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...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.