Saturday, February 21, 2015

What Exactly is Wrong With "The Golden Notebook" (1962)?

I don't often get to make an independent critical judgment of a "great book." If I'm reading it on the assurance of its greatness, after all, I will either like it and therefore have nothing to add to the original recommendation; or I'll hate it and leave in disgust fifty pages inside, and know that I never really read far enough anyway to make a fair judgment. The Golden Notebook presents a rare opportunity, therefore, in being a great book whose greatness I read all the way through and still greatly disliked.

Of course, something beyond a feeling of obligation kept me going for all 600 pages. Reader(s) of this blog will note besides that, for all my supposed dislike of Lessing's book, this did not prevent me from harvesting from it my usual bounty of quotations to wedge irrelevantly into posts (though you will also have noticed that I am fairly promiscuous in this regard). But I am still left with the felling that despite its many recommenders and its considerable interest and its well observed portions, and despite an earnest desire on my part to like it, I don't like it. And I think now, after months of soul-searching, I know why. But since I've gotten myself too worked up already, we should probably start over.

Lessing's novel is an interlocking series of books within books, each with only one actual character: Doris Lessing. This itself is not a criticism. A single human mind, if well understood, possesses more than sufficient interest to sustain 600 pages. Part of the crossword-style pleasure of the book, in fact, lies in the effort of picking out the various stand-ins within stand-ins for the author and the real people in her life. The first Lessing alter-ego is Anna Wulf, the protagonist of The Golden Notebook and of "Free Women," the frame narrative. The second refraction of this mirror-game is Ella, the subject of the novel Anna is writing, within the novel. The parallels beyond this point are not hard to discern either. Each of these women has a repulsive German ex-husband who attached his last name to her first (like Doris's Lessing, perhaps?). Each has relationships with a series of shallow, cruel, and narcissistic men. Each has a young child and a sounding-board best friend who used to live with her, etc.

The book is often recalled as an opening salvo of the feminist movement, but this impression of it, in truth, is very difficult for the modern reader to recover. The things in the book that shocked its first audience are, thankfully, pretty familiar to us now. We no longer blush at the mention of female orgasm or menstrual cramps. We are mostly just disgusted at the fact that there was a time in recent history when there was such a double standard for female authors that writing about such matters was automatically deemed gender politics, rather than simple honesty about human life. Lessing herself, it must be noted, never understood the book in these terms. As she describes it in the introduction, she simply took the novel to be a faithful rendering of the life of a female author -- a leftwing intellectual, bohemian, and Communist Party member -- in the war years and the early fifties. It was not Lessing's fault that ideas long since familiar to this sort of person would be taken as fresh, extraordinary, a bold declaration of "the sex war," by the American talk shows.

The politics that Lessing actually cared about, and which she saw as central to the book, were those surrounding the Communist Party, and the long, too long process that many party intellectuals went through of falling out with it (evidently, the process was longer for some than for others -- Anna's disenchantment with the CP is set in the 1950s). Lessing announces in that same introduction her intention of writing the great "novel of ideas" for this milieu -- the book that would chronicle in the form of autobiographical fiction the journey that so many intellectuals went through in the first half of the twentieth century -- the star-crossed, often-romanticized, but in fact ugly and pusillanimous business of falling utterly into and then bitterly out of love with international Communism. This was also the story I went to this novel to find.

Maybe I should have known better than to get my hopes up. The novel of Communist disillusionment seems, for whatever reason, to be a graveyard of literary ambitions. One doesn't hear encouraging things about, say, The Middle of the Journey. However, some autobiographical writing about Communism, such as the pieces collected in The God that Failed, remains for me the most important political writing I have ever encountered, and a source of guidance still in my life. I was hoping that The Golden Notebook would kindle that same fire.

But no. Lessing's book is disappointingly trite and dull on the political subject from start to finish. The novel opens in its first internal "Notebook" with the beginning of Anna's "involvement with politics." Political involvement here turns out to mean that the character spent time in Africa in the company of a few Oxbridge-educated pilots, who were riding out the Second World War at an airfield, and who wore a few thin lefty commitments on their sleeves as an expression of class snob-idarity against the colonials. Anna and the others take, it is true, a kind of distant interest in the oppression of native Africans in the colonial regime -- they talk vaguely of their hopes for the development of a "black proletariat" that will forward the historical process, and that sort of thing; but there is not a single black African character in this part of the novel (or in any other part of it, for that matter, except one who is mentioned as a sort of allegory but kept permanently off-stage).

There is almost no discernible political activity in all this of any significant kind, and not even that much theorizing. Conversations about dialectics are picked up but mercifully dropped with haste. One scarcely has time to notice that there are not actually that many "ideas" in this "novel of ideas," before one is already feeling grateful for the fact.

