Tuesday, July 1, 2008


The Nobel committee has finally encouraged me to try The Golden Notebook again, and I find it much better than I did on my abortive first reading ten years ago. Lessing is surely the most Lawrentian writer alive--an idea that greatly delights and surprises me. That's probably what Harold Bloom sees in the book: Lessing as a female re-writer of Lawrence, revising Women in Love in an age of self-consciousness.

My verdict upon finally finishing the book? A very good novel. It's too long, of course (a typical Lessing weakness), and there are some boring parts (especially in the first and last 100 pages), but the novel's highs are very high and original and almost unutterably strange. Lessing strikes off some wonderfully poetic images: intense, unforgettable stuff, such as the image of madness as a crack in the self through which the future of humanity might burst like water through a failing dam. Her exploration of human complexity, including but not limited to sexuality, at times surpasses that of her great precursor, Lawrence. Really, I'm stunned at how much good stuff is hidden in the inner sections of this book. There are even some hilarious comic scenes that show us Lessing revising and correcting her precursor's dire humourlessness... And to top it all off, at novel's end Lessing leaves us in a position of deconstructive uncertainty as to the relation of any of the book's narratives to 'reality'. Is Free Women a literary act of controlled hysteria in which Anna tames and suppresses the wild chaos of the later blue and golden notebooks, or are the notebooks artful exaggerations of Free Women's milder 'reality'? Lessing leaves this question and all related ones open, so that we readers ultimately find ourselves in the position of Free Women's 'Anna' during her brush with madness: in a space papered obsessively with texts that have an insolubly problematic relationship to reality. That way Derridean madness lies. The 'solution' found by the narrator of Free Women (whom Lessing in her 1971 intro identifies with Anna) is an ironic stoicism, a very British stiff-upper-lip soldiering on in the face of meaninglessness. It's a position akin to Rortian irony. But this ending is heavily, almost sarcastically, ironic; and the entire final section is seriously undermined by the unforgettably surreal imagery of madness that has gone before... Yes, it's one hell of an interesting book.

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