However, The Golden Notebook (1962) remains for many readers thetalismanic novel among the almost 30 she wrote. A divided self in adivided world, her heroine Anna progresses by way of love, madness,ideals and visions towards the unity of being that drives buteludes the classic Lessing protagonist. A dramatisation ofinterlinked Cold War crisis and individual breakdown, it wrapspersonal and political experience around each other to devastatingeffect.
The two landmarks, for me, are , her monumental portrait of humanity, and (part of the Children of Violence series), Lessing’s visionary mapping of London and the no-man’s-land between psychosis and sanity – this book opened doors for me. Her understanding of resilience and transformation in the midst of upheaval is profound. In our obfuscating times, we continue to need that eye. –.
Lessing resisted the labelling of The Golden Notebook as a feminist novel, though she conceded that it was written "as though the attitudes that have been created by the Women's Liberation movements already existed". Hence the misunderstandings by her critics: "some books are not read in the right way because they have skipped a stage of opinion, assumed a crystallisation of information in society which has not yet taken place". In fact, what Lessing concerns herself with in the novel is the adjustment of the relationship between men and women as it was being lived in the contemporary era, not its distillation as "opinion". This adjustment was many-faceted, infinitely complex, and her great achievement – like Lawrence's inand Women in Love – was to posit the individual, male and female, as a structure through which evolving forces and historical currents pass. In a sense The Golden Notebook begins where Lawrence left off, with the idea of "free women" – a phrase Lessing uses as the title of the novel's freestanding interior text. Like him, she writes intimately about sex, parenthood, creativity, work, belief and politics, and like him she does so not through people with enormous power or importance in the world but through a concept of intelligent private life that acts as a prism for these larger forces.
The Golden Notebook's radicalism lies not in the author's intention to break with or rebel against past forms, but to take breakage itself – or "breakdown", her preferred word – as her subject. That subject is made concrete in the person of a writer, Anna Wulf, who cannot write. In creating Anna, Lessing created also a distinction of which the book itself fell foul when it came out in 1962. In this novel the artist is not potent but bankrupt. Anna can't write because, as she admits, what she writes isn't true. "The parochialism of our culture is intense," Lessing wrote in her 1971 preface to the novel, in which she confesses that although she believed she had a balanced and indeed humble view of the value of literary criticism, over the hostile reception to The Golden Notebook she "lost it". "There is no doubt that to attempt a novel of ideas is to give oneself a handicap." The narrative's remarkable construction, through which its ambitions "to talk through the way it was shaped" are so brilliantly realised, was – when it first emerged – subjected to precisely the reductive reading against which it militates. If The Golden Notebook has one unmistakable theme, it is the danger of uncoupling the personal from the universal, of seeing the subjective as inimical to – even undermining of – objectivity. The novel's extraordinary achievement lies in its demonstration of subjectivity as elemental, as a life force whose containment, as Anna Wulf has discovered, causes human identity to collapse. "Nothing is personal, in the sense that it is uniquely one's own. Writing about oneself, one is writing about others." Early critics and readers of The Golden Notebook did not see things this way at all. They saw a book by a woman about a woman, and in "personalising" the novel enforced the very limitation against which it warns. Even though the failure of Marxism is one of The Golden Notebook's great subjects, Lessing admits that the intelligent early readings of the text came largely from Marxist critics, who were able to "look at things as a whole and in relation to each other".
