I finally flipped when I got to this page. It made me want to rip the book in half and stamp on the pieces.
It was the mention of “real men” again that did it to me. I do not know what Anna means when she uses the phrase “real men”, and I don’t believe she knows either.
I’ve been trying to read this book in the context of its time, trying to be sympathetic to the life of women in postwar, rationed Britain. But what is she *talking* about? “Real men become fewer and fewer?” It again reminds me strongly of nothing more than Mills & Boon, the fantasy of a man who will provide total fulfillment and communion. She’s not talking about anything real, but about her fantasy. Finding a ‘real man’ who will make her life perfect, in the same way that some people talk about losing 10 pounds or winning the lottery: some arbitrary thing that they imagine will make them impervious to the law of life that everyone is miserable and irritated or under the weather quite a lot of the time.
I want to tell her to *grow up*. Her life is fine. She’s healthy, financially well-off, intelligent and with a wide circle of acquaintances who can’t *all* be as awful as the ones portrayed here. Yet she has invented this thing, a “real man” against whom all men fall short, but without which she’s decided she’s doomed to misery. Grrrrrr.
[Having said all this, if I were to write a book that made readers want to rip it up and stamp on it I'd consider that a success. Eliciting any strong emotion is better than being forgettable.]
I can’t feel quite so condemnatory about Anna’s desires, I admit–even the phrase “real men” evokes a certain sympathy in me. Maybe the desire to have love and communion with someone is trivialized in Mills & Boon (Harlequins to the US crowd), but love and even romantic love are also templates for various kinds of utopian sentiments and politics in which one envisions a world that provides more gratification than the one currently on offer.
“Real men” is a mobile phrase–I suppose it could involve cliches about manliness (Tarzan), but couldn’t it also simply mean a man capable of honesty, sexual intimacy, self-knowledge et al. I suspect what Anna means is a man who doesn’t run away from women, who isn’t a male hysteric; as far as Nelson goes, a man who doesn’t shrink from sex. Why would we scoff at that??
Laura thanks so much for responding. I’m really grateful just to have someone else’s perspective on this. I guess the reason that I equivocated at the end of my first comment is that I recognise that eliciting a strong emotion in me is a sign of strength in a book; and that my response could just be because of what I’m bringing to the book. It’s always the way with good fiction.
But… if I can just explore this for a moment. Perhaps what’s annoying me about this is that she’s using a double standard.
The richness and wonder of the book comes from her exploration of the complexities of women’s lives. I utterly love the 15th (or is it 16th?) September section, which demonstrates relentlessly the multiple demands on Anna in the course of an ordinary day. Michael might say “why can’t Anna be more of a ‘real woman’?” by which he might mean something typically contradictory like “independent yet accommodating, loving yet cool, writerly yet housewifely and, of course, whoreish yet virginal.” But Lessing unpacks those demands, shows how impossible women’s lives were (/are).
But she doesn’t give the same space to men’s lives. Well, hmmm. Perhaps it’s really Anna who doesn’t give it? (It’s so hard to tell in this novel.) Instead of unpacking the assumptions in “real man”, instead of understanding that it means something impossible like “always able to get a rock-hard erection, yet never sexually demanding, strong yet sensitive, financially supporting his partner yet allowing her to have financial autonomy, utterly confident yet deeply self-examining, etc etc” instead of this she - it seems to me - willfully leaves the idea unexamined.
Perhaps the reason it’s touched such a nerve with me is that it seems to me to represent a weakness in feminism in the 20th century (she says grandly). Not that I’ve read every feminist work ever, by any means so perhaps I’m responding to pop-culture-feminism. But I feel that I’ve heard so many women talking about how the gender expectations on them are impossible - which they are - but I’ve heard a lot less about how that gender divide cuts both ways. If we give up on Stepford Wives and Barbie as role models, we also need to give up on James Bond and Tarzan. There are no ‘real men’ or ‘real women’. There are men and women; none of us are perfect and we all need each others’ compassion at times.
Hmmm, this is a hard one. I want (really want!) to agree with Laura but I’m not sure I do. This theme about the “real man” emerges over and over again, and in a whole bunch of different contexts, that I’m beginning to think it’s something with which Lessing herself keeps struggling in the novel, recognising the mobility of the phrase that Laura so beautifully points out, but endlessly coming back to a depiction of the real man that isn’t so flattering. I do think she keeps also trying to undermine that sense of the real-man as the masculine-man, for example in the many instances where men appear as creators (but almost always as destructors simultaneously). And then there’s what she calls the “men-babies” (UK ed. 424, so right here), a phrase that really struck me and which seemed to speak to Anna’s growing disillusionment and anxiety about her heterosexual relationships. Does that make me more pessimistic about Anna’s state of mind, perhaps, than Laura is right now?
I do agree about the double standard here: women’s emotional lives are complex and they’re allowed their contradictions, while men are sexual cripples, hysterics and babies. I suspect this might have something to do with how much-revered the book became as a proto-feminist classic: the self-confirming disappointment with men while women are largely exonerated for their emotional/sexual limitations. I wrote about this same tendency in American feminist and pop-feminist thinking in my last book, The Female Thing, and I can’t tell you how unpopular it made me with a lot of women reviewers, I mean, I got massacred! It wasn’t a popular argument.
At the same time, as you charitably say Naomi, people do use false certainties to hold together worlds they feel to be unstable.
Yes, it’s another way to hold onto old certainties, isn’t it? The logical conclusion of the feminist project is to say “maybe… we are *all* trapped by our gender expectations. Maybe we need to throw the doors wide and say that almost all the presumptions/expectations/responsibilities/powers that go along with being one gender or the other are non-existent or redundant.”
But that leaves a very unfamiliar world. Gender is so integral to the way we see ourselves, it’s hard to imagine how it would feel to think of oneself primarily as ‘a person’ not ‘a man’ or ‘a woman’. It’s easier to co-opt feminist ideas into the pre-existing structure. In this way, feminism becomes just another way for women to gripe about men, just as women have been doing for centuries. [It's the same as the way capitalism has - in the West, anyway - engulfed and swallowed communism. Instead of changing the entire world, communism's become another capitalist product; a picture of Lenin on a T-shirt.]
I can see I’ll be working my way through your oeuvre when this project’s done, Laura ;-).
Oh yes, and that double standard, ‘real men’ v ‘realistic, complex, struggling women’ also actually serves to uphold the idea that men are superior to women, I think.
Women are understood in all their complexity: wonderful. Yet this also means that women are always portrayed as flawed. This is of course true: we’re all flawed. But then these real, flesh-and-blood, complex women are compared to the plaster image the ‘real man’. The ideal of male perfection is never challenged. Every actual, flesh-and-blood flawed man is written off as ‘not a real man’ and therefore not to be counted in the assessment of ‘what men are’.
It’s thinking like this that allows Anna to say on the next page (UK 426) “sometimes I dislike women, I dislike us all”. She’d never say this about her fantasy, the ‘real man’. She dislikes flesh-and-blood women, but she’s comparing them not to flesh-and-blood men but to a dream.
Finally, a book sale! It’s been years! Thank you Naomi.
But on this whole “real man” contretemps, I feel compelled to say that there is to me (and I suppose I speak here as a “woman”), something kind of intriguing about unabashed masculinity, for instance all the ways that it’s *other* than femininity, which may be why I’m less bugged with Anna about the usage. I realize that admitting such a thing these days is like admitting to the most arcane and closeted sexual preference (unless you say it in the context of queer theory and preface it with a lot of citations about butch-femme roles and gender performativity and so on). But still, the idea that men are in many ways different than women, and that we’re *not* all just “people” or essentially the same, biologically OR psychically, can be quite thrilling–at least when carried off with a little panache, not some Tarzan stereotype. Though to retain my honorary queer membership I’ll add that some of the best examples of masculine panache I’ve encountered have been in biological females who identify as male.
I have been thinking and thinking about this, Laura. It’s so interesting, I guess I had never really considered that for some women the desire for a man who is (eg) physically protective of them, financially supporting them and perhaps even intellectually dominant could be an erotic preference. I always imagined that it was a response based in a lack of belief that one can take care of oneself. Or at best in a liking for ‘traditional roles’, and a desire to understand oneself in that traditional context. I suppose sometimes it’s one and sometimes the other and sometimes something else entirely and each person has to work it out for themselves!
Having chewed it over… I totally see that any woman has the right to say “do you know what? Tall muscular men who are wealthy and powerful, drink their martinis shaken not stirred and can strip a semi-automatic in under 10 seconds really turn me on.” But I *still* object to the phrase ‘real men’! All men are real; all people are real. If I have a preference for sweet sensitive young men who write poetry, that doesn’t mean that I am somehow missing out on the ‘real’ experience.
(Actually this is starting to remind me of the orgasm conversation. I want to say: go wild, Doris, with your Tarzan/James Bonds and your vaginal orgasms. Have a blast. But please don’t tell me that that way of living is more ‘authentic’ than having sensitive sweet lovers and clitoral orgasms. Or indeed than having no lovers or no orgasms!)
As to what it says about Anna… I agree that there’s a strong sense of unreality about the relationship with Saul which is very interesting given her insistence on the ‘real man’. I don’t think she’s responding out of a deep understanding of her erotic desires - and I don’t think she thinks she is either. I think this relationship is a pretence, for both of them. Anna is trying so hard to fit into what she thinks of as ‘real’ that she’s lost herself completely.
“people do use false certainties to hold together worlds they feel to be unstable.”
Laura, are there certainties that are not false?
“Real men” seems to me a neat oyxmoron. Men are our creations, too–fantasies of our limits–and we have become their creations, their fantasies, their disappointments. Lessing is constantly playing with projections and introjections of the genders and suggesting that, like her characters, we can never really know any truths.
Having spent years in business working with captains of the universe, I’ve come to see men as Anna and Ella describe them: brutal and weak, predatory and dependent on women’s ideas and generosity, and typically on the verge of wanting to destroy women, just flat out wiping the earth clean of them. These “real men” are pretty unreal, especially to themselves. They haven’t a clue about what’s going on in them or between them and women. Gender is both a special kind of blindness and light.
And what *does* she mean, ‘real men’? Does anyone have any ideas? I suppose since I was born more than a decade after this book was published I probably haven’t met any. Does she mean “totally confident men, who will sweep me off my feet, take care of all my financial worries and fuck me senseless every night”? Does she mean “Tarzan”? Does she mean “a man who can maintain an erection and wants to talk about his feelings”? “James Bond”? “Gandhi”?
If I were trying to be sympathetic I’d say she means “Paul/Michael, whom I miss”. But I’m still not feeling that sympathetic towards her relentless self-pity.
I think she means Tarzan/James Bond, frankly. By now, Anna has made clear to me that she un-ironically values classic gender roles and feels most comfortable when they are acted out in a relationship. She loves mystery and chivalry, despite the fact that she often refuses to take certain kinds of bullshit. Other kinds, clearly, she takes quite often…and it’s for the thrill of the separation, the chasm of distance between woman and man.
A couple of years ago I was reviewing Laura Sessions Stepp’s Unhooked for the New York Observer, a book that bemoaned girls’ promiscuity in high school and college and touted traditional gender roles. It took me a while to figure out why it bothered me apart from the obvious reasons, like *really* why, since I wasn’t trying to deny that the young hook up culture was often hurtful. And I eventually realized that I resented Stepp’s assumption that women and men were complete aliens to each other, that they couldn’t possibly understand one another and therefore had to keep some demure, proprietous distance.
Now, equating a conservative journalist with a Communist novelist like Anna is a stretch, but it’s the way I understand this ‘real man’ concept. A person looking for, as Laura described, “a man capable of honesty, sexual intimacy, self-knowledge et al”– would they really use the wistful phrase ‘real man’ to explain it? It’s the same thing that’s wrong with Sex and the City: men placed at a distance will never fail to fall short of wild expectations.
Nona, yes definitely. This is how I read Anna too: she’s actually incredibly conservative in her definition of acceptable/desirable gender roles. She occasionally seems to be groping toward something more, but falls back again and again to the old cliches of ‘real men’ and ‘every woman wants to be married’.
And she thinks this imaginary man, the ‘real man’ is better than her too. That he ought to be better than her, know more than her, be more powerful than her. This is what disturbed me so much a few hundred pages back about her idea that she would ‘learn’ a new sexuality from George. Not that they would teach each other but that he, in his role as ‘real man’ would teach her.
And Nona I totally agree with your great summation “men placed at a distance will never fail to fall short of wild expectations”. I don’t think any true understanding or intimacy is possible while people are acting from these polar-opposite gender roles. This is also why Anna can’t see that Ronnie and Ivor could be her allies. (And vice versa, in fact.) She’s still thinking that men are vastly different to her, and is tremendously disturbed that there are any men in the world who might want to use lotion (standing in for a whole range of other things of course). And there’s the double standard there too - she Anna is allowed not to fit into established roles but God forbid there should be a man in her orbit who doesn’t adhere to those masculine norms.
I can certainly agree with Laura that a partner who’s capable of honesty, sexual intimacy and self knowledge is a wonderful thing. But I don’t think Anna’s got as far as defining ‘real man’ that clearly to herself. She never breaks the phrase down, never says ’so and so has the qualities of a real man’ or ‘this characteristic is one I’d look for in a real man’. If I were being charitable, I’d say that she’s using the phrase to try to hold the cracking-apart world at bay.
It’s possible that the answer to the “real men” conundrum comes later on p 491 when she says about Saul Green, “I’d forgotten what making love with a real man is like.” (Of course, Saul turns out to be a complete nightmare as well.) So maybe it’s just her private code for sexual satisfaction. Still, I don’t disagree with anyone that the way she conceptualizes men has a self-thwarting aspect to it.
Hah I just got to that today! But yes, it seems like she means “a man I like”. But… I wonder if that’s all she means. I feel like there’s a lot of self-deception involved in her relationship with Saul (and she knows it, but chooses to ignore it).
On p496 she says “he was not what I call ‘himself’.” In other words, she chooses to take some of his moods as “the real Saul” and others she discounts as aberrations. My hypothesis is that she has invented this ideal ‘real man’ and because she wants to be with such a man so much she’s trying to pretend that Saul is he.
But yes, if this is a ‘real man’… he doesn’t seem markedly more satisfactory than the unreal ones.
Also circled in my copy: p487 Saul talks about “how to bring up a small girl to be ‘a real woman’”. Perhaps Anna and Saul have this in common, then, the fantasy of realness?
Well, if Saul is the “real” man, give me unreal (or no) men any day… The scenes with Saul were for me amongst the most terrifying in the novel.
And if Naomi’s right about both Anna and Saul having a fantasy of realness going on, they’re doing a pretty poor job at it all told. The whole episode with Saul seems to me to have an unreal quality to it that Lessing exploits brilliantly — the walls, the floor, even the curtains in Anna’s big room becoming unreal, dissolving into menace and danger and clamminess.
The ironic thing is that Saul was “real” in the sense that apparently he was closely based on someone from her life (see my post on p 481). I agree about those scenes with him being incredibly distressing, though also recognizable– the ways that couples/lovers sink into these shrunken worlds of pain-causing and accusation…
Paul, Michael, Nelson, Saul…I can’t figure why Anna doesn’t recognize men are not gifts bearing love. She searches for love but finds nothing but horror. The Nelson episode rings dismally true to me.
The afterburn for me of reading these pages is that I want to go swear off men once and for all. I wonder why, after reading TGN more than two decades ago, I married twice more. Anna is like a character in an epic, driven by destiny to experience every flavor of “real man” and find they all offer the same shallow and poisonous taste. Perhaps if women took literature more seriously, they would save themselves (we would save ourselves) for our work or for something of greater benefit to the world than relationships can provide.
Yes. One of the great gifts of fiction is to allow us to lead multiple imagined lives.
Can we take it from this book that work offers more comfort than romance, though?
I certainly feel it chimes with my own belief that pursuing romance as the only or main source of meaning in one’s life is a doomed enterprise. But what we see in a novel is so determined by our own experiences and prejudices. To me Anna’s problem isn’t that she wants to take lovers or even to experience love; it’s that she keeps on imagining that love, the ‘real man’, the perfect lover will solve any of her problems or improve her life in any important way.
Reading your comments, I am reminded of a passage that comes later, where Anna concludes “that any act she might make would be without faith…but simply a sort of provisional act, hoping it might turn out well, but with no more than that hope. Yet from this attitude of mind she might very well find herself making decisions that would cost her life, or her freedom” (UK p.566).
Time and time again, I see Anna acting out of senseless hope, diving head first into humiliating relationships with emotionally unavailable and/or sexually spooky and/or infantile and/or psychotic men. She shows herself no mercy, throws caution, sanity, self-preservation and prophetic dreaming to the wind, just to get laid or to get created or to avoid becoming “bitter, or Lesbian, or solitary” (Online p. 373)
“Words have no meaning” emerges as Anna’s mantra. If this is true than “real” is meaningless and “man” is meaningless. According to Anna nothing matters (physically or otherwise)–not even love–but do it anyway. Even if it almost kills you. Even if it drives you mad. Hope for and pursue and make excuses for and cradle Tarzan and Bond and Michael and Paul and Stalin and Prince Charming–even if everything in your women’s experience, politicized gut and basic intuition tells you that his love is a fleeting illusion, that he will fail you, that your unhappiness is inevitable, that his protection is a figment of your imagination. Anna compulsively veers off onto Dead End roads–ignoring the signs–because she is lost, hopeful, curious and absolutely cracking up.
Fascinating how Lessing outlines Anna’s experiences first as a writer, and then in the few dozen pages that follow we get the conventional explanatory narrative of how Anna met Saul. This technique should suggest that Anna has distanced herself from the catastrophe of this affair with Saul. A less bold storyteller than Lessing would have given us the facts first, then the story ideas.
But instead of distancing us, this technique brings us closer to the doomful affair of Anna and Saul. Lessing is playing with time and sequence in ways that are so unconventional. This time-warped form reminds me of how Anna has no will to change what happens to her. Things are decided for her. They are “written” for her. The short stories are the universal stories women live out; our lives are merely versions of this Master Plot or Cliff’s Notes of a Woman’s Life.
It’s becoming popular in current bestsellers like Black Swan and Outliers to suggest that human will accounts for nothing. TGN is a brilliant study in how other forces move us. In that way, TGN is an echo of Tolstoy and his view of history.
Yes, for all the pain of the affair with Saul I can’t help but see this section as somewhat optimistic. Writing gives us a way to turn the most hideous times in our lives into something else. She has more than a dozen good story ideas here… in that way it was a pretty productive relationship!
I am tempted to disagree, Naomi. I think the best work Lessing wrote is the first volume of her autobiography, in which, as I recall, these churls do not appear. Just think of how much more productive and perhaps even effectively political a writer could be without the distractions and demands of the Sauls of the world.
I think the question we’re skirting (so to speak) has to do with masochism–and if I can be so retrograde as to say it–a certain female tendency to veer toward these experiences. It seems less the case that Anna has no will to change what happens toward her as that she selects what happens to her by selecting these men, then acts as though she’s not an agent, as though she’s some passive vessel. Anna *chooses* the distractions and demands of Saul, then revels in the pain he causes her.
Do you think masochism is “a female tendency” and not a human taste? Sorry to keep referring to the book of my own life, but the Saul Greens of my world have had a deep substrate of passivity and desire for punishment lurking in the swagger. A dungeon-madame in Silicon Valley whom I once met claimed to have a flourishing business in whipping CEOs.
Still, your comment about masochism cuts deep. Anna is such an extreme case of it. I wonder if masochism is less a complication now for women who can choose experiences without the mediation of men.
And from a different point of view: A writer’s task is to suspend the will, to write what happens, to be swept up by destiny. Isn’t this partially what Anna is *choosing*? Isn’t this the cost of being a writer, to suspend the will?
I’ve heard the same things about CEOs and dominatrices, though that’s a compartmentalized form of masochism whereas I do think for women (I’m overgeneralizing, but why not) it permeates daily experience far more thoroughly, from footwear to romance.
I haven’t really thought about this in relation to writing, but I’d tend to disagree: I think writing requires enormous enormous amounts of will, not to mention ego. (Like right now, I need to find the will to stop blogging and get back to the book I’m supposed to be writing.)
Writing requires determination, yes. But I also remember that in writing my first book, there was a moment when the material or something took over and began writing itself. I could feel the absence of my will and to the extent it vanished, the other voice took over. I remember it as quite a practice, to be so humbled in an act of ego, which is what writing is.
Please no, Harriet! If masochism is a female tendency (and I really don’t buy it), then surely it’s a learned one and snot something “innately” female. But since Laura mentions the phenomenon of the dominatrix, we should remember that there’s an awful lot of men willing to pay to indulge their masochistic predilections — and that — for me — puts the lie to the idea that women are somehow more masochistic than men. I suppose one might argue that men’s fascination with masochism is fascination for “the other” and that therefore this is identified female, but then one would have to apply that argument to a whole host of other preferences that might be coded differently. I worry that reading masochism as female essentialises female sexualities.
In any case, Saul’s multiple personalities bump him from sadistic domination to all kinds of vulnerabilities which Anna notes and acts upon. Lessing offers a us ambiguity here even while she explores Anna’s alarming predilection for bullying overly-egotistical men.
“I wonder if masochism is less a complication now for women who can choose experiences without the mediation of men.”
In a word, no.
That said, I do *not* think masochism is inherent in women, but maybe more attractive for men given society’s upbringing of them. When men feel a masochistic urge, many feel ashamed by it and sequester their experiences into paid sessions or roleplay in the bedroom with their wife, whereas some women such as Anna feed off of it. Although I have seen the opposite in both cases to be true.
I guess it just depends on whether you think *anything* is “inherent” in either sex…kind of an obvious comment, but that’s what we’re talking about here, right?
I had the occasion to reread Andrea Dworkin’s “Intercourse” when they did a 20th anniversary reprint of it a couple of years ago and was surprised at finding it a more compelling argument than I’d remembered–basically, that heterosexual intercourse is an act of possession (in the bad sense!) and colonization of women’s bodies by men, which enforces a masochistic condition in women. So it’s both an essentialist argument–an argument from biology–AND a social one, in that intercourse takes on the meanings of subjugation it does in the context of patriarchy. (I wrote about it in Harper’s Sept. 07, somewhat admiringly, I admit. Not that she’s necessary right, but I think she’s not entirely wrong either.) It’s clearly not an argument any heterosexual “sex-positive” woman wants to think much about admittedly, but also not irrelevant to TGN. Dworkin’s starting premise is that men basically hate women; what she doesn’t account for is that often the feeling is mutual. Lessing complicates the story–mutual need, etc–but the sexual alienation between men and women seems pretty pervasive. So is the element of female masochism (or is abnegation a preferable word?) in relation to sex.
OK, many of the things being said in this thread are quite baffling to me.
