Her frank discussions of sexuality and the post-modern structure of her novel were shocking when first published in the mid 20th century. But as a modern reader, I found her work to be less than avant-garde. Sexuality has become so widely discussed and blatantly portrayed that I struggle to think of any novel that I would deem, “shocking”. (If anyone has a suggestion, please leave me a comment, because I rather enjoy being taken aback.) And while her prose is fractured and reflects the inner consciousness of a complicated woman, it is not unlike other subsequently produced post-modern writing. All of this is to say that the novel reads differently now then it did when it was originally published. Not a new concept or theory, the role of the reader in interpreting a work, but one worth mentioning.
Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years ago, and her writing deserves the recognition. But while culturally relevant during the sixties and seventies, this novel felt dated to my post-feminist mentality. The protagonist, Anna, is a writer and a woman who struggles to move beyond psychological and social confusion. A one-time communist and a liberal thinker, Anna is granted unprecedented freedom as a woman, but she fines that a strong attachment and obsession with men and sexuality keeps her bound. Unfortunately, the men portrayed in this novel are simplistic and one-dimensional. Although slightly different, her various lovers all fall into the same archetype of a selfish and rather weak man. I would have enjoyed Anna’s interaction with a more developed male character, perhaps a man that did not exist during that time period.
The novel is structured by Anna’s keeping of four notebooks. These notebooks help Anna to compartmentalize her life; they help her to divide her various thoughts and recollections. One notebook focuses on the life of Anna as a writer, the other notebook chronicles her political involvement, the next holds the stories she creates out of her own life, and the last serves as a diary of sorts. Instead of presenting these notebooks in discrete chapters or sections, Lessing weaves them in and out of each other, essentially dissolving the compartmentalization that Anna tries so hard to keep. In the end, Anna acquiesces and begins writing what she calls, “the Golden notebook” which is meant to be a holistic interpretation of her inner and outer lives.
Between these notebooks, Lessing also includes an omniscient narrator’s point of view. The reader is privy to certain details of Anna’s life that she does not include in her notebooks, which illuminates her understanding of this complex and changing character.
In the end, this novel is what I would call a tour de force; the life of any individual is as complex and unknown as the heavens above us, and Lessing seems to capture the dizzying array of one woman’s life. I only wish that I could transfer myself back to the 1960’s so that I could read this novel with a mind of a blooming feminist; I imagine that I would find myself more scandalized, excited and provoked by this work than I do now. But regardless of my position, I believe that this work is worth reading by men and women today. If only to open our minds to how far we’ve come and then to remind us in what areas we’ve barely moved at all.