Lara Messersmith-Glavin's Reviews > The Golden Notebook

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
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bookshelves: women-gender
Recommended to Lara by: My two mothers

Like so many others in these days since the controversial awarding of the Nobel prize to Doris Lessing, I am reading The Golden Notebook. I read another novel of hers last month, The Sweetest Dream, and I have to admit, I am not wild about her prose. I enjoy it – I smile bitterly along with thousands of others at the fact that apparently all one must do to receive such honors is to treat women as if they were important and worth thinking about with the same rigor we examine male motives and introspection. Yet she has habits that annoy me: she makes me wait for physical details – I learn twenty pages in to a conversation that this man is not the chiseled figure I’d wrought from her silence, but rather a stout one with a round face and obstinate brow. I struggle to situate the speakers in a physical plane. She moves them with their dialogue and not their space; is she still on the couch, or isn’t she? I long for setting. I know Lessing is remarkably diverse, writing everything from accidental feminism to science fiction, and yet to me I see the same 5 characters entering and exiting rooms with predictable comments. Perhaps this is what she intends – this may very well be the thrust of her point, these types, these thematic repetitions.

Nonetheless, she is doing something in this novel that I find exciting beyond words. I could feel it coming, knowing before sitting down to read that the novel was a simple story divided up between the private, topical, diary-like notebooks of a central character. I could feel the arrival of the shift in voice as if it had knocked on the door of a scene, waiting to be let in. I stopped at the page I was at and leafed forward, looking for it – there is was, three pages later. I read quickly to get there, relieved that the story as it was crafting itself was not so much a narrative thread as it was an excuse for something else, for something, for lack of a better word, more novel. As Lessing herself writes, “...the function of the novel seems to be changing; it has become an outpost of journalism; we read novels for information about areas of life we don’t know...One novel in five hundred or a thousand has the quality a novel should have to try to make it a novel – the quality of philosophy,” (p. 58-9). I could feel the ideas coming, in the form of their own self-conscious doubt.

There is a voice we all have and yet we save. We have public voices, professional voices, voices of lewdness and drunken uninhibited voices, confessional voices, voices used only in bed, quite unrecognizable from those used to direct a taxi or place an order over the phone. We have different voices for when we are resentful or swollen with the false humility of pride. We have voices for children and for the elderly, for the sick or the dangerous or the insane. And sooner or later, other people hear these voices of ours. But there is one that is rarely heard – the diary voice. Already this is disingenuous, because I believe and you well know that, deep down, most diarists write in the hopes that their words will somehow be read, that the things they lack the courage to say aloud will somehow become known, that their undiscovered genius will come to light. Sometimes we make bargains – we agree with Fate to allow our words to find their way to the readers’ eyes posthumously, if need be. Who doesn’t feel misunderstood in her time? Or we find peace in the terrifying ritual of putting words to paper; for the guilty or the tragically unclear, the very act of forming the letters can feel like a death sentence and a liberation. Paper can be crumpled or burnt, marks erased, but writing can never be undone. Once we have written a thing, it seals our commitment even sounder than a spoken vow, for it was once concrete, a solid thing, more than disturbances of air and ear drums. There is a reason why we sign documents as solemn promises of acceptance and disallow many verbal agreements as utterly binding contractual faith. And yet the private performance of journaling brings forth a voice in people that has a bald truth to it, a naked and shivering inability to take an audience into account. Even our diary lies have more meat to them than the most gut-wrenching professional prose, which is always calculated on a certain level for effect.

The shift in Lessing’s work from the novel to the notebook has left me quiet and weeping. In such weakness we reveal such bravery, such moments when something of value is finally uttered between the craft of escapist (and, ultimately, dull,) storytelling.
“I am incapable of writing the only kind of novel which interests me:” she writes, as I cry. “- a book powered with an intellectual or moral passion strong enough to create order, to create a new way of looking at life.”
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
December 1, 2007 – Finished Reading
March 3, 2008 – Shelved

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