Doris Lessing, “The Golden Notebook”

1962

The Golden Notebook, often considered one of the great works of second-wave feminism (though Lessing thought it came too early for that and claims she had no such agenda) tells the story of the writer Anna Wulf and her friend Molly Jacobs. Molly has been married to Richard, from whom she has Tommy. Anna has been married to Willi/Max (she met him while in Rhodesia in the 40s) and has a child, Janet, with him. She also has a long affair with Michael, who does not requite her love, and Saul, a brash American who opens her writing up to new levels, but ultimately disappears and gives way to the next man in line.

Much of the work is a treatise on various social issues, despite Lessing’s insistent claims that this was a “misreading” of the novel. Anna and Molly continually try to reintegrate themselves to Party life, only to find themselves disenchanted and leave again. It’s hard to consider it a misreading when all of this is so plainly spelled out at every turn (‘this is what women are experiencing today’), and this is where the wonderful novel is at its weakest. It engages in gender essentialism, national and political stereotypes (mostly about Americans, Brits, communists, and ‘liberals’), and overstatements of feeling and thought that verge onto D.H. Lawrence’s sometimes overblown “novel of ideas” style.

 

Indeed, the opening scene shows the two alone, discussing marriage, relationships, and themselves as “free women,” restaging the beginning of Lawrence’s Women in Love. In fact, The Golden Notebook restages modernism in a variety of ways. Anna’s concern with representing her bodily functions (unisex and particularly female) resonates with Joyce’s Ulysses, as does the Molly/Marion pair who have both been married to Richard. Richard, a real square and a businessman who cannot express emotion, is reminiscent of Richard Dalloway, and Anna’s surname (Wulf), as well as Molly’s (Jacobs [Room?] can be no accident. Instead of the 6 voices of The Waves, we have 6 parts of Anna and her life.

The splitting of the self that the novel insists on seems to stem from Woolf’s persistent attempts to represent the female splitting and gathering self in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, as well as the passage in A Room of One’s Own where Woolf insists that to write as a woman is always to write multiply. Anna herself tells Tommy that she cannot write in one notebook because it would be an overwhelming chaos.

The novel has 6 component parts: the black, red, yellow, and blue notebooks, the golden notebook that tries to combine them, and the interspersed metanovel segments called “Free Women.” The four notebooks are in first-person by Anna (except the yellow one, where she is called Ella and Molly Julia). They each appear 4 times in the cycle, while the metanovel “Free Women” has 5 sections, and the golden notebook has just 1 section, which is the penultimate of the book and corresponds as a sort of “5th” occurrence of the other 4 notebooks, since it combines them.

The structure of the novel as repeating cycles seems to mimic both political waxings and wanings, the rhythm of everyday domestic life in motherhood, and the female body. Around the middle of the novel, Anna gets her period and continues to mention its inconveniences, pains, and awarenesses for several days’ worth of entries.

I’d like to think about this novel as an extension of the crisis of faith concerns in the works of Waugh, Greene, and Murdoch, but here the faith in question is, ironically, Marxism. I therefore want to experiment with aligning them with sections of the gospel and Eliot’s The Waste Land. The notebooks:

Black: Anna’s memories of her past in Rhodesia, as well as her record of finances (money/sources). (MARK: earliest source, travel, heroism, death) (Burial of the Dead – the difficulty of memory and prophecy, the struggle to express meaning.)

Red: Anna’s diary of her involvement in the Party. (MATTHEW: history, law, based on Mark, written to Jews) (A Game of Chess – sex as strategy, disappointment, disillusionment, concerned with matters of class and gender.)

Yellow: Anna’s own novel about Ella and Julia. (LUKE: longest, most evangelical and poetic, emotional and metatextual) (The Fire Sermon – a cleansing but collapsing of society as we know it.)

Blue: Anna’s diary, largely made up of dreams and fantasies, as well as day-to-day conversations and occurrences. (JOHN: visionary, salvatory, erratic) (Death by Water – the mystical possibility of death and rejuvenation in one).

Golden: Anna’s attempt to bind the other 4 together. (The Holy Gospel as an imbricated text.) (What the Thunder Said – combining fragments against one’s ruin, trying to revivify spirituality and love.)

I think it’s worth considering how this presages the narrative levels in Byatt or many of the “hysterical realism” novels. It also seems to me the first venture into postmodernism, except maybe Naipaul. It certainly implants the fragmented subject firmly in the British literary tradition where it does not seem to have existed before – would also be worth comparing with Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. 

