The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing


I’ve read a number of books this year, but I haven’t been tempted into reviewing any of them as much as I have The Golden Notebook. The reason, I believe, is that this book has been driving me crazy for the past week- and that is how long it took me to slowly process it in its entirety. I am still so sure I did not get it but if somebody were to order me to read it again, I would perceive that as a nightmare.

And the reason I am saying this, is not because the book is not good enough to read- once, that is. There are a lot of different layers to it and as Doris Lessing says in her preface, when she receives letters from readers they each interpret the theme differently- some talk about the bitter relationship between men and women the world over, others mention the communism along with its good and bad and still others discern the pattern of slowly spiraling madness. She argues how we narrow down our interpretation of a piece we read- as both, readers and writers, we have a certain idea of what we are looking at when we behold a creation and we understand it best as something structured, with a theme running through it.

It is possible to recognize now, how this book tries to defy that structure- it is neither here, nor there but a collection of bits and pieces that come together to make something readable. How to draw conclusions from this mess is left to the imagination of the reader. The pattern of this book (and I only went back to the preface after I was done with the entire story) is in the form of a novella which is scattered through segments. You can easily read this novella, skipping the diaries in between and know what Anna’s life story is supposed to be. But between each bit of the novella, lies fragments of Anna’s life, told through her diaries. She has color-coded these diaries, perhaps in order to find some pattern in her drifting life. She maintains different colors to talk about different things- politics, writing, emotions and day-to-day occurrences. I think, like most of us, she is trying really hard to give order to the chaos.

And so she writes about the years of the second world war, which she spent in Central Africa as a budding white communist trying to fight the injustices of slavery by clinging to the idealism of a passionate political ideology. These were the parts I enjoyed the most. The description of a group of young white people in a world which is not entirely their own, struggling to work on the fringes. There is a beautiful laziness in this part of Anna’s diaries and I find myself caught up in the humid, bug-infested climate of Anna’s past.

When she writes about her writing, she creates another character- Ella, and delves into her story. To a great extent, Ella is like Anna, the protagonist. And this connection makes it easier, at first, to go into the fiction within fiction- Ella’s world runs parallel to Anna’s and her love life, which is the center of that plot, reflects five years from Anna’s own life.

But as you read deeper, the pieces start mixing up and when you are left with the last fifty pages, everything is so befuddling, you start to feel as though the book has crawled under your own skin. If this was its purpose, it succeeded with flying colors. The words are so crowded together that every time I put the book away and attempted to sleep, I found words and plots floating in my head- things that had nothing to do with the book or with me, but were entirely new ideas, most of which flitted past like they already do. But this was driving me crazy, more so than it was Anna, and for that reason, I was so glad when I turned the last page of the book and sighed with relief.

Doris’s writing style was a little crammed- words were nearly toppling over one another. I felt as though the publisher either wanted to save all the paper they could and so instructed her to put words as close together as they could go, or that she decided that since she wanted to defy the pattern of the conventional novel, this cramming was the best way to assist her readers in spotting the patterns. Whichever it was, the book gave me an eyesore.

At numerous places I found myself thinking, ‘Who talks like that?’, about Anna and a dozen other characters in the narrative. It is easy to let images form in your head when you’re reading descriptions, but for The Golden Notebook, every image I conjured seemed to give me a headache, imagined or otherwise.

There are gems of words and thoughts hidden within the folds of the endless paragraphs of this book. Reading the synopsis of The Golden Notebook is so tempting, one cannot wait to get one’s hands on the original. But if you really let the book get to you, and by that I mean, that you read every word and wait for it to sink in, you cannot come out of it without at least an angry gash across your soul.

So I would recommend reading this book at your own peril. I know that any reader is likely to hate or love this book. Or perhaps, like me you’d find yourself hating a book that taught you quite a lot, made you go, ‘oh how well she has understood everything I am likely to feel at that age’, when you read the bitter woman saga and filled you with a despondency that seems to have no basis whatsoever.

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Re-addressed Letters


The artist writes out of an incapacity to live.

