The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Reviewed by Jacob Hammer
One of my friends had recommended this book for a couple of years before I finally picked it up. The last few books I’d read were fairly run-of-the-mill fiction and I had been promised a departure from that with this book. A departure was certainly what I got. At the outset, I was interested in the characters, but by the time I had dug into it, I felt like I was waist deep in the mud with them, trying to find my own way out.
I should explain a bit about the structure of the book before I go onward. The book’s main character, Anna Wulf, had a bestselling novel, but has not written anything else in some time. The novel begins with “Free Women,” a section that (strung together with the later sections of the same name) could serve as a short novel set during what we can call the “present” of the novel. Within this narrative, Anna has four notebooks in which she writes about different aspects of her life. The first is the Black Notebook which contains memories from her time in Africa that shaped her successful novel. The second is the Red Notebook which contains recollections and reflections on her time in and out of the Communist party. The Yellow Notebook is the beginning of a novel featuring a character named Ella whose experiences very closely resemble those of Anna in a recently ended affair. The final notebook is the Blue Notebook which is Anna’s own journal which she uses to keep track of daily goings-on and dreams etc. The reader begins with a “Free Women” section then moves sequentially through the notebooks to another section of “Free Women” and so on.
As I first encountered the structure, I thought it would be like any novel containing journal entries and letters. Some interesting overlap and discrepancies, but nothing too crazy. I expected more of the action of the book to be external and to take place in what I learned was only the frame narrative. A quick look at the table of contents corrected me there.
The notebooks are interesting at first due to sheer curiosity. The Anna Wulf of the first section of “Free Women” was intriguing enough that I wanted to know about her time in Rhodesia; that Anna was interesting enough that I wanted to know about her time with the Communists; I cared enough about Anna’s writing life that I wanted to know what kind of novel she would write, and I wanted to know what her honest thoughts about the things going on during and between the “Free Women” sections. When I began to dig into those sections, my interest in them shifted and eventually became tangled as opposed to linear and organized. For example, as I learned about Anna’s life and everything she was wrestling with from the Blue Journal, I began to see her trying to compartmentalize and try out new scenarios of her real life events in the novel she was working on in the Yellow Notebook. The notebooks all play into the creation of a larger vision of Anna Wulf for the reader.
The first couple sets of “Free Women” and notebooks seem fairly normal and Anna seems to the reader a mostly stable person who is especially organized for keeping four different journals and compartmentalizing her life so strictly. We know there must be connections, but they are not bleeding into each other. This won’t last though.
As we go on, the notebooks become to have their purposes changed. The Black
Notebook comes to be full of records of Anna’s interactions with others (chiefly people trying to obtain film rights etc.) because of her successful novel Frontiers of War. Later it returns to its original purpose, but nonetheless we know now that the notebooks are not as set in stone as they seemed. The Red Notebook continues on much the same, but makes many time jumps and the information we have learned from the other notebooks begins to seem increasingly intertwined. The Yellow Notebook begins to jump around and becomes a place to explore ideas that go no further than a paragraph or two as well as ideas and storylines that take up pages. The reader begins to lose themselves and the storyline among this. The Blue Notebook then draws us deep into Anna’s psyche, in turn revealing more and more about what was written in the Yellow Notebook and all the others notebooks. By the fourth section of “Free Women” everything has begun to bleed together irreparably. By this point Anna is revealing a mental state that she seems uncomfortable with and that leads to increasing self-critique, anxiety, and swinging moods that the reader is pulled right along into. The final section of the Blue Notebook felt to me like the real tipping point into no differentiation and no compartmentalization.
All the while, the Anna presented in “Free Women” and the Blue Notebook seems to be rebelling against this bleeding together and disintegration, yet failing. This failure becomes manifest when a man begins renting the spare room in her flat, Saul Green. Saul at first seems to just be a somewhat moody and evasive American who Anna will not enjoy the company of. The reader and Anna are both shocked as she falls in love with him and they begin to feed on each other’s madness within weeks. The narrative of the Blue Notebook becomes increasingly cyclical. Saul and Anna are happy, they become upset with each other and drive each other away (typically resulting in Saul’s increasingly transparent infidelities) then they recover and make up with each other and go back to the blissful oblivion they started with. This repeats a couple of times before Anna begins to read Saul’s journals out of anger or morbid curiosity while he is away and learns exactly what he says he has been thinking and doing. We as readers sink further into the first person narrative of Anna (as opposed to the third person of “Free Women” sections) and the cycle becomes painful and unstoppable all at once. We as readers begin to live for those times of bliss between the two of them. We turn on Saul and Anna when those times are over. Interestingly, Anna seems bizarrely aware and unwilling to stop this cycle, particularly after she finally reveals to Saul that she has been reading his journals and there are no more secrets between them. Yet the cycle continues unabated and increasing in intensity for some pages.
Eventually, in a time of clarity while Saul is away, Anna realizes the totality of their destructive cycle and begins to dismantle it. She buys a Golden Notebook to put all of herself into one notebook. The cycle begins to come around again to the fighting stage, but they both decide to stop the cycle at that point and for Saul to leave. Saul gives Anna the first sentence of a novel (which happens to be the first sentence of the first “Free Women” section) and Anna gives him the first sentence of a novel which Saul then goes on to write and achieve success with. Shortly after this exchange and his departure, we are returned to the final “Free Women” section. In this Anna rents out a room to an American (very little like Saul) and he leaves shortly after. Anna meets with a friend from “Free Women” one more time and they wrap up all the storylines from “Free Women” briefly and then move on with their lives. The end was incredibly jarring, but also very fitting, I think.
The notebooks allowed Anna to play with her own psyche, eventually this leads her down the self-destructive path with Saul; but from the darkness of that path we emerge with Anna into the light of new writing and a return to regular life, altered, but informed by the insights gained at the
deepest pit of the downward spiral. The dive that we as readers are able to make with Anna is what makes the book so valuable a read and why it has left and will continue to leave such an impact on me. Because of the depth of Anna’s personal history that we gain from the notebooks as well as insight into how she perceives herself (because they are all first person, excluding the Yellow Notebook) we are able to jump all the way down with her during the last Blue Notebook section. This full descent allows us to emerge with Anna at the end of the book as she comes out of disillusionment into a new realization of self.
This book was incredibly intense for me. I have not identified so strongly with a character in some time and it is only in writing this that I realize the depth to which Anna’s inner life became part of how I looked at my own inner life. The book is beautiful, dangerous. A necessary risk.