“heterosexual intercourse is an act of possession (in the bad sense!) and colonization of women’s bodies by men, which enforces a masochistic condition in women”
I just sort of look at this and blink. Intercourse is certainly a moment of tremendous vulnerability for both partners but why is it any more correct to construct it as a “colonization” by men than it would be as, eg, an “engulfing” by women? [This being the fear embodied by the vagina dentata.]
“Dworkin’s starting premise is that men basically hate women; what she doesn’t account for is that often the feeling is mutual.”
Am I living in a dreamworld when I say that I think the vast majority of men and women I know quite like each other? There are always antagonisms at points of difference, and certainly there are some men who hate women and some women who hate men but my own experience of life has been that this is far from totally pervasive.
Laura, I wish we “sex positive” women would think more about the meaning of subjugation. Andrea Dworkin not only thought about it; she lived her recognition of what the hetero/male world demands of women: she abdicated from it. She was Sumo sized, dressed like the farmer in the dell, and never used a tweezer. She was confrontative and loud–She turned herself into a poster freak for an argument against a male world where a woman has to lie about everything in order to succeed…or perhaps survive. The hetero world has gotten only more colonizing since Dworkin’s first book. The evidence: how many voices like Lessing’s and Dworkin’s are there now? One of the most pointed “messages” in TGN is that masochism is not just a symptom but is essential to female survival. How can it be otherwise than that we eat our young. The male world demands male ideas, voices, and designs.
I suspect that Lessing, after the nihilistic work of TGN, decided to remove herself from the domineeringly male media/publishing world and plunge into science fiction, a publishing category that evades critics paid by male editors, that befuddles publishing conglomerates run by male beancounters, and that defies expectations of a male careerist, ladder driven world.
“The male world demands male ideas, voices, and designs.”
Harriet, what is a ‘male idea’? If I have an idea, in my female brain, how is it a ‘male idea’? [I presume we're not talking about such obviously misogynist ideas as "all women are stupid" but about some class of idea or type of idea which is more 'masculine'.] The point is, why do we have to classify ideas as male or female? This seems to me like it would always be an arbitrary distinction, always begging the question.
I grew up with ridiculous Orthodox Jewish notions about ‘male thoughts’ and ‘female thoughts’: women are more ‘protective, loving, nurturing’, men are more ‘active, inspired, powerful’. But… we can all feel those ways, and have those ideas at different times. Classifying ideas as male or female - and condemning or encouraging them on that basis - seems dangerous to me.
“She was Sumo sized, dressed like the farmer in the dell, and never used a tweezer. She was confrontative and loud–She turned herself into a poster freak for an argument against a male world where a woman has to lie about everything in order to succeed…or perhaps survive.”
Hmmm. Well. I am not, as has previously been established, an expert on feminist history or about Andrea Dworkin, so perhaps I have missed the point. But I am a fat woman who wears trousers most of the time and often forgets to tweeze those chin hairs. And I’m pretty confrontational, in my way. So far, I haven’t found these things an insuperable barrier to the kind of success I hope for in life [which admittedly is not to be America's Next Top Model]. And certainly not a threat to my survival. So I really don’t know what you’re getting at here.
Yes, yes, yes–it’s exactly the unlovely Dworkin’s point that women have to lie to themselves to survive, and need male approval to be able to live within their own skins and solicit this approval via sex. (I kept using the word “ouch” in the review in response to her twist-of-the-knife arguments.)
But I still find it hard to divide the world into the male and female categories that you do, Harriet, especially these days where the publishing beancounters are equally female, where women are equally careerist and conservative. I can’t see any difference between women editors and men, frankly. The issue in publishing now is the role of the conglomerates rather than gender; the depressing thing is that gender progress–which has been enormous–has had no effect on these larger issues of corporate depredation.
Yes, I agree about the publishing industry. It’s mostly staffed by women these days, and you’re right, the decisions are made no differently because of that. Important also to remember that women buy vastly more fiction than men. The world of fiction publishing, at least, is female-dominated. [Although the world of literary prizes is still interestingly male-dominated.]
While I don’t think the era of the feminist publishing house is completely over (although it’s a shadow of its former self), I think Laura’s right that women involved in publishing (and at the editorial level, this is still a surprisingly female world) are caught up in the corporate maelstrom, and their jobs depend upon their behaving in allegedly gender-blind ways. Like Laura, I see very little difference between men and women when they’re inside the corporate structures that dictate so much of our lives.
As for Lessing’s turn to science fiction, it’s an interesting choice for her to have made as a woman conscious of gender issues. It remains even now a pretty masculine world (despite a few iconic women writers), no?
I wish I could make my point better, because I think it is essential for women writers to appreciate how marginalized if not ghettoized they are now. Masculine categories of thought and attention predominate, and they are not limited to gender. So women in publishing, and in other arenas, promote male authors and rational voices. Politics outsells poetry, history fills the shelves over analyses of the American or global soul, when in fact spiritual matters have more consequences upon how we live. Does the attention to war and sport increase the incidences of war and the fortunes made by the NFL, etc?
Moreover, there are very few editors who would publish a Dworkin or Lessing today: female writers who happen to take on feminist issues. Without a market for tough, female voices, women today are writing like men, articulating male concerns in male literary and publishing forms, not for experimental reasons but for royalties and power.
I rarely see women’s bylines in the major media. I think a lot goes unreported because of this absence.
I don’t know how much difference it would make if we were to see more female bylines, to be honest. I totally agree with Harriet that women still get marginalised, that the days of the old-boy network are far, far from over, and that allegedly “masculine” topics get pushed to the fore. But that doesn’t mean that a female presence (whatever that is) would herald change or improvement. Women, as Harriet has noted, have got where they are now by “writing like men” — but that doesn’t mean, does it, that there’s some essentially female way to write that’s different, some biological tick that produces different ideas or values? I would like to see more recognition of women’s talents — but I’d also say that recognition of different issues and different values, whoever espouses them, would probably have as marked an effect. I’m really really wary of biologising or essentialising male/female difference, even while I’ll go to bat endlessly to ensure women don’t get the short end of the stick.
I’m betting that this section–on Ella’s beliefs about the superiority of vaginal orgasms–is going to be controversial!! As these days, such tenets are not exactly in fashion. [Not to plug my own books--while proceeding to do so anyway--I actually wrote about this section in my last book, The Female Thing; interestingly a number of early feminists--Beauvoir, Greer, Lessing--take a similar line on the right way to have sex.] What’s so interesting here is the way that clitoral orgasms (and as we know, whether or not there’s actually a distinction has since been put into question) are seen (at least by Ella) as men retreating from sexual intimacy, whereas real intimacy, a real orgasm, is, in Lessing/Anna’s terms, “when a man, from the whole of his need and desire takes a woman and wants all her response.” Paul, who disputes (and isn’t into) vaginal orgasms is positioned by Ella as using male know-it-allness to tell women what they should want in bed, contra their own experience. While in today’s sexual ideology, Paul would probably be seen as a “good lover”! (And Ella as a victim of male-identification or false sexual consciousness.)
I’m wary of confusing Ella’s position or Anna’s notebooks with Lessing herself (I believe that would make me guilty of the ‘authorial fallacy’ or something) BUT it really is one of the book’s BIG THEMES that there’s something deeply primal and meaningful about heterosexual fucking and male-female desire, and to retreat from it is to retreat from… a vast Human Truth.
For me, this was one of the moments when I realised I was in an earlier feminist world where the vaginal orgasm still existed!
Yes, I read this and put a long line down the side of the page and wrote “oh dear god” in the margin. I would be very interested to find out more - especially if you’ve written about this, Laura - about how and why the ideas about vaginal vs clitoral orgasm first arose, and whether Lessing is repeating ideas that were widely believed in the 1950s and 60s or if it’s more unique to her.
I believe that Freud thought that the vaginal orgasm was a ‘mature’ orgasm, and the clitoral an ‘immature’ one? Is it that this idea continued? Is it a patriarchal idea that a ‘real woman’ ought to be able to climax from penetrative sex alone?
I find Ella/Anna/Lessing’s (and I agree it’s important not to conflate them, and yet Lessing does at times seem to be inviting us to do so) ideas about sex so alien. This, and the primal desire Anna thinks George can teach her… Well, look, can I just say what I think about it, and then if I’m wildly misinformed then one of the better-informed members of our brilliant group can correct me?
It seems to me that this is a reaction to a suppression of sexuality. Through the Victorian era and into the 20th century women were told that sexual desire was inappropriate for them, that a woman’s role was to “lie back and think of England”. This doesn’t only mean that they should accept quasi or actual rape, but also that if they found themselves enjoying sex, and not able to keep their minds on “England” they weren’t ‘good women’.
So, I can see that there was a tremendous liberation in being able to say “here, I am a woman, I experience sexual desire, I desire to be penetrated, I too experience the primal force of heterosexual fucking.” And when a society rediscovers something as vast and wonderful as female sexual desire, I can see that it might seem to be, in that joyful flash, the solution to everything.
But perhaps in the years since TGN was published, we’ve discovered that unfortunately, while primal, meaningful heterosexual sex is great, it doesn’t actually contain the answer to heterosexual relationships. Actually, trying to reduce a complex relationship to saying “if she’s having a vaginal orgasm, it means that he’s totally engaged with the woman and that she is utterly in love with him” isn’t just oversimplification, it’s plain false.
At this historical moment it was vital to assert the importance of female desire and female orgasm. Once that was done, we discovered that things weren’t so simple.
So am I wrong in this reading of history, and TGN’s place in the historical narrative?
I’m wary of the tendency to think that we’ve now arrived at the “truth” of female sexuality (ie the clitoris) which was previously misunderstood and repressed. Historically, it’s more like there’s a continual need to “solve” the problem of female sexuality–each generation invents a different solution, and women experience their sexuality in relation to the prevailing ideologies of sex–as do we. For instance: now we’ve invented the G spot to replace the vaginal orgasm; finding your G spot is regarded as evidence of liberated sexuality whereas believing in vaginal orgasms is retro. Is this the last word on the matter–I tend to doubt it!
That’s really interesting, Laura. Do you think male sexuality has been through the same reinventions or re-solutions?
My layperson’s impression of the difference between modern ideas about female sexuality and older ones is that we now accept that there’s more variety in experiences. That women experience their sexuality in many different ways: I’d never tell Lessing that she didn’t really have vaginal orgasms, but I wouldn’t expect her to say that they are the only ‘real’ orgasms. Or do you think that people always understood that sexuality was very individual, and I just don’t have a wide knowledge about the history of human sexuality? (I definitely don’t…)
I don’t see a lot of evidence for a constant reinvention of male sexuality (well, ok, at least not male heterosexuality) historically, to respond to Naomi’s question. And I suspect this is about the distinction (not often articulated) between “sexuality” and “female sexuality,” that is, that male sexuality is normative, natural, healthy, uncomplicated while female sexuality is endlessly a problem. Hence the kinds of reinvention and redefinition Laura’s talking about — after Freud, Koedt’s clitoral orgasm theory, after that, the G-spot, and so on. It seems to me that the “(hetero) male-as-normal” — and thus needing little definition or qualification — is not so different from the ways in which whiteness is “normal” and definitive, that is that race and sex categories sharea lot of the same sets of assumptions about “the natural’.
This is the world’s vastest subject. There’s a great piece of historical research dealing with some of this, it’s very elucidating: Rachel Maines, The Technology of the Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction (Johns Hopkins, 1999).
I have just ordered a copy of this fascinating-sounding book!
Exactly. I feel like the competition between a vaginal and clitoral orgasm, in this time period and in the seventies, has been proven by third wave feminism and general sexual liberation to be beside the point. The discovery/popularization of the clitoral orgasm was the gateway to establishing that women deserve sexual pleasure, but then there emerges this weird smugness about orgasms in general. Now that the public pressure is on to have an orgasm, it’s more about whether a woman is sexual enough to be capable of that kind of pleasure.
About this line:
“The vaginal orgasm is a dissolving in a vague, dark generalized sensation like being swirled in a warm whirlpool.”
This is exactly the sort of thing that a die-hard clitoral orgasm fan would once sniff at. “This woman hasn’t had an orgasm, she doesn’t know what she’s missing,”the fan would say. The fact is, Anna, or Ella, or whomever this speaks for (still unclear) prefers this sensation, even if it is rooted in some kind of deep emotion. The fact that she feels that her doubts about a relationship is directly correlated to a lack of an orgasm still rings true today (or at least it’s repeated in magazines like Cosmo and Glamour). The real debate is now whether orgasms are important indicators of character, strength, and a good relationship, whether it’s clitoral, G spot, or whatever. In this way, this passage, oddly, transcends its time.
Nona, this comment really made something click in my brain. Especially where you say: “This is exactly the sort of thing that a die-hard clitoral orgasm fan would once sniff at. “This woman hasn’t had an orgasm, she doesn’t know what she’s missing,”the fan would say.”
You are so right. How quick we are to judge each other’s sexual experiences! “I am doing it *right*. You are doing it *wrong*.” “My orgasms are *real*, your orgasms are *imaginary*.” This constant searching after the *correct* way to experience an orgasm….
To start off with, I thought: is this because the patriarchy wants women’s orgasms to be like men’s? That is, very clearly centred on a specific body part, a specific motion, with a clear point when you know that “it’s happened”. But then I thought, even though I am no expert, I know that not all men experience their sexuality in such a clearcut way.
So I begin to wonder whether this drive to “solve” the female orgasm is really part of a different human mode, not necessarily a sexist one but a drive towards *certainty*. That need for certainty can be destructive, or at least unhelpful. I’m reminded of Keats’ concept of Negative Capability http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negative_Capability where he suggests that the primary talent a poet should cultivate is the ability to remain in uncertainty.
Mostly human beings don’t like uncertainty, and for fairly obvious reasons. We would like our engineers to be *very certain* that the bridge will not collapse, that the electrical wiring will not explode, that the planes will not fall from the sky. But in emotional, psychological, social, sexual, creative matters the need for certainty can be deadly. We need to be able to live with our questions: “am I in love?”, “what is the meaning of this novel I am writing?”, “why is this friendship so important to me?”, “is this warm whirlpool sensation an orgasm?”. These are questions to which we might never find a very straightforward answer, but it doesn’t mean they’re not worth contemplating or that the experiences they relate to aren’t meaningful.
I suppose this means I am not a logical positivist ;-). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verification_principle
In Manes’ book that I mentioned above, she cites a 15th or 16th century sex advice manual that describes the location of the clitoris as the seat of female sexual pleasure (female orgasm was long thought to be necessary for conception), she talks about 19th century doctors stimulating women to orgasm clitorally to solve various medical problems–her point is that the clitoris wasn’t discovered by Masters and Johnson or feminists, that it keeps getting lost and rediscovered. It makes any straightforward progress narrative of the type contemporary feminists like to tell, about finally having solved the mysteries of female sexuality, much less convincing. You get the sense instead that there are sexual fashions or prevailing ideologies, and we always experience our bodies in relation to them, as opposed to in some direct or unmediated way.
“Ella had never experienced clitoral orgasm before Paul, and she told him so, and he was delighted. ‘Well, you are a virgin in something, Ella, at least.’”
This also seems to me to reference Ella’s obsession with marrying Paul. He wants her to be virginal with him. Pondering it, it’s made me more sympathetic to Lessing’s point on this page. Clitoral/vaginal orgasm is perhaps not really the point; the thing is that he isn’t willing to accept her own account of her sexuality. He wants to take up that male role of ‘teacher’ [shades of George] and is delighted to find that he can teach her something about her own body. He’s using her orgasms as a way to prove his superiority, or at least to support the ‘proper’ male/female balance in their rather improper relationship.
Oh and that ‘at least’ is horrible. Strongly implies that he thinks less of her for not being a virgin. Reminds me of Cy [UK 292 and thereabouts] - things go wrong with his wife on their honeymoon. Does she detect that he too thinks less of a woman once she’s no longer a virgin?
Clitoral, vaginal–why not go GLOBAL? : http://www.globalorgasm.org
“She would sleep beside a ghost of defeat; and the ghost wore, even when she woke, briefly, out of habit, to open her arms so that his head might come to her breast, or to lay her head on his shoulder, a small, bitter, self-derisive smile.”
Oh poor Anna/Ella. She cannot even allow herself to grieve without deriding herself. As Nona says on page 196, she hates her own self-centredness. I feel such compassion for her here. She hates her orgasms, she feels she’s lost her ‘real self’. She cannot even see that when you wake in the night and look for your lover and realise he’s never going to be there again, it is OK to feel sad.
What is it that she wants of herself? To experience no emotions, to have no need for fiction (page 189), to live only through the ‘realness’ of newspaper clippings? Does she hate herself for being a woman, or simply for being human?
Yes, she (Ella but really Anna, I believe) does seem to want to shield her vulnerability and emotions to an extreme you don’t often see in female protagonists. It’s striking (also depressing) that the woman’s psyche we’re trapped in has a terrifyingly high and rigid standard for what constitutes happiness, what happiness “should” be. As Laura said a few pages back, this kind of life endures this looming joylessness that’s hard to avoid.
The orgasm as that which reveals “truth” again — I was struck here by the distinction Lessing draws between the “exterior” and the “vaginal” orgasm, the former about physical and mechanistic relief, the latter revealing some deep truth, or reality. Ella experiences “sharp violence” and mourns “the loss of her real self” in the “exterior” orgasm, a poor substitute, we gather, for the “real” thing.
Do you think we could read the orgasm as a metaphor here? Or am I being too kind? But the distinction between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ seems to me to signpost where Ella feels she is having genuine experience and where experience that is false and violent. Her notebooks are similar. The notebooks, inward-looking, not to be shared with others, are genuine. Her novel, outward-directed, she feels is false.
“Metaphor” is an interesting way to put it. Yes, a metaphor in the sense that it’s not just a random physiological event, like sneezing, it takes on such a host of connotations and meanings. But that’s the peculiar thing about bodies, and the experience of having one–how coded with meaning certain parts of the body become, particularly the orifices, which are these liminal sites, the entry to the interior, potential contamination zones, points of vulnerability and so on.
How *fascinating*, Laura. I wonder in relation to this, and your comment on page 179 that “there are sexual fashions or prevailing ideologies, and we always experience our bodies in relation to them” whether Ella’s sad relationship with her own body at this time can tell us things about women’s lives at this moment in history.
[This is in no way to suggest that we've reached some nirvana state now. I'm certain that in 50 years from now people will be able to read back insights into the way we talk about our bodies - and our orgasms - today.]
I’m thinking it through still but… Lessing is insistent that the internal is preferable to the external. The internal is real, the external is false. One way of reading it: Lessing is protesting about the lack of acknowledgement of women’s internal lives. All the letters from miserable women which are brushed aside by the doctor are another example of this.
Another reading: the external orgasm is ‘forced’ onto Ella/Anna almost brutally. I liken this to the various roles she’s forced to adopt. Among communists, she feels obliged to keep up the appearance of loyalty. To Michael/Paul, she must be the devoted domestic goddess wife. To the TV executives she must be “the writer”. And in bed she must experience pleasure in a particular, easily comprehensible fashion. Her complex internality is constantly denied.
[I shall now try to find something other than orgasms to talk about in this book...!]
It just occurred to me while reading Naomi’s comment that Lessing really could have meant the internal orgasm as a more autonomous, controlled, decisive act as compared to an external one. Even though it is caused by penetration (the ultimate way to “force” a woman/orgasm/whatever), it is directed exclusively by the woman’s psyche. The clitoral orgasm here can be perceived as involuntary, the work of the man rather than the woman. Not that I agree with this, but I think Naomi might be onto something in interpreting Lessing’s idea of an external orgasm as something harsh and unnerving.
Orgasms, again! Never ceases to spark conversation.
I wonder how I could not have read this passage in my youthful first reading of TGN as a blatant warning, not just against the Pauls and Roberts of this world but also against women’s susceptibility to self criticism in the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. And how vulnerable we are to introjecting the criticisms of men into our own identities. Ella, in going on a few pages from now to sleep with the brainless brain surgeon, is spending her life as if it were worth pennies. That is how worthless the men she encounters see women.
Ella is Anna in train wreck mode. I hope Lessing steps in and saves her soon.
“The internal is preferable to the external,” Naomi? Isn’t Lessing showing us the falsity of most/all dichotomies? The lonely letter writer who becomes Ella and Paul’s challenge is beset by rheumatism, and in fact loneliness is calcifying her body. Lessing is parsing all kinds of pleasure–orgasm AND Marxism–and so far all are proving to be shallow. So what is the purpose of a woman’s life, according to TGN?
I’m sure your question was rhetorical, Harriet, but I can’t help but go back to Anna and Tommy’s conversation (UK 237).
“Would you go to an undeveloped country and run a country clinic for fifty people?”
All the Reds would answer: “No, because what’s the point of improving the health of fifty people when the basic organization of society is unchanged?”
This sort of thought process (which Anna admits she has) is I think part of the reason Anna lacks compassion for herself, derides herself, tries to prove her unimportance using newspaper cuttings. Mother Sugar says: ‘write’. Anna says, in effect, ‘what’s the point of writing when the basic organization of society is unchanged?’.
TGN seems to me to be arguing for the vital importance of small action. Of changing one’s own life. Of letting freedom ring not *only* through political upheaval but also by personal change. The CP Anna’s involved in do not, cannot change the basic organisation of society. But maybe Anna could make a difference in the lives of 50 people.
Naomi, yes, Lessing appears to put her trust in small differences and in the occasional revolutionary upheaval. But she is such a spinning dervish of a narrator, I never know quite where she’s facing or what readers are to take as “true” either to her characters or to the author herself. Small changes are extolled by several characters, as you rightly point out, but Lessing is a big, epic narrator, having written TGN and lots of science fiction which is as lofty and removed from small human studies as a writer can get. She’s extolling small but working big.
So my earlier question–what is the point of a woman’s life (or a writer’s life)–is not rhetorical. Anna’s “what’s the point of writing” echoes through my mind. You say “TGN [is] arguing for … changing one’s own life.” I don’t think I know from this book what might change one’s life; the characters so far seem fixed. And I would go further: has TGN changed anyone’s life?
Well here’s a question: does a novel need to tell us the purpose of life?
I know Lessing tells us she loves the ‘philosophical novel’, but I’m not necessarily sure that a novel with a strong philosophical ‘message’ is better than one which is just incisively, realist (as I think this one is) or plain fantastical escapist fun.
I agree with you that it’s really hard to tell from this novel what Lessing thinks. At times she seems to be so close to Anna or Ella that they speak with one voice. At other times, I have a sense of more distance between them, that she’s criticising their behaviour and attitudes. And sometimes I just want to turn to her, sitting there behind the text, and say “but what do you THINK?”
But… I can’t in all honesty perceive that as a terrible flaw in the novel. When I come to the end of it, I might feel that it’s a flawed book (can never tell till the end), but I respect a fiction writer’s right to say “I’m not going to tell you what I think. That’s not my job. My job is to present the questions.”