The idea of the notebooks, however, is what makes Lessing's vision even more radical than Lawrence's and it remains of great significance to 21st-century readers. As a paradigm of the modern self, the set of different-coloured notebooks belonging to the writer (and divorcee, and single parent) Anna Wulf continues to serve the novel's themes of compartmentalisation and breakdown half a century on. These notebooks represent the strain to personality of unintegrated consciousness, and it remains as characteristic of (female) experience now as then that what Lessing calls the existence of "false dichotomies and divisions" – the self as fragmentary and compartmentalised and thus as potentially dishonest in and of itself – damages individuality and its status in culture. The artificial-personal supplants the universal-personal; truth becomes intermittent and fractured, calling for madness, breakdown and disintegration of personality in order for division and falsehood to be swept away. The different notebooks can no longer be written in: only the book of synthesis, the golden notebook, has a future. This compelling idea, so classical in its interpretations of violence and change, continues to offer a valid way of thinking about who we are and why. Indeed, the modern reader may find The Golden Notebook far franker, more open, more intellectual and more politically and personally revolutionising a text than its first readers did. She may find it more necessary, or even perhaps more shocking, for it makes our age seem prim and puritanical and half-witted by comparison, not to mention more parochial. has always been a writer interested in the future, so I doubt this would come as any surprise to her at all.
Barbed nostalgia, for a wretched way of life nearing breakdown, underpins this story as it does Lessing’s first novel, The Grass Is Singing (1950), and the fictional first novel of Anna Wulf in The Golden Notebook : “the emotion it came out of was something frightening, the unhealthy, feverish, illicit excitement of wartime, a lying nostalgia, a longing for licence, for freedom, for the jungle, for formlessness”.
The Golden Notebook is the book I have given most as a gift since I read it for the first time nearly a decade ago, in my early 20s. If a new acquaintance becomes a new friend, or an old friend is in trouble, and I have not already spotted the novel's reassuringly solid spine on their bookshelf, I pass on a copy and tell them that reading this book changed me – as Doris Lessing said the writing of it did her.
The Golden Notebook is a radical work, whose character nonetheless derives from and is encompassed by literary tradition. Doris Lessing set out to write a novel that was neither morally deformed by the politics and mores of its own reality nor was forced to process the deformity through modernist techniques. But if The Golden Notebook is a consciously traditional text, its forebears are Tolstoy and Stendhal and Chekhov, not Jane Austen or George Eliot. The evasiveness of the English novel has nothing in common with Lessing's personal and political realism at all. Of the English novelists, only can be found – though found strongly – in the make-up of The Golden Notebook, and something of the loathing and rejection Lawrence inspired was to be Lessing's, too.
Lessing published The Golden Notebook in 1962, as the so-called second wave of the women's movement was gathering pace. It is set in the wake of the cold war Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's anti-Stalinist speech of 1956 and the suppression of the Hungarian uprising against Communist rule, with the spectre of nuclear oblivion haunting its pages. The protagonist Anna Wulf – a thirtysomething published writer, mother and political radical – is undergoing a breakdown.
Doris Lessing's staying power is admirable. Over the past 50 years she has written over 20 novels, myriad short stories, and has ventured into the realms of science fiction, graphic novels, and opera. Her ability to continue to write with relevancy, to risk failure in territories left uncharted by most writers deserves recognition, even if her latest book of four novellas is rather unremarkable in and of itself.
In my twenties, I was a foreigner in London. Reading Lessing’s subtly brilliant short story Out of the Fountain, I had that Keatsian feeling of a new world coming into view. As I read my way into the books of this fellow exile, her range and depth emerged – from psychological portraits in granular detail, to vast explorations of cataclysm and survival. Class, sex, old age, childhood, the inner workings of politics, the wilder shores of the psyche – she embraced complexity and got under the skin of the human condition with piercing acuity. This was writing from the frontiers of experience and utterly mind-stretching.
The Golden Notebook is a novel of shocking power and blistering honesty. I first read it about five years after its publication, when I was about 30, and it had an overwhelming impact. I remember vividly the state of excitement, terror and awe in which I read it, a semi-deranged state not unlike that of Lessing's narrator, Anna, in her north London flat. Here was a writer who said the unsayable, thought the unthinkable, and fearlessly put it down there, in all its raw emotional and intellectual chaos. She managed to make sense of her material, but at enormous risk. Luckily for me, I had already published three novels, and I had three children to keep me sane. Otherwise I might never have found my own voice. I might have gone off the rails completely.