Anna does join the CP once she is back in Britain, and this, as mentioned before, is the perplexing thing. The story of the 1930s Stalinist who has gone limp and self-flagellating by 1948 is familiar to us. Anna's development is very different. If those others linked up with the CP as post-adolescents and youths, she becomes a member at the start of middle age. If the others joined out of a culpable moral blindness, she shows up knowing full well and consciously what she is getting herself into. She possesses from the start an attitude of cynicism and disaffection toward the Party's true believers. She already doubts all the official bromides. It makes her a more interesting character, in a way, but it also makes her decision to join very difficult to understand, let alone condone. We are never given enough insight into her political psychology to feel any differently.

This is all the more true when Anna finally leaves the CP, because she does so for all the most obvious, most dreadfully obvious, reasons. Why would you join in the '50s, if what was finally going to turn you out the door were the gulags and persecutions that had been so well attested long before then? Anna notes in one striking passage that every lingering Communist is hanging on because she has in mind some one last crime, some one final infernal abuse, that she thinks the Soviet government could not possibly stoop to. She leaves when she learns, finally, that it will. For Anna, the last seal is broken by Stalin's anti-Semitic persecutions following the so-called "Doctor's Plot." The insight is acute, and one is glad, after all this, that there is some abomination terrible enough to send Anna over the edge. Yet still, the fact that it takes so long to arrive inspires more dismay than pity. One has to wonder why millions of earlier victims (of whose fate Anna is well aware) did not have the same effect.

I was expecting when I came to this novel to enjoy the politics and merely bear up under the romance, but in fact this prediction got it backwards. The book's explicit analysis of totalitarianism, and of the willingness on the part of apparently intelligent and sincere people to submit to it, is banal, and sheds no new light. And yet, the relationships between Anna and her lovers (or Ella and her lover, etc.), are not only described with insight, they also tell us a great deal more about political psychology than the CP sections. If you want to learn about the (now, to most people) inexplicably self-deluding infatuation many intellectuals had with the Soviet Union, you should read Doris Lessing on love, rather than Doris Lessing on Communism.

With the benefit of hindsight, after all, the men in The Golden Notebook are plainly an unworthy and ungrateful place to hang one's hopes and affection-- much like the Comintern. From the vantage point of the reader, the ultimate course toward destruction that these relationships pursue seems mapped out in advance; just as any outsider might likewise have discerned (as many did discern) the direction of Soviet politics.

The narrator of the book is not oblivious to the flaws of her men. There is a moment early on when Anna makes a conscious list of the "good" people and the "bad" ones she has met in Africa. The "good," one notes, are people entirely removed from the field of her romantic interest. The "bad" list includes only two names -- the names of the two men Anna has an affair with in this portion of the novel.

Every interaction between the narrator and these individuals seems to bring the cruelty of the latter into sharper focus. Paul, one of the Oxbridge pilots, is the most unrepentant snob in the whole group, whose "Left" credentials are really a sort of joke played on his public school upbringing and on his provincial hosts. The novel's "other" Paul, the one who has the relationship with Ella in the book-within-the-book, is a perpetual source of torment, who eventually drops Ella and leaves word with a friend that he has gone away to Africa to escape from this "rather flighty piece."

These two Pauls are perfectly uninteresting bullies; ciphers of arrogance and self-delight. Much as Stalin and the Comintern are complete intellectual non-entities, unworthy in themselves of thought or analysis. Narcissists and tyrants and other diseased people pose no real questions to the mind. Their thoughts, their actions, and the ultimate trajectories of the movements they govern are always terribly, tragically unsurprising. What is interesting about the Comintern is rather the very different and far less reprehensible kinds of people who gathered themselves around it, and who proved willing to sacrifice themselves for its sake. So too, more interesting than the motivations of Doris Lessing's men are those of the women who fall in love with them.

Ella, in loving Paul, knows from the start that she is kidding herself. She partly realizes what is happening and why, but the thought, as soon as recognized, is displaced and bracketed. She is willing to entertain consciously a few darker thoughts and suspicions about Paul, but only as a means to forestall a reckoning with the much worse truth, which we as readers have already discerned. For example: when Paul leaves his message with a colleague that he has fled the country to get away from his "rather flighty piece," you and I read the latter remark at once as a cruel reference to Ella. Ella, however, assumes that Paul must be having a relationship with some other woman, this unknown "piece," whom he has fled by going to Africa. She is devastated with jealousy at the thought, but not nearly so devastated as she would be by a conscious acknowledgement of his real meaning.

