Doris Lessing’s ‘Golden Notebook’ and Our Era of Unrest


“When Doris Lessing, the British-Zimbabwean novelist who died in 2013, sat down to write ‘The Golden Notebook’ in the 1950s, she was responding to a feeling of defeat in leftist circles, one similar to the whiplash experienced by liberals after the election of President Trump. The marquee intellectual philosophy of the young 20th century — communism — was sagging from the revelation that ‘Father Stalin’ had overseen the death of millions; communist stalwarts in the West, like Lessing, felt they’d had the carpet pulled out from under them. They became intellectually homeless. Meanwhile, Senator Joseph McCarthy was raving like a proto-Trump at left-leaning Americans. What had this generation’s progressive causes amounted to? Then there were more personal crises. In the 1950s, from the tumult of wartime emerged a new type of woman whom Lessing, in ‘The Golden Notebook,’ terms a ‘free woman’: Such a woman could work, raise children on her own, date around. Yet just as members of today’s Tinder generation can be flummoxed by a surfeit of options, she often felt depressed by the new freedom, and worried whether her emotions were ‘still fitted for a kind of society that no longer exists.’ Lessing herself was one of these women. She had fled two failed marriages in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) — where she was an activist against racial segregation — and had come to London, where she published the best-selling novel ‘The Grass Is Singing’ and embarked on a series of love affairs. Her third novel, ‘The Golden Notebook,’ was her most heroic reckoning with a ‘kind of experience women haven’t had before.’ Published in 1962, the book was labeled a feminist classic, though like all labels this one has the effect of reducing it. The book is far from a manifesto. It charts a smart, sensitive woman’s exhaustion with modern gender dynamics, ‘the men vs. women business.’ It is also, to my mind, the novel that best captures the mood of our own era of political unrest. … ‘At the moment I sit down to write,’ she admits, ‘someone comes into the room, looks over my shoulders, and stops me. … It could be a Chinese peasant. Or one of Castro’s guerrilla fighters. Or an Algerian fighting in the F.L.N.’ Her plight is more than just a form of white liberal guilt or piety. Anna is hopelessly split among identities: exile, communist, novelist, mother, lover. How to put all these strands into one book without delicately pickling each in its own predictable social novel? …”
NY Times
LitHub: Reading The Golden Notebook During a Summer of Too Many Weddings
W – The Golden Notebook

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