Another fascinating book and discussion!
There were 10 of us. Most had not finished it. Not all planned to finish it, because of the length of the novel, while several planned to finish it. All liked parts of it. Some LOVED it all the way through. One had read it three times!
A little background:
Doris Lessing was born in 1919 in Kermanshah, Persia (Iran) and died in London last November. Her family moved to Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, when she was little. She left her Catholic school when she was 14 to work and was self-educated by reading classics. She joined a Communist Book Club, married and moved to England. She married several times and had several children.
Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007 and was the eleventh woman and the oldest person ever to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy described her as "that epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny.” She received many other prizes for literature during her life.
The comments of our group reflected how far we got into the book and how much we liked/loved/were overwhelmed by it.
Around the time this autobiographical novel was published, people were saying that the “novel” as a literary form, was dead. This book is Lessing’s answer to that declaration. She invented a new style by telling the story of three women over years of angst, frustration, love, and growing wisdom. The “Notebooks” were the process Lessing and, the main character, Anna used to create the novel of the three interlocked women. The plot shifted from past to present and from notebook to notebook. Many in the group agreed that they had never read anything as good with describing the inner life of women and the analysis of relationships.
This novel is also about “The Writing Process,” “The Artist as a Narcissistic Person,” and “Political Issues,” we thought.
We found some of the attitudes very dated, yet often dead-on correct. One view surprised us was her attitude toward homosexual men. She wanted her daughter to be around a “real” man, yet the “real” men she chose as sex partners all mistreated her. We thought she would have been bored by a kind man.
This is not a feminist book. This was also not a book about women versus men. Anna was always looking for love. None of the characters were sympathetic, except one middle class Communist leader. All the rest seemed arrogant, smug, unkind and self-centered. It is hard to create a character who is unsympathetic, but Lessing succeeded.
Regarding Communism, during the 30’s, it really resonated with people, because it was idealistic. There was a sense of creating a new and better world. Later Anna (Lessing) thought it was easier to talk about Communism with people who had left the Communist party once they became disillusioned and the horrible reality surfaced.
The relationship between Anna and Molly was supportive and competitive.
The earlier story about Anna’s life in Africa during WWII, seemed the most novelistic and the most visual. She described the beauty of the landscape and the unforgettable, hypocritical people. The scene with the insects and butterflies and birds was beautiful, but warlike. It was juxtaposed with the need to kill pigeons for dinner. The scenes of killing the pigeons were violent. We found the story of George, who had a child with an African woman, very compelling and tragic in that he could not raise his son due to the strict separation of the races.
Some of us thought this book was about power. We talked about how times have changed for women, that women can be “captains of power,” and that women who have power can be as bad as the men who have power. Even though a woman can be president, the Western world still has the man’s zeitgeist.
We thought this book was surprisingly candid about bodily functions and found that interesting, maybe dead-on correct, yet still too much information.
We discussed her lover, the doctor with the frigid wife, and we thought that maybe his wife was frigid, because he was a bad lover. His wife was perfect for him, because she was beautiful, kept a perfect home and had four sons. Lessing made us feel sorry for him, because, like his wife, he had also never really had satisfying sex.
The quote from the 18th century French writer, Madame de Stael, was mentioned, that “Life is a choice between boredom and suffering.” One member thought that applied to Anna’s difficulties.
Lessing dealt with suicide twice in the novel, once when Thomas shot himself and survived to become a blind, manipulative, Oedipal character and another time when Anna realized that suicide could be as easy as unknowingly walking to a high window and finding oneself leaping out without being aware until it was too late.
Anna and Molly both went to the same psychiatrist, the German “Mother Sugar.” We thought Mother Sugar was unhelpful. She never led Anna to see her pattern of destructive relationships.
Since many of us had not yet finished the book, we asked those who had about the “Golden Notebook.” Almost to the very end, that color of notebook had never been mentioned. The other notebooks focused on different aspects of Anna’s life: love, work, accounting for purchases, inner thoughts, politics and dreams. The Golden Notebook was purchased on a whim and became a synthesis notebook, where she attempted to combine all the parts of her world and include her current lover, Saul, who had multiple personalities. Together they had no boundaries and Anna found herself acting as insane as Saul. She understood that he had to leave her life, because her only grounding to a normal life was through her daughter. She could not have Saul near her daughter. As much as she loved her daughter, we agreed that she was not a good mother.
The Golden Notebook dissolved into a dream world of scenes of flying and movie-like surreal events as Anna came to some conclusions about what she had learned over the years. The scenes broke up, just as Anna was breaking up. When Anna tried to synthesize her life instead of compartmentalizing it, it turned to mush; it became crazy!
Someone asked, “Well, what is the book really about?” This is what we thought:
It is a book about growing older. The stories from Africa were from a time when Anna/Lessing were younger. In her quest to create her life, to find a love and to create art, she recorded her impressions in the notebooks. At the end of the book she came to these conclusions as she talks with Saul, her last lover. “Everything is cracking up,” she says. She tells him that even though he is dealing with chaos now that he will eventually become a very gentle, wise, kind man. Anna says, “Well, we know there are a few of them, marvelous, mature, wise people…and how did they get that way? Well, we know don’t we. Every bloody one of them’s got a history of emotional crime…you simply don’t get to be wise, mature, etc., unless you’ve been a raving cannibal for 30 years or so.”
One member of our group thought that reading all those classics made this novel Lessing’s version of War and Peace, or in her case,” War and Insanity.”
Another member of our group commented that even though Anna/Lessing was attempting to be independent, she was still “needing” a man. Our member thought that was the times (the 50s), that nothing really was black and white. One can be for woman’s freedom and still be dependent on men. Our needs, wants, etc. can be in conflict many times—that’s the human condition!
The Golden Notebook is a modern classic.