In part due to inspiration provided by Caleb Rounds in his previous Public Humanist essay on rereading literature in the internet age and the new access to scholarship and current literary conversations that the Web brings to the experience of reading, I recently finished rereading Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. I took it off my shelf one night at about 3 AM when I couldn’t sleep and needed to start something I felt sure I’d be compelled by. My copy was a gift to me from a coworker at a restaurant where I had waitressed in my twenties. I read the book for pleasure when I was graduate student at the University of New Hampshire; I then read all of Lessing’s Children of Violence series, which is her five-novel semi-autobiographical account of growing up in British colonized Rhodesia, joining the Communist Party, and eventually moving to London to pursue life as a writer. I read these books while I was managing editor of the National Women’s Studies Association Journal (now called Feminist Formations), and they formed part of the spine of my informal education in women’s studies. I remember sitting on a wooden chair in a cramped corner of my tiny, windowless office, formerly a supply closet, feet up on a filing cabinet, escaping into other people’s incredibly interesting lives.
Then, as now, I had been affected most by the final love affair of the main character of The Golden Notebook, Anna Wulf. It was the lovers’ joint dissolution into madness (Anna’s lover is a man named Saul Green, her tenant and a black-listed former-communist writer from the US, in exile in London in the early 50s), and the overwhelming level of emotional detail with which the dissolution was rendered that packed a punch. The novel is famously divided into five notebooks of different colors, all written by Anna Wulf: black for memories of Africa, red for her musings on the British Communist Party, yellow for a draft of an autobiographical novel, and blue for her most honest record of what happens in a day, although Anna quickly distrusts her own efforts to be completely plain in describing the “facts” of her life, which include lengthy dream recollections and a record of her sessions with her Freudian psychoanalyst “Mother Sugar.” The final golden notebook is jointly written by Anna and Saul and is supposed to represent a unified, healed voice.
Early critics of the novel read the Anna/Saul affair and the novel as a whole as a crystallization of the war of the sexes, which doesn’t seem incorrect to me—there are many male-female relationships depicted in the novel; almost all of them betray deep hostility. According to Lessing, the reviews of the book mostly pegged her as a man-hater (an assessment she rejects)—her portrayal of women’s anger and resentment, not to mention honest appraisals of unhappy marriages, provoked a strong response in readers of the early 60s. The Golden Notebook, emotionally ahead of the curve and introducing a feminist perspective that was at the time far from mainstream (as it is now), shocked critics and the public, although Lessing also received glowing correspondence from readers who claimed the book spoke to them directly and even “saved” them.
Doris Lessing writes of the early reception of the book and the focus of critics on the theme of “women’s liberation” in her 1971 Introduction to the novel (written a decade after the book was originally published):
But this novel was not a trumpet for Women’s Liberation. It described many female emotions of aggression, hostility, resentment. It put them into print. Apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, experiencing, came as a great surprise. Instantly, a lot of very ancient weapons were unleashed, the main ones, as usual, being on the theme of “She is unfeminine,” “She is a man-hater.”This particular reflex seems indestructible. Men—and many women—said that the suffragettes were defeminised, masculine, brutalised. There is no record I have ever read of any society anywhere when women demanded more than nature offers them that does not also describe this reaction from men—and some women. (p. xiii of the HarperPerennial Classic Edition, 1999)
She recapped this more generally in the Guardian’s book club blog in 2007, the year she won the Nobel Prize for literature. (I recommend viewing this video of her receiving the news at her home, emerging from a cab; she’s not exactly delighted.)
So yes, this novel as a post-modern, structural experiment with feminism at its heart struck me in the past few weeks quite as it had when I was in my twenties—before I was married, before I had a child, before I understood as fully as I do now the disadvantages women face in the world. But what interested me more this time around was the particular political context in which this book was written and that the book was about: when the Communist Party of Great Britain was imploding after a devastating 1956 speech by Khrushchev to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in Moscow: a surprise speech delivered to select members of the Congress that acknowledged some of the crimes of Stalin and the disastrous effect of the “cult of personality” that had developed around his autocracy. After decades of defending the USSR, defending Stalin, suppressing news of ethnic cleansing, and creating a great body of propaganda about Stalin’s leadership, hearing this speech, which was leaked to the Western press and gradually made its way to the US and Europe–the New York Times published it first—stunned European communists. Many committed suicide.
Of course, many left the party. And so this is another “crack-up” described in the book—the falling apart of the British Communist Party, which signals another new frontier for the protagonist in terms of identify, world view, and a way forward in life. For it wasn’t as if the character of Anna Wulf were about to suddenly embrace (as apparently many did) capitalism and admit that all her thinking and observations leading up to the speech had been wrong.
As a twenty-first century reader, I was more struck by the strength of the British Communist Party described in the novel than its impending failure. I was also struck by the depth of commitment to socialist ideals and radicalism of party members; I’ve seen nothing like this in my own life. No third party has thrived in the US for over 100 years. The British Communist Party had thousands of active members, it had its own press, it helped American expatriates escaping from McCarthyism, it had a London building and staff, and it sent party representatives to the Soviet Union with regularity (who would, as Lessing depicts them, return and lie to their comrades about how functional things were there). The personal history I was forced to conjure when reading this was my involvement with the Green Party (now the Green Rainbow Party of Massachusetts, a name I find ridiculous) just after Ralph Nader “spoiled” the 2000 presidential election for Al Gore. Great time to join the effort. But join it I did, unconvinced, as I still am, that Nader was wrong to run, and convinced that its platform had the guts to be openly idealistic and anti-corporate. I was an active member of the campaign to elect a young man in my community for State Representative as a Green, part of a larger strategy to keep the Green Party on the Massachusetts ballot (it’s not clear to me whether this has been maintained—in 2002, Jill Stein and Athony Lorenz met the threshold of voter support to maintain it). He lost. I ran out of steam for electoral politics and became convinced that it wouldn’t be worthwhile to involve myself again until Instant Runoff Voting was instituted—since I can only nurture contempt for both Democratic and Republican politicians in the national arena. We know how far that’s come.
(Abrupt) conclusion? Reread if you can. It’s worth revisiting the books of your youth that made an impression. They contain many more paths of thought for your exploration. Increased maturity does lead to increased comprehension. Rereading is one activity that makes growing old worthwhile. Doris Lessing, at the ripe age of 92, is probably well aware of that.