Our favorite correspondents from Egypt are back! And they’re got a new name for their new recurring feature on Canonball. Without further ado, we present The Cairo Contingent: Conversations with Kelsy and Annie. Today they order a pizza and discuss Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.
Annie: I want to kick this off by talking contextually about who and where I was, and you were, when we first started this mammoth, because I think it’s important, this being something of a seminal (oof.) book. I was in a period of upheaval, poised to make the greatest decision of my life, and I was unemployed and in love with two (not one, two!) dudes who were both Very Wrong for me. I picked it up from my local branch of the BPL and sat on my back deck and drank whiskey and chain-smoked and read the first chapter and was like, “DOY BOMB. DID SOMEBODY TAPE RECORD MY BEST FRIEND AND I GOSSIPING IN MY KITCHEN?” Then I got distracted (like I said, two dudes.) and didn’t pick it up again until this summer when I was in Istanbul by my lonesome, and much more emotionally stable might I add.
Kelsy: I was also traveling alone when I read it. I was in Morocco during the off-season and I would go days without talking to anyone who spoke English, but I did have Doris!
Annie: Doris! What a woman. You know she’s a total internet curmudgeon? She’ll likely never read this!
Kelsy: Probably for the best. Zing!
Annie: Would you classify this as a feminist coming-of-age book? Obviously, 25 (how old we are) is a very different age to come into then, say, 15, when I was reading stuff like Mrs. Dalloway and The Bell Jar. There’s also Lessing’s whole assertion that it’s not a feminist book, but we can get to her and her head-butting with The Feminists later.
Kelsy: Yeah. You’re never too old to come of age! Different periods are spearheaded by different things, so I really do think this book represents a certain time of my life that I’m currently going through. I’m sure I would have enjoyed it at another point, but it’s particularly relevant right now.
Annie: I mean, I definitely agree, though I won’t get into more detail about how freakishly relevant this book got at times when I was reading it. Whole pages with “YES” and “DUH” written in the margins!
Kelsy: So, Canonball readers, do you want to know what this is about?
Annie: Surely they do. No spoilers! Well, maybe some small ones. Basically this book is about a novelist struggling with writer’s block and the related struggles with mental illness, with conflicts in the Communist party, and with the men in her life. So, basically, the novel I’ve always wanted to write.
Kelsy: The book is in six parts and details the four notebooks Anna keeps about the different aspects of her life and her writing. The black, the red, the yellow, and the blue.
Annie: Guess which color red refers to!
Kelsy: And black. Haha, Africa.
Annie: Tricky, Doris!
Kelsy: The yellow is more like a diary, with short, daily entries, which later revert to just newspaper clippings, because that’s when Anna starts going mad.
Annie: Spoiler! Sidenote: is there any great feminist work that doesn’t involve mental illness? The Patriarchy! It’s maddening!
Kelsy: Far from the madding patriarchy. Anyway, the blue is a story about Ella and Paul, aka Anna and her lover Michael who has caused her so much angst and heartache.
Annie: And! All of them together make THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK.
Kelsy: So, why do you think Anna stayed with Michael for so long? And Ella with Paul, by extension.
Annie: I think she stayed with him for the same reasons you stay with anyone. You’ve been together for such a long time and you’re so ingrained in this routine that even if you despise this person the thought of this element of your every day missing is unbearable. I also think that this particular element is one reason why Lessing claims that it isn’t a feminist novel.
Kelsy: Yeah, I was going to say that. But it also is a feminist novel, because Anna is always attempting to grapple with her being a feminist, her being a socialist and her personal life sometimes conflicting with this. This really resonates with me because trying to be a feminist is not easy. By very nature we’re going against the norm, so it is a battle. I’ve definitely made some of the same mistakes as Anna when it comes to men. Because if it was easy to be a feminist I wouldn’t need to be one!
Annie: Preach! You see the same thing too with Anna’s socialism. Dealing with her socialist ideology and the fact that at the heart of it, she’s still from the middle class. She’s not a worker, she’s a novelist, which is a luxury. It’s sort of a story about reconciling your ideals and your daily life and how thinking about the two can make you totally crazy.