So, has TGN changed anyone’s life? I don’t know. Books change people’s lives in all sorts of unpredictable ways and as a fiction writer one really never can tell what readers will find in one’s work. Has it changed mine? Not so far to any deep degree. Except that I’m having more conversations about orgasms with my friends!
“He gave her a quick frank look full of hatred…and he said: ‘I think after all that I do prefer your lotion to mine.’ He had his hand on the bottle, claiming it. He smiled at her sideways, challenging her, hating her openly.”
Reading this, I keep thinking about how one of the functions of literature is to create (and perpetuate) sociopolitical paradigms. We read not only to see ourselves reflected in the text, but to observe how a character responds to situations that we may encounter in our nose-out-of-the-book lives. Personally–halfway through the book–I struggle to identify with Lessing’s Anna so am not likely to behave as she does. But certainly she is someone’s possible self? Certainly she was someone’s mirror/role model? This set up–that gay men hate and/or envy and/or are a threat to heterosexual women–is such a cliche! What books influenced this writing? How did this writing influence other books?
Why weren’t the Second Wave feminist and LGBTQ rights movements more collaborative? Are we convinced yet that women and gay men can be allies? Or do sad scenes like this (still) resonate with some?
Was it a cliche at the time of this writing? Something tells me no. The relationship most recently depicted in pop culture between straight women and gay men is a sort of mixed message–that they are great friends but can really mess up your love life (like Will & Grace, or that movie with Madonna and whats-his-name). Plus, heterosexual women (particularly feminists) still seem to resent gay men for having control over industries courting and manipulating women (fashion, media). The dynamic described in these pages is a little more blatant than what’s played out today, but there still exists this undercurrent of competition and animosity between the two groups.
Oh my goodness, that movie with Madonna and Rupert Everett?! “Next Best Thing.” Oy! I don’t know, Nona. I wonder if Oscar Wilde ever wrote about the subject?
Are we saying that there isn’t often a fair amount of misogyny among gay men? It seems to me it’s both a stereotype AND a social observation–the Ronnie character, the cattiness toward women. One of the problems with running literature through the socio-political lens or asking it to provide progressive paradigms is that you (frequently) end up with crappy art forms of the positive-images or heroic socialist realism variety. I’m more interested in the thrill of uncomfortable truths, even when unprogressive.
Yes, of course Laura you’re right. There’s often misogyny among men, and gay men aren’t excluded from that. (Come to think of it there’s often misogyny among *people*.) I do wonder how much of this is stereotyping, how much is a representation of a dynamic that existed at the time, exacerbated by the legal and social framework, and how much is just a representation of the fact that people can be really hideously unpleasant to one another.
Someone - was it Laura? - said that Anna’s homophobia can be read as a by-product of her experiences as a woman: the dog bites the cat, the cat bites the rat. She’s oppressed and demeaned by the world, she finds someone else to oppress and demean. Can we see Ronnie and Ivor in the same way? The world is vile to them, but they can also be vile to Anna because she too isn’t ‘correct’, simply because she is a woman.
Simply from my own world, the fact that Jews have been persecuted hasn’t meant that the Jewish world is marvellously sympathetic toward gay people or indeed toward women. Oppressed peoples unfortunately often don’t band together. Instead they make themselves feel better by trying to hurt one another, aping those who oppress them.
I wrestle with this familiar question all the time: What is the function of the artist in society–to reflect culture, to critique culture, to create culture , to transcend culture, or to risk solidly expressing oneself in one’s moment in time? (I never ask myself this question when I am in the middle of writing/creating, of course. If I did, I’d never get anything done! But it comes up for me when I am trying make sense of a text.) I want to believe it is possible to do all of the above–if not all at the same time–with skill, complexity, compassion and aesthetic merit. Heros are flawed, process is illuminating, progress is elusive and the truth can be ugly, yes…Is it fundamentally true that our differences make us want to obliterate each other? I hope not.
I see Anna deeply yearning for a male ally. I see potential allies in this scene, dissing and dodging each other–for what? I see our heroine feeling powerless and seeking power at a gay man’s expense. And vice versa, as Naomi points out. I see Anna and Ronnie hurting each other simply because they are near each other and, maybe because–ironically, secretly–they trust each other? I see myself reading TGN and often feeling frustrated, super sad and disappointed. I worry sometimes but I have faith that Lessing wants me to see and feel these things.
Oh yes, Lenelle, I wrestle with those questions too. And sometimes even when I’m writing, which makes it awkward…
The processes by which art and life feed-back on one another are so complex, and each element can be both justified and condemned.
If we present the bald truth in art, surely it’s worthwhile for society to see itself reflected? But this is the argument about showing terrible violence on television. The programme-makers can say “this happens, it really happens, we should show it,” but some would say “ah, but by showing it you’re normalising violence, and so exacerbating it.”
If we present some sort of utopian vision in art, surely it’s worthwhile to think about how society could be better? But then we can be criticised on the grounds that we’re no longer being “realistic”, that our art has no relevance.
If we criticise what’s happening in society, we risk being seen as ‘negative’ by people who say that art is ‘there to entertain.’ (And indeed I often just want to be entertained by art.) If we fail to criticise, we are panderers.
None of which is to say that I think artists deserve special sympathy! It’s a wonderful, complex, never-ending series of conundrums to devote one’s life to.
Yes, misogyny happens, even and especially among women. The Washington Post journalist who upbraided Hillary Clinton for showing three centimeters of cleavage during the recent political campaign was a woman. But to me, what Lessing captures so frighteningly well here is how a few trivial and cliched comments like Ronnie’s and Ivor’s unnerve Anna so thoroughly that she feels doomed and acts vindictively, telling Ivor that Ronnie has to leave. Why can’t Anna draw on some of her artfulness as a writer and tell herself a different story about these men’s childishness and spare them?
I think you have to look to the writings of saints (even secular saints) to find people who don’t pass along slights and worse forms of violence. I think of Simone Weil who tried to let the blows stop with her, but she couldn’t survive not passing on the horrors she saw and felt.
But is it Anna’s breasts he’s calling sweaty and sagging? That’s how I read it. You have Ivor and Ronnie trying to pass off a sense of bodily shame onto Anna, and her refusing to be shamed or see it as trivial–it makes her angry. Her kicking them out seems more like an act of self-defense than vindictiveness. At the same time, she keeps putting her body on the line with these various “real” (straight) men, who are equally callous about her attractiveness or appeal, which she seems far less perturbed by.
Hmm. I read it as an attack on women in general, all ‘fat buttocky cows’.
I was reminded of this on UK p397, where Julia recounts the story of the man who was impotent with her, and then said ‘You’re a castrating woman, I thought you were from the moment I saw you.’
I think this is the same emotion, the same response. Julia’s actor blames her for his not being able to get an erection. Ivor and Ronnie are blaming all women for their not being attracted to them. (Whether or not this is a portrayal built on prejudice, I think this is what’s going on in the novel.)
And you’re exactly right, both Ella/Anna and Julia/Molly keep on accepting that blame. On UK 404, Julia says: “I was blaming myself — of course, we always do, isn’t it odd, the way we positively fall over ourselves to blame ourselves for everything?” This too feels horribly familiar and modern.
“the function of the novel seems to be changing; it has become an outpost of journalism; we read novels for information about areas of life we don’t know”
This is so true, and I think has just got more true since Lessing wrote. It goes along with another development in the world of fiction, that now people are far more interested in whether a novel is ‘autobiographical’, and are rather dismissive of novels that don’t have this sort of (quasi) authenticity.
I wonder if the reason Lessing suggests for this is the real one. Is society more fragmented now than it used to be? My impression is that society was always fragmented but that the fragmentation wasn’t acknowledged. Instead of Britain saying “we are a society made up of different regions, of different classes, of different religious denominations”, there was ‘received pronunciation’ and ‘this is the BBC from London’.
The acknowledgement of difference must surely be a good thing? But I can see that the apparent fragmentation of society has a strange effect on novels. If you write about your community, are you writing *for* the members of that community or *about* them? If the former, how will you find a wide readership? If the latter, you perhaps inevitably begin to become one of these journalism-novels Lessing is talking about. I don’t think there are easy answers.
Actually (and now I’m having a conversation with *myself*, which may not be the object of the exercise) I’m wondering if it’s right at all to say that the novel has a “function”. It is interesting that people are reading novels more now to find out about society. But does that make them less authentic than novels written to make a philosophical statement about life? Why do people write novels anyway? Why do people read them? You’d think, as a novelist, I’d know the answer to this already.
This statement stopped me, too: that the novel is the outpost of journalism. It seems that everything is the outpost now of journalism. People increasingly sound as if they had media training, as if everyone was an aspiring pundit or reporter. But there is something admirable in the kind of writing Lessing has achieved: she is telling a story but trying not to shape a story. Lessing seems to be confiding that she is trying to get beyond style and capture her characters in the moment. It is so hard to do. And yet in writing, style is the great befuddler. To avoid it, to simply see and write without bits of other writers–or our own ego– running through our brains, that’s the challenge. To write simply, to capture the truth and not “story” it up makes for prose that seems, in this book, very loose, even baggy.
“To write simply, to capture the truth and not “story” it up makes for prose that seems, in this book, very loose, even baggy.”
Really interesting, Harriet. I agree that the book’s loose; the characters are fascinating, though, so I want to stick with it. But it makes me wonder about where our ideas of the correct ’shape’ and level of ‘tightness’ for a novel come from. I’m finishing up a novel right now and am making those decisions: where to cut, where to expand, how to make it fit into itself more snugly. I know I’m going on about the mysteriousness of writing, but these decisions are so much more instinctive than conscious. What is that instinct? How does one know when it “feels right”?
I suspect also that there may be an artful artlessness to Lessing’s work. Like a garden planted in “wildflower meadow” style, the notebooks are intended to look like the meandering first draft flow of a writer, but actually I think a lot of shaping has gone into making them look that way.
Naomi, Fascinating post.
I wonder if one of the studies Obama made in reading Lessing is how to integrate emotional or sacred story elements with social/political ideas to give each a new authority. Stories are such a big part of the Obama agenda. Dreams From My Father echoes The Aeneid, an epic tale of a young boy going out to finish the country-rebuilding work his dead father prompted him to do. I wonder if Obama studied features of the epic, which seems to me what The Golden Notebook is: a woman’s epic.
Lessing, in drawing upon so much looseness teaches us a new respect for time in storytelling: to your point of tightness in novels. Maybe that’s an unnecessary value for storytelling, even in a sound-bite world.
I wonder what advice Lessing would give to Obama about how to tell A Big New Story.
It’s true, these days, when it comes to consuming novels (or plays or films and other forms of fiction) “authenticity” seems to upstage imagination and craft. Many readers expect writers to be eye-witness-news scribes rather than philosophers. As a reader, my ears perk up at the seductive subtitle “based on a true story” but I also recognize that the truth (or “a truth”) can be woven into good fiction. Personally, I feel most grounded as a writer when my memory is doing a rough tango with my imagination.
Interesting. Is the fragmentation around truth a product of a media-saturated world which also keeps telling us (not so convincingly…)that its goal and rationale is to uncover truth? It is, as Lenelle says, seductively comforting to think that we can get at an unvarnished truth, a “real” experience, but it’s too often an excuse for one-dimensionality, for a flattening of complexity, a simple answer that comforts but can hardly tells all. And Lessing knows that, no? She constantly pulls the rug from under your feet, and just as you’re starting to get comfortable… Can’t speak for others but that’s what I want from fiction, a creative, imaginative kick that keeps me from too much complacency.
I was thinking about what Naomi and Lenelle had posted here as I read on p. 211 what Lessing has to say about fiction as evasion. For Anna it becomes obvious that the process of fictionalising is “a means of concealing something from myself,” and it’s this that catalyses her decision to keep a diary. But I wonder if Lessing is pushing here, that is, not just giving us Anna’s mental state and her ideas about her role as a writer, but wanting us to think about fiction’s place, its relevance, its putative universalising qualities and so on.
On the subject of this, can’t resist posting this article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/3391740/Novels–better-at-explaining-worlds-problems-than-reports.html
I feel like every point in this article deserves an essay in its own right. Two that stick out for me:
“Storytelling is one of humanity’s oldest methods of possessing information and representing reality. The stories, poems and plays we categorise as literary fiction were once accepted in much the same way that scientific discourse is received as authoritative today.”
Which makes me go aaaaaaaargh. Seriously, I do not think that anyone ever thought that (eg) the legends of Hercules were true in the way that (eg) Euclidean geometry was true. I hate this sort of reductivism about the nature of stories. They’re not just a useful way of providing information, they have - to me - a mysterious and almost sacred purpose. I guess I agree with Lessing more than I thought, at least about the journalism-novel. I’m not sure that the philosophy-novel is so much better, though.
“Fiction works by appealing to people’s emotions, not their intellect or rationality.”
I keep typing things to say about this bald statement (ah, these people with their statements of TRUTH) and then deleting them. I don’t know where to start with it. Actually, maybe I do: is it really possible to talk about any issue or any person without engaging both emotions and intellect?
Anyway, slightly off topic, but if nothing else it proves how relevant Lessing’s ideas still are today.
The washing disturbed me here. Partly I think I couldn’t quite imagine how Ella could be pouring “jug after jug of warm water” between her thighs in a washroom in a house/office that wasn’t her own. Was she standing in a tub? Why didn’t she run a bath? How did she get dry afterwards? How is it possible that she could do this “quickly”?
But the “sour musty smell” also worried me. A woman having her period doesn’t smell so bad that it can be detected by other people. So, is this a feature of postwar Britain? Badly-made tampons and not enough soap? Or is it another example of Anna feeling that she has to erase herself?
I think Anna longs to erase her femaleness, Naomi. All those other smells listed on UK p. 304–sex, sweat, skin, shit–are universal human smells. Both men and women release these–and thank goodness! But menstrual blood, which Anna detests, comes from women, exclusively. Homegirl doesn’t want special treatment.
Jack’s “You smell lovely, Anna” followed by her relaxation really annoyed me. She is so pleased with herself for fooling Jack with the perfume version of a “woman’s smell” which conceals the natural “woman’s smell” of her period.
Why do some women keep their periods secret from men? When I was an undergrad and budding radical feminist, I challenged myself to discuss my periods with my guy friends. Their shock was often followed by relief. Some had spent entire childhoods with mothers and sisters who kept them in the dark about that good old regular champion of a visitor some call “Aunt Flow.” Why keep something so recurrent so mysterious? How do the secrets women keep from men benefit us?
Oh god yes. I forget that some women do want to keep their periods secret. There was this horrible ad for compact tampons in the UK a few years ago.
Woman is having lunch with male friend (maybe boyfriend?). Rummages in her bag for her purse. Tampon (compact one, in bright wrapping of this brand) falls out onto the table.
Companion: Sweets? I thought you were on a diet.
Everything about this ad infuriated me. My friends and I used to pause every time it came on, so that at the moment that the woman smiled silently, we’d shout:
“IT’S NOT A SWEET, IT’S A TAMPON!”
I wish I could remember the brand so I could excite some continuing ire against it.
A sweet!? A diet!? Argh!
I don’t think anxiety about smelling bad during your period is necessarily to do with wanting to erase one’s femaleness. It’s true that the mainstream media places a v unsubtle emphasis on women keeping the sight, smell and experience of their time of the month out of their everyday narrative, presenting periods as comically monstrous, like shabby werewolves, and obviously that’s no good for girls. (Naomi I laughed aloud reading about that terrible ad). But I felt closer to Anna reading about her menstrual discomfort - I’m pretty similar, stomach turning at the feeling and smell of bleeding, and I think I feel this somewhat independently of media messages that periods are yucky- I don’t care where the blood’s coming from or wherefore it arrives, whether that’s from my ladyparts, my thumb or my elbow! I think it’s more to do with a sense of being pathetically enfleshed (i hope enfleshed is a word - if not, let’s have corporeal) and spilling out inner juice. It’s probably misguided of Anna to try and smell like the idea of a woman instead of allowing herself to smell like an actual woman, as Naomi says, but surely it’s still possible for Anna to embrace, or at least not renounce her femininity whilst preferring not to smell of sex, sweat, skin &c? I like Lenelle’s point about her not wanting special treatment; I think Anna wants to be a woman on her own terms and in some essential way that can’t be interfered with or condescended to by other people she interacts with socially.
This just resonates to me as Anna being a private and inward person, and it comes in the package of cleanliness. The reason that she didn’t want her daughter to smell sex (even though she didn’t know what it was) is not necessarily because she wanted to erased her female-ness, but because she wanted to keep her many personas separate from each other. Cleaning herself until Butte tells her she smells lovely is erasing not femininity but rather any context or complication. Putting on a face keeps it simple. And I gotta say, I feel her on that one–whether it be the smell of blood or sex, sometimes you want to keep the more carnal part of you private life from people who depend on your stability and stoicism.
But I agree with Naomi and Lenelle, in that Anna is also absorbing norms of what a woman “should” be (a theme that comes up again and AGAIN).
Naomi, that commercial is ridic!
Hmmm…just rethought this after I just posted on UK 301…where I think I’m confusing the two night-and-day spheres of the domestic and the outside world. They can’t even be compared. A “face” is expected in professional settings, whereas this kind of repression in the home is just depressing.
I came back to this section after I read the pigeon-shooting scene (UK edition, 367-384) because there, too, the smell of blood is important to the scene. Maryrose complains that the smell of blood will make her sick, and she does so, some few pages after Lessing makes quite sure we know that the group can smell it. On 375 (last line of the page in the UK edition), Lessing has a one-sentence paragraph that reads simply, “There was a smell of blood.” And at 384, “We were slightly sick with the smell of blood.”
When she’s talking about menstrual blood she does certainly invoke something more gender-specific than is perhaps the case in the later scene, but still, even here the other smells she enumerates are bodily smells rather than specifically female ones. I do think there’s a kind of self-hating gender thing going on, but I suspect blood also occupies a more elemental space in Lessing’s imagination now I’ve read this later scene. It may be that women’s regular bleeding for her yokes them to the unfettered nature that’s conjured in the shooting scene, but I am now wondering if it isn’t a lot more complicated than the fear of being “smelled out”.
Anna is frequently surprised by her emotions and responses to things, especially by the way that her private responses lag behind both her politics and her intellect; surprised by her hatreds and resentments, especially by her own sexuality. Sexuality refuses to conform to “emancipation.”
Yes, this is true of Anna’s sexuality but also more strikingly of her attitudes about race. She “resented the fact that the woman was black” and then felt “ashamed and angry” because she had “imagined [her]self free of any such emotion.” This to me speaks a truism not only of Anna but how racism works and is perpetuated. Taboo race thoughts produce shame and guilt in progressive people who would like to think they are above prejudice. It was true then and it’s true now.
So yes, Anna is surprised at her own hatred. But I think Lessing is making a comment generally about how personal bias and colonial tradition can permeate politically radical culture beyond anyone’s comfort level. Willi says he is surprised Anna admits to being “shocked” (to use a euphemism). This shows us, if anything, Anna’s self-awareness and lack of denial–her ability to be explicitly angry at her private feelings.
“I knew by instinct that if I went to bed with George I’d learn a sexuality that I hadn’t come anywhere near yet.”
I have been chewing this sentence over and over trying to decide what I think of it. Is Lessing telling me something interesting and true about sexuality? My current feeling is, I’m afraid, that she’s not. It reads more like a line from a Mills & Boon (US translation: Harlequin Romance) or James Bond. “She knew if she went to bed with him, she’d learn things she’d never dreamed of” etc etc.
Why does Anna not think she would have anything to teach George? Because she and Willi aren’t having sex? Or because she perceives sex as an area in which a man is supposed to demonstrate that he has more ‘knowledge’ than a woman - either technical, or in terms of instinct and raw desire as seems to be the case with George?
I’d be really glad for someone to tell me another way to think about this line, but at the moment I’m rolling my eyes at it and considering it - like Anna’s attitude toward homosexuality - as a (rare) sign of the book’s age.
Dare I suggest that Anna’s “instinct” that George’s sexuality is so intensely beyond her own is related to the fact that he chooses black lovers? In the Western world, blackness has always been stereotypically yoked to hypersexuality and–even in females–hypermasculinity. After all, in this passage, Anna admits her racism (which she genteelly calls resentment). Her fear of/desire for George seems to reflect her fear of/desire for Africa. George exploits/indulges in Africa sexually while Anna and the Colony Crew exploit/indulge in Africa as mere tourists. Her comrades righteously sound off about “the color line” and fantasize about teaching African workers how to revolt against it but, at this point in the novel, they don’t seem to engage with the Africans around them in any real, intimate, human way. In contrast, via his illicit, ongoing relationship with Marie (and subsequent siring of her biracial child), George gets closer to blackness than any of them dare. His “forbidden love” is corrupted by power, guilt and hypocrisy but there is an undeniably human exchange between George and Marie: basic, consensual sex.
Lenelle, I’m sure you’re right; thank you for making this point. It occurs to me also that Marie is almost invisible in the narrative. You’ve pointed out that we don’t know what she looks like. We don’t, I think, see her interact with anyone in the novel, even her husband or George. It’s interesting; Lessing/Anna makes a point of seeming fearless in portraying the hypocrisies and ugliness of her group of characters. But she doesn’t even give Marie a single scene, a few lines of dialogue. (Unless I’ve missed something….) What does she get out of the relationship with George? How does she feel about her husband? Or about Mrs Boothby? Thank you so much for pointing this out: the more I think about it the more I find the absence of Marie really disconcerting, a hole at the heart of the book.
This line–Anna’s belief that a romp with George could teach her something uncanny–also stopped me in my tracks. It is desperately symptomatic of how lost Anna is at this stage in the novel and her own notebook journey. She also believes there is a better politics, not just a better form of sex.
Why do women keep believing that there is a superior knowledge, and that men have it? I once went to one of the great men of my profession, literally sat at his feet while he stood to speak, and he farted in my ear. I think Lessing is being ironic in this statement about George, but Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal, is an entire novel built on the “truth” of this statement.
I’m not really sure she’s being ironic. I think she’s a believer in heterosexual sex and women’s desire for men in a deep way–on the one hand her women desire freedom but they desire men, and are flummoxed by their desire for men, and can’t be free because they’re completely unclear about what they want from men. They’re ironic ABOUT men as a way of diminishing (or trying to) the hold men have over them, and the potential for injury, but it doesn’t work to lessen the attachment.
Oh, I had a hard time here — Ivor isn’t a real man? Anna berates herself for this thought but, still, this and the following pages don’t, in fact, deconstruct Anna’s initial thoughts much at all. Ivor’s consort, Ronnie, bears the brunt, far more than Ivor, but this was a really uncomfortable few pages for me to read. The depiction of gay men as spiteful, greedy, and effeminate had me wincing and drooping…
Yeah me too, but I think this characterization should be credited to the era; that is, there was far less public embarrassment or guilt about homophobic thoughts and judgements. But to some extent, as Philippa points out, Anna *is* ashamed of this thought…and this relates back to her initial thoughts about race some pages ago. Anna’s radical politics often set off alarms in her head about prejudice; at the same time, she is very much a product of her time.
