Thursday, January 30, 2014

Book 48- The Golden Notebook (79th Book)

Sigh, I think I have gotten too snobby from my Novel 100 list. Although I haven't loved all of the top books on this list, I am finding the further down it I get the more dissatisfied I become. Book 49 was The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing and I wanted to like it, but felt that it fell short of my expectations. The premise of the story is about Anna, a women living in the time of Communism and Women's Liberation. She writes about her life in a series of notebooks each separated by colour and topic since she can't reconcile all the pieces of herself into a whole person. I picked this book up at a great little used book shop in Vancouver called The Paper Hound. I was very excited to find what I was looking for there as I had just finished reading an article about the store in The Georgia Straight. As a side tangent, the store is fantastic. It is well organized and easy to find what you are looking for. They also have a rack of bookmarks and papers they have rescued from within the pages of books.

I was excited as I read the preface to the book written by the author. She talked about how she became an accidental mouth piece for the Feminist movement. As she wrote her semi autobiographical story in the context of things she knew about she covered the topic of liberated women (and communism) to accurately portray the time period she was writing in. Despite the book also covering the topics of Communism and mental breakdown, it got co-opted by Feminists as a manifesto of the times. I was endeared to the author's heart by a quote from the preface where she talks about agreeing with their ideas, but not liking the manner in which they spoke. "I support their aims, but I don't like their shrill voices and their nasty ill mannered ways". When I was getting to know my husband he was surprised to discover that I was a feminist, but I reacted violently to the word. I described my beliefs to him in much the same way as Lessing; I liked all of their ideas, but hated the working out of their values.

During the rest of the preface, Lessing breaks down the intent of her novel to cover the fragmented aspects of personality and how people take on different roles in different parts of their lives. Having read the preface of the novel before reading the book I don't know if I would have seen all these elements without the prompts. It is curious though because the "Golden Notebook" is the notebook where she finally writes down all of her fragmented selves in one volume. Thus the title itself gives the clue to the author's intended vision. I find it fascinating that authors can write books that can be taken in a completely different light than what they intend. Lessing was very vocal in her preface about her disappointment about the fact that the topic of mental break down got lost. For me, this is my favourite part of the book and I found a lot of great quotes in that context.

"I know what I don't want, but not what I do want". Anna struggled to figure out what she wanted to become amidst the competing roles of mistress, Free Women, Communist, mother  and friend. The clearest statement of the wealth of human experience the novel takes is shown in this simple quote, " Men. Women. Bound. Free. Good. Bad. Yes. No. Capitalism. Socialism. Sex. Love." I loved all the philosophical pieces to the novel, but I kept getting bogged down in the actual plot of the novel. The notebook that focuses on Anna's  time in a communist outpost in Africa was a slog. Parts of the story between Anna and her friend got bogged down as well.  The parts of that tale I loved were when people questioned Anna about her inability to write all the messy pieces of herself down in one journal. "Are you afraid of being chaotic?", "Why shouldn't it be a mess?"

I also loved that Anna was struggling with the future because she was excited about the possibilities. She tried on various identities in the characters she wrote about in her journals. She struggled when she had to pick just one future possibility. "I am a person who continually destroys the possibilities of a future because of the numbers of alternative viewpoints I can focus on in the present".


"A hundred things to do, but only one thing to be".

I love quotes. I love thinking through philosophical ideas. I love novels focused on character development. This book has all of those things, but it is a slog through much of the middle to read. I have discovered after pushing through so many of the novels on the list that high flying ideas are great, but a novel actually needs to be fun to read as well. In my teens, a smattering of great quotes would have been enough for me, but this project has taught me that in rating books, enjoyment will be the thing that pushes a novel to the top of my list every time.

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