Dear K.,

To live, to love, to be. It is all the same. The ordinary mortal realizes that he is imprisoned in the walls created by the society he lives in. Every day, we see it in a thousand little things around us. How incompetent even the most well-aware among us really are, at spotting the signs that sing, oh you are entrapped by the time you live in, dear! You cannot run away because there is nothing to run away to! If not this, then what? If not now, then when? Perhaps this really is the best time to live but you can never be sure.

Time means different things to different people. For a person unencumbered by the urge to spot the cracks in her life, every settling autumn leaf is just another layer on the golden carpet beneath her feet. For me, it is one of a million signs of death and decay. Fortunately, I am living in the age of self-expression, self-love, self-devotion. Anything else would have been unbearable to me. Or at least, that is what I think. It is quite possible for someone like me to have existed a hundred years or so ago, with the docility of a housewife who was told in much stronger terms, that she is to stick to the kitchen and to children. And perhaps to aesthetic pleasures like clothes and jewellery and house-decorating. I would have been content with my lot, giving to art what art gives to me. Or perhaps, my inherent sprinkling of doomsday prophesying would have found other means of expression. That might not have been too hard during the great wars.

Anyhow, my point right now is that the passivity with which I traverse the streets of the world (and did not even recognize until very recently) could easily be a product of the strong pull literature and art and everything shrouded in enigma has on me. Or it could quite as easily be vice versa.

I am here, in a warp- in a room, in an anomaly. Living a dozen lives every day. Asking myself, how on earth will i distinguish myself from the mass of individuals once I step outside? I cannot define ‘me’ or seek self-interests without the most painful of efforts. This ability to fuse into the life that exists around me is a curse and a boon. I can feel those who try to be my bitterest enemies with the simplicity of a child. And I can let myself be destroyed by the pleasures sought by such an individual because I would not know what ‘I’ stands for and how I’m supposed to protect it.

From these dull realizations, I must turn to the thought that led me to this letter. Perhaps I do not have the capacity to live. How strange would that be, after twenty-three years of existence, to find my biggest fear right inside me! I have the capacity to write and to counter my fear and justify the space I take up on this planet through the written word. And yet, ominously I feel as though my hands are tied. The stories that gushed out of me during my teenage years were crushed.

I fear to create a setting because I cannot fully grasp the truths that intrigue me. And other stories fall flat before they can even lift off, made flaccid by the question: am I putting too much of myself out there? Is it worth it?

To call myself an admirer of art, a harbinger of unworldly emotions, is not too far a stretch of the imagination. If I am not a brooding figure, frozen into ice and thawed back again every single day, I do not know what I am. And it isn’t hard to see this, it takes just a little bending and twisting. Or maybe not even that. I perceive the universe from the center that is me and I am unapologetic about it in the dark. In front of other people, the whole farce falls to the ground.

And with these complications, I somehow watch the sun rise and fall everyday, wondering, how much more to go and why?

Love,

S.

Dear K.,

Every time I behold something I admire that was created by someone else, I burn with envy. Why is it that this person who cannot really be that much different than I am, created something that makes me sob, love, worship it? And why am I not capable of putting the same energy into my own creations? Why does everything I make feel like a cheap imitation of an original that is locked up in some corner of my head or open to the world through the head of someone far more talented than I can ever hope to be?

Genius fades, if not supplemented by hard work. My genius is this flickering desire to write and that is it. I would question the origin of this genius if I did not know that I inherited it from my ancestors. Otherwise, I would tell myself it was a result of thousands of story books I was read as a child. Or years of convent education pounding Wren and Martin into me. Or the Enid Blytons and J.K. Rowlings of the world. Or the way I stepped into the world of good fiction and began to find my way through it, guided by a store of good literature. I know it isn’t just that. I know there is, inside of me, something more.

Something more. But I will not acknowledge it because I am such a coward, running from everything I should embrace. The most I understand about myself now, is that my happiness is directed by a brain trying too hard to keep suppressed memories locked away. And any attempts to open these locks will result in a splash of darkness I cannot partake. There is enough that comes from outside, seeping through the unguarded parts of my brain and gripping me until, like a good sentinel, my brain pries it away and I am back where I started.