Kelsy: We’ve all been there! Maybe not to that extent. This is really evidenced in her being in South Africa as a socialist activist, but she was really leading such a bourgeouis existence there, hanging out with all these young hedonistic leftists with nothing to do.
Annie: Which really hit a nerve! Being that we are both living like princesses in a country with a colonial legacy and miniscule cost of living with nothing to do but read books!
Kelsy: Books about inequality! Getting drunk and ranting about the ills of the world.
Annie: And all because of our privilege. I think if I had read this prior to moving to Egypt, it wouldn’t have struck me the same way, though I do feel that this has the type of timelessness where I’ll be able to pick it up at different times in my life and pick up on different themes.
Kelsy: For example, trying to be a single mother!
Annie: Whoa now! Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves here! But, yes. Lessing’s whole theme of “Free Women,” embodied by Anna and her best friend Molly, really reflects kind of a second-wave legacy where the ladies are definitely all about putting their careers first. Children second. And men! Where do the dudes fall in?
Kelsy: Yeah, I think that reflects one of the major conflicts, which is devoting one’s self to the career. A capitalist endeavor which, regardless of good intent, is still a patriarchal endeavor at best. And where do men fit in? Because Anna and Molly certainly did not put men last.
Annie: And we certainly do not either! (Caveat! Queer readers, please note that this is a reflection of two hetero feminists, and thereby provides a limited lens.)
Kelsy: Do you feel that Molly and Anna’s obsession with men distracts from their feminism?
Annie: A hard question!
Kelsy: And one I ask myself all the time!
Annie: Because here’s the thing: Even if I actively resort to putting men last on the “Annie Agenda” (ha ha ha.) the fact that they’re last and not worth my time or whatever still bubbles up. In my active endeavors to Not Think About Men, I think about them all the time!
Kelsy: Preach! But yeah, I don’t know the answer. There’s this one great quote, early in the book, that sums this up so well:
“Free women,” said Anna, wryly. She added, with an anger new to Molly, so that she earned another quick scrutinizing glance from her friend: “They still define us in terms of relationships with men, even the best of them.”
Annie: Hold up. I think our pizza just arrived.
[BREAK FOR A FEMINIST PIZZA PARTY]
Kelsy: So, do you think you define yourself by your relationships with men? Or worse, do we obsess about men because we have the very non-feminist desire to feel worth through them?
Annie: Real talk! Hard questions! I’d like to say that I don’t define myself in that way. The bulk of my relationships with men throughout my lifetime have been largely platonic, and I think having good relationships with my brothers and my dad (my dad who, by the way, goes out of his way to affirm me and my career path and never says anything about how I’m not married) helped with that.
Kelsy: I mean, I don’t think I define my life by men or relationships, though my upbringing was not as supportive. But, I would be naive to say that those relationships, real or not, didn’t have some sway over me or my decisions. Is that crazy?
Annie: Hell no. I have wasted a few years of my life being defined by whomever my other half was at the time, and I think that just speaks to this whole notion of needing men. It’s a man’s world, y’know?
Kelsy: Mmmmmhmmmmm. This is great pizza!
Annie: So, in sum! For me, in spite of Doris’ assertion that this novel is about mental illness, as opposed to feminism, I do think it is a feminist piece. Here’s the thing: I think it was ahead of its time. This isn’t a second-wave thing. This is like the literary first horse(wo)man of the third wave. Right?
Kelsy: Right. It’s so intersectional. The failures of identity politics, and the difficulty of living a feminist life.
Annie: What privilege has wrought, and mental illness, which definitely isn’t up my literary alley right now, but if I had read this when I was seventeen and in the Bell Jar? HOOO, BOY.
Kelsy: I read Anaïs Nin when I was seventeen.
Annie: And doesn’t that just sum our persons up so well!
Kelsy: Readers: If you haven’t read this book, you should, regardless of self-identified gender. If you’re largely dissatisfied with the Left, or in general, this will resonate.