sentence of Free Women. Now the opening realist novel, taken as the master level of the text’s world, is brought to even keel with the notebooks. Is Anna fictionalizing herself beyond Ella and her name, endless mirrors and such? It’s a way to confront the jaded attitude with everything, with the creative powers of the novel and the political power of the left in its century of defeat — sure, the sixties are coming, but what we are seeing today is still the historical consequence of the left’s defeat. The text is a fixing up of bits and pieces, the remains of the past (modernity blown apart, like after a nuke), but also ominous dispatches from the future of an emptier world.

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