- Reading a Wordless Statement:The Structure of Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook
The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing assures us, is a "very highly structured book, carefully planned." Its point is in "the relation of the parts to each other" (Personal Voice 51). Her "major aim was to shape a book which would make its own argument, a wordless statement; to talk through the way it was shaped" (Notebook xiv). And yet, judging from the reception of the novel, it appears that, for all of Lessing's careful planning, her intentions have misfired. Her irritation with the reviews of the novel is well known. Since then, many careful and appreciative critical essays have been written that should mitigate her disappointment.1 However, I think the "argument" written in the "shape" of the novel remains largely unread.
One reason for this is that in spite of its obtrusiveness, the structure of the novel is easy to circumvent. We can appreciate the novel—be moved by it, be impressed by its perspicacious commentary on reality, [End Page 263] be drawn into the experience it portrays—without coming to terms with the odd arrangement of the text. In addition, an experienced reader can read through the structure of the novel with minimal difficulty. For example, the plot is easily recovered.
Anna Wulf is a writer with a "block." She has written a successful first novel about her wartime experience in Africa among a small group of white communists. Paradoxically, she feels guilty about this novel. Its very success confirms her guilt. While suffering from her writer's block, Anna keeps four notebooks: a black notebook about herself as a writer, and specifically as the author of Frontiers of War; a red notebook that is a journal of her relationship with the British Communist Party; a yellow notebook in which she tries to write a novel about her love affair with Michael; and a blue notebook that tries to be a diary. Eventually, Anna abandons all four notebooks to put all of herself in the golden notebook. In this she writes of a second love affair, with Saul Green, and of the mental breakdown that reaches its critical point during the affair. In the end, Anna and Saul agree to part amicably. Anna gives Saul the golden notebook and, as part of the gift, the first sentence of his first novel. In return for Anna's gift, Saul gives her the first sentence of her next novel: "The two women were alone in the London flat." Because this is the first sentence of Free Women (the novel within The Golden Notebook), we realize that it is Anna's second novel, the sign that she ultimately overcomes her writer's block.
Lessing's novel can also be read in terms of certain key themes—form versus formlessness, order versus chaos, fragmentation versus wholeness, fiction versus reality, individual versus society, and so on. Lessing herself suggests how this can be done.
[Anna] keeps four [notebooks] and not one because she has to separate things off from each other, out of a fear of chaos, of formlessness—of breakdown. Pressures, inner and outer, end the Notebooks. . . .
Throughout the Notebooks people have discussed, theorised, dogmatised, labelled, compartmented. . . . But they have also reflected each other, been aspects of each other, given birth to each other's thoughts and behavior—are each other, form wholes. In the inner Golden Notebook, things have come together, the divisions have broken down, there is formlessness with the end of fragmentation—the triumph of the second theme, which is that of unity.(Notebook vii)
Lessing also explains that she had included the short novel Free Women "as a summary and condensation of all that mass of material [in order] to say something about the conventional novel, another way of describing the dissatisfaction of a writer when something is finished: 'How little I have managed to say of the truth, how little I have caught of all that complexity; how can this small neat thing be true when what I experienced was so rough and apparently formless and unshaped?'" (Notebook xiv). [End Page 264]
Although Lessing's remarks may be...