Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook

Laura Kipnis

Laura Kipnis is a cultural critic and theorist whose most recent books are Against Love: A Polemic and The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability (both from Pantheon); her essays have appeared in Slate, Harper's, Playboy, the Nation, and The New York Times Magazine. Her work has been translated into thirteen languages; she's received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Yaddo; and she teaches in the Radio-TV-Film Department at Northwestern University (she is a former video artist). Her next book is called How To Become a Scandal.

Recent comments by Laura Kipnis:

On the blog  February 6th, 2009
That's interesting as I actually found that the Brutalman appearance, and the real-world intrusion, was the most interesting part of the experience--as I'm now convinced that was indeed the real life Saul Green (a.k.a. Clancy Sigal) surfacing. I wish he'd said more. For my part, I think that wish reflects the limitations I felt about this process. To begin with, my own lack of sufficient knowledge about the book's context. Also, I would have liked male perspectives on the book, not only us girls. I'm glad I had the chance to participate in this experience and to reread the book; I think this could be a fantastic model for virtual book groups, but I suspect it wasn't as interesting for others to follow as for those of us who were responding to the book and to each other.

Page 503  December 31st, 2008
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.

Page 486  December 31st, 2008
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.

Page 485  December 31st, 2008
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?

Page 410  December 29th, 2008
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.

Page 410  December 28th, 2008
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.

Page 410  December 24th, 2008
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.)

Page 422  December 24th, 2008
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.

Page 410  December 23rd, 2008
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.

Page 422  December 22nd, 2008
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.

Page 422  December 22nd, 2008
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!

Page 499  December 22nd, 2008
Sorry, no clue.

Page 383  December 22nd, 2008
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."

Page 449  December 19th, 2008
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.

Page 376  December 17th, 2008
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...

Page 376  December 17th, 2008
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.

Page 422  December 16th, 2008
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.)

Page 376  December 16th, 2008
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.

Page 376  December 15th, 2008
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.

Page 376  December 14th, 2008
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??

Page 370  December 11th, 2008
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. Well, implicitly.

Page 370  December 10th, 2008
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?

Page 383  December 10th, 2008
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.

Page 319  December 10th, 2008
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.

Page 308  December 9th, 2008
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?

Page 318  December 9th, 2008
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."

Page 292  December 9th, 2008
What an attentive reader you are!

Page 306  December 9th, 2008
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.

Page 318  December 9th, 2008
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.

Page 319  December 9th, 2008
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.

Page 249  December 7th, 2008
"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??

Page 266  December 6th, 2008
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.

Page 306  December 6th, 2008
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.

Page 308  December 6th, 2008
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.

Page 271  December 6th, 2008
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.

Page 179  December 2nd, 2008
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.

Page 246  December 2nd, 2008
"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.

Page 227  December 1st, 2008
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.

Page 242  December 1st, 2008
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?

Page 258  December 1st, 2008
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.

Page 258  November 30th, 2008
Bad sex, oblivious men, female passivity and accommodation, women's self-alienation ... Ick. (Glad we've transcended all of that!)

Page 249  November 30th, 2008
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."

Page 242  November 30th, 2008
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?

Page 244  November 30th, 2008
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.

Page 227  November 30th, 2008
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.

Page 195  November 30th, 2008
Theme: Ambivalence 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.

Page 179  November 23rd, 2008
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).

Page 179  November 23rd, 2008
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!

Page 175  November 22nd, 2008
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.

Page 179  November 22nd, 2008
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.

Page 113  November 20th, 2008
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.

On the blog  November 20th, 2008
I agree about the boredom factor, Harriet, particularly in the black and red notebooks, which take a more stream-of-consciousness rather than story-driven form. I THINK that PERHAPS she's telling us (I'm surmising at this point) that these are the raw experiences that were later filtered into a more traditional narrative, into the form of a novel (Anna's novel, that is). It's this question of form vs. formlessness that she brings up in the preface--but the fact is that formlessness can be boring! There are the occasional apercus but too few to sustain the length!

Page 107  November 17th, 2008
"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.

Page 113  November 17th, 2008
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."

Page 110  November 17th, 2008
"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.

Page 80  November 11th, 2008
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...

Page 64  November 11th, 2008
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.

Page 39  November 11th, 2008
‘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.

Page 48  November 9th, 2008
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...

Page 70  November 9th, 2008
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.

Page 3  November 8th, 2008
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.)

Page 1  November 8th, 2008
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.