It is unclear, though, whether or not Lessing meant to emphasize this. It could be that Lessing herself, alongside Anna, was playing to her unconscious prejudices, too. Much like the way she treats the desires of Ella, Lessing clearly finds invaluable elements to traditional masculinity.
Yes, I also found this difficult. I remembered that at this time male homosexuality was still illegal in Britain, and punishable by imprisonment. so, I don’t know, does that make Anna’s attitude easier to understand if not to accept? I imagine that a man like Richard would have been even more damning to Ronnie and Ivor. Anna’s allowing them to live with her at all puts her very far from the mainstream. Having said this, her thoughts here depressed and alarmed me. No wonder so many gay men in this era lived their lives in such fear, when even the ‘radicals’ had attitudes like this.
Though the fretting here about what a “real man” is also has its counterpart in the constant fretting throughout the book about what a “real woman” is–in terms of motherhood, sexual response, attractiveness et al. The cudgel of normalcy she directs at the gay men reminds me of someone who’s kicked around at work, comes home and kicks the dog.
Yes Laura, Anna thinks Ivor is “like a big friendly dog…dark, shaggy and friendly sitting on the floor…” (UK p.346). This word “friendly” appears over and over again. And “charming.” And “harmless.” I agree with Nona. This section is very similar in tone to the earlier Black Notebook passages where Paul takes the cook Jackson on as a sort of pet. Tolerance, pity and guilt cushion Anna’s disgust and inherent sense of superiority but her homophobia is as palpable as her racism was. I think it’s interesting that Ivor does so much babysitting. He serves Anna, just as the Africans at the Mashopi Hotel served Anna and her crew.
When I read sections of this book, I often wonder if Anna/Lessing could have imagined a reader like me. How would Lessing write this section today? Anna may be “a product of her times” but, decades later, I’ve met people just like her. Folks still smile at those they regard with contempt. Some still expect marginalized people to behave like loyal, desperate, good-natured dogs.
But Anna isn’t *only* privileged, her position seems a bit more complicated than that–she’s a woman, she’s a communist; it’s not so clear that her inherent sense of superiority is so inherent or total. Also there’s racism and homophobia even among the marginalized, not just among the privileged, right?
She *is* a communist, which is precisely the element that propels her shame about prejudice. Admitting to herself that she felt superior would be easier if she were apolitical or conservative–at least she wouldn’t be claiming to be a social revolutionary.
Bad sex, oblivious men, female passivity and accommodation, women’s self-alienation … Ick. (Glad we’ve transcended all of that!)
Oh this all made me so sad. Not only Ella’s experience, which is deeply depressing, but also the account of the marriage. “she was hot then, boy, when I think! And then on the honeymoon she froze up. And now I never touch her.” So incredibly sad. There seems to be a polarisation between ‘good girls’ who never want sex but are allowed to be married, ‘bad girls’ who never get married but are allowed to want sex. I can’t help but read your comment that we’ve ‘transcended’ all these problems as sarcastic, Laura (forgive me if I’m wrong!). But I do think some things have got better. I hope so.
Naomi: Yes, sarcastic for sure. (Or ironic, anyway.) But as others have said, it’s what’s sometimes disheartening about the book: how familiar so much of this seems. Though I’d like to think there’s a BIT less male sexual ineptitude, but… who knows? The fact that Ella goes back for a repeat performance is what I find baffling. Because she likes him, as she says?? Or is it just that she’s trying to get over Paul, and having bad rebound sex–that seems a little more comprehensible.
Ella in charge! Ella teaching! Ella not acquiescing to Paul’s demands and needs! There’s something interesting going on here, I think, where Ella’s sexuality assumes an adult, even a tutorial, role.
“Ella in charge.” “Ella teaching.” Ella Geisha! Except she’s not even getting paid for pleasuring this guy and listening to his dimwitted tales. I know so many Ellas that to read these pages makes me feel faint. I don’t so much care why Ella gives up her time, energy and pleasure for this lout who seems a walk-on from a Philip Roth novel–as much as I wish she could channel her despair into more useful and satisfying activities. I realize I keep reading TGN as if it were Pilgrim’s Progress…. but that’s how I read it first, years ago, as a primer for how to live.
Have things gotten better, as Naomi hopes? The growing numbers of divorces in the US suggests that male sexual inepitude is not on the wane.
I’m going to have to disagree a bit here, Harriet. I think there’s a way in which this is an important moment for Ella/Anna — the guy may be an uncouth dimwit (love that word!) with little appreciation for women’s sexuality, but for Ella the act of taking charge, of being (literally and metaphorically?) on top is a liberating experience. She doesn’t do much ego-stroking, and to me she comes across here as determined and self-possessed. Sure it’s a pity to waste that on a philistine, but it seems to me to mark less a moment of subservience than a moment of independence — really critical for her at this time, surely?
Another wonderful marriage! “The ties between Nelson and his wife are bitterly close…” There seem to be 2 types of marriages in this book: estranged or neurotically pain-giving. It’s hard to say who comes off the worse: husbands or wives, but clearly marriage has a horribly deforming effect on both parties.
At the same time, Anna is admitting exactly what she yearns for–whether love or hate, she wants to be bound to someone beyond the confines of the mysterious, cerebral mistress who is so much more compelling (for a moment) than a wife. Anna acknowledges here that you can’t hate someone so much (as Nelson and his life appear to) unless you love them too. Anna is facing her defiant isolation here…perhaps admitting that the reason she hasn’t found a ‘real man’ is because she is incapable of letting someone get close, even if it is “bitterly” so. She feels jealous and morally superior to these characters at the same time. What is worse, she seems to ask…being alone or being “tied by the closest of all bonds, neurotic pain-giving”? (As Laura points out, these two seem to be the only options.)
This love-torture dynamic between Nelson and his wife–the random all-knowing hostility of helpless soulmates–is what Anna achieves with Saul. On UK p. 551 she says, “I was aching with the need for Saul, and I wanted to abuse him and call him names. Then of course he would say: Oh poor Anna, I’m sorry, then we would make love.” Anna observes the toxic codependency between Nelson and his wife, goes home and creates a similar situation for herself. Saul becomes her Nelson, Anna’s own American live-in pain-dealer.
As far as who comes off worse, I think the husbands and wives are on equal evil ground in this novel. On UK p. 556, Anna decides: “I felt towards him as if he were brother, as if, like a brother, it wouldn’t matter how we strayed from each other, how far apart we were, we would always be flesh of one flesh, and think each other’s thoughts.” Twins of neurotic pain-giving! Anna and Saul eventually develop the ability to literally finish each other’s sentences…
Nelson and his wife remind me of George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” the first evocation I can recall of a couple yoked together by anger and batt;e, rather than by any semblance of romantic or plain old dutiful love. The title is a joke based on”who’s afraid of the big bad wolf.” It’s interesting that the play was first produced in 1962, the same year as the original publication of TGN.I wonder if the institution of marriage was showing the first signs of disintegrating, the winds of the sexual revolution starting to be felt by “first responders” like playwright Edward Albee and Lessing. The way Lessing saw marriage–as a sham and a fraud–is sort of the way we are seeing all kinds of institutions, like banks, government, even the American empire.
“Hope” says Obama. Well, there is so little hope when you really start to look at how much air or illusion everything is based upon.
Interesting point that 1962 was the pub. date for both Virgina Woolf and GN as Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, a scathing indictment of suburban marriage, came out in 1963. I have a favorite line from Friedan where she quotes a local doctor as saying “You’d be surprised at the number of these happy suburban wives who simply go berserk one night, and run shrieking through the street without any clothes on.”
Fascinating, Laura. Those were the good old days, when women could shriek and go berserk. See what therapy has done? Tamed us.
Anna keeps mentioning that film producers court her. Was there ever a movie of TGN? Bob Stein: here’s a project for you. Films of the great lost books starting with TGN.
FYI: Saul Green is based on Clancy Sigal, an American writer and communist who was one of Lessing’s lovers; apparently HE then wrote a novel in which Lessing is a character, also not treated very kindly. (He’s also written a biography of his mother and the screenplay for the movie Frida among other things–I read his autobiography years ago when it came out but remember nothing of it.)
Oops! I’m corrected today in the forum by a reader calling himself “Brutalman” (who seems awfully familiar with the Clancy Sigal oeuvre), that “no such animal” as a Sigal autobiography exists. But there definitely WAS a book by Sigal that I did indeed read, maybe 15 years ago(?) –either a memoir or a roman a clef–in which Lessing or a Lessing-like character appears.
Perhaps Brutalman will say more? He seems to have his own unique viewpoint on the Anna-Saul relationship, and it would be interesting to know more. The plot (and dialogue) thickens!
I must admit that I’m now a little over-intrigued by the entry of Brutalman into the conversation, whose 12/22 post *does* sound a bit like Saul Green sounds on the page. We’ve all been so absorbed and horrified by the Anna-Saul dynamic, we’ve performed all this critique and analysis–what if Saul suddenly decided to talk back? Or in lieu of Saul, Lessing’s inspiration for him, who I believe lives in Hollywood these days, but maybe I’m getting too carried away with the whole literary detective thing, or have spent too much time in the company of Anna, and her predilection for brutal men.
One of the unanticipated possibilities this kind of on-line book discussion-experiment opens up, I guess–the characters weigh in.
A quick search reveals not just one Sigal memoir, but two: one about his childhood and his union organizer mother, and the other about being a patient of R.D.Laing’s.
Sigal also wrote the script for Frida, if you want to talk about a man who knows his “brutal sexual inspection” number, the Diego Rivera character is another brutalman.
If this is Sigal weighing in, it’s fun to hear his tough, direct tone in the midst of our intellectualization of TGN. A sort of in your face difference either of men’s voices and women’s, or of the presence of powerful men from an earlier time versus men now. The big shouldered guys who were “my” Clancy Sigals–my assessors– were money guys and CEOs whose personas would easily crumble. Brutalman sounds much more fibrous and insightful.
Although Saul, as described by Lessing, was constantly crumbling: he vacillates between playing the tough guy and falling apart. What reminded me of Saul in Brutalman’s post was the “ain’t” (”ain’t no such animal”), since Saul is always calling Anna “lady,” like a movie gangster or a cowboy. If someone wanted to play the close reader on the small fragment we have from Brutalman, you see the same vacillation between injury (”that hurts”–said ironically, but still) and the tough guy thing (the sobriquet, the endorsement of brutal sexual inspection…) I’m out on a limb here admittedly–over-reaching as a close reader not to mention being entirely rude to our correspondent by picking apart his words– but it does make me wonder how much Lessing was novelizing and how much she was a brilliant chronicler: I mean to what extent these notebooks were indeed her journals, and if the Saul-Anna episodes are so vivid because they’re transcribed from life.
And to be presumptuously forensic, who but the author of at least two personal books–on mom and shrink–could authentically claim that Sigal had NOT written a memoir. Who but the author would know how much was, in these books, fictionalized or omitted.
Until you identified the real-life Saul, Laura, I thought that Lessing was crafting Anna’s ultimate counterpart, her heroine’s male’est version: an Anna who was childless, American, who could slip in and out of relationships and truths and lies at will, and who was unbound by a female morality. Now, I’m persuaded by the opposite possibility: Maybe these journals and TGN are ripped from her life. If you read Clancy Sigal’s report on being a patient of RD Laing’s, you find the same shifts from adventurousness and acceptance to anxiety and distrust that characterize Saul, and via your explication, Brutalman.
Anna seems to be in a somewhat dire state. Her pronouncement that “everything’s cracking up” seems to be completely ignored by Molly and rudely interrupted by unexpected Richard’s phone call/impending arrival.
It’s interesting that Anna, who the narrator tells us “had always left when Richard was expected,” decides to stay this time. Why is Anna more willing to brave Richard’s presence? What is so different about today, I wonder?
Molly and Anna seem so adept at making Richard into an uncomplicated creature and making their antagonistic relationship with him as simple as possible that I feel sorry for him even before he arrives on the scene. It’s like they’re co-directing their friendship and solidarity as a production that requires a villain as an opposing force.
I was really fascinated by the way gossip serves, right at the start of the book, as a form of intimacy between the two women. It’s something that threatens and mystifies and frustrates Richard — he can’t get past it and can’t understand it. Is it serving, I wonder, as a kind of “women’s language” (that’s certainly an argument that gets made about how women relate to one another)? Richard certainly gets tripped up by it over and over again, although Tommy finds ways (later in this section) to slide by it.
It seems less like a “women’s language” and more like a freeperson’s language versus some one who has already given up and submitted to the life they were “given” (that is, chose albeit listlessly). tommy is still able to rebel, mold his future, and craft his opinions. richard to me doesn’t represent all men, but cowardly men.
Meditating on the title of this section, I wonder what “free” really means? Since this text, first published in 1962, slightly predates the second wave of feminism, “free” might just mean “unmarried.” Are Anna and Molly early models of the “women’s liberation” MOVEMENT or are they simply, individually, “liberated women,” in that they don’t financially depend on men? In other words, is their decision to remain single a POLITICAL decision or a personal preference? (I know, I know. “The personal is political” but still…) Would these characters encourage other women to live as they do? Or do they secretly envy the married women (like Marion) whom they also claim to pity? It’s interesting to me that when these “free women” meet alone, they spend so much of the scene talking about men and affairs with men and other people’s marriages.
Just when you might be starting to feel warm and fuzzy about feminist loyalties, Lessing whips out a critique: “our real loyalties are always to men, and not to women.” Ouch. But she nailed a dilemma that many women did face (and still face forty-plus years on).
Yes, interesting. I certainly know women who seem to feel this way, but I’m surprised that as one of the “free women” Anna feels this way too. The women I’ve met who really would put their men before everything else (including themselves, often) have tended to be the ones who got married and stayed married, because there’s a sort of bargain in it, isn’t there? To put it at its crudest: he’ll bring in the money, and she’ll always put him first.
But can’t one be loyal to two camps? Or, most of all, loyal to oneself?
It’s funny, I would have expected Anna to say something like, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” but she offers the opposite as what is honest and “real” for (heterosexual?) women. How sad that Anna believes the fastest way to establish warmth and intimacy with Molly is to pontificate about men!
I must admit that, these days, when I gather with a group of women friends (most of them feminist), we don’t really discuss our problems with men. Granted, a number of my women friends are lesbians but still…We might talk sourly about institutions and administrations and individual jerks who are taking obvious advantage of the patriarchal paradigm, but a “what’s-wrong-with-men session” would bore me to the core. Maybe this is because I don’t depend on men for romance or financial stability? In any case, for what it’s worth, feminism taught me to be loyal to the idea that we should all, regardless of our gender, feel equal and free.
This reminds me of the Bechdel Test. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dykes_to_Watch_Out_For ]
A character in this comic strip says that she’ll only watch a movie if:
1) It has at least two women in it,
2) And they talk to each other,
3) About something besides a man
It’s depressing to think of how few movies fulfill those criteria. Even really good movies, movies I love.
I *love* Alison Bechdel’s work.
“When George looked at a woman he was imagining her as she would be when he had fucked her into insensibility…I did not understand this then, I did not understand why I got confused when he looked at me.”
This description of George is utterly fascinating, as so many of Lessing’s accounts of male-female sexuality are. There’s this primal quality to the way she describes him; she suggests that there’s a kind of primal attraction for women (certain women) to phallic sexuality, which she both naturalizes and undercuts at the same time. There’s also something deeply contradictory about this description in fact–George is both arrogant and humility-ridden; Anna observes his sexual power but isn’t immune from it…
The book is full of these oscillations: women observing male sexual power over them, commenting upon it, while still pinned in some desiring relation to it. Intellect doesn’t exactly set you free, sadly.
“Why should a beautiful girl like Maryrose look at me at all?”
On UK p. 129 we find out that George enjoys affairs with “African women particularly.” This made me wince after reading, “George needed a woman to submit to him” on UK p. 126. How interesting that black women are classified as so readily sexually accessible to this bumbling wreck of a man when Maryrose and even Anna (despite her quiet lust) refuse him.
And George’s main African lover, Marie, the cook’s wife, is never physically described. We know all sorts of details about Maryrose’s appearance: she has long, shining hair and tanned arms. But the only word we have to conjure an image of Marie is “black.”
That his mistress is black seems to seal Anna’s perception of George’s sexual power. In these pages, “black” remains mysterious, illicit, hidden, unfortunate, obliging, taboo, disgusting, discardable yet–oddly– enviable.
Meanwhile, Maryrose, stays on her sad post-incest pedestal. Note their similar names: Maryrose vs. Marie. Fixed female archetypes, different sides of the same tired coin. The worshiped, white, unattainable virgin (a flower) vs. the debased, black, adulterous whore.
Ah, sexist racism.
Lenelle - I think George’s ability to take the black women around him as lovers is more to do with a colonial power dynamic than to do with symbolism of skin colour and connotations of sexuality attached to that (though of course this does feature). Maryrose and Anna are in George’s world - they are women, yes, but they stand with him as Brits and in relation to Marie, one of the colonized….different rules and a whole other code of exchange - each male-female exchange is demeaning in a vital way (based on assessments of the female’s sexual attractiveness), but still, different when it moves from exchanges between George and Maryrose to George and Marie. Who knows how willing Marie really is? I’m not talking physical coercion, but there are status and financial factors over and above those usual to male-female relationships of the time that could compel Marie to accept sexual advances from George when she otherwise wouldn’t have. Her mysteriousness/lack of detail could also be Lessing’s commentary on the absence of her true consent. After all, in contrast, women like Maryrose, who can express their will and their past, say their ‘no’s with some level of consequence, are afforded physical description. The way in which Marie would respond to George’s advances would be as much an acknowledgement of the prominence that the desire, any desire, of a colonial master would have in the society he’s, yes, penetrated, as it would to do with the rampant, mindless sensuality George might think he sees indicated by Marie’s skin. Ugh I hope I haven’t overthought this…
“Her mysteriousness/lack of detail could also be Lessing’s commentary on the absence of her true consent.”
Now this raises a question. Marie is absent. Paul’s treatment of Jackson is chilling. Is this because Lessing is unconsciously communicating attitudes of colonial racism? Or because she’s subtly commenting on colonial racism?
I really don’t know the answer to this. The Lessing/Anna/Ella layers mean that the writer can always point to the character and say ‘it’s not me, it’s her’. And actually the character can point back to the writer and say ‘don’t blame me, blame my creator’ (like the way that Anna blames her own prior self for not remembering what she wants to remember).
But George doesn’t have anything to offer Marie financially. (”He had a wife and two sons and a daughter. He supported his wife’s parents and his own…in that little house…they were all permanently short of money, and miserable bickering went on about sixpences and shillings. Online p. 112). Surely Marie knows he can’t/won’t support her which is why “she was not making an issue of” the obviously biracial child who resulted from their glaring affair.
Suffice it to say, I don’t really trust our narrator Anna’s judgement (mostly because she doesn’t trust herself). She’s willing to–and to protect her pride, needs to–dismiss George’s relationship with Marie as evidence of the colonial power dynamic. She’s willing to cast Marie as a type of desperate, helpless prostitute in FRONTIERS OF WAR, a book she admits she isn’t proud of)…But what if Marie has more agency than Anna can conceive? Are all black woman in Marie’s situation completely powerless? Or is there room for subversion here?
Maybe I’m pushing it but: what if George and Marie are genuinely, albeit inconveniently, fond of each other? After all, as far as we know, she isn’t running off with other white guys. Just because Anna isn’t ready/willing to see Marie as a complex human being doesn’t mean George–by some miracle of his time–isn’t. After all, he calls her his mistress, “the proper title” he would use for any white woman he was having an affair with…Not that “mistress” is such a great title but you know what I mean.
“It struck me that my doing this–turning everything into fiction–must be an evasion. Why not write down, simply, what happened between Molly and her son today? Why do I never write down, simply, what happens? Why don’t I keep a diary?”
Here it is again! Anna frustrated with not keeping a diary, getting mad at herself for not reflecting instantly on her own life and documenting it true to form…Harriet was so right on the previous page when she said that Lessing makes it hard for you to hide from yourself. The passages that reveal Anna’s psyche as a writer have become some of my favorite parts. Most books don’t have this level of meta-reflection. I never believed this before, but I’m starting to be convinced that a writer reading a book has a very different experience than a non-writer. Having Anna’s doubts and frustrations outlined here so explicitly makes the experience even more fascinating.
Nona, I’m curious: do you keep a diary? Do diaries still prove useful to fiction writers, or is Anna’s ideal form defunct? Times when I have kept a diary, I believe I’ve been a more careful, perhaps even compassionate reader than in non-diary times.
I don’t believe blogging is the same as writing a daily in a private notebook. Perhaps when we’ve finished our blogging about Lessing, we might each try writing a diary.
I used to keep a diary, precisely the way Anna imagines it. I meticulously documented what had happened in a day or a week, and at times obsessively read over what I had written at a time when I was in a completely different phase of life. But this process has little to do with fiction writing. I am not a fiction writer and I am also not compelled to convert memoir writing into autobiographical fiction. Diary writing walks the tightrope between being on-the-spot reporting and premeditated material for future entertainment. It would be interesting to hear what the novelists in the group think about this…
Also: Blogging is nothing like keeping a diary. Blogging is a self-conscious, instantly public form of writing, whereas diary-writing can only become public retroactively. Most “diary blogging” is incredibly deceptive.
I have kept diaries, usually at very painful times of my life, when they became repositories of grief. I’ve kept them, and I used to read them over, but haven’t been able to do so lately. Sometimes I feel that the pages are laced with poison: if I spend too long reading them the misery leaches back into my daily life.
I never found them useful for fiction, quite the reverse. If a diary’s forcefully written, reading it makes it hard for the process of fictionalising to take place. They are too real. One needs to allow the memories to mellow in the cask, become transformed, emerge in a new form. Diaries keep you honest, but fiction is by definition lies.
Now, a notebook on the other hand is quite a different matter. Jotting down snippets of conversation I overhear on tube trains, scribbling a sentence that floats through my mind, cutting out little stories from newspapers containing interesting ideas… this is seed-sowing.
“Obviously, my changing everything into fiction is simply a means of concealing something from myself.”
Does this mean that in Anna’s view a world of perfectly emotionally healthy people would have no need for fiction?
Curious as to what you guys think the function (if there is a function) of the newspaper cuttings replacing diary entries for the next eight pages is…?