Back where I started and entirely clueless about what is going on inside me. How can I hope to explore the depths of my artistic side if I cannot even face the demons of my own heart? There is no light in the world of art, only a pulsating glow to warm you, lest you should freeze completely, trying to embrace the ambiguity of life.

Love,

S.

Dear K.,

A series of letters these are, for I realized I haven’t written to you like this in ages. What is this, then? A revival of the past or just a temporary comforter? I am hoping this would be a monologue explaining, at least to me, what it is that is blocking my path from that connection between reality and illusion that I found so much easier to cross in and out of before.

Something snapped inside me a few days ago. For the first time, I was clouded by the realization that hit all humans at some point in their life: what if I am unable to reach even one of the things I want to before I die? And these tall ambitions mean to include a lifetime of writing, some of it revealing in magnitude, a bucketful of experiences and some other passionate achievements.

I have heard how ideal youth is. How idle too, indeed! Given to building castles in the air and then living within them. Given to bursts of emotions before it realizes how the whole world has been fooling it, beginning with its own loved ones! Youth is nothing but a beautiful illusion. I creep in and out of its blanket. Sometimes I find myself armed with the maturity of a fifty-year old woman and then, within seconds, I am a young girl again, hoping to be everything and nothing at the same time.

But what I do need, above everything else, is independence. I cannot let the fifty-year old woman inside me win just yet. I know, someday she will take over me. And in sober grey sweaters and dulling olive suits, she will declare the world a laden wasteland and herself a beaten slave to it, seeking nothing but the happiness her children (or SOME children) deserve, just for being young. But she cannot win yet! There is too much to see and do before I declare myself beaten. There is too much to save. There is too much to know.

I am more afraid of mistakes, I know, than most people. Perhaps it is the fifty-year old talking. Perhaps it is the bruises I have already nursed or the many people who’ve tried to keep me imprisoned. And that brings me back full circle to the fact that perhaps- I am only capable of living through words. And incapable of anything more concrete than that. I might just learn to live with this fact. Perhaps my stubbornness and childish inability to see the world as anything but a facilitator (causing grief at every step), is meant to fuel this isolation. And so it doesn’t matter. Or it wouldn’t matter, if only people would just let me be!

Love,

S.

Dear K.,

Could it never be enough-
The knowledge that I once was,
That like every other being I
Hurled headfirst through the night
And found sweet fruit dangling
And I was tempted into vice

Could it never be enough-
The knowledge that I once was
I built stories out of stars
I stuffed salt into my scars
I left a hole when I persisted
And was opposed when I resisted

Could it never be enough-
The knowledge that I once was
And ties of blood bound me
And my soul sought ecstacy
And when I perished and lay still
Men cried tears of blood above me.

Love,

S.

Twenty-Three


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Early morning swim. Pot painting.
A group of happy, innocent, wonderful, beautiful children.
Lots of smiles and hugs.
Two birthday cakes.
An amazing cookie jar.
A bunch of cards for a wishlist.
A pile of novels.
Some delicious Shawarma.
An around-the-city bus ride in the sweltering heat, with parching throats.
A plunge, straight into the mud, followed by a fire scare, a group of guards and some impromptu singing.
The longest walk EVER, with whimsically over-imaginative girl friends and the beginnings of what could be a cliche-laden
horror story, if we care to put our minds together and actually pen it down.
And the final emergence into ‘civilization’.

This was one of the most random birthdays ever; most of it was completely unplanned, unladen with expectations and unexpectedly fun. I got some surprises and got to give away some great things to people.

The best part was, I got to do everything I’d expected to do today and additionally, a lot more was squeezed into it than I would have thought possible. Low on fanfare and rich on experience!

Thank you for all your birthday wishes and for understanding exactly what I needed today and giving it to me in the best way possible. Maybe the trade-off for getting older, is knowing what you need and having people who are able to give it to you, not because it’s good for them but because it is good for you.

I’m too tired to write any more tonight but I just wanted to get this out of my system right now, while it’s fresh.