This mental dance-- this business of hiding from oneself the half-grasped fact, of mouthing lies and knowing them to be lies, but also believing them -- may be a very faithful rendering of the inner life of a dysfunctional relationship; but it also happens to describe the psychology of people who enter totalistic movements. Most of these people know better, and are better, on some level. If they were all like the narcissists who stand at the center of these collectives (gurus and dictators and mullahs alike), after all, they would not be willing to tolerate acting as someone else's disciple for so long. But they hide the truth from themselves, or, like Ella, they make strategic admissions of certain discomfiting insights, only to use these to stave off a confrontation with the deeper, abusive reality. How many people were kept within Communism or Scientology by just such a mechanism -- how many supposed "internal critics" pursuing "reform from within" convinced themselves to stick around by these means?

This is why I say the best stuff about politics in The Golden Notebook appears in its description of heterosexual relationships (its one description of a homosexual one, by contrast, is stereotyped and cruel).


But if all that insight is in there, and works, whence comes this overall feeling of sourness toward the book? Why is it that when I recollect this book, there is still a kind of grey sensation? Why even in describing the basic plot and characters above, did I keep shifting into a mocking tone? The answer finally occurred to me. The glaring flaw, the pothole in the road, is this book's complete lack of a sense of humor. This is simply another way of saying that the author grants an excessive privilege of self-seriousness to its main character. And this, as I will try to demonstrate, is no minor objection to a book.

Yes, now that I think about it, I cannot recall a single moment, in working my way through the book's considerable girth, that I laughed, or even chuckled. The characters themselves certainly do a lot of laughing in the book's pages. Anna admits with some feelings of guilt to the jokes they made at the expense of their landlady in Africa. They all fall about cackling, in one scene, at the one "orthodox" Marxist in the group, Anna's German husband, after he utters a particularly groan-worthy dialectical platitude. But we don't share in the laughter, because the absurdities of the doctrine in question are so obvious. If we do laugh, it will only be at Anna and her friends, who treat their late -- so terribly late -- disillusionment with Stalinism as such a brave new intellectual venture. There is, then, a lot of unintentional humor in the book, most of it inspired by the deathly seriousness with which the author treats her frequently absurd main character. But that is all.

I have serious doubts about whether any book without humor can be an honest, let alone good, one; but writers at least have some excuse for treating unsmilingly the struggles of distant people whom they don't know very well -- striking miners, say. The absence of laughter becomes totally unforgivable, however, when an author is essentially writing about herself, as Lessing is doing here. If you can write about your own inner life and experience without at least an arch wrinkle of the brow, you are surely either deluded or dishonest.

The humor and irony in our lives derives from the distance we perceive between our idealized self-images, and the reality of our inmost thoughts. It lies in the contrast between our official accounts of the world and of ourselves, which we would gladly put down in a petition and sign, and the uncomfortable things we see everyday that poke holes in that reality. If a writer chronicles her own experience and inner life, as Lessing is doing here, and finds nothing funny in it, she suggests thereby that she finds her self-image to be always supported by daily reality, that her theories about life are consistently borne out, that there is never any distance between her experienced is and her desired ought. And anyone who implies such a thing is either lying to you or fooling themselves.

Anna regards herself as an "intellectual" and a "bohemian," and sees nothing funny about that. She sees herself as elevated above the petty materialism of the "middle classes" (a term laced with hatred and a savage kind of pity in this novel), and she sees nothing funny about that. She regards herself as a tireless crusader against and ameliorator of the "ignorance" and "stupidity" of all the middle class "millions," and the author seems to agree that this self-image entirely comports with reality. If there are any stirrings toward "satire" in this novel (and there are a few), they fail to convince or make us smile, because they so inevitably redound to the advantage of the main character.  Example: Anna in the novel has made her name with a book she has written about Africa (just as the real Lessing had done by the time she wrote TGN). Much of the action of the British portions of The Golden Notebook therefore concerns the efforts of various Hollywood seducers to option the film rights to her book. Anna is perfectly immune to such temptations, however, and the various sad sacks who try to sign a contract with her are portrayed as ludicrous (in contrast to our morally pristine heroine). The targets are always so clear and so predictable: middle-income cupidity (to which "artists" are of course immune), the "ignorance" of the multitude, the "stupidity" of the non-Annas.

Perhaps the most insufferable aspect of all this is that Anna regards herself, in the midst of all her bottomless contempt, as a tireless advocate for the downtrodden. She repeatedly describes herself in the novel as someone who was born for "social work." ("It's what I'm really good at anyway," she says, heaving a sigh, as if she were surrendering to the will of the pleading thousands outside the estate grounds.) In reality, anyone making a hiring decision in a social work clinic would throw out Anna's application (one hopes, at least). If there is one certainty about the helping professions, it is that it is better not to offer your services at all than to offer them with contempt. In such fields, where oftentimes the most one can do for someone is to listen, and to understand, to show up with contempt in one's eyes is to give worse than nothing.

