Monday, November 18, 2013


Last week I went to buy a new blank notebook. The situation had gotten pretty desperate:  the scraps of paper I was using were taped to other scraps.  Somehow I went to my campus bookstore three times before I could find where they were keeping them. But how many to get? I needed one for my teaching notes, one for notes on various writing projects, one for a personal journal. Should there be one to take notes on things I was reading? Some of those were related to the writing projects, but some might be extensions of the journal. And sometimes the journal would turn into a story if I got bored with telling it straight.  Someone suggested another one for to-do lists and life management. In the end I bought four, but already they're all mixed up, what is in one should be in the other . . . 

"Shouldn't you just get one?" someone asked. Oh no, I said, haven't you read The Golden Notebook? That's how she went crazy.

The title of Doris Lessing's most famous and ambitious novel is a dream of integration. Anna, Lessing's protagonist, has one notebook for memories of childhood, one accounting for her political life, one in which she writes a novel, "Free Women," and one personal journal. Trying to bring them together into a single one, she falls apart.  In any earlier version of this blog I had a line across the top taken from The Golden Notebook: "Men. Women. Bound. Free. Good. Bad. Yes. No. Capitalism. Socialism. Sex. Love. . ." 

I first read The Golden Notebook in a Modern English Literature course in college. The professor was a little self-conscious about teaching this feminist classic to a bunch of young feminists at a woman's college, so he asked if any of us wanted to teach it. Being the not-yet-recovering terminally "good student" I was at the time, I volunteered. I guess it was the first time I did what I now do for a living. As a graduate student not quite a decade later, I tried to teach it.  I got called for jury duty just as we were to start. Now when I look at the cover, I think of the dark bench and the video screens of the Brooklyn courthouse, hoping my name would not be called for just a little longer so I could figure out how to lead a discussion of what the Communist Party might have meant to British housewives of the 1950s.

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a writer. For as long as I can remember, also, that desire, and what it might mean to articulate, let alone fulfill, it, has terrified me. Is it selfish? Is it a way of setting oneself apart from others? Was it setting oneself up for failure? Would it make it more difficult to enjoy friendship, romance, and the other consolations of what is sometimes mistakenly called everyday life? Does it mean shirking one's responsibilities to be a thinking person who acts in the world from conviction, political and otherwise? No book I know makes me think about these questions the way The Golden Notebook has. Does trying to live the different lives Anna tries to - peruse writing, romance and sex, to be a political person in the world - feel impossible because of external constraints, or will these things always come into conflict? We see experiences get mulled over, reworked, transposed into fiction. We see how much more went into the shaping of Free Women than is in the book. So how much more must have gone into The Golden Notebook?  How much of a life can a book contain? Should it aspire to be "better" than a life - more finely tuned - or should it give us an intimation of life in all its messiness? Towards the end there is a series of sketches for stories and novels Anna thinks of writing. I once thought about trying to do a series of exercises around them, except they are already complete as they are. How many of these sit in our notebooks, or in the notebooks of someone who lived to 94 and published 50 novels? 

When people talk about The Golden Notebook, they tend to talk a lot about the sixties, and that generation of feminism, and how this is or is not "relatable" to young women today, and how Lessing came to antagonize the feminists who revered her. But the other thing that has stuck with me from Lessing is her accounts of her early life - what Anna was writing in her black notebook. This is a woman whose father worked at the Imperial Bank of Persia, who came of age in a country called Rhodesia and saw the Communist Party there as a way to escape and create and intellectual life. If anyone truly had a long 20th century, it was her. Her famous cantankerousness always seemed well-earned. In the first part of her memoir, Under My Skin, Lessing talks about the shadow the First World War cast across her childhood: 

"There were also the wounded from the war, of whom my father was one, and the people whose potential was never used because their lives were wrenched out of their proper course by the war - my mother was one. During that trip through the villages of France, then in Scotland and towns in England, were revived in me the raging emotions of my childhood, a protest, an anguish, my parents'. I felt too incredulity, but that was a later emotion: how could it have happened? . . I wonder how many of the children brought up in families crippled by war had the same poison running in their veins from before they could even speak. We are all of us made by war, twisted and warped by war, but we seem to forget it." 

The last veterans of that war are gone now, and soon the children who were the last to remember it will be gone too. In place of their memories we will write essays on "the idea of memory." Throughout Under My Skin she expresses credulity that things really were as she remembered them.  If I were writing this at thirty, she says at one point, it would be one book. At forty another. And what would it be should I write it at 85?  It was, and is all of these, and now it is ours.