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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