Lindsay revisits a Doris Lessing classic.
Doris Lessing insists that she’s not a feminist. And though some people consider her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook to be an iconic work of feminist fiction, Lessing’s quick to correct those who interpret it that way. In her 1971 introduction to the text, she speaks about the many letters she’s received over the years (from both women and men) thanking her for writing a definitive tract about “the sex war” of the 1960s; but recalling these letters, Lessing — who also intended The Golden Notebook to be “about” a number of other things like Communism, mental illness and the writing process — bemoans the fact that the feminist reader often “can’t see anything else in the book” other than a treatise on gender politics.
Even with Lessing’s insistence in mind, many readers continue to look at The Golden Notebook through a decidedly feminist lens. After all, I was inspired to pick up a copy of the book after reading Annie and Kelsy’s discussion about it on this very blog. Given that I’m a sucker for “writing about writing” novels and, like the protagonist Anna Wulf, a keeper of many different colored notebooks, their enthusiasms about the book made me assume I’d fall head over heels.
But I didn’t, exactly. Don’t get me wrong, I was sucked in at first: the 50-page dialogue/gossip session between Anna and her best friend Molly is irresistible and almost painfully honest, and the form (which splits the book according to Anna’s compartmentalized notebooks: the black for her writing life, the red for her experiences with Communism, the yellow for autobiographical fiction and the blue for a journal) intrigued me with its musings on the power of the written word. My issues were less with the narrative and mood of the book as a whole and more with the central protagonist herself.
My relationship with Anna Wulf is complicated. In some ways, I can see many feminist readers closely identifying with her. She’s articulate about the glories and the trappings of being a “free woman,” a single mother and a writer; she speaks with wry candor about losing the illusions of youth and idealism; and she’s utterly unsentimental about love, nostalgia, or basically anything in her life at all. In some ways, I don’t know that I can think of a female literary protagonist who speaks more precisely about the peculiar predicaments of being a modern woman. But after a while, Anna’s wryness and unsentimentally started to feel bleak and almost stiflingly humorless. I realize that the novel is, in part, a chronicle of Anna’s “cracking up,” but there comes a point in this novel became downright arid to me — when hope, humor and even the possibility of meaningful social change vanished into a fine mist. Anna looks back upon her idealistic days as a young activist and writer with unforgiving scorn. Maybe, I thought, this just isn’t one of those books you’re supposed to read in your twenties?
Still, having had a few days since finishing to sit with it and revisit all of the pages I dog-eared and underlined, I’ve come to respect The Golden Notebook as something more complex than a one-note, feel-good feminist tract. It’s an examination of the not-so-feel-good parts of what it means to be a “free woman:” the anxieties, the doubts, the childrearing issues, the annoying booty calls from married dudes (“Four men, and I haven’t even flirted with them before, have telephoned to say their wives are away, and every time they have a delightfully coy note in their voices. What on earth do you suppose goes through their minds?”) It’s a book about failings and misgivings, exposing the cracks and fissures in progressive ideologies, feminism included.
I’ll admit that I slogged through much of the “difficult” part of the novel (I won’t say much more in the name of spoilers, but suffice to say you’ll know it when you come to it), until I was struck by a particular image right at the end of this section, as one character describes the plot of a book he’s writing:
This young man…complained that he was in an intellectual prison-house. He recognized, had recognized for years, that he never had a thought, or an emotion, that didn’t instantly fall into pigeon-holes, one marked “Marx” and one marked “Freud.” His thoughts and emotions were like marbles rolling into predetermined slots, he complained…he wished that just once, just once in his life, he thought something that was his own, spontaneous, undirected, not willed on him by Grandfathers Freud and Marx.
Of course there’s a danger in conflating Anna and Doris (and, even here this image comes to us a few voices removed from even Anna), but this passage struck me as the reason why Lessing is reluctant to identify as a feminist. She’s said in interviews that she resists all labels and -isms, and her anti-feminist stance doesn’t mean she’s against women’s rights. But she seems to be against this “pigeon-holing” of ideas that fit too neatly within an ideological framework, and in my own personal anxieties about feminism, this was a topic to which I had no trouble relating.
The thing is, I worry about that stuff too. I worry that feminism sometime limits my criticism — that my knee-jerk reaction is to take the “feminist angle” when writing an album review or a personal essay. I worry that I’m not arriving at the answers on my own but rather following in the well-worn neural pathways of Grandmothers Woolf and de Beauvoir and hooks. I worry that this blog post is a foregone conclusion.
But at some point, I stop worrying. Because when I thought a bit more about Lessing’s image of the marbles and pigeon holes, I realized that that’s now how feminism works for me. Feminist thought, to me, moves like a marble wielding a machete, and maybe also a tiny jackhammer in the other hand, recreating the shapes of the pigeon holes, and drilling new ones when it’s so inclined. I’ve found that it’s hardly sectioned off, too, but rather that feminism has been for me an entry way into thinking about other strategies of resistance and the interconnectedness of all systems of oppression.
If Anna and Doris see feminism as just another ideological label holding them back from thinking freely, that’s fine too! Maybe my idealism’s showing, but at times I found the mood of The Golden Notebook to be too pessimistic for my own enjoyment. (In reading from the responses to the book on this blog, I tended to agree with their assessment that some of it feels outdated.) But in spite of all this — and Lessing’s instance that it’s not a feminist work — I still found The Golden Notebook to be incredibly valuable in the ways it got me thinking about my own political convictions, my writing and perhaps most importantly, (plug your ears, Doris) exactly what it means to be a feminist.