I find it numbing, but it would feel too disappointingly easy for these entries to stand for Anna’s individual consciousness dispersing into a ‘world consciousness’ as international politics begins to terrify her. This is probably far-fetched, but given Anna’s discovery that she is crying in her sleep, i.e. that she is in much more psychological distress than she can ever allow herself to be aware of when awake, maybe the newspaper cuttings serve as withdrawal from further discussion of the tears while asleep? Much the way people talk about ‘non-personal’ topics to maintain polite distance between themselves and a stranger, we’re being held at arms length as readers?
I was astounded by this section, though numbed a bit too, like Helen. It does go on a long time…The news cuttings certainly do act as a veritable scrap book of a moment. But for me what really stood out was how these headlines — about the Cold War, bombs, war, armaments, and overall annihilation — were sandwiched between descriptions of her meetings with her psychoanalyst. That blew me away (sorry for the pun on the bombings…)
I thought this was fascinating. It seems to me to be set up directly as a response to the psychotherapy. Anna feels that the diary has been taken from her by her therapist; she wants to be able to hold something back from therapy. Her therapist points out that this is counterproductive.
But Anna still wants to hold something in reserve: it seems to me that using the impersonal newspaper cuttings is her way of commenting on the world without writing. If she writes, she will have to accept that she ought to mention it in therapy. Instead, she’s pasting in stories that are relevant to the themes she’s already written about.
The first story is particularly startling: an H-bomb hairstyle. It wraps together her concerns about women, about the politics of the time, her fears about the future, and her sense of hopelessness.
Of course these stories also cover the years of her relationship with Michael, which seems to have been so painful she can only talk about it sidelong, as the fictionalised account of Ella’s relationship with Paul. These stories of world madness, of destruction and looming disaster seem to comment on that relationship too. The personal and the political are one.
I love her discussions with her therapist on pages 228 and 229 in the UK edition. Anna suggests that her therapy has been self-centred, that these pasted stories have reminded her that there’s a world outside her “precious soul”. Later, Anna says that she “can’t pick up a newspaper without what’s in it seeming so overwhelmingly terrible that nothing I could write would seem to have any point”. Mrs Marks says “Then you shouldn’t read the newspapers”. Wonderful response.
Anna is saying: I am dwarfed and made to feel meaningless and self-centred by the world; these newspaper stories are a proof of my smallness. The stories represent ‘objective truth’, the unimportance of self she tries to describe to Molly (page 66, UK version) “we’ll never be any use…. it’s not much loss is it… a few people of a certain type saying they’ve had it, they’re finished. Why not? It’s almost arrogant not to be able to.”
Mrs Marks is suggesting, it seems to me, that ‘objective truth’ is perhaps non-existent, at the least it’s unimportant. If reading the newspapers makes you stop writing, stop reading them. If the world makes you feel too dwarfed to create, turn away from the world.
Anna angrily feels that Mrs Marks is trying to make her write a novel. She doesn’t want to write a novel. It’s delicious: we’re reading the novel she doesn’t want to be writing.
So these pasted pieces are an assertion about the nature of the artist, too. Even when Anna tries not to create, she’s still creating this novel. Accept writing or reject it, Anna, either way you’re still doing it.
I would have to agree with Naomi’s assessment, that the newspaper clippings are an acknowledgement of the misery around her. Anna’s cynicism about psychotherapy centers around feeling guilty about her narcissism. She refuses to believe the simple analysis that she is a masochist–rather, she must be reacting to the rest of the world. Anna’s is a common reaction of incredibly inward and educated people: they seek therapy and then feel frustrated and embarrassed at how self-centered it is. And this would probably go double if one was a communist!
Much more of a surfacey comment occurred to me about this passage today as I was reading on. It’s very useful as a reference for the rest of the book! I was reading today and wondered “is the date of this part before or after Stalin died?”. And there the answer was. So, it’s a clever little ready-reference too, enabling Lessing to skip around in time in the rest of the novel, as long as all the fragments are dated.
When I got to the end of the session Anna has with Mother Sugar I was exhausted, profoundly exhausted. This is an incredibly relentless scene, so much going on here. I was particularly struck by the idea of people as cracked or split, and thus open to possibility. Wholeness is irrelevant here — but the discussion of form looms large — and unfinished as the session ends.
Sorry if responding to my own comment is an indulgence — but I was just re-reading what Laura says on the very first page of the book about the centrality of form vs. formlessness in the novel, and what Naomi says on the blog (1/12/08) about fragmenting and cracking up. This comment Anna makes to Mother Sugar is part of that larger theme Naomi and Laura identify: Anna seeking shape in both her life and in her art, but resistant to the idea that such a possibility is achievable, perhaps more especially in as unstable a world as the late 1950s must have seemed in Europe.
And I see the second dash in my first entry on this page is wrongly placed — read it as intended to be after “unfinished” rather than where I’ve placed it!
Yes, the word “form” comes up almost as many times in the book as “orgasm”! Anna wonders about Tommy shooting himself because of the formlessness of the women’s lives on 329, when she tells stories to Janet, she’s making form out of the formlessness of the day… Formlessness gets equated with breakdown later in the book as she thinks she’s falling apart. And another section earlier on 247 where she talks about the notebooks in relation to her fear of chaos.
Relating this preoccupation to the exterior situation, to the state of the world is interesting: I do think it’s the larger question of this book. Are we reading something ultimately sociological, or ultimately about psychical states, and/or which direction do the causalities and influences flow?
“Words mean nothing.”
Interesting, Laura, about the frequency of “form,” formlessness and orgasms. Orgasms are the great moments of shattered form, timelessness and unity. But what are we to make of Anna’s statement that “words mean nothing”–another theme in this novel? Anna continually despairs over words’ ineffectiveness in capturing truths. Are we to take Anna at her word, even if words means nothing?
I once had a Jungian therapist tell me he was not listening to my words but to the formlessness leaking through my stories and to the energy in my presence–quite a comedown when I thought my narrative was so perceptive. There is a technique in family medicine called Balint in which doctors listen not to patients narrate symptoms–patients always lie–but listen for metaphors and pay attention to their own reaction to the patients–and base their diagnoses on these techniques of downplaying the intentional meaning. I mention this because I wonder if there a way to read this novel that allows us to do two almost contradictory things: accept that words mean nothing and yet mean something?
Yes absolutely Harriet, as far as reading other things here than the words. How about reading it as a topography of anxiety, for instance–mountains and plateaus and weather systems of anxiety that produce similar effects within us readers.
I’m attached to the notion that orgasms are the great moments of shattered form myself (and I love that phrase, Harriet), though there’s also a lot of *conceptualizing* about orgasms in this book: the right and wrong kind of orgasm discussion, the which man she can have what kind of orgasm with discussion, also the various sexual failures of the various men to satisfy her–one “sexual cripple” after another, to use Anna’s rather pointed term. Sex seems to be as much a cognitive experience as a bodily one here, and a bit less oceanic than you’d hope. But the fact is that there just ARE certain incommensurabilities between men and women sexually that make being a “free woman” a trickier enterprise than any of us want to admit, which Lessing in her scathing honesty, does admit.
The fact that these two women went to the same therapist astonished me! I’d hate to go to the same therapist as any of my friends. Writing this makes me wonder why, though.
I suppose it seems very intimate; sharing a therapist seems to arrange matters so that even therapy can’t quite be a personal space. Never having read the book before, I wonder how this is going to play out across the novel.
I must admit, I also find it disturbing that these two share a therapist and, worse, joke about her together! It seems counterproductive, as far as therapy goes, to mock your analyst/ potential healer…Both women strike me as rather rebellious in this section. They share an impulse to question and perhaps undermine authority. Calling the “shrewd” Mrs. Marks “Mother Sugar,” softens her conservative persona.
I also think it’s interesting that while Anna asserts the position that people find she and Molly “interchangeable,” Molly insists that they are “so different in every way.” Are they, really? Even when they’re drawn to the same therapist?!
I can’t wait to find out.
I think having established them as, er, clients of the same therapist is an interesting way of setting them up as sisters, recipients of psychological nurture and instruction from the same mother figure. it makes their monitoring of each other’s speech and behaviour even more understandable - molly as worldly older sister, anna as angular and defensive ‘baby’ sister
The dynamic that Helen points out–”wordly older sister” and “defensive baby sister”–is spot-on, and the presence of this dynamic rings a little too true for comfort. how many best friends have you had that struggle with this (im)balance of power? jealousy and at least slight competitiveness seems to tinge the vast majority of womens’ best friendships, regardless of how “feminist” and modern they are, and regardless of how they are perceived as “interchangeable” by the outside world. this scene shows a kind of continuity of how an intimate female friendship plays out, despite major societal changes since the publication of this book.
Paul’s so-called friendship with Jackson strikes me as artificial. Jackson tolerates Paul because the race/class structure requires him to be accommodating and polite to every white man he meets. Paul exploits Jackson’s politeness, invading his kitchen workspace and even soaking up his off-time. Ultimately, this time-consuming “friendship” costs Jackson his coveted gig as an, albeit overworked, cook.
A friend regularly tells me stories about his stint, years ago, as a gardener in NYC. He insists he abhorred working for the liberal rich folks of the Upper West Side and preferred gardening for the conservative rich people of the Upper East Side. He recounts something like the following, “The Republicans left me alone. They gave me a separate bathroom to use and my own small refrigerator. They kept me firmly in my place. But the guilty Liberals were always pestering me. They would never let me use their bathroom but they would always interrupt my work to chat me up and pretend we were friends.”
Yes. Looking at it again, this is very telling: “this contact between black and white flesh was deliberate, to provoke any white person that might be watching”. “Pretend we were friends” is exactly right. Paul isn’t putting his arm around Jackson because they have become great friends and it’s an expression of warmth between them. He’s not even putting his arm around Jackson because, for example, he wants to show Jackson that he feels they’re equals. He’s using Jackson “to provoke any white person that might be watching”. For Paul, Jackson is a tool he uses to communicate with other white people; this “friendship” is non-existent.
“Jackson is a tool he uses to communicate with other white people.” So true, Naomi. It’s all very chilling. I think Jackson knows he is being used but what is he supposed to do? Kick Paul in the shins?
“He would wait at the back door of the kitchen until the time Jackson was due to go off after lunch, and then ostentatiously walk with him across to the wire fence that enclosed Jackson’s cottage…” It’s harassment!
It’s harassment, and it’s naked power. Jackson, as Lenelle points out, has no choice — when Paul decides he wants to befriend Jackson, the African man has no choice in the matter. He can only do as he is told, whether the “telling” issues from his white employer or from the white socialist for whom he becomes a symbol of freedom — yet the freedom is all Paul’s, and impinges on Jackson only in disastrous ways.
‘I read this over today, for the first time since I wrote it. It’s full of nostalgia, every word loaded with it, although at the time I wrote it I thought I was being ‘objective.’ ‘
Comments like these make me wince–they are the classic observations made by a self-conscious diary-writer. ‘Too narcissistic, too involved in my own world…why do I even keep a diary?’ one thinks. Weirdly, these self-reflections about writing have so far been my favorite parts of this book, because they are so self-deprecating and grounded…they really make me respect process a little more, not only about my own writing but about Lessing’s work itself.
I really agree: when she reflects on writing the book feels lively to me, hopeful and full of new ideas. When she’s describing the lives of her characters it’s often full of ennui and hopelessness. Ella’s writing the book about suicide later on seems almost a parody of that tendency. The classic existential-intellectual writer: ‘my novel is about suicide’. Ella must have been awesome fun at parties.
Nona, I love the parts where Anna tries to identify and regulate her own process as well, the self-deprecation but also her attempts to understand what she was written and why she can’t write anymore, why she is sacking herself from her position as a writer. Elsewhere (page 65 of the online edition) she reflects that Frontiers of War may have been successful because it was fuelled by an emotion (probably the same nostalgia she talks about on this page) that compelled over and above the subject matter. I loved that idea of a book that batters reason, demanding attention with the urgency as a child screaming on a pavement…never mind what the child’s screaming about, go-go-go &c
Anna seems troubled that the nostalgia takes her the same way as she transmits it.
“Because I’d rather die than have to live through any of that again.”
At this line, I thought, “Imagine how poor Jackson and Marie must feel.”
This whole section, the Black Notebook, mocking publishers and TV execs, did seem like shooting fish in a barrel, easy jibes. But as we’ll see in the next section, the Red Notebook, loyal leftists are no less corrupt.
Laura (and others!),
Did you think that here (and indeed when we get to the corrupt leftists in the next section) that Lessing was maybe over-indulging the temptation to stereotype?
On the one hand yes (stereotyping), on the other hand, there’s still so much specificity in the character descriptions and the way the interactions are drawn. They come across as deeply individual, though the critiques themselves (TV execs are venal; Stalinists are brainwashed) are predictable.
Are the TV executives stereotyped? Yes, I’m sure they are but the scene’s very funny, I thought. And I think there’s probably a nugget of truth in there. If you have 4 minutes and 9 seconds, I highly recommend this little clip from Charlie Brooker’s show about television “Screenwipe” dealing with the same lowest common denominator tendency among TV execs: http://www.metacafe.com/watch/724836/how_to_get_your_idea_onto_tv_charlie_brooker_screewipe/
I’m a little unclear what year this episode is supposed to be taking place, can anyone figure this out? In other words, prior to de-Stalinization, or after the process had already started, meaning the writer’s group loyalist holdouts? Khrushchev’s big anti-Stalin speech was in 1956, so I’m assuming that Lessing was writing this *after* the cult of Stalin in the British CP had diminished, but referring to a time when it was still thriving. The satirical quality of the scene–the group’s response to the story about Comrade Ted–is delicious, but as with the previous parody of the TV execs, fish in a barrel, perhaps?
I think on the previous page it says “11 November 1952″. So a few months before Stalin’s death, and around the time of “BIRCH THEM. Lord Goddard, chief Justice, Express”.
Oh yes thanks, I didn’t see that. But what do you think of the mockery element (or do you even see it as that?) I guess what I’m wondering is at what point she became a critic of the Stalin cult–presciently, or after it wasn’t any longer a controversial position on the left?
Iiinteresting. Is it mockery? I think there’s a bit of mockery, but also some compassion and some despair.
These people exist in a sort of mini-totalitarian regime created in their own minds. No one’s going to ship them off to a gulag for criticizing Stalin and yet they’re hesitant to do so. George’s “good honest basic stuff” comment is deliberately designed to be interpretable in various different ways. The kind of comment one makes if one doesn’t know how the other people around will respond.
Actually it occurs to me there’s a relationship between this and Anna ordering a drink because the American TV exec wants one. It’s not just mockery that links these portrayals but, I think, also a keen sensitivity to the expectations of the other involved in the conversation. Anna can’t say she’s a Communist to Edwina. She can’t say she doubts Stalin to this writer’s group. She’s losing herself in each of these encounters.
Richard and Tommy are both such manipulative shits! You read this scene shortly after reading about Tommy’s response to his blindness, the peculiar sanctimonious air he takes on, and begin to think “Like father like son.” They’re both turned into such repulsive characters.
I’d rather Richard than Tommy. This entire scene where Richard attempts coercion of Anna and then lets her fumble at the door shows Richard as a clumsy child, whereas Tommy, the actual youngster, parodies ‘adult’ manipulation quite chillingly. Basically Richard and his son are both manipulative shits but Richard carries less force somehow. It feels like Lessing is making a depressing generational commentary with these two.
That’s true–there’s something more menacing about Tommy (and blinded, he’s even more menacing), the women are oddly afraid of him somehow, whereas Richard they mostly just make fun of.
Tommy’s smarter, and the smarter one’s usually scarier. Funny how in the beginning we were a little relieved with the entrance of Tommy on the scene, because at least Anna and Molly were taking him seriously. Now we realize there’s a lot more to grapple with.
“She will grow up in England, a country full of men who are little boys and homosexuals and the half-homosexuals … but this tired thought vanished in a strong wave of genuine emotion — By God, there are a few real men left, and I’m going to see she gets one of them. I’m going to see she grows up to recognize a real man when she meets one. Ronnie’s going to have to leave.”
So my hard time got even harder with this paragraph. Of course, I don’t want to attribute these sentiments to Lessing in an overly simplistic way, and perhaps Lessing wants us to raise an eyebrow at Anna’s lack of grace here, or to see the vulnerability that her attachment to particular forms of masculinity implies — but this was just so tough to read…
Yes, it was very hard to read. Without trying to excuse it, I wonder if it also points up Anna’s loathing for her femaleness again. She’s a very good mother, actually. The description of how she first explained Tommy’s hospital stay as the result of an “accident” but then intuited that this had made Janet afraid and so understood that she had to reassure her that they’d never have a revolver in the house - this was beautifully done; she’s doing well by her daughter.
And yet there must be a man, there must be marriage. And not any man, but a ‘real man’. She, Anna, must ‘get’ a ‘real man’ for Janet. Moreover this is so that Janet can “recognize a real man when she meets one”. So that what? So that Janet, too, can have unfulfilling sex with married men who don’t care about her? She can’t see that it might be OK for her to raise her child alone.
You know, I do think Anna’s thoughts of all of this are horrible but I suspect that Lessing sees this, at least somewhat too. Not that it necessarily matters what Lessing thought when she wrote the novel. I think the novel’s set up, though, to allow us to see how masochistic so many of Anna’s thoughts are. This seems to me another way in which she is punishing herself: demanding that she ‘get’ a ‘real man’, whom she would not want, berating herself for not wanting one.
This anxiety about “real men” reminds me of the anxiety about “real orgasms.” I think it’s possible to read this AS anxiety, that is, in a symptomatic way, rather than as a reflection of Lessing or her characters having the right or wrong values.
PS: She actually does sort of self-diagnose her own condition at the top of 359–she reads her reaction to Ronnie as symptomatic of her own vulnerable state:
“And when had this new frightened vulnerable Anna been born? She knew: it was when Michael had abandoned her.”
Precisely because the novel sets itself up as a realist novel, I found the Golden Notebook section unconvincing – not to say I didn’t find it disturbing (I did, tremendously), but something about it didn’t ring true for me. I just don’t see Anna descending into madness – she’s too shrewd, already too prone to self-criticism and analysis to descend so quickly into madness, surely. Thus her experience in these pages felt constructed, unreal, experimental to me (as much, by the way, in literary terms as in terms of Anna’s experimentalism) but in the end more an exercise than a reality, if that makes sense. I don’t know if this was Anna “trying out” ‘madness’ or if this was Anna trying to work out what Saul experiences. Maybe it’s something else entirely, but it didn’t work for me within the structures of a realist novel. Maybe that’s Lessing’s point – don’t rely on my realism, I’ll let you down in the end, just like everyone (including soon-to-be-married) Molly lets Anna down. (Even her psycho-analyst lets her down…)
Do you really think of this as a realist novel, Philippa? The frame is realist, sure–the Free Women sections–but overall I think of it more as an attack on the realist novel, marshaling all these experimental techniques: the notebooks, those lists of story ideas and so on. Also I keep thinking back to her bringing up Joyce which we discussed previously, and wondering what kind of influence he might have been, particularly in the descending into madness sections in which she seems to be attempting a stream-of-consciousness style writing.
I do think of it as a realist novel, yes. We’re not talking 19th-century realism here, palpably, but I think it’s a variation on a theme, as it were. Almost like a series of “nested” realist novels (novels within novels, notebooks, within novels) but all of them about the here-and-now and about a consciousness that strikes me as markedly different than you see in Joyce. What anchors the book, for me at any rate, is as much its materialist politics (the concern with the bomb, with wars and revolutions and revolutionary politics, and with racism and injustice) and it seems to me much more foregrounded here than in other experimental forms. That is, I see this as a realist novel that’s consciously experimenting with (but not necessarily attacking) that form but never wholly laying it aside. I like that.
Definitely more of an exercise; Anna admits this wholeheartedly later in the last few pages with Milt. She refers to her daughter as a reason why the bout will be short-lived; really, though, I agree with Philippa that Anna is too introspective and analytical to let herself go like that. Hence the overcompensation in the last few pages, when she has submitted to relative normalcy.
For me this was a deeply depressing ending. Molly’s marrying (never a good thing in this novel) and moving to where else but Hampstead; Marion and Tommy are joining the business world; and Anna’s going to teach night classes. Integrating into “British life at its roots” indeed — but is this where we would have expected these characters to be at the end of a harrowing 600 pages? Is this the fate of ex-communists in middle-class 1950s London? Or of women who have defied the status quo too long by exploring (if not always succeeding at) a measure of independence? Of course there’s no reason why “ordinariness” should not be a perfectly good resolution to all sorts of problems, but somehow here, it feels just like the resignation that Molly expresses (admits to?) here. I don’t think I was assuming, hoping for or expecting great feats of heroism, but I just don’t quite see this “return to the fold” as a necessary resolution.
I was stunned to read in the after-matter section (in the UK edition) that she wrote this book in not much more than a year (in a “white heat” she says). It may be that the notebooks were things she’d already written and it was the frame sections she was writing during that period, but it’s an extraordinary number of pages to churn out, you’d have to be in a sort of altered state. (When would you eat or go to the bathroom!) I imagine it’s why a lot of the ideas don’t seem to cohere–it was more of a gut-spilling than something pondered and worked out.
I suspect you’re right about this, Laura. It’s an incredible achievement to have written something that coheres this much and this well in such an incredibly short space of time, no doubt about that. But it did make me think, I’m realising, about how often novels disappoint me right at the end, how often they seem to fizzle, going out with a whimper rather than a bang. I’ve a hunch this is a modern novel problem. Maybe those “truly” realist novels of the 19th century had more options for resolution than the late 20th and early 21st century can muster. Anomie, anyone?
Maybe it’s just me, but this ending seemed almost satirical. When Anna goes a bit crazy and then the pendulum seems to swing back to a boring, safe existence–I picture Anna/Doris with a smirk on her face. Either role is expected of women–madness or submission–and both times, it seems caricatured. Anna must, deep down, have a bitterly ironic moment of self-reflection about this last chunk of her life. And maybe, since the novel was written in less than a year (crazy!), these two parts reflect Doris’s delirium, her own sense of exhaustion or apathy, in the last stages of TGN writing.
This outburst of Richard’s at the bottom of the page is heartbreaking, partly because he surely believes this is going to be his shining moment–yet gets mocked once again–and partly because it underlines the sheer resignation and helplessness people felt (and still do feel of course) about the institution of marriage. he completely separates himself from his choices, telling them he’s “involved” with the institution of marriage, i.e. normalcy, and there’s really nothing he can do about it. at least it’s better, he seems to say, than you weirdos who avoid mainstream society and a veneer of normalcy.
too bad, also, that he earnestly makes the claim that his marital problems are physical, inciting (as the reader might guess) molly’s scornful vitriole about men’s supposed separation of physical and emotional. classic “intuitive woman, rational man” squabble! you just feel so sorry for this guy.
It’s so interesting you said you felt sorry for him. Until you said it, I had just felt contempt for him. All he seems to be interested in is controlling the people around him. Marion must stop drinking, Tommy must have this kind of job.
