The Golden Notebook: Doris Lessing’s Rendezvous with the Zeitgeist

They’re almost all dead now, the renowned intellectuals who once belonged to the British Communist Party: Eric Hobsbawm most recently, along with Christopher Hill, George Rudé, E. P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, and Donna Torr. Although they did much to change the way history and literature came to be written in the twentieth century, most are largely forgotten, except by academics and their students.

The one survivor from the heyday of the British radical Left is Doris Lessing, ninety-three years old as of this writing in the fall of 2012. Long ago, Lessing moved on from Marxism and communism, turned to Sufi Islam for wisdom, wrote “space fiction,” as she called it, and won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature. The award recognized a complex body of work—more than sixty books—that spoke to readers all over the world about the life and the death of the earth itself.

If asked to pick Lessing’s greatest novel, most critics and teachers would probably choose The Golden Notebook. In this work, she looked back at her own experience on the Left and also anticipated the novels that she would write in the next forty years of her life, in which she explored dreams, memory, and the paradoxes of language itself. When The Golden Notebook was published in 1962, Irving Howe called it “the most absorbing and exciting piece of new fiction I have read in a decade; it moves with the beat of our time, and it is true.” The novel describes women aching to be free, whites and blacks in colonial Africa, and Communist Party members who are neither red devils nor noble comrades but as messed up and crazy as any of their adversaries.

The British media recently observed the fiftieth anniversary of The Golden Notebook by treating it as a novel primarily for women. A BBC interviewer asked Lessing where her images came from, whether men had mistreated her, and why she decided to write about menstruation. “It never crossed my mind not to write about menstruation,” she responded. The Golden Notebook, she explained, was “not meant to be a blow against my husband.” But, she added, “It really does matter who makes the tea.”

The novel does not have a conventional plot; at times, it jumps around like a hand-held movie camera, appropriate for a work that aims to show history and humanity lurching into chaos. In the opening section, which briefly echoes Jane Austen, two English women, Anna Wulf and Molly Jacobs, sit and talk about their lives. They return repeatedly in the narrative, but the bulk of the book presents Wulf’s four notebooks, which explore her separate selves and illustrate the themes of crack-up, romantic break-up, and societal disintegration. Some readers were troubled by Lessing’s innovative form, especially her use of the notebooks. But readers who had come of age with television and with the metafictional experiments of the late 1950s and early 1960s embraced Lessing...

Want to read our Spring issue for free? Sign up for our newsletter by March 31 to receive a full PDF when the issue launches.