“The novel has become a function of the fragmented society, the fragmented consciousness. Human beings are so divided, are becoming more and more divided, and more subdivided in themselves, reflecting the world, that they reach out desperately, not knowing they do it, for information about other groups inside their own country, let alone groups in other countries. Inside this country, Britain, the middle-class have no knowledge of the lives of the working-people, and vice-versa; and reports and articles and novels are sold across the frontiers, are read as if savage tribes were being investigated.” (p. 75)
The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that.
Phew, was this book ever a doozy. I actually finished it a few days ago, but I’ve been mulling over what to say ever since. In the story that forms the backbone of the novel, “Free Women 1-5”, Anna Wulf is a writer in 1950s London who survives primarily off the proceeds of her first novel. She is divorced after a wartime marriage, and lives with her young daughter Janet. Her best friend and “fellow traveler” Molly is a big part of her life (they used to live together), as is Molly’s son Tommy, along with his captain of industry-type father Richard.
Anna Wulf is struggling with writer’s block after the great success that was her first book, Frontiers of War. What writing she does do these days is into four notebooks, which form the sections in between “Free Women” segments: Black, in which she examines her history (especially that of living in an African colony for the duration of the Second World War); Red, which details her involvement with the English Communist Party and her commitments to the Socialist cause in general; Yellow, which is used as a creative space for short fiction, most of which is autobiographical; and Blue, which is her personal diary. The titular Golden Notebook represents Anna’s attempt to bring together of all the strands of her personality into a coherent whole, before time runs out.
As you probably gathered from my attempt at synopsis in the last paragraph, there is a lot going on in this book. It, along with At Swim-Two-Birds, the Thomas Pynchon selections and The French Lieutenant’s Woman must be among the most experimental works on the Time 100 list. Here the use of form is especially interesting. The way Anna tells us her story with the different notebooks is an amazing way of getting us to know her better, much more than you could do with a standard linear narrative without a much higher page count. While it does get a little confusing at times, especially with Anna’s habit of using different names for the same characters when they’re being “fictional” and “not fictional”, the end result is an excellent and robust character study of a woman teetering almost at the edge of madness. We are able to learn who Anna is, where she has been, what she believes in, and what she’d like to be, all of these things, orbiting around the straightforward narrative of “Free Women”. Even more interesting to me were the editorial tone of the brief asides introducing each section of a notebook, as it is very detached, telling us what was scratched out, pasted in, etc. It gives the book a sort of “found document” feel, like if her biographer or someone was going through her papers, or if Lessing herself is taking a hand in putting together Anna’s story.
The Golden Notebook presents us with a world in which the institution of marriage is worth next to nothing. Pretty much every single man that Anna (or her “fictional” surrogate Ella) meets wants to cheat on his wife with her, almost as a matter of form. Anna’s own marriage, to a German expatriate with whom she hung out with in Africa during the war, was pretty much a marriage of convenience, dissolving almost as quickly as the political groups the pair find themselves participating in. While this marriage is only barely alluded to (the events that occurred before and after receive much more screen time), Anna’s daughter from the marriage is an incredibly important part of her life, indeed, probably the thing that keeps her close to stability. One of the many topics the novel examines is the idea that while a parent is taking care of a child, the child provides structure and meaning to the parent as well, and when the child is removed from the parent, madness is soon to follow, as it does when Anna’s daughter begins to crave the discipline and formality of a boarding school and ends up getting to go to one.
The political aspects revealed in the Red notebook were also quite interesting. Anna is a member of the English Communist party during the end of the Stalinist era in Russia, and much of the notebook is devoted to her and the Party itself having to reconcile their views against what they’d previously been told to believe by Party HQ. I only knew a little bit about this time in history, mostly after reading about the H.U.A.C. trials presided over by McCarthy in the U.S. at the time, for Film Studies and History courses, so it was extremely interesting to have a glimpse at what would have went down in the slightly more permissive atmosphere of ’50s England during this shakedown period. Lessing also has a lot to say about the way some people use the sweeping rhetoric and ideals of radical political movements as a way to escape the futility of their everyday lives. It’s all very well and good to theorize about how you should go and fight in a revolution somewhere (as at the time the book takes place in, that seemed to be an option worth exploring), as it’s much less terrifying than staying home and having to accept the political realities there. This is referred to as “paralysis of the will”, as after the great upheavals of communism in Europe and Asia: “Because everyone’s gotten used to the idea of countries changing completely in about three years … if they can’t see a complete change ahead, they can’t be bothered.” (p. 237) I thought this rang especially true.
There’s so much more in this book: the insights into the practice of psychiatry are fascinating, as well as how we deal with the subject of mental illness. Near the end of the book, Anna takes in a boarder (once her daughter leaves for school), an American writer who appears to suffer from multiple personality disorder. His affliction mirrors Anna’s need to separate and editorialize her life by use of the notebooks, and their brief affair is covered in amazing detail in the Blue notebook, which at this point descends into a miasma of shared misery and treachery (later, once we’ve returned to the “Free Women” section, the entire thing is blown through really quickly). I could go on and on. If you’ve got the stomach to attempt this book, I’d really recommend it. While it might seem a little off-putting early on, give it a chance, there’s a lot going on in this story.
Total pages read since January 1st: 8259 pp.
Next up on the Resolution Project: Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (1st Movement) (1951)