Unsurprisingly, one learns from a recent personal reminiscence by English writer Jenny Diski that Lessing herself was exactly this kind of self-declared "social worker" -- with the predictable harmful results. Lessing took Diski into her home as a teenager, in what turned out to be a perplexing and never properly explicated fit of "generosity." Yet as soon as the benefactor-ward relationship threatened to turn into something more demanding than a mere symbol of Lessing's magnanimity, she threw an utter tantrum, and turned emotionally distant. I won't spoil the details-- you should read Diski's moving recollection of the whole business for yourself. It's enough to say that Diski's piece collapses still further the distance between what we have come to see as the worst of Anna and the worst of Lessing. Diski in a Guardian interview elaborates on the events. (She indicates too in the process into just what goldmines of humor you land yourself if you lack a sense of humor):
"When I got [to her home], Doris was just getting involved with the Sufis [...]. It was as if her previous communist period had never happened. [...] Part of the Sufi thing was that you had to respond to what was put in front of you. She didn’t have to like it or enjoy it – indeed it seemed that it would be better for growth if she didn’t enjoy it. [...] Later on [...] Doris suddenly surrounded herself with old ladies to look after. Two novels came out of that. She hated them, but she did it. This one particular old lady said to me one day, ‘What does Doris want of me? I have no idea what she wants of me.’ [...] I have the sense that all over the world there are these baffled people who came into contact with Doris and wondered the same thing.”
Lessing in her own mind was no doubt scaling "the mountain of human stupidity," as Anna calls it. She was wresting converts from out their perpetual darkness. In The White Album, Joan Didion complains that the chief flaw in Doris Lessing's work was that she was far too quick to experience life in terms of a stark contrast between "justice" and "injustice." Would that it were so! Lessing in fact seems to interpret life, and politics, as a series of charity cases. She has precisely that view of herself that leftwing intellectuals are always accused of having, but that any one of them worth her salt would in fact have long since jettisoned, if she set out to write a half-way honest and intelligent work of fiction.

A real sense of "injustice" would be a tremendous improvement on this. Instead, as already mentioned above, Lessing writes over a hundred pages about Anna's time in Africa, yet we meet no black African character of any substance. Anna's African politics are merely a kind of trump card, revealing the superiority of her character and intelligence over the "ignorance" of the provincials and the racist colonials. When Anna gets to England, she frets about all those middle-class housewives out there, suffering under the burden of their own stupidity. ("'[T]here are thousands and thousands, probably millions of them.' [.... S]he looked intently at him, trying to convey her vision of a sagging, dark weight of ignorance and misery."(p. 173)) We never meet one of these sagging unfortunates either.

However we slice it, Anna comes out on top -- morally and spiritually at least. She believes that leftist bohemian intellectuals are the best sort of people, and they obligingly turn out to be just that -- once they disentangle themselves from Stalinism (which in fact is enormously easy and emotionally untaxing for Anna to do, it eventually transpires -- and this raises all over again the question of why she didn't extricate herself from the CP decades earlier).

The Golden Notebook fails, then, because it expresses too directly the consciously-held beliefs and aspirations of its author. The best literature, the really immortal stuff, does just the opposite. It lays bear the shadow-self of the writer, and therefore requires much more courage to create. Cyril Connelly (as quoted by Stefany Golberg) defined the literary masterpiece as that writing which gives voice to "a self to which [one] is afraid of confessing."

This does not mean one denies the reality of the conscious self. The latter does still exist; it commandeers us and directs most of our daily activities, after all. It may involve laughing at it, in places, but to laugh at this conscious self is not to disown it. It is simply to acknowledge that our inner lives are not precisely what we would want them to be; that our idealistic theories of the world do not entirely accord with reality; that other people do not universally perceive us as brilliant and funny and attractive and successful; that the problems of human suffering do not lend themselves to solution by one obvious ideological or religious or political method; that we are forced in our existences on this planet to assume some simplified stances towards ourselves and society even as we feel the masks occasionally slipping from our faces. The humor is not a denial of the ideals and the aspirations, but it holds them on a tighter leash to reality. Perhaps more importantly, it provides some counter-ballast to our tendency to hold others in contempt, by making us more keenly aware of our own occasional contemptibleness.

The Golden Notebook lacks this laughter, this humor, from one end of its great length to the other. And for this very reason, it is devoid of seriousness.

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