Also, from my totally unfair 2008 perspective I feel I want to say to him: a) go to couples therapy and b) (sorry to be mildly graphic) learn a range of bedroom skills so that you can still give her a good time even if you don’t have a hard-on.
Now you say it, though, I can see what you mean about feeling sorry for him. From his point of view, he’s in a terrible bind, because he doesn’t seem to have the skills to talk to his wife, or she to talk to him. I’m interested to see how this relationship develops.
Regarding what you’d love to tell Richard about his sexual problems, none of that would work precisely because it’s true, he doesn’t know how to interact with his wife, almost uses his physical problems as an excuse for forgetting sexual contact altogether. it seems almost a relief that he can’t get a hard-on in his marital bed. it’s physical–not my fault the marriage is failing! furthermore, he doesn’t seem to believe that there’s any such thing as improving a depressing situation. that makes me sad, not contemptuous.
Throughout the book–as with here, in her description of Willi, who is composed of a set of opposite traits–Lessing’s descriptions of character psychology are really astounding. It’s the aspect of the book that still seems most shocking and fresh actually, the subtlety of her observations about personality. Also her various observations about her own way of grappling with the question.
But this has been the most perplexing thing about growing up! That no sooner have I adjectivized someone or something than I realize the opposite is true, too. Lessing keeps throwing me back on what language cannot do, which seems to me more now than when I first read her nearly 30 years ago.
If we know nothing about anyone, how then do we convince ourselves to write anything?
Person vs. personality.
Character vs. characteristics.
Knowing vs. understanding.
It seems Anna feels most comfortable and honest when she can PAINT with her words. Listing Willi’s opposing attributes troubles her writer’s mind, but using words to conjure up an image of him relaxes her. Maybe this is why so many good, long novels are turned into quicker films?
“A picture is worth a thousand…”
Willi is STIFF but his ROUND spectacles glitter. He is formal and gruff but there is clumsiness and humor there too. Portraits make room for the ironic details. But lists make complexities read like blunt contradictions.
Kirsten discusses Lessing’s imagistic writing in the Forum (see p. 188).
Not betraying June to the men — another point where Lessing plays with all the loyalties that drench this tale. This one is in no sense a reciprocal loyalty, more a largely unspoken understanding. And of course, Lessing complicates it for us by asking whether its base is female loyalty or rather female unease about the failings of men.
Lessing’s assessment of female friendship is starting to feel a little arbitrary. Does she think women are loyal to each other or not? It seems supercynical, and also confusing, to discount all of the important moments in female friendship as having to do with men, even as Lessing often confirms a singular bond between women. It’s also insulting, especially to gay women. This may be an anachronistic criticism, but I still feel the need to say it since all these statements are presented as very definitive.
Maybe this will be revised/expanded later in the novel; we’ve still only seen Molly and Anna interact once, which is too early to judge what seems to be a central female friendship. So far, I find myself rolling my eyes sometimes at this assessment, although I do see the truth in it.
I think that wrestling with this problem is really a central motif here, Nona. Anna and Molly have a really strong bond and can do the sideways-glance thing about men, but there’s a vulnerability in their relationship too (not that there isn’t when they’re in relationships with men, of course!). The difference I’m seeing is that the female protagonists in the novel calculate their relationships with men, expend (too much) energy wondering what behaviours do and don’t work in their sexual relationships, and seem to know that all such relationships will end. Conversely Molly and Anna can be disappointed in one another, can understand weaknesses and irritations in one another, but it never seems to them that theirs is a finite relationship, while impermanence seems to define their sexual bonds with men.
‘Yes, Anna, but things are different for men and for women. They always have been and they very likely always will be.’
and then this:
“the truth was that we shocked each other in our deepest feelings and instincts all the time”
This feels so true to me. I have often had quite painful conversations with male friends in which it becomes clear that they have a vastly different view of the differences between men and women to me. The way it’s expressed now is different. There’s a fashion these days for talking about “the evolution of the brain” to justify the status quo. Male friends of mine have come out with stuff like: “men are better at maths because their brains have evolved to deal with the complex geographical problems involved in hunting” ignoring the evidence that women are encouraged in our culture to think that “maths is for men”.
It always feels terribly shocking to me when a friend suddenly tells me, essentially, that they believe that I’m biologically suited to certain roles and not others. I really understand that “trapped feeling women get at such moments”, although expectations on Anna are different.
I had a guy friend who once earnestly insisted that romantic relationships between women would never be “balanced” because there was “too much yin” in the dynamic! I was so stunned when he argued this, especially because I had always admired him for being rather sweet and cuddly and nurturing–all those supposed feminine traits. His embodiment of an alternative to traditional masculinity was one of the reasons I sought to befriend him. I was, frankly, more into his yin.
Willi and his lot are described as ’sissy, wet and soft” on UK page 103. Does he know he is perceived this way? Is this why he invests in upholding the gender binary? (I abhor the word “sissy,” by the way) The whole “Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars” thing truly blows my mind. What about the Venus Boys and the Mars Girls, or Venus and Serena Williams for that matter? I really appreciate the term “gender roles.” Gender does feel like a performance sometimes, doesn’t it?
What would Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama say to a fellow like Willi? Would he have even been able to imagine them? Can Anna imagine them?
Willi’s telling Anna that ‘things are different for men and for women’ reads to me as a sort of peace settlement…you know, you stay in your ‘agreed’ locus of experience and I’ll stay in mine and thus we’ll shock each other in our deepest feelings and instincts less. Old boy’s actually holding out an olive branch! Ahhh olive branch sexism. Part of the trapped feeling could also be because rejecting the constructed differences makes you the troublemaker and the sex-warmonger and it’s wearying for that always to be the case.
“Because I was permanently confused, dissatisfied, unhappy, tormented by inadequacy, driven by wanting towards every kind of impossible future…”
So many of Anna’s self-descriptions resonate with the deep structure of feminine experience, which is Lessing’s genius: she has such a talent for describing women as they secretly experience themselves. I think there’s actually less willingness to be quite this honest at the moment. To confess to so much felt inadequacy would seen as betraying female progress, though I don’t believe that social progress has particularly mitigated these torments, paradoxically.
Or maybe confusion, dissatisfaction and inadequacy are simply the badges of youth? Or maybe bridled insecurity is a consequence of being Western, urban, middle-class, intellectual, and progressive? I offer this because I see both women and men (secretly) doubting and loathing themselves. I think whatever self-possession Anna assumes Paul owns, or whatever power Paul projects, is a performance. I think men are well-rehearsed in projecting power. The patriarchal paradigm–even in this Communist circle of comrades–demands an unyielding male potency. But I doubt Paul feels adequate when he is all alone, without a woman to smile down on, in the dark.
Hah, yes. This reminds me of a friend of mine. I’m often complaining to him about the Orthodox Jewish world. “Orthodox Jewish men are so x”, I say, “Orthodox Jewish women are so y.” “The problem with growing up Orthodox Jewish is….” I was fascinated/horrified/delighted when he said once “but almost everything that you say about Orthodox Jews could also apply to ‘people from Norfolk’(where he’s from). You’re not talking about ‘Orthodox Jews’, you’re talking about ‘people’.”
“She was thinking that soon he would marry her. Or perhaps not soon. It would be at the right time, and he would know when that was.”
In the margin of my copy I wrote “this reads like Jane Austen”, and then I was excited to find that Lessing introduces the shadow of Jane Austen a few pages on (page 194, UK edition) where Ella, trying to write “makes bitter jokes about Jane Austen hiding her novels under the blotting paper when people come into the room”.
Women and writing, women and marriage. Ella wants Paul to marry her even though her first marriage was unhappy, even though Paul’s marriage is unhappy, even though nothing in this novel seems to indicate that any marriage will ever be happy. Ella wants marriage. She wants it as if, like the women in Pride and Prejudice, there is no other place for a woman to put herself.
But Ella is a fiction created by a fiction (Anna). And the shade of Austen is an interesting one to introduce: Austen never married. Austen wrote. She wrote about marriage, inventing a romance leading to marriage between people who had intellectual and emotional companionship in a time when that wasn’t considered any sort of prerequisite for the union. But she herself turned down the potential for such a union.
Is part of Ella’s function to help Anna understand her own desire for marriage? In the first section of Free Women, Anna herself is much more ambivalent about it. She worries that she and Molly are descending into “twin old-maidhood” (page 62 UK edition) but the authorial voice of Lessing notes that Molly’s self-respect comes from not having “given up and crawled into… a safe marriage” (page 36, UK edition).
Can a woman write about marriage and be married? Why do women want to be married? What is the point of marriage? I believe there’s good evidence that marriage still makes men (on average) happier and women (on average) more unhappy, so these are still very live questions. Like Elizabeth Bennet, Ella wants marriage. Like Austen, Anna is unmarried. Could Austen have written, hiding her notes under the blotter, if she’d been married?
“They went up the stairs, and Ella was thinking: I suppose we’ll have some coffee and then he’ll go. She was quite genuine in this. And yet, when he again made love to her, she again thought: Yes, it’s right, because we’ve been so close together all evening.”
In love making, Paul is in action and Ella, comfortably, allows herself to be acted upon. This encounter reads a bit like an out of body experience. It reminded me of the lyrics of Ani Difranco’s song SWIM:
i was floating above myself
watching her do just what you wanted
poor little friendly ghost
wondering why her whole house feels haunted
Ella is a bit of an electrical outlet. She waits, she receives, she reacts. Meanwhile, they are doomed and she is in complete denial.
It occurs to me that the Stendahl quote on page 194 (UK edition) is relevant here too. “Any woman under fifty who writes, should do so under a pseudonym.” Of course the thing that women typically change their names to do is get married. Lessing seems to me here to be needling at the question: can a woman both write and be married? I believe she herself was divorced before she published her first novel.
This section is brutal, but in such a calm, logical, unarguable way. It is, in fact, efficient and practical, the virtues that Michael turns into a complaint when Anna won’t have sex with him (again!) before he leaves for work.
This is devastating: “it is precisely my efficiency and practicality that gains him an extra two hours in bed.”
I begin to understand, in this section, why Anna is so keen for Michael to marry her. Perhaps she longs for that declaration of love, but also… she is behaving exactly as “a good wife” anyway, but without any of the security of that legal contract. Making him breakfast! Kissing him awake. Making sure Janet doesn’t disturb him. She is his servant, for no apparent reason other than that she is a woman and he is a man.
I love this section because it makes me so angry. It reminds me, actually, of Look Back In Anger. Such an allegedly revolutionary play, supposedly so critical of all ‘established’ rules, and yet the women are still the ones doing the ironing and the cooking and the mending and the cleaning, while the men discuss philosophy.
It reminds me also of Thoreau, supposedly in such poetic exclusion at Walden, but in fact taking his dirty laundry back home to be washed by his mother and sisters. In Thoreau’s mind (and I suppose the idea was general at the time) women were provided by nature to do chores, just as rain was provided by nature to water the crops. How long these ideas take to be stamped into the dust.
“The two personalities — Janet’s mother, Michael’s mistress, are happier separated. It is a strain having to be both at once…I make myself shut out all thoughts of Janet until the proper time…I control my response to him…”
Self-compartmentalization. Self-control. It’s all so devastating! Why is Anna keen on playing the role of the happy housewife heroine when the performance makes her feel so insecure, resentful and “perversely” disappointed? It can’t be because she wants to keep Michael. He–cruelly and clearly–tells her that her efficiency turns him off. But Anna cannot imagine how to demonstrate her love for this man without playing the doting, dutiful, sexually detached stereotypical housewife. And yet this very role–this tired, overplayed, comfortable-old-shoe of a stock character–is who Michael cannot imagine staying romantically involved with.
What does a woman’s love–a mother’s love, a lover’s love, a daughter’s love, a sister’s love–look like? Anna seems to express her woman’s love through feigned serenity and service. She hides herself, splits herself, limits herself, loathes herself. Depressing!
I read Lenelle’s comment after I posted on UK 307, and I realize there’s a fine line between destructive and constructive compartmentalization. Sanitizing yourself before a professional meeting is one sort of control; separating your children from your lover for the sake of self-control is quite another. Yes, this is devastating…the self-limitation becomes to seem truly hopeless when you are shutting off one of your loves from another. It makes me feel like Anna doesn’t know what love is at all, that she is unable to place the burden of emotion on anyone. The flood that she feels is pushed inward, even with her daughter.
Here, it becomes crystal clear that she is attracted to Michael because of his emotional *over*indulgence–that is, nurturing her masochism by telling it to her straight. Ouch. Cmon girl–you must know this is not what he wants you to be!
This sentence could have been written yesterday:
“When I talk about this with other women, they tell me they have to fight all kinds of guilt they recognize as irrational, usually to do with working, or wanting time for themselves.”
It is still so hideously true. Women with children who stay at home feel guilty for not using their education and working. Women with children who work feel guilty for not spending time with their children. Women without children feel guilty for the “selfishness” that this is supposed to represent.
Some elements of women’s lives as described in TGN have changed, I think. (Notably the invention of ready-meals, affordable take-out, good quality tampons and deodorant, from the sound of this chapter.) But this guilt hasn’t changed at all.
Like Naomi, I’d scribbled here about the enormous burden of women’s guilt, and then (guiltily!) focused on the fact that it’s not that much easier in the 2000s than it was in the 1960s in some way for women who want to juggle apparently incompatible elements of lifestyle. it’s no surprise (at least to me) that the guilt paragraph follows so closely after a section where we see Janet close up, and experience her childhood. Lessing doesn’t say this, at least not right here, but one of the overwhelming areas of guilt, as Naomi points out, is precisely about how to effect motherhood and adulthood, motherhood and career, and so on.
Also, reading this section, about the vast demands on Anna over the course of this ‘normal day’, I have written in the margin of my copy “god, when did any woman have time to write?”
I can see what Lessing means when she says she didn’t set out to write a feminist book. What she did was to mercilessly document the demands placed on women; simply telling the truth is a feminist act.
“15th September, 1954
A normal day.”
Is it relevant that this seems to be the wrong date? Or have I misread something? On UK 296 she writes an entry for 15 September 1954 saying that she’ll record the next day (ie the 16th) precisely as it happens. And then on the 17th she writes an entry saying “I could not write last night because I was too unhappy”. Meaning that the 16th is the day covered by this long, detailed entry. But then this new version, after the crossings out, says it’s the 15th. Typo, misreading on my part, or something with meaning?
What an attentive reader you are!
Hah, thank you. But what does it *mean*?!
I’m still chewing on what the message of blind Tommy fully is, if that makes sense. But in the meanwhile I was struck by the way in which he becomes, with blindness, this rather sinister force who humours “difficult” women — distinct from his father who gets red in the face, or Michael who’s callous, or pretty much most of the other male characters in the book. And of course different from the seeing Tommy with his moods and his rages and his sullenness. I’d love to know how others are reading post-suicide Tommy; I’m really puzzled by him still.
Oh yes, Philippa, me too. I’m having such a hard time with Tommy. He started out seeming one of the more sympathetic characters, trying to balance his mother’s and father’s ideologies and wishes for him. I don’t understand, though, what his ‘crack-up’ was about, why he tried to kill himself, what the blindness is supposed to indicate, why he’s suddenly developed these creepy superhuman abilities of empathy and almost mind-reading.
A thought about how he fits into the structure of the book. Like Ivor and Ronnie, might he be an example of the ‘unmanning’ of men? A thing which Anna seems to find more disturbing and even horrific than the ‘manly’ men she’s been disliking throughout the book.
Is he a mental experiment on the part of Lessing? (And therefore perhaps ahead of her time, but also not quite being able to see the future?) Is she trying to imagine what the world would be like if men didn’t have quite their usual male power, and male roles? Ivor is great with Janet; but Anna hates him for it. Tommy is incredibly empathetic (the traditional female role) but Anna finds it creepy.
Even when giving up on old negative roles, roles which have harmed us and trapped us, even then there’s a moment of horror at the unfamiliarity of the new world. Is this what Tommy represents?
I’m reminded of a cartoon from around 1903, showing the House of Commons full of *women*. One looks at this now and thinks “great!”, but at the time the image was so disturbing that it was, without caption or comment, a piece of *anti* Suffragette propaganda. Perhaps this is what Tommy and Ivor and Ronnie are doing in this book. Acknowledging that to a reader in 1962, the idea of a woman going out to work while her gay lodger looked after her child, or of a man being more emotionally ’sensitive’ than a woman would both look very disturbing?
Having said all that, it occurs to me also that Tommy is behaving with Marion exactly as Richard did. Telling her what to think, deciding on the proper place for her. So perhaps he’s really just ‘business as usual’ in the roles of men and women.
In other words, I think I’m still as confused as you about him!
Tommy is a fascinating figure. He’s a conscience figure, first poking at the lies and delusions that Anna, Molly, and Richard live for. But now that he’s lost his sight, his presence alone is speaking, the wound speaks, Sphinx like. I wonder if what Lessing is describing through Tommy’s “fate” is what happens when one makes a crusade of one’s wounds. Isn’t the CP also a stigmata; it’s treated as such in these pages. Tommy now is his blindness, as Anna is her vulnerability. Art is pain, Lessing tells us. And isn’t pain a kind of auto erotica?
Public women are so different now, so much less identified with their disabilities, and so warrior like. I heard a bit of gossip the other day. Apparently when Judith Regan, the famous former book publisher, would call her boss Jane Friedman, Jane’s secretary would always ask, “Who is calling,” an unforgivably stupid kind of preening. And then to one-up the secretary and Jane, Judith would say, “It’s the King.” Then they both went about destroying each other, something strong women are able to do with increasing competence. But this is the most unusual thing about Lessing’s characters: they become their sorrows.
“what can we say of this novel which chronicles the story of a love affair between a young Oxford educated Britisher and a black girl? She is the only representative of the people in this book, and yet her character remains shadowy, undeveloped, unsatisfying.”
I sat and read these sentences several times, half-laughing and half-exasperated. What can I say now?! This is precisely the element which disturbed me about the book 200 pages ago (UKp129), and here is Lessing critiquing it herself.
But it’s not a face-on critique, not a “yes I realise that this is missing from the book but frankly my experience wasn’t up to the job”. It’s sidelong, the criticism of a Communist newspaper. The kind of newspaper which would like all novels to promote a particular social and political agenda.
I feel Lessing is rebuking me! As a novelist I am impressed and inspired by her audacity. “Go on,” she’s saying, “criticise this novel if you like, but understand that I’m not here to promote an ideology. If you want ideology, go and read the Soviet Journal for Literature for Colonial Freedom.”
As a reader - wow, this is a spiky novel. It is negative and often despairing, but apparently the author has no time for people who want “the literature of health and progress,” who think that “no one is benefited by despair,” or that the fact that “this is a negative novel” is a relevant thing to say about a work of fiction.
I love her courage, even while I’m not sure I agree with her.
Yes, I appreciated Lessing’s self-reflexivity here. She is sort of sticking her tongue out at us! But, like Naomi, I’m not sure I agree with her…I sense my hesitation has something to do with being a playwright. My audiences don’t just react in reviews, they react in the live moment…One of my first plays was Cornered in the Dark, a ritual piece for four actresses about the psychological aftermath of sexual assault. There was no way to write this play without evoking despair (and rage and grief). But I also felt called to plant moments of respite, tenderness and hope into the text. Some of my audience members were survivors, after all. I felt especially responsible for them. I didn’t want anyone to walk out of the theatre feeling re-traumatized and helpless.
I don’t even know what the “literature of health and progress” is but somehow, on the page, in this context, it doesn’t sound so appealing! I do know that I want my audience members to walk a little taller after a performance. I want them to feel opened up, affirmed, awakened, inspired and maybe even empowered. I want to challenge and push them, for sure, but (I just saw Mary Poppins two nights ago and can’t stop thinking of) “A spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down…”
One of the running questions/themes of TGN seems to be “Who does a woman writer write for–herself, her colleagues, her critics, the working masses? And then: Is writing a form of service? Is service a form of love? What’s love got to do with it?!
Ha, yeah, I’m attuned to that theme, Lenelle. Most of Anna’s writing seems self conscious and meta-reflective–that is, written for an audience, but contemptuous of that audience. The writing is deeply personal, but removed and hateful. We’re meant to forget that we’re reading a personal notebook in the first place.
So yes, Lessing is snubbing the idea of an ideology, but also rejecting extremely emotionally indulgent writing. I see the sense in negative writing, but only if it’s self aware. This is a moment where Lessing achieves that…but as Naomi says, it’s “spiky.”
Lessing doesn’t offer any context for this idea of Anna’s that it’s “generous and strong” to make no demands on a man. Reading it in 2008, it sounds very “sixties”–the no-strings ideology of the Sexual Revolution soon to come, though I suppose that in any bohemian subculture–Bloomsbury, NY intellectuals of the 30s and 40s–you’d find similar ideas. It was second wave feminism that made all that seem a little self-abnegating for women, mounted the critique of 60s-style sexual freedom as mostly organized for men’s benefit… (Of course now we see the rebellion against the feminist critique in hook-up culture, Girls Gone Wild and so on.)
Still, why would Anna call this “strength?” I suppose it goes back to the hatred of wives and marriage and the ideal of being a “free woman”–but there’s nothing particularly “free” about her relations with Saul(!) or any of these men. It makes me feel conservative to say it, but the book is more of an indictment of sexual freedom than an advertisement for it, at least if sexual freedom means no-strings sex, or if that telling your lover you don’t want him seeing other women is bourgeois. It’s equally an indictment of intellectuals: Anna endlessly analyzes her feelings, but is impotent when it comes to knowing what to do about them.
TGN has, so far, been an indictment of everything: sex, love, relationships, writing, psychotherapy, home decorating, thinking and acting, the will and passivity. Has Lessing left anything out of things to be scrutinized and found wanting? The book’s theme may be that we are overwrought in ascribing meaning, in making categories. in intellectualizing and in not intellectualizing. It may be offering a pean to nihilism, Lessing’s version of Fathers and Sons.
Anna’s relationship with Saul is a perfect example of what I mentioned in my last blog entry–a woman who is supposedly feminist but exposing and admitting weaknesses and masochism. “Feminist” of course wouldn’t be the right word, since it wasn’t as readily used at the time, but a woman comfortable with casual sex. This book isn’t much different than more recent pieces of pop culture, conservative or not, that paint women as masochistic and vulnerable at their core. I don’t think you sound conservative, Laura…this portrayal of emotional rollercoasters posing as heady passion doesn’t make me want to be sexually free…it’s not quite conscious of itself, as cerebral as Anna is.
Is the terror of Saul mitigated by the healthiness and honesty of Milt? And, Laura, is Milt, too, a version of Clancy Sigal?
Sorry, no clue.
Maybe brutalman could help us here?
I love (and underlined) Molly’s phrase at the bottom of this page, “different as chalk and cheese.” The alliteration is a thrill. Imagine eating chalk! Imagine writing with cheese! I’m struck again by Molly’s insistence that she and Anna are nothing alike. She even laughs at Anna’s reassertion that, perhaps, the two friends are “not so different.” Why does Molly want to feel so singular? What does Anna know about the two of them that Molly isn’t yet hip to?
