The Golden Notebook

The genius of Doris Lessing is a combination of her fearless, aggressive swipe at unravelling the world and her pure writing talent. The structure of the book was a bit disconcerting at first, à la Dos Passos’ USA trilogy, but I eased into it. A novel in itself, Free Women, is broken into five parts, providing cover for the contents of the notebooks themselves, black, red, yellow, blue, and at the end, gold. Anna Freeman, the hero, must structure the record of her life into separate vessels, not a chronological diary but a compartmentalized one:
* black contains details of the pecuniary situation of her book (Frontiers of War) sales, she struggles with writers’ block from the very beginning of this notebook “Every time I sit down to write, and let my mind go easy, the words, It is so dark, or something to do with darkness. Terror.” She then lines the book into two sections, Source & Money, the source side detailing all the producers who try to buy the film rights to Frontiers, the money side detailing funds coming in from the translation of the work, business interviews, etc. “I have only one, and the least important of the qualities necessary to write at all, and that is curiosity.” Source goes on to detail life in the colony (South Africa?), reliving the source that created Frontiers of War, the tight group of Communists working to spread their doctrine. She rails against Frontiers being seen as a book about the race wars. Hence her choice of black for the color?
*red details life in the Communist Party in 1950s England, as she dances into and out of the party.
* yellow is the beginnings of a novel, about Ella and her son Michael (the name of Anna’s old lover from Africa), Ella falls in love with Paul (married, no intention of leaving his wife). At the end of the story, Anna questions how she’s presented the story, “Literature is analysis after the event.”
* blue is the more personal events, perhaps colored for the depression that overtakes her after her five year affair with Michael is over
* golden notebook preserves the descent into madness and complete abandonment of senses Anna experiences with Saul Green, the loss of sense of time, the buckling of the floor, the sleepiness, her ache when he leaves to walk the streets until he exhausts himself.
I just noticed that the typeface for the notebooks is different than that for the Free Women installments. Free Women is the story of Anna, her pal Molly, Molly’s son Tommy (who is blinded when he shoots himself), Molly’s ex Richard, Richard’s current wife Marion (who then moves in with Tommy), and Janet, Anna’s daughter. The title is tongue in cheek, Anna is “free” because she is not mated, but she does not feel particularly good about it.

It is fatal to art. I am interested only in stretching myself, in living as fully as I can. When I said that to Mother Sugar she replied with the small nod of satisfaction people use for these resounding truths, that the artist writes out of an incapacity to live. I remember the nausea I felt when she said it; I feel the reluctance of disgust now when I write it: it is because this business about art and the artist has become so debased, the property of every sloppy-minded amateur that any person with a real connection with the arts wants to run a hundred miles at the sight of the small satisfied nod, the complacent smile. (from the black notebook)

In her 1972 preface, ten years after the original publication, Lessing eviscerates critics and gives valuable advice on reading:

There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag – and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that they book which bores you when you are 20 or 30 will open doors for you when you are 40 or 50 – and vice versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you.

She is uncomfortable with the book being labeled as about gender politics, and in Frontiers, she’s uncomfortable with it being labeled as just about race. Lessing wants you to see the whole, not pick it apart at the seams.