Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Sunday, 10 September 2006

"the golden notebook" by Doris Lessing (Flamingo, 1972)

The initial section is dialog with an orchestration of intercepted glances, self-deception, habit-formed role-play, unquestioned intuitions, and inference. It's a game of autistics vs telepaths. Descriptive passages come later in sections that fall more into the diary, autobiography or "draft novel" genres. One can see how a novelist's life informs their novel (Anna discusses communist authors' covering letters with Jack, who she likes. Ella discusses unhappy people's letters with Paul, who she loves), how the novel colors their interpretation of life, how therapy and writing interact. And there's a useful list of plots.

The main character's self-awareness and self-monitoring are (if not handicaps) distractions - extra voices in her head

  • "Ella found herself in the grip of a sensation which, when she examined it, turned out to be loneliness" (p.284).
  • "it was ridiculous, women like me, having emotions that don't fit our lives" (p.290).
  • "(I note that my voice is shrill again, and add a smile)" (p.321)
  • (Anna's with the blind Tommy) "'And I don't think you ought to be so hard on us all,' she said, in a quick low voice, which to her surprize sounded like a plea. She was thinking: I don't feel that, why so I say it? he was smiling, conscious, rueful, blushing. His smile was directed somewhere just past her left shoulder. She moved into the line of his gaze. She thought: Anything I say now will be heard by the old Tommy, but she could not think of what to say " (p.455)

The alternative personas begin to shade into depersonalisation. The most aware character has panic attacks, psychosomatic stuttering, and gets stuck in unsatisfying relationships with groups and individuals. But are the others any happier? They too can often present impressive credentials to the world. Are their actions any less predictable and controlled than the main character's?

The person-centred book has few indications of the era, and a preponderance of single woman, unhappy marriages and affairs. In a time of redefined women and changing men, who are the Real Men? - "the mockery, the defence of the homosexual, was nothing more than the polite over-gallantry of a 'real' man ... It was the same cold evasive emotion, taken a step further" (p.347). As one institution after another falls apart, what provides the integrating force? Intelligence? This strength seems to become more detached, less umbrellaing, as the novel progresses. Politics? But the main character become disillusioned by communism. Art? But the main character has writer's block. Sisterhood? Anna says of 2 of her acquaintances "Molly and Marion are both rather stupid, and their characters are disastrous" (p.339). Love? Maybe, just maybe. Sometimes even the language has that willed, projected emotion

  • "Wounded vanity rang in his voice" (p.339)
  • "her handsome face alive with self-critical irony, and her eyes sad and truthful" (p.351)

In the end the main character merges her 4 journals into one, and accepts that chaos is an acceptable risk when faced with complexity. The man she wants ends up being a good lover who sometimes has insights into woman, is a writer, and has personae.

The writing's absorbing - even vignettes like that of B and de Silva have an edge. And the reader's kept busy making connections - what does the blindless symbolise, for example?

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