Spring Confessions


We crossed our lonely hearts
Pulled lilies out of graves
And tore up letters into mulch
Turned old lovers into paste

I heard your drunk confessions
On a forbidden, dark porch
With little drops of blackened vodka
To lighten our glowing wounds

I taught you coffee highs
And fought wars through our single wall
You chaperoned me up the alien road
And warded men’s glares off with your charm

Over months of warm smiles, you pulled
Me out of endless steep reveries
When the sun would shine but I was caught
In webs of my own misery

You were high, I was low
We were aliens on a bed of snow
How unwanted and scantily-clad
From the elements of that long-drawn cold!

Sometimes I still dream about
What miracles the phone can do
But then I see the glacial pace
At which we seem to drift away

Now I’m simmering on a log of wood
And the riptide drafts different calls for us
And I know sometimes chapters begin again
But this is how they must all end.

This poem was not supposed to come out right now and it’s about someone who is far from my mind at this hour. Yet, it seems to have had a slightly uplifting effect on me. It swam to the surface of my brain upon a host of memories that were hurting and so I felt grateful to one of the few people who had anchored me (and been anchored by me at the same time), for those two years. We had our ups and downs, like everyone, and yet these are some of my recollections.


I am…bursting at the seams with thoughts and words but afraid to put them out onto paper, afraid about how best to express them and whether there is any point in pouring anything out at all. I see words in my dreams these days, sometimes I’m creating poems like visions in the air but they are gone by the time I wake up. Sometimes I am lucky enough to flirt with an idea that popped up somewhere in my head but being to lazy to right and furthermore, afraid that words will soften the ethereal idea into something earthly and worthless, I content myself with putting them as a memo on my phone, to be scrolled through at will but not converted into anything more structured.

How I long for the freedom to spread my wings out of this hidey-hole and live some of the dreams I’ve been seeing. Most of my dreams for this lifetime are soft and positive, meant to heal and build up. They are all selfish at the root, of course, because that is the only reason I am seeking them at all. But they are meant to do good and yet, it is astonishing to realize how much resistance good ideas face, inspite of the goodness grown-ups preach to us since we’ve been little children. Do good, do not steal or tell fibs or hurt anyone or be selfish or undisciplined, we are told as we stumble through our little life rituals. But when it actually is within your power to perhaps affect someone or something in a small and good way, they will stand in your way and tell you it mustn’t be done! I find this strange irony hard to bear.

I lost heart midway during this vent. I’m still going to put it out there, as is. Cheers.


Your skin, burnt like coffee
Your eyes, mad with agony
We picked up where we left off
Only, weakened by our crawl
Into this torrid nook; I felt
Strangely damned.

Black Space


In the black space
Where my thighs meet
The sudden sparks had come and gone
And all that stayed was charred and burnt
Someday, maybe I had known
The wisps of white that spooked me and choked me
They had come on winter days, with dew
With the smell of coffee and the sound of rain
And that little red smelly trickle down my bathroom drain

In the black space
Where my thighs meet
The sunlight broke down every time
Afraid that in the sinewy dreams that fluttered beyond
Like butterflies on the mirage of a plateau
Lay the uncertain blinking highway lights
It had come on a brittle, unreal day
With sounds of a motor running through the night
Fresh and resounding like silence in my ears

In the black space
Where my thighs meet
Softly, the epiphany had come true and nobody
Questioned the flow of time, for it was only moving forward
Unlike me, clutching love stories and tea cups stained pink
With the silly strokes of strange lovers inside me
It had rung on a spiraling day, when waves
Of pain had caused a dampened pillow to smoothen down
And curled hair swam in the watery sink

Lair


I tore apart, I tore apart
The red scarf, the dramatic act
And piece-by-piece it arose
Il est charmant, from the sea at Peros

Bare, hair- spare me your lair
I am only an Angel, you surmise
But I- fallen light, young, fair-
Had not yet seen twenty summers rise

Snatched from under the chandelier
I thought of your mask, your lair
My spotty, eternal, paternal pain
Swallowed it, wishing you were here again

Slipping into the painful task
I sang lullabies until your mask
Fell- your face edgy, broken, dead
And I was almost lost upon that bed

Sun rises against the Persian shore
He gave me back my flair
My voice, my very soul
I smuggled from your lair!

Moods of Love


I.