I can see why Molly doesn’t want to be the same as Anna - the part about Marion talking to Anna and occasionally calling her Molly by mistake is disquieting, as if the people Molly and Anna are ‘close’ to have no idea who either of them are, they only know that the two fulfil similar functions in the lives of their friends, a person to consult and make confessions to. Thinking this way, Molly could disappear and no one would miss her because they’d consider Anna sufficient! And vice versa.
I’m interested in these women’s intense awareness of the ‘effect’ their looks produce. I wonder if it’s common to think about one’s own looks in this way. One of the things I love about starting to read a new novel is the number of shocks one gets; the way that the writer’s view of the world, the pair of eyes they look at things with is so different from my own. This is one of those moments for me; I always have to remind myself to include clothing details in my writing, because I rarely think about my own clothes (it probably shows).
trest. do you think the details of Molly and Anna’s appearance might be set up as factors that they’re fighting against? the thing about describing people’s clothes and facial features &c is that you end up with an image of them sitting/standing completely still, in fact holding still so that they can be inspected like a kitchen counter or some other piece of homeware that’s on sale. And maybe in contrast Anna’s problem, and her eventual separation of her life into notebooks seems to be about being dynamic, in motion, and an ability to inhabit lots of different selves…
‘No, it’s not easy for women. But at least we’ve got more sense than to use words like physical and emotional as if they didn’t connect.’
I have some mixed feelings about this section, and about the lampooning of Richard generally. Anna and Molly take on this air of condescension toward him, a posture of moral superiority, that’s also a form of normativity–sex SHOULD look like this, SHOULD proceed along these lines that we specify… The tendency toward sexual censoriousness didn’t really prove to be the most enlightened tendency in the feminist movement to come, and you see some of that prefigured here perhaps.
Laura’s point is sort of what I was getting at when I commented on Richard’s failed shining moment on the previous page. But I think it goes beyond moral superiority…I think there still existed a sort of unconscious expectation of men to be rational and responsible, to be the Prince Charmings and the “rock” in a woman’s life–which is certainly pre-feminist although it’s never gone away. Anna’s answer to Richard’s pleading: “You should have loved her.” What kind of a message does that send? Poor little Marion, she didn’t get loved…? Undoubtedly she let their marriage fall apart, too. It’s not all the fault of the adulterous, insensitive man.
Ah, the injuries of intimacy! And that it’s your closest friends who stick the knives in the deepest! Lessing is such a master at detailing these emotional shifts and nuances between characters, the way old wounds suddenly surface, a rift opens…
Yes, wow, this is so true:
“Once I wouldn’t have noticed: now every conversation, every encounter with a person seems like crossing a mined field; and why can’t I accept that one’s closest friends at moments stick a knife in, deep, between the ribs?”
I think in women’s friendships in particular there’s a territory to negotiate of: we’re alike, we’re unalike. It’s the territory Lessing is marking out so well. Someone… maybe it was Deborah Tannen?… talks about this. In women’s conversations there’s a constant reinforcement of “we’re alike, we’re totally alike, we’re the same you and I” and yet that can become very difficult to maintain, threatening to one’s sense of identity. Then, perhaps, comes the knife in the ribs, the desire to push the other away as hard as possible. But push them away too hard and the intimacy of the friendship is lost.
Lessing returns here to the theme of form vs. formlessness that she talked about in the preface; and the relations between psychoanalysis, art, unconsciousness and creativity. I find this just so interesting, and close to my own experience of writing–when Anna says that she can’t reread her last book without feeling ashamed, as if she were in the street naked, I suspect that this is Lessing’s own ethos of writing, meaning that a book that fails to evoke shame in its author would be an inauthentic or superficial exercise.
Yes, Laura. We’re all Saturn devouring our children. I would take back all my books if I could, just wipe them from existence. I admit there are times in rereading The Golden Notebook that I wish Lessing could take this novel back too. I wish she could revise it now. I’d like to see authors rewrite their canonical texts. Would they reduce them to a phrase?
“But at the word homosexual, written — well, I have to combat dislike and disquiet. Extraordinary. I qualify the word by saying that already, only eighteen months later, they were making jokes about ‘our homosexual phase’, and jibing at themselves for doing something simply because it had been fashionable.”
Ah, those fashionable homosexuals! You know, I’ve only ever met them in fiction…These myths about homosexuality–that it is a childish phase, or a solely political choice, or one of many activities that one could indulge in to successfully create “a mood of irresponsibility”–are what I find disquieting. The notion that queer(ed) sexuality is a manifestation of anarchy (as opposed to something natural, or in the range of human possibility) sadly, ignobly persists. Why else would folks feel so determined to preserve the so-called sanctity marriage?
Yes, Lenelle, I so agree. It links also to Nona’s comment on page 89:
“It seems supercynical, and also confusing, to discount all of the important moments in female friendship as having to do with men, even as Lessing often confirms a singular bond between women. It’s also insulting, especially to gay women.”
The lack of acknowledgement of homosexual love (at least so far in the novel, I don’t know if Lessing turns all this on its head later) and Anna’s ‘disquiet’ about homosexuality are quite shocking in a novel which, in other ways, seems to address very modern concerns. I cannot conceive that a woman like Anna, today - that is, a woman with her political leanings, her friends, her intellect and her thoughtfulness - would feel this way.
And her disquiet of course is all about male homosexuality. As Nona points out, thus far she doesn’t even seem to acknowledge that sexual desire between two women can exist.
I guess the world (or at least certain segments of it) has moved on a lot in the past 50 years, which is why Anna’s attitude here is so shocking. It’s also somewhat depressing that her thoughts about the position of women haven’t yet shocked me at all, really. Evidently not so much progress has been made on that front.
“Men are far more unconscious than women about using their sex in this way; far less honest”
I love how Lessing makes these bold, contentious statements. I have no idea if I agree with her or not, but now I can’t help pondering it.
Yes, I picked out another bold statement like this from p 85 (UK edition)–
“But very few people are genuinely opportunists. It takes not only clarity of mind about oneself, which is fairly common; but a stubborn and driving energy, which is rare.”
Is this true, or just said with great assurance? It IS one of the very interesting aspects of her writing, this grandiosity and self-assurance about human psychology, sexuality, gendered tendencies…
‘Do you imagine, Ted, that if you are kind to servants you are going to advance the cause of socialism?’
Ouch. Lessing absolutely skewers the inconsistencies of this group of intellectuals. There’s this, on the subject of class, then on the next page there’s the discussion of how their principles lead them to condemn black nationalism as “right-wing deviation” and then just a few paragraphs further on, a scene in which Maryrose
“spoke with confidence; but… the men did not reply… she grew uneasy and appealed ‘I’m not saying it right, but you see what I mean…’ Because she had appealed, the men were restored, and Willi said benevolently: ‘Of course you say it right. Anyone as beautiful as you can’t say it wrong.’”
They seem, to me, strangely similar to Richard, earlier on. They want things to happen their way. They want change, but they want to be able to control that change, for it to fit in with their worldview.
Personally, and this is in no way a criticism, I don’t especially like any of the characters in this novel so far. I do like that in the novel, though. I think people get far too hung up on having fictional characters be “likeable”. Better they should be interesting; and these people are very interesting indeed.
I’m with Naomi: this is not a likeable bunch of characters and surely Lessing deliberately sets the book up that way. I like the way this subverts easy identification with any character: their comments, behaviours, activities are not all that predictable, making it hard for readers to do that “oh my, I see myself in this person” thing. (Yes, I’m often guilty…)
The inconsistency (even Willi!) of the characters makes them, for me at least, more real, even if not necessarily people I want to meet (yeah, yeah, I know they’re fictional, but I hope you know what I mean by that). As a historian, I often find myself loathing, liking, admiring etc. the people I’m researching — in that arena, I often get to read their letters, sometimes their diaries, and often other people’s reactions to them — not that different, of course, from how Lessing “archives” her characters’ lives and personalities. What price the distinction, then, between grimly realist fiction (even given its psychoanalytic element) such as this and the work of the historian, I wonder?
I wandered off Naomi’s point there, but I do think the question she implicitly asked about what we demand of our fiction (characters we like, characters with whom we can identify) has a great deal of resonance, and maybe well beyond fiction too.
Back to that thorny question of loyalties here, although in a rather different register. I always find Lessing really interesting on political loyalty and the emotional and indeed physical toll that the Communist Party took on its members. I like the way this dimension complicates how she’s presenting her readers with the questions of loyalty which surface over and over as the novel starts to unfold.
The second part of this page shows me a bit of an ambivalence toward the ideals of socialism; albeit perhaps unintentional. On one hand, socialists are presented as having endless passion, on a mission to explain life as a “glorious adventure.” Yet there is a kind of stifling earnestness within this compulsion to help people, shown by the advice: “When one is personally unhappy the correct course is to take a historical view of the matter.” The woman with marital problems, clearly less educated, couldn’t find solace in this rational advice, although picking up on the raw energy of Willi’s desire to help her. This mental block suggests a kind of intellectual-class divide.
As I write this, I now realize that the passage is less about socialist ideals and more about frustration with how to reconcile intellect with the “common touch.” With the election still swimming through my head, it actually kind of reminds me of Obama’s dilemma–how to touch people without “going over their heads.”
(keywords: socialism, intellectuals)
“About five years before he was in Mashopi for the night and had been very much taken with the wife of the Boothbys’ cook.”
I love that we begin to see here the real-life events which have formed Anna’s novel. The dance between the real and the imagined, the putting together of things that were separate, the separating of things that actually happened close together. This is, I think, just how novels are written. But I’m fascinated to see how all this plays out. I feel that Lessing is explaining to me, as I read the book, what she meant by the “philosophical novel” she talks about on page 63.
When I learned the fate of the Boothby’s cook’s family, I was retrospectively appalled that Anna had recast Marie (the cook’s wife) as a “dirty black girl”/a victim of forbidden love/a brazen but humiliated prostitute in FRONTIERS OF WAR (see UK p. 73). Given Anna’s jealousy, this seems to be a simplistic and vindictive portrait of George’s African lover.
Granted, Anna’s purported jealousy in itself is simplistic and delusional. If she were offered the reality-check-inducing Red Pill, I seriously doubt she would enjoy swapping lives with the cook’s wife or any one of the black women George became taken with before or afterward.
“I can’t remember, it’s all gone. And I get exasperated, trying to remember — it’s like wrestling with an obstinate other-self who insists on its own kind of privacy.”
All I have to say about this is that it’s beautiful. I have never thought about memory like this before, but she’s so right. The things we remember are decided for us by our past selves; all we can do now is look back angrily and wonder why they don’t turn the camera to record the stuff *we* want to see.
“And when we got back to town we knew that, as Paul remarked, our holiday had not done us much good.”
At this point in the Black Notebook, I realized that much of it is about how these hard-working socialists play, exhaustively, in Africa. And that Anna’s nostalgia is about the recreation and romance not the physical/intellectual/emotional hard work.
All these Pauls and Georges. Anna is combining and recombining them in her fictions like a Kabbalist reordering the letters of the Torah, searching for Truth. It seems to me that Lessing is inviting the question that most novelists dread: “how autobiographical is your novel?” Anna’s fictional work is made up of clearly discernible parts of her real life. I feel that Lessing is pointing to herself standing behind all these fictions. ‘Here I am’, she is saying ’some of this is me. But you’ll never know which bits.’
It reminds me of the way that Paul Auster includes characters called “Paul Auster” in his work. Or perhaps more properly, Auster’s writing is Lessing-esque?
I am reminded of Spike Lee and Woody Allen–how in their earlier films they always appeared as some fictional version of their silliest selves.
Naivete vs. sophistication.
Anna (or/and Ella) keeps circling around this binary. Ella has sophisticated and critical discussions about Paul with Julia, but her feelings for Paul are untouched by critical intelligence, and stay in the realm of the naive. If Ella WERE smart (see next page) she would have seen Paul was about to dump her, but when she’s with him she puts her intelligence to sleep, “she floated darkly on her love for him, on her naivety…”
Apparently the opposition is also between love and intelligence: do brainy women have to put their brains to sleep to love a man?? Or to love in the deep-core-being way Ella desires to?
Another theme: all the things she chooses not to know about him.
This is such a surreal moment — Paul effectively giving birth, but destroying at the same time. That opposition is itself powerful enough, but Lessing pushes it further. He gives birth to the naive Ella while destroying the sophisticated Ella, putting her intelligence to sleep — and, as Laura notes, she’s complicit in all of it. Some metaphor for the relations between men and women! A really dark moment in the novel.
“‘Well I remember when you used to be so active, rushing around doing things. You don’t now.’
‘Any activity being better than none?’”
This reminded me of UK p. 177 when Julia says to Anna, “But I don’t think any man is better than none.” Ella is to Paul as Anna is to Communism?
I also forgot to comment on this section when I read it, but something further along the line compelled me to come back when I was contemplating the fundamental way Lessing sees women:
“That’s how women see things. Everything in a sort of continuous creative stream–well, isn’t it natural we should?”
To me this is Anna’s yearning to believe that people really do change, that *she* herself will get out of this…slump? depression? standstill is the word. She scoffs when her therapist encourages her art; she says that she will never write another novel and doesn’t want to. But here she is channeling hidden optimism, convincing herself that this is only an ebb. Perhaps this is a moment that Anna is internalizing the blinky-eyed, nostalgic way women are “expected” to be without even realizing it, considering her conscious intention to be cynical and surprised by nothing. Or maybe this is really Anna expressing that women are more inward than men, that they build on memory rather than charge head-on.
Either way, this reveals to me another level of frustration that Anna endures about feeling stuck, about wanting to move forward. These feelings, as she explains in this passage, are all tied up in motherhood and how she sees her daughter, how her child is able to move effortlessly through the “phases.”
“It seems to me something like this — every so often, perhaps once in a century, there’s a sort of — act of faith. A well of faith fills up, and there’s an enormous heave forward in one country or another, and that’s a forward movement for the whole world.”
This passage gives me shivers. I thought of Obama and could imagine what Indians felt when Gandhi was finally taken seriously by the world community–especially today, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, when India needs a new figure to provide what Lessing calls “the lurch forward.” There always are such figures, and they rely upon us, the people, to believe in them. As Gandhi wrote of his opponents and disbelievers:
“First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win.”
Brilliant of Lessing to convey prophecy in the language of history. After a rough start of reading TGN, I find now something revelatory on almost every page.
Harriet I thought of Obama too! but also of Lincoln/Wilberforce and Marx’s harnessing of the idea of Geist, the spirit of a time, and connecting it to the convulsive progress of human history…and to think there’s more and yet more to come - definitely a wonderfully hair raising passage, but also an assertion that there is nothing futile in choosing a side, in engaging with an idealization of the world. Many of the passages recounting Anna’s involvement with and detachment from the Communist party seem dubious as to how far Anna’s political activities really express her will and how far her ‘political personality’ integrates with her other aspects, but this is encouraging in that it suggests that Anna’s perspective on politics is, like her perspective on lifestyles and relationships and writing, a way of choosing to choose something that isn’t available yet, something that isn’t much more than a feeling until it is suddenly reached, whether by breakdown or by some other lurch…
Theme: Wives (about-to-be)
These observations about Robert’s fiancee are so pointed. The ambivalence about wives and marriage extend even to the about-to-be married: what a lovely marriage this one promises to be. (He’s her captive.) It’s a throw-away episode, but allows for jabs like this:
“He was fond of her, and already chafing at the bonds. The great well-groomed ox was uneasy before the noose had even tightened around his neck.”
“She thought: What did it mean, my saying I loved Paul — when his going has left me like a snail that has had her shell pecked off by a bird?”
I find this rather wrenching. The underlying question seems to be: can she have love AND independence? But there’s an error in the thought process, it seems to me: the presumption that independence from a man–being yourself, as she puts it– requires not making any demands, and shutting off one’s own needs, because to have needs and make demands would make her no better than
“that frightened woman, his wife.”
Are these really the only options??
Orgasms again (sorry!). “Integrity is the orgasm.” So the orgasm is transcendent, it’s less about physicality than about “truth”, a truth only realisable through heterosexual love.
Yes, I constantly bridle at her obsession with Orgasm As Relationship Barometer. Having said that… I’ve been pondering and pondering it, and I think I have more sympathy than when I wrote “oh dear god” next to her first thoughts about orgasm 10 days or so ago. She does seem to be giving her particularly favoured orgasm an occult power which is, to me, diminishing to women because a) it precludes the ability to have a satisfying sexual experience without having to be ‘in love’, b) it privileges, as you say, heterosexual sex, c) it perpetuates the idea that there’s something shameful or demeaning about masturbation.
*However*, who am I to tell Anna/Ella that she ought to be able to have an orgasm/fulfilling sex with a man she’s not in love with? Putting some of her problematic (to modern ears) language aside (which I realise is a problematic thing to do), she seems to me to be saying: I need to feel a certain way about a man in order to experience sex that is satisfying to me. I need him not to demand that I have a particular kind of orgasm. As an account of a personal experience of sexuality it’s starting to seem much more reasonable to me.
I have to think that Lessing was doing something pretty radical in 1962, with this surprisingly lengthy disquisition on menstrual blood and “lavatory smells”. I’m guessing that such material would not have been common then.
I thought on reading this how interesting it was that she’s situating her disquisition on menstrual blood in relation to Joyce on defecation–as if she’s announcing the scale of her literary ambitions: to imprint herself on menstruation, or more broadly, the entirety of female experience. Which is every ambitious writer’s secret ambition, I suppose, to imprint yourself on a subject–as Lessing indeed did. And not by accident; you can read a level of calculation in the formal experimentations of the book (and the meta-commentary on the experimentations), which makes the Joyce reference here all the more interesting.
“Richard said hotly: ‘She doesn’t care for me. She has no time for me. I might just as well not be there at all.’ Wounded vanity rang in his voice. And Anna was amazed. For he was genuinely wounded. Marion’s escape from her position as prisoner, or fellow-victim, had left him alone and hurt.”
In his brilliant PBS documentary series AFRICAN-AMERICAN LIVES 2, Henry Louis Gates, Jr notes that, post-Emancipation, former slave captors in the U.S. wrote miserably delusional letters expressing sorrow and shock that freed men and women actually *wanted* to leave the plantation. “All my people have abandoned me,” the ex-masters would whine, as if power had not thoroughly corrupted these relationships.
Lessing’s phrase “fellow-victim” is crucial here. Because men certainly benefit from patriarchy but they (as individuals, as husbands, etc) suffer under the weight of the institution too. Allan G. Johnson writes about this in his now classic sociology text The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy.
Here’s a link to the documentary: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/aalives/
Here’s a link to the book:
“‘We don’t need a dog after all,’ remarked Paul.”
Anna describes Jimmy as “truly homosexual” on UK p. 90 and here, like Ivor, he is likened to a dog. Anna’s contempt for Ronnie and Ivor echoes Paul’s contempt for Jimmy.
Yes, a thought occurred to me as I was reading this section. It’s all about mastery: Paul trying to mate ‘appropriate’ grasshoppers (and isn’t that a comment on the racial segregation laws? only like may mate with like) and then killing them, Jimmy feeding ants to the ant-eater, Paul shooting the pigeons. It is all about deliberate cruelty, about the desire to prove mastery by inflicting injury and causing death. It seemed to me that this too is a comment on the power white people have over black people. There is a telling moment about this on UKp378. In the middle of all these scenes of casual brutality:
“A group of farm labourers were passing on the track a couple of hundred yards off. We watched them, in silence. They had been talking and laughing until they saw us, but now they, too, were silent, and went past with averted faces, as if in this way they might avert any possible evil that might come from us, the white people.”
Their presence is as dangerous to these labourers as it is to the grasshoppers, the ants and the pigeons. But as Lenelle points out, that observation contains contempt too, for the people who are being subtly likened to ‘wildlife’.
“We know, from looking at America, that an entire intelligentsia can be bullied into routine anti-communist attitudes.”
I have a question for the Americans reading the book. What do you think is the attitude towards communism in the US today? It’s been interesting to me, reading this novel, to hear about the reality of anti-communist prejudice in the postwar world. I had never imagined it so vividly before. I realise also that the word “Communist” for me has connotations of “idealist” and perhaps of naivety or misguidedness. (Connotations based on nothing very substantial of course.) But through the book Anna’s repeatedly come into contact with people who seem to think that Communist means “dangerous”, “treacherous”, “threatening”.
When I was in New York in the autumn I wore a T-shirt with a slogan including the word Marxist. [This shirt, in fact: http://www.torsopants.com/not-funny-shirts/my-marxist-feminist-dialectic-brings-all-the-boys-to-the-yard ]. I was surprised that I experienced some aggression on the street from passers-by reading the slogan. I wonder what the word “Communist” means in the US today: is it still seen as being something hateful or dangerous?
Naomi, your impulses are right–there’s less of a sense of hatefulness or danger, so much as idealist or even “wimpiness.” During the elections, people were calling Obama a Socialist all the time because of his comments about spreading the wealth. Not as specific, I guess, but still the same charge. The concept, it seems to me, represents less a threat to democracy than a threat to capitalist impulses, which would explain why it’s seen as naive. And, we still live in a culture of fear, but of terrorism rather than Communism…I feel like to Americans at least Communism is a little more organized and predictable. People far to the right, though, surely did see this aspect of Obama as destructive.
“the cold vindictive anger of the sex war” — and Lessing later wondered why the book became a feminist icon? It’s by no means the sole theme of the book, obviously, but it’s hard to read past such a powerful phrase and not see the book as deeply, centrally and critically about the vexed relations of heterosexuality.
The last part of this page really got to me…the fact that being called a “bad lay” is more insulting than if Saul had said he did not like her. I guess it’s that sex is something you cannot know for sure if you are good at, whereas if you are a self-assured person, you can say “fuck you” to people who don’t like you. Anna, in this way if not many others, is confident enough that Saul would like her.
But I’m not sure…what does everyone think of this gut reaction Anna has to the diary entry?
This issue of form versus formlessness–fear of chaos and breakdown–seems like it will be a key thing in the book. What’s intriguing here is the way Lessing is trying to invent (or experiment with) a literary form that replicates the split quality of psychical structures and phenomenon, that mimics interiority; a form that’s fragmented and contradictory, but represents experience (female experience particularly, maybe she’s saying?) more adequately than the conventional novel. This kind of experiment also seems deeply related to psychoanalysis, another theme in the book.
She talks about the process of writing the book the way people talk about the experience of undergoing psychoanalysis–that it was written in a state of unconsciousness, that things emerged she didn’t recognize or know that she knew; she talks about trauma and trying to stop compartmentalizing (is that ever really possible??). Again, the way that psychoanalysis is woven into the book is really interesting: it’s also notable that at the time she was writing,in the milieu she (and her characters) inhabited, psychoanalysis could be allied to a radical political project of self-reinvention, whereas these days its reputation is mostly as a bourgeois pasttime. (And of course, Freud became such a hated figure by American feminists, though that came later.)
