Thursday, 11 September 2008

Doris Lessing's Golden Notebook: The Key to All Her Work, or a Just Too-Long Read

So far I’ve done two of the four book discussions about Doris Lessing’s The Golden Network I’m scheduled to lead this fall, and two things seem clear: she has never stopped mining her life for her art, and she goes overboard on the projects she particularly holds dear.

At around 600 pages (depending on the edition) The Golden Notebook is considered by many critics to be her masterwork. It’s a feminist milestone to some, an eloquent description of the grand malaise that settled on the Left in the 1950s, and/or an account of a woman coming apart in a world in disarray.

It also is hard to get into, confusing at times, and obsessed with detail. Among my bookies, only about a third had persevered to the end, although many of them had read other books by Lessing with pleasure. As they talked about them, it became clear that she reworked many of the incidents and reflections found in The Golden Notebook in other works, producing stories that are much more accessible—and I would say interesting.

Of course one of the obsessions of Anna in The Golden Notebook is the way a writer can tell the truth. As the book begins, Anna is completely dissatisfied with her early novel about Africa, and the notebooks she keeps are an attempt to get closer to The Truth, whatever that is.

Hmm, that may be a thing to discuss the next time The Golden Notebook is on the program. Certainly I’m going to tell the two groups who have discussions scheduled (in October and November) that members might like to read something else by her if they find The Golden Notebooks tough going. They're likely to find many of the same concerns, characters and events, but recounted differently.

After all, as I keep telling myself, it's not the story that matters, it's how you tell the story.


Jack Ruttan said...

I related to that book, because I was part of a lot of left-wing groups in college, and there were the same kinds of issues. Sorry I'm not being too specific.

I suggest being like the characters in the book, and do a lot of drinking before discussion, so you can finally say what you really mean. ;)

Mary Soderstrom said...

Drinking can help a lot of discussions--and as I think I said in another post, I was astounded by how much alcohol is consumed by Lessing's characters. Another generation's vices, I guess.

Or maybe we're just too abstemious? I find that two glasses of wine puts me to sleep these days, which is one of the big downsides to growing older.


Jack Ruttan said...

No, I think people just drank more then. Check "Mad Men."

There was also a drinking game based on the Caedmon album of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." When the play's characters had a drink, you had to have one. People got sloshed.

Still, liquor worked like Truth Serum in that book. I couldn't finish "The Good Terrorist" because I was annoyed at most of the characters. It helps to have at least one semi-sympathisable-with one.

I personally have a conservative streak mixed in with my liberalism, which will probably strengthen as I get older. Durn kids!