Wednesday, 1 October 2008

The Golden Notebook - a book non-review

Golden Notebook - Doris LessingI give up. I'm sorry, I just can't take any more. I've made it all the way to page 345, but that's only a few pages past the half-way mark and I'm starting to cringe every time I see the cover of The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing.

I know. It's a classic. Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature, largely on the strength of The Golden Notebook but I am bored to tears by mid-century angst. If you like Samuel Beckett and would like to see him stretched out in really long paragraphs over really long scenes in really long chapters with interminable ruminations on the spiritual and intellectual bankruptcy of communism (hardly a hot topic anymore or anything of a surprise), and on the similar void at the heart of Western culture (ditto), and on what it means to be a woman, complete with scenes of washing between the legs, and - well, you get the idea. If this kind of stuff is your cup of tea, go for it. Maybe when this stuff was fresh and cutting edge the audacity of it might have made for exciting reading. But fifty years later, the ideas are stale and worked to death, and acknowledging the fact that women have periods and brains - both at the same time - is not likely to trigger a reaction beyond ho-hum.

In short, this is an Idea Novel that has not aged well. If you don't have any inherent enthusiasm for the ideas, the story is not going to carry the weight. For those who like to mock literary fiction, this will provide you with a lot of ammunition.

Kudos to Anna, the protagonist, for having the intellectual courage to face the reality of her life. It's unfortunate that a better vehicle couldn't be found for it. A compelling read this ain't.

The structure, which was hailed for its innovation, actually contributes to the book's failings, in my opinion. The story proper is interleaved with readings from Anna's four notebooks, corporately the golden notebook. This means that any time the story starts to achieve any momentum, it's cut short by a shift to a different notebook. You have to be a determined reader indeed to continue despite the deliberate alienation. I'm not determined enough. And this is as good an illustration as any of the fact that innovation in and of itself is not necessarily a plus.

I am, of course, a dissenting opinion. You won't have to google very hard to find many different people telling you why The Golden Notebook is a masterpiece. I'm not as old and crotchety as Lessing (there are probably still videoclips all over the Internet of her swearing in disgust when she found out she'd won the Nobel) but I'm too old and crotchety to waste my time on a book I'm not enjoying, neither for the ideas, nor for the art.

For the purposes of the 1% Challenge, I still intend to count this. I mean, I read an ordinary novel's worth... Graham Greene never needed 600+ pages to portray angst and disillusionment.

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Janna Qualman said...

One I won't read. Though I hadn't been planning on it. But I'll be sure not to. ;)

Janet said...

I would still like to read her science fiction series. I like what she had to say about critics of science fiction: "What they didn't realize was that in science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time."

I think she's quite right about that. The best science fiction writers explore some pretty heavy-duty philosophical and social themes, but they make a point of wrapping them in a good story.

Bill Fullerton said...

Ya nailed it, Judg, (IMHO).

An insightful, well-written "non-review."


Janet said...

Thanks, Bill.

WendyCinNYC said...

But that video of her hearing the Nobel prize news is priceless.

Janet said...


What I liked was the Swedish guy making the announcement in five different languages. I was so impressed. And Swedish makes me giggle. (Yes, this is my profound side coming out.)

Michelle said...

I'm impressed that you got as far as you did - I've started and stopped this book on at least three different occasions. Never got past the first fifty or so pages.

alex keto said...

I've never really gotten Doris Lessing although I have dipped into a bunch of her books because she writes about Africa.
Why she won the Nobel prize and they overlooked Isak Dinesen is a complete mystery.
Then again, I never really got Ulysses either so maybe I'm a bit dull

Janet said...

Alex, have you tried any of her science fiction?

I don't "get" so many things it's unreal. Many short stories, a lot of literary fiction, a lot of genre fiction...

But there's enough excellent stuff out there I do get, I don't feel all that deprived. Somehow I don't think it's dullness on your part.


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