The sunshine
On her waistline
Blue-grey on the ground before me
Turned the dew drop jewels invisible
Drowning in a woman’s curves
I understood how no ornament could define her
I understood why she never tried

II.

There were two things he told her he wanted:
The cream atop the American dream
And a girl batting her eyelids, the color of milk
She whipped the yellow emulsion
And drank the liquid that remained
Tied a blindfold upon his eyes and
Told him to wait.

III.

He took years to find me
Years when I trampled over brambles
Bare knees and untied laces in the wilderness
Whistling like the bluebird
He came out at night though
And imitated the owl’s hoot
So we met at dawn and found a glade
To practice our little bird songs

IV.

Did I tell you, your limbs
Like shoots from soil, grew straight out
Found me. Got entangled.
Pulled apart the hairy edges of my skin
I’m the torn-up remains of a troubled soul
The signs of your massacre all over me
You fled like magic, I cursed you
You found my lips, I burned you.

V.

Would you trace the inward arcs my breasts make
When we’re kissing under a light post
When we’re kissing and people stare
When we’re kissing and someone smokes
When we’re kissing and the day is gone
When we’re kissing and it’s almost dawn
Could you tell, with each kiss
What havoc our love is
And how to tell it apart
From the one tearing the world.

VII.

Your birthday was a beautiful day
Ninety-nine candles and one, just for a joke
I wanted to say I loved the way your dark hair fell across your forehead
And I was broken without you, like one-half of a whole
I wrote the words; my poems a half-cooked treat
The eggs were plunged deep into the cake but
You cried when you saw the candles
I don’t know why they had told me once
“Women like their men with a sense of humor”.

VIII.

They mocked me when I read out my first poem
I was like cold water poured on a hot rock
This sensation was new, it was horrifying
The purity evaporated in a single dry fizzle
Today I note-
A single-lined book at the foot of the bed
And simple verse
And steaming coffee
Your arms allow me to grow old fearlessly.

IX.

I don’t want to know
If there is a God in the night sky
Your simple faith crushes the soul out of me
It is cold out there in the universe, I say
We aren’t part of any great mystery
Don’t console me with nothingness
Don’t console me with anything at all
I am inconsolably lost to this universe
To this life and to all others beyond it
I hold no claim to any foreign truth
I’ll follow your footprints into the mud and from my humble hole
We can gaze at the stars-
You’ll see magical possibilities, I’ll see balls of fire
But I’m content because you will still console me
Until my hair turn grey.

X.

The clothes lay on the floor
Like waves brought to a halt against a shore
They trembled because the distance between them
Felt unreasonable
How could one little act be so magnificent
That the universe stopped pulsating
And became a mere portrait
On the drab wall of reality
Whoever built it was a fool!
But oh, such a passionate fool.

I am over my creative standstill. I decided to welcome myself back into the folds of magic with a collection of small poems that reflect the moods of love. The hour it took to create these was a happy one. Hope you liked them!


You looked at me from atop your ivory tower
Your glowing, wondrous, shimmering tower
With your spidery, spindly arms reaching down towards me
Like poisonous tentacles, wrapping softly
In a beautiful, warm embrace of death

And I thought traversing the ocean would be enough to find you,
Swimming from A to B. You would be the lighthouse.
You would guide me
In tune with the countless, endless open bleeps
That helped you weave a legend through the rocks

This was before they found you.
Before they cut out the only real thing inside you
Before you forgot what it was like when the world was terrifyingly new
And your raw, throbbing heart faced everything with iron fists rising ten feet high
To break through whatever it is that you felt weakened by

But look at yourself. You don’t see what the Tempest left behind
‘She was only trying to help’ you say, ‘She only made me stronger.
She made me a man.’ You assert. ‘She defined me. She gave me the courage
to be whoever I wanted to be’. But who is that, I wonder and there is no reply
You know you must be brave but you know not why
You know you must live and not die but you know not why
You know too much but there is too little you actually know
Your flame dies suddenly, as though inspired by a torpedo
You decide to let destroy the lives of those who aroused you
So you watch from your tower and I try to remind you of when
You played hide-and-seek in the mud, pretending to be monsters at war
Pretending your invincibility grew besides your innocence
I try. But I know it’s too late.