Jon Meacham noted in last week’s NY Times Book Review that one of the books Barack Obama lists as important to him is The Golden Notebook. I am interested in the education of leaders and one of my tasks here to imagine how Obama read this book, what he saw and learned from it. Lessing may reveal part of the link right here: the artist as hero. What kind of empire does a poet build? A sense of artistry–poetry–channeled King and Gandhi into Obama’s rhetoric. Abraham Lincoln steeped himself in Shakespeare and Mark Twain; artistry helped him change the world. Winston Churchill wrote his speeches in psalm form, following the lyric style of the king of the Jews, David. When I first read The Golden Notebook in 1974, it struck me as a book about how to live powerfully as an artist, and I went looking in the shops for a golden notebook of my own. I’m still looking for it. Can we find in this novel something about what public poetry requires, what it is to speak with a voice that calls rather than commands or demands?
Richard is immediately ridiculous, the urban man in sporting clothes, aware that the affectation is unnecessary but bullishly trying to force that fact to work in his favour. I can see him having fallen for Molly precisely because of her air of mockery (and I still feel something of a sympathy for him at present…)
I love the phrase, “the little fishpond of the upper class”!! It’s still applicable today and it’s a perfect description of the bubble of privilege which Lessing always wanted to prick.
Look at that–it’s Anna’s caustic side. Seems like a darker version of what Molly projects outwardly, and Molly is disturbed because there’s always been a sort of comfort in Anna’s reserve.
This page, and the one later with the list of Willi’s traits, strikes a chord in me. As a writer, especially one who feels that her feelings and ideas are sometimes disorganized and fractured, lists are immensely comforting. Notebooks that supposedly exist to be filled with pure analysis and priceless epiphanies always seem to be interrupted by lists, as if to say, “wait a second, let me touch base with my reality…this is easier, this makes sense.” In the case of the Willi adjectives on pg. 83 of the UK edition, it exists to remind Anna of the limitations of lists themselves, and she appears to find a kind of comfort in that.
Is this a woman thing or a writer thing, though? Is it true that women feel compelled to keep things (and by extension their being) more contained, more organized? I have a feeling Laura might have an opinion on this.
“Yet he was the most middle-class person I have known…he was for order, correctness and conservation of what existed.”
Decadent, inhuman Willi sounds a lot like Anna’s therapist, Mother Sugar, whose world view was described as “traditional, rooted, conservative, in spite its scandalous familiarity with everything amoral” on UK page 26.
‘her sweet smile that was like a yawn…’
How depressing is it that models are still known to be this way?
I found this long scene intensely painful to read: the slow, painful crescendo of white privilege, marked always and inevitably by its concomitant, white carelessness — and there’s no one here who isn’t complicit among Lessing’s white characters. Do the left-wing sensibilities of the main characters make their actions somehow worse than those of the Boothbys and others who don’t critique the system under which they live?
an interesting switch to ‘passion’ on Willi’s part. This from Jena Pincott’s ‘Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?’, page 299-301:
‘Seen from a purely genetic perspective, it’s a bad deal for a man if his time and resources go into raising another guy’s kid. That means his instinct, honed over centuries of evolution…is to respond with agitated passion to the prospect of you (the female reader) having sex with another man. As a result, he might push to make love as soon as possible after he sees you, so his sperm would compete against your lover’s. If you were to get pregnant, he would have a better shot at being the baby’s father.’
Quite apart from this the sex between Anna and Willi is contemptuous, it feels like part of the aftermath of the ugly words Mr Lattimore is hurling at his wife.
The phrase, “somewhere in the future lay her own taste,” haunted me here. It came back to me a few pages later when Ella dismisses the decor at the West’s house — too bright, too colourful, tasteless. Lessing spends a good deal of time on these small aesthetic questions. When Anna moves into her own flat, we get a good description of her decor, as we do of Julia’s house, the point where we’re also told Anna’s taste lies in the future. What function is “taste” playing here? There’s clearly a class element (bohemian vs. bourgeois and so on) but it seems also as if ‘taste’ can act as the visual mark of slavishness or independence.
“their disinfecting phrases” — an incredibly effective demolition job, this one. Lessing so quickly and vividly sums up what she sees as the sterility of bourgeois conformity, something really key in the time she’s writing. Backed up against the struggle Ella’s having with the word ‘nice’ (that oh-so-bland, oh-so-damning term!), it’s such an effective and painful moment. I felt my skin crawl as Ella moved from the hallway and the polite introductions to a living room full of faces.
“But it was only later, she would use a phrase like ‘our bodies understood each other’. At the time, she was thinking: *We* understand each other.”
I meant to comment on this earlier but forgot: this is yet another example of sexual pleasure being the barometer for a relationship. Here Ella is getting more cynical, or just perhaps more realistic…either way, her romanticism is dwindling. It made my stomach sink a little.
How to write a love story?
The Yellow Notebook has taken me by surprise. The aborted relationship between Ella and Paul, Ella’s lack of will to control her destiny, Paul’s self-knowledge of his flaws–it’s all riveting and told, as Lessing says, without sentiment or a wasted word. Lessing does something shocking here: she holds the mirror up to the reader by describing her characters’ doomed affair and then by describing what it is to write about a doomed affair. This self scrutiny led me, in my reading, to ask myself: why I am so intrigued by this story of pain and dissolution? There is no hiding from yourself while reading this book.
I thought too of that other reader who is shadowing me as I read these pages: what did Obama observe in reading this notebook: If he hadn’t already had a vision of how politics may be the only pure love–Lessing calls it “service”–this notebook would have shown him how politics is love writ large through small deeds. Hannah Arendt’s phrase applies: “amour mundi,” love of the world. We are our best in amour mundi. Good politics redefines family to mean community. Ella and Paul are at their best, I think, when they are unselfconsciously engaged in a form of service, Ella struggling to write helpful letters to sufferers who read her women’s magazine, and Paul going to Nigeria to do practical doctoring, even to sacrifice Ella and his wife to his new found cause. It’s clear he was capable of loving neither woman, but devoted to a cause, he is capable of loving.
Is political engagement the truest love one can offer?
Anna goes to sleep happy as she’s ever been with Michael, then wakes up hating him.
Is there any point in this book where anyone has an unmixed emotion or a singular experience, I wonder? Love is always accompanied by resentment, friendship by injury… The inability to be ever, even for an instant, simple or un-selfconscious, starts to feel a little oppressive and self-thwarting. I say this as someone who rarely is able to stop thinking myself, but it’s a pretty joyless mode of existence (or cognition?) as described here.
“1st Sept., 51…”
Here, I thought of Ella’s mortal fear of icy ovaries (UK p. 198). How interesting that non-penetrative reproduction is juxtaposed with violence, homelessness, consumption and other forms of devastation.
‘It was a small green crocodile with a winking sardonic snout. I thought it was the image of a crocodile, made of jade, or emeralds, then I saw it was alive, for large frozen tears rolled down its cheeks and turned into diamonds.’
I underlined this hard and scribbled alongside: I. CROCODILE TEARS ARE LUCRATIVE CURRENCY
II. LINKING ANNA’S FEAR & CONCERN FOR THE WORLD WITH A MASK FOR HER OWN ANOMIE
i read the crocodile dream as revealing something about Anna’s not allowing herself to write. she fears inauthenticity - one of the only things she appreciates about her first novel is that it conveyed a genuine, compelling emotion - yet the manufacture of emotions has both material and psychical value - she can ‘cheat the businessmen’ with such manufacture, divert their attention from what’s really the matter; Anna can win at the cost of becoming reptilian.
‘It’s as if I were fighting something, fighting some invisible enemy. She could almost see the enemy — something evil, she was sure of it; an almost tangible shape of malice and destruction, that stood between her and Tommy, trying to destroy them both.’
I think what Anna fears so intensely here is the prospect of Tommy’s ‘becoming a man’, or in other words, performing a masculinity that forces her into opposition and makes adversarial behaviour necessary. I like that Anna struggles with scripted behaviour, that she succumbs to it with horror and her eyes open - it makes everyday conversations critical - both in the sense of an emergency (emergency! gender war!) and in the sense that it highlights just when things begin to go wrong in a conversation and people begin talking to each other from across a gap in perceptions that grows wider with each exchange.
‘We all have mad flashes about being dead on the pavement, or cannibalism, or committing suicide or something.’
‘They aren’t important?’
‘The tomatoes and the quarter of tea is what is important?’
I was moved by this; still working out why. Until I’ve got it I’ll just say that it might have something to do with the way that Tommy had been leafing through the pages of Anna’s notebooks and automatically attempting to interpret the fragments as a continuous narrative. Maybe it exposed the size of the internal leaps Anna takes from notebook to notebook in a way that the actual presentation of the notebooks to the reader can’t. Until this point I’d forgotten that Anna writes the notebooks in a fragmented way - that the sections of them are presented whole, but actually, a week or so in her life is compressed into a couple of sentences in one notebook, non-existent in another and alluded to in lengthy dream narrative in yet another. Faced with Tommy’s insistence that she present him with a ‘real’ and single anger (shrieking ‘why aren’t you honest with me’ - pressure, pressure) she opts for the Anna she feels it would be best to be. It feels as if, despite all this grappling with her fear and anger and death fantasies, she’s asserting that what’s essential is a refusal to be complicit with the impulse to name the shadow self as the truest self.
the statement ‘Blue Bird brings screenplays of living verity to the ordinary man, woman and child’, immediately contradicted and brought to light as hypocrisy by the later warning: ‘Blue Bird will not consider screenplays dealing with religion, race, politics or extra-marital sex’
I find the black notebooks, or Anna’s notebooks dealing with the paraphernalia of being a professional writer, the most bitingly funny indictments of the industry surrounding art. Beneath all the accounts of her meetings with film people and publishing people there’s a kind of Emily Dickinson-esque scorn/pain - ‘Publication is the Auction/ of the Mind of Man’ stuff, and a dark look at the process of handing stories over to people whose primary interest is in commodifying them. I don’t sense a denial of the necessity of commodification of art to an extent, just a keen awareness of the circus of it. In her psychoanalytic notebook Anna seems to experience it as psychic damage though.
“She asks me if I’d like another martini; I am going to refuse, then see she wants one; I say yes.”
This feels so familiar and true to me. Perhaps it’s not so common an exchange over alcohol anymore, but I think in women’s lives now it’s been replaced by food. So often, when having a meal out with a friend there seems to be an exchange of subtle signs. Are we having just main courses? Mains and starters? Even perhaps desserts? So often, one friend will seem disappointed if the other doesn’t order a dessert: because that would have given *them* permission to eat certain foods. There’s an exchange of coercion/permission going on still. I suspect women are somewhat less anxious about alcohol, but far more anxious about food now than they were in 1962.
Does anyone know whether the novel was available in the United States when it first came out? The devastating vignette of the American television executive, Edwina Wright, shocked by Anna’s admission of her Communism made me wonder if in a society only just emerging from McCarthyism, The Golden Notebook would have been either available or welcome. I wonder when the book was first available in the States, and what kind of reception it had.
I had commented on the previous section, the Black Notebook, that the targets (dollar-pursuing media minions) were awfully broadly drawn, rather satirical figures. There she mocks the shallowness of the capitalists, here she equally mocks capitalism’s staunchest critics–both are in their different ways, corrupt, serving corrupt masters, whether it’s the almighty dollar or Uncle Joe. There’s an element of artful (and painful) social satire in these last two sections.
There’s something deeply violent going on here. Anna feels the “substance of my self… thinning and dissolving” as a result of Michael’s attack on her. Michael, we are told, dislikes “the critical and thinking Anna” the most. Men are the organising principle not just of her life, then, but of her personality, her psyche, her capacity to move in the world and to choose how to do so.
‘Seven of my family, including my mother and father, were murdered in the gas chambers. Most of my close friends are dead: communists murdered by communists. The survivors are mostly refugees in strange countries. I shall live for the rest of my life in a country which will never really be my home.’
New information suddenly about Michael/Paul, more than 200 pages after he’s first mentioned. It makes me realise how little we really know about this man. He works as a psychiatrist, he has a wife but doesn’t spend the nights with her. What motivates him in his relationship with Ella? Is he cynically using her for sex - and, devastatingly shown in this section, to do domestic chores for him - or does he care for her? And what effect has all this horror in his life had on his capacity to love? Ella/Anna, usually so sensitive to the moods of others, can’t imagine it. Why?
An interpretation… Ella/Anna can’t really *see* Michael/Paul because she’s in the grip of an infatuation. And the infatuation is all the stronger because of her obsession with marriage. She feels she must marry him, so she only perceives him very selectively: noting the signs that might indicate that he will, or won’t marry her. Ironically, given her thoughts about orgasm [UK 200], she too does not “want all [his] response”.
This issue of personal versus impersonal anger on the part of women is so interesting–this has been mentioned before, I believe. Anna’s learned in psychoanalysis that her anger is impersonal–”the disease of women in our time.” Depersonalizing it seems to give her some sense of control over it, but isn’t that also what makes her a bit passive with men, so acquiescent to Michael? He has no accountability, because Anna thinks it’s only “unlucky” women who get angry at men.
Lessing seems to be linking Anna’s leaving the Communist Party and the end of her relationship with Michael quite intimately here, I think. And the way Anna describes Jack as always understanding (that is,sensitive as opposed to cruel, which is how Michael always seems) implies an intimacy that she yearns for but does not achieve with Michael. It’s on this page, where she praises Jack’s sensitivity, that Michael makes the snide remark about saving souls. The contrast between the two men — both idealists, of course, but in every other way vastly unlike one another — is interesting. Anna, in the end, can have neither: her relationship with Michael is fast closing down, and her quitting the CP will end her relationship with Jack.
“And so on and so on; and I think how terrible this talk is, and how dishonest, sitting in safe, comfortable, prosperous London, with our lives and freedom in no danger at all. And something happens I get more and more afraid of — words lose their meaning. I can hear Jack and me talking — it seems the words come out from inside me, from some anonymous place — but they don’t mean anything. I keep seeing, before my eyes, pictures of what we are talking about — scenes of death, torture, cross-examination and so on; and the words we are using have nothing to do with what I am seeing.”
How sharp and brave of Lessing to describe her relationship to words evoking almost the same pathology as she experiences with men. Words leave her; words are always abandoning their meaning just when she clutches at them.
What an immense challenge it is to find a language true to women’s experience. It is almost impossible to say anything not filtered and predetermined by male voices, ideas, and expectations. What would our stories sound like if we could speak without this filtering?
‘That she looks like you did at her age?’
‘Yes.’ Marion giggled again. ‘Isn’t it funny?’
At the risk of sounding like a tabloid magazine, has anyone noticed that French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s hot new wife Carla looks exactly like his hot ex-wife Cecilia–only younger? They are both former fashion models with brown hair, blue eyes and high cheek bones!
Many of the men in Anna’s life are deserters, mockers, abusers, violators, cheaters, hypocrites, egotists or misogynists. And yet she craves their approval, love and commitment which they dangle before her until they are through with her. Crazy-making indeed.
Anna says, “my brain contains so much that is locked up and unreachable.” So often in these pages, Anna is “reachable” only when “true love” (certainly an unstable element in this novel…) “unlocks” her, and yet that love also always destroys her in some way. So here again, as so often in the novel, it’s in a dream that she can fathom some of the links between her emotional and her writing life. But that moment is born of a disturbing set of violent scenes — pigeon kicking, followed by pigeon shooting. I’m amazed how often “birth” and violence/destruction are intertwined in the novel.
This conversation is beautifully done. They are discussing, I think, the horror of life. Not just the fact that the white people in Africa are oppressing the black people, but the terrible fact of human cruelty and destruction which needn’t have anything to do with class or colour or gender.
They have been playing with and slaughtering animals for amusement or interest or sport.
Now they turn to discuss the state of the country they’re living in, which could be a paradise but isn’t. Why isn’t it? If this were a Catholic novel, some mention would now be made of original sin. If it were The Lord of the Flies, it would start talking about the darkness at the heart of man. Paul talks instead about “some principle of destruction”. Willi, who is a fundamentalist about his Communism cannot see that any explanation is needed beyond “the philosophy of the class struggle”.
But Paul is touching on something fundamental here; perhaps clearer to him than to the others because he’s the one that’s so good at destruction. Willi’s communism imagines that the world can be perfected. Paul is saying: how can the world ever be perfected since human beings so enjoy causing pain and suffering in any being they can exercise dominion over?
Can anyone help me out here? These few pages of parody (UK edition, 384-386)have me puzzled. I don’t know what to make of them. how to read them, what to do with them.
“when she loved a man again, she would return to normal: a woman, that is, whose sexuality would ebb and flow in response to his. A woman’s sexuality is, so to speak, contained by a man, if he is a real man”
How to read this? In the context of Ella’s conversations with her father, it is a powerful demand to men to abandon the virgin/whore idea. Her father is another of these many many men who marry a woman they then don’t have sex with, and go and shag other women. Ella is saying, as she wants to say to her father: don’t you realise that these wives are unable to access their own sexuality without your gentle help and guidance?
As a modern woman reading this though, I bridle. A ‘normal’ woman’s sexuality ebbs and flows in response to her partner’s? This seems like the recipe for constantly feeling abnormal. Like another version of that terrible lie, that two people in partnership become ‘twin souls, two halves of the same person’. It denies a woman any right to experience her sexuality as independent of her (male) partner’s.
Every solution raises new problems, I suppose. As Laura said earlier, sexuality can never be ’solved’. I think some people still do believe what Ella says here; I think it’s damaging.
Today - years after TGN Project launched - I am rereading Adrienne Rich’s 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” I am struck by Rich’s citation of the obnoxious line on this page, “I was stuck fast in an emotion common to women of our time, that can turn them bitter, or Lesbian, or solitary.”
Rich argues that “Any theory or cultural/political creation that treats lesbian existence as a marginal or less “natural” phenomenon…is profoundly weakened thereby, whatever its other contributions.” She goes on to call for feminist theory/expression that goes beyond tolerance and tokenism.
Interesting! And, for me, relieving!
I am reminded that we should continue to address and challenge the homophobia imbedded in seminal works like TGN and other texts in the feminist canon - past, present and future.
Here’s a link to the document: http://blogs.qc.cuny.edu/blogs/0908N0582/adrienne%20rich.pdf
This whole scene oddly reminds me of “Bonfire of the Vanities”–watching rich people face their demons in their isolating marriages. There’s this underlying class point here–why don’t we see any working-class failed marriages?
“I feel the weight of the British empire on me like a gravestone.” What a perfect description of the effects of imperialism on colonised peoples, and what a perfect antidote to those who would have us believe the British ran a benign Empire.
In these pages Lessing overuses the words “meanwhile” and “then” to insist that time sometimes runs in what appears to be a conventional sequence. For Lessing, using these words seems like a pastiche, seems to suggest that these events in which one thing appears to follow another are the way to have a very boring life, as Harry Matthews has.
Entry #14 is yet another example of some of my favorite parts of this book! It’s so hard to write a diary for yourself and yourself only, as Anna well knows. Personally, I often picture other people’s reactions when I write diaries–I can’t help myself, when you produce something, particularly something that helps you organize your thoughts..you want it to be known!
“I have no time for people who haven’t experimented with themselves, deliberately tried the frontiers, yet when it’s a question of one’s own child, one can’t bear the thought of all that for them.”
This sentence got to me, because I couldn’t agree less. This “do as I say, not as I do” thing seems definitely more a product of its time. I’m willing to bet that my generation (at least the liberal ones) will be more eager to divulge their experiences and encourage experimentation. Anna presents this as a universal feeling, but it’s more of a reflection of her own inward tendencies.
This page just hit me between the eyes: it seems to me so much of what the novel is about is right here, squeezed onto one page and just challenging the reader to drink it all in! We’ve got the creation/destruction motif, both in the material (political) world and in the psychological (Mother Sugar’s session) world. There’s the lousy marriage we’ve come to expect in this novel, but here it’s also presented as something which presents restraints and rules with significant effects, that is Nelson’s fears of the obligations to society his wife represents. (And, by the way, is it only women who represent these obligations within marriage? There are times in the novel when that seems so, and Lessing seems to me to be railing against that.) And there’s the subtle weaving of the political and the personal which I’m coming to appreciate more and more as I near the end of the novel. Isn’t Lessing (here and throughout) really putting on the table for dissection the whole question of whether public and private are detachable, separate, even real as categories? That’s pretty amazing for 1962 and to me it’s beginning to seem like the most radical feature of the novel.
“And I knew that the cruelty and the spite and the I, I, I, I, of Saul and of Anna were part of the logic of war.”
What an explicit linking of the different modes of violence being explored in the novel. Interesting that she also wants to read war in the same register as (male?) egoism.
Anna says: “last night I had known, finally, that the truth for our time was war, the immanence of war.” The book really is overshadowed by war and by violence, whether it’s psychological or corporeal violence, whether it’s violence in people’s relationships with one another or between states, whether it’s in Anna’s dreams or in the life she leads awake. Right around here, I really began to feel terror in this novel: Anna and Saul unhinging together, and Lessing telling us that the world of 1962, too, is sufficiently unhinged to be on the verge of destruction.
1962 was the year of the Cuban missile crisis. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was huge. The Cold War was mad. No wonder Lessing feared for us…
At this point it suddenly hit me what an incredibly angry novel this is. I’ve been resisting the idea of Anna as mad; when I reached this bit, it seemed to me that it was fury (at the state of the world, at the state of heterosexual relations, at her own behaviours) and not madness that was driving Anna and — by extension, and perhaps more critically too — Lessing.
This is romantic–or at least collaborative: it’s Saul who gives her the first line of the book. “The two women were alone in the London flat.” So TGN is their child, in a sense?
This section, where words confuse Anna, where she fights the idea (but still knows) that they can be “faulty” and “inaccurate”, seems to me to belie the idea of her as slipping into madness. To me this seems a section in which Anna’s sanity seems rock-solid. She recognises the allure and the danger of words — and after all, we know she’s been collecting them (the newspaper clippings that line the walls in this section and which are all over the notebooks) and we know she knows (or knew) how to use them. She writes, whether as a novelist or in the notebooks. She parodies, she describes, she glories in words. Maybe I’m just resistant to the idea of mad Anna, but to me this segment, where she papers the walls (ok, it’s a bit obsessional) and considers the impact of words, says she won’t end up fearful amd mad, that she can and will push through the fears.
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The Golden Notebook is a collaboration between if:book London and Apt.
Principal funding by Arts Council England.
HarperCollins, the publisher of The Golden Notebook, digitized the book for us and generously gave permission to reproduce it here in its entirety at no cost.
Additional support from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and New York University