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Iris Murdoch, “The Bell”

1958

Like Waugh and Greene, in The Bell Iris Murdoch takes up the problem of faith – once again, the Catholic minority. Dora Greenfield, a sort of midcentury reincarnation of Dorothea from Middlemarch, is married to the stuffy academic Causabon Paul Greenfield, who continually tries to suppress her. The novel begins and ends with her having left Paul, but focuses on a period during which she returns to him as he studies at a religious community at Imber. The lay people on the outside are experimenting with an almost cultlike ascetiticsm, but within the walls of the convent proper are sealed a number of nuns who never contact the outside world.

The novel is fascinated with these layers of impenetrability: the structure of faith (religious, interpersonal, the mechanization of “miracle” by Toby and Dora), the structure of narrative (“already Imber had become a story,” the constant narrativization and letter-writing, and the last line “tonight she would be telling the whole story to Sally”), the metaphor of the bell (which can either be a means of working inside out or outside in), the surface and depths of the lake – at once transparent and impossibly dark/ natural and manmade, the nature of sexuality (both surface and depth, both clear and muted like the bells). The miracle of all the doublings in the novel also sustains it – Catherine and Nick (muted and loud), James and Michael, Toby and Dora, etc.

Wikipedia’s key to chapters:

  1. Introduction to Paul and Dora Greenfield, Toby Gashe, and James Tayper Pace. Train ride from London to Gloucestershire.
  2. A drive to Imber Court, and introduction to much of the rest of the community.
  3. Paul tells Dora the legend of the bell.
  4. Conversation between James and Michael, and introduction to Nick Fawley.
  5. Dora’s tour of the grounds with Mrs Mark, and, with Michael, the discovery of Toby swimming.
  6. Michael’s nightmare, his background, and a business meeting at Imber Court.
  7. Michael’s history with the Fawleys.
  8. Peter, Toby, Michael, and Dora inspect the birds in the woods.
  9. James’ sermon, and a fight between Dora and Paul.
  10. Toby discovers an underwater bell.
  11. Michael and Toby travel to Swindon.
  12. Michael and Toby’s individual thoughts on their last encounter, and a walk in the woods.
  13. Toby’s thoughts on the walk, and his entry into the abbey.
  14. Dora’s sojourn in London.
  15. Toby sees Dora in the window, and later tells her of the Bell.
  16. Michael’s sermon, and encounter with drunken Nick.
  17. Toby and Dora raise the bell.
  18. Paul tells Michael part of the legend of the bell, and Nick tells Michael that Dora is having an affair.
  19. Michael receives advice from James and the Abbess.
  20. Noel and the Bishop come to Imber Court to christen the bell.
  21. Nick tells Toby to confess.
  22. Dora overhears Nick’s informing Noel, and rings the bell.
  23. The new bell is sunk in the water during a procession, Catherine attempts suicide, and Dora is rescued by Mother Clare.
  24. Paul leaves Imber Court to see to the old bell in London.
  25. James reveals to Michael that he knows about him and Toby. Nick commits suicide.
  26. The community is dissolved, and Michael and Dora work hard together. Michael is in pain. Dora says goodbye to Michael.

Evelyn Waugh, “Brideshead Revisited”

1945

The novel tells the story of Charles Ryder, who goes off to Oxford, befriends Sebastian Flyte, and falls in with the aesthete set, including Anthony Blanche and other homosexuals. There is a strong implication (“our naughtiness was high on the catalogue of grave sins”) that the two are lovers, but it is never disclosed. Charles loses touch with his family as he begins to adore the Marchmains, where he begins to paint as well. Eventually, Sebastian’s depression and alcoholism sideline him, and Charles continues to attach himself to the family via the sister Julia, who is married but divorced (unsuccessfully as it turns out). Charles returns to the house in the war to find it destroyed.

One of the most interesting things about the novel is how it self-destructs, driving Sebastian off to Africa, decentering the plot strands it has constructed, and ending in a half-hearted deathbed conversion by Mr. Marchmain and a lame marriage refusal by Julia in the name of godliness (as in Graham Greene). Thus, the prose parallels the imaginative experience of decay – Charles’ failure to replace his love for Sebastian with that of his sister, both practically and emotionally. The motif “Et in Arcadia Ego” signals the presence of death in the idyllic world Charles believes he has entered.

As in other postwar novels, the grip on ceremony and tradition seems to be a desperate and knowingly hollow grapple with a religion that is itself on its deathbed. When we arrive at Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, this becomes a political crisis of faith rehearsed in religious form.