Naomi Alderman grew up in London and attended Oxford University and UEA. Her first novel, Disobedience, was published in nine languages; it was read on BBC radio's Book at Bedtime and won the Orange Award for New Writers. In 2007, she was named Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, and one of Waterstones' 25 Writers for the Future. From 2004 to 2007 Naomi was lead writer on the award-winning alternate reality game Perplex City and in 2008 she wrote the Alice in Storyland game for Penguin's online We Tell Stories project.
On the blog February 17th, 2009
Oh Lenelle, you've said a lot of things I wanted to say, but so much better than I could say them. It is the absence of love in the novel that I found so hard. Not Hollywood-style fantasy romantic love but the simple affection and kindness that surely is the root of human beings' ability to live together. It's funny, because Lessing comes over as such a 'realistic' novelist in her intense observation of fleeting emotions but she somehow leaves out affection. As for an encore... now you've got me trying to imagine the opposite of the Golden Notebook. How about the Bible! (Or selections thereof.) Or a group of men reading Iron John? Or, for thematic opposition, The Taming of the Shrew, or Middlesex?
Page 410 December 30th, 2008
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.]
Page 410 December 30th, 2008
"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.
Page 410 December 30th, 2008
"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.
Page 410 December 30th, 2008
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.
Page 410 December 23rd, 2008
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!
Page 376 December 19th, 2008
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.
Page 376 December 19th, 2008
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.
Page 433 December 17th, 2008
"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?
Page 376 December 17th, 2008
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?
Page 376 December 15th, 2008
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.
Page 376 December 15th, 2008
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 ;-).
Page 376 December 14th, 2008
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.
Page 376 December 14th, 2008
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.
Page 376 December 14th, 2008
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.
Page 376 December 13th, 2008
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.]
Page 319 December 11th, 2008
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.
Page 355 December 11th, 2008
"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.
Page 347 December 10th, 2008
"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.
Page 319 December 10th, 2008
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.
Page 334 December 9th, 2008
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?
Page 292 December 9th, 2008
Hah, thank you. But what does it *mean*?!
Page 319 December 9th, 2008
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.
Page 331 December 9th, 2008
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'.
Page 246 December 5th, 2008
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!
Page 318 December 5th, 2008
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.
Page 296 December 5th, 2008
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!
Page 308 December 5th, 2008
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.
Page 274 December 3rd, 2008
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. Woman: 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.
Page 290 December 3rd, 2008
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.
Page 290 December 3rd, 2008
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.
Page 292 December 3rd, 2008
"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?
Page 246 December 2nd, 2008
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.
Page 268 December 2nd, 2008
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.
Page 274 December 2nd, 2008
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?
Page 246 December 2nd, 2008
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...!]
Page 179 December 2nd, 2008
I have just ordered a copy of this fascinating-sounding book!
Page 246 December 1st, 2008
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.
On the blog December 1st, 2008
Yes, interesting. Early in the novel - in fact, the second sentence - Anna says "everything's cracking up". Anna's fragmenting, but so is the whole world around her. Her ideology is breaking down, the literal splitting of the atom is leading to a dangerous breakdown in world politics, she's breaking up with her lover... Perhaps this is leading to a productive fragmentation? New possibilities emerge as old certainties break down. Sorry to quote Leonard Cohen but it seems apropos (and maybe even inspired by that second line): "there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in". I wonder if it's this that Obama saw in the novel: the possibility of positive change coming out of times when everything seems to be cracking up.
Page 259 December 1st, 2008
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.
Page 227 December 1st, 2008
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/
Page 242 December 1st, 2008
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.
Page 179 December 1st, 2008
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?
Page 179 December 1st, 2008
"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.
Page 265 December 1st, 2008
‘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".
Page 242 November 30th, 2008
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".
Page 258 November 30th, 2008
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.
Page 233 November 29th, 2008
"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.
Page 246 November 29th, 2008
"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?
Page 110 November 29th, 2008
"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).
Page 189 November 29th, 2008
"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?
Page 189 November 29th, 2008
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.
On the blog November 29th, 2008
Yes, I was thinking today about how fragmented the novel is. I was reminded of an interview I heard with Germaine Greer a couple of years ago. She said that she deliberately wrote The Female Eunuch in short chapters because she felt that women had so many demands on their time that they wouldn't be able to just sit down for a whole evening with a book. I think she linked it to the modern idea that "women are better at multi-tasking", suggesting that this is just a new way of packaging the old situation. It's OK for women to have to deal with childcare, looking after a home and holding down a job because "they're better at multitasking". I wonder if Lessing was responding to a similar feeling about women's lives in the fragmented narrative of TGN.
Page 196 November 29th, 2008
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.
Page 107 November 25th, 2008
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'."
Page 179 November 25th, 2008
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
Page 120 November 25th, 2008
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.
Page 113 November 25th, 2008
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.
Page 179 November 23rd, 2008
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...)
Page 196 November 23rd, 2008
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.
Page 166 November 22nd, 2008
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.
Page 166 November 22nd, 2008
"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?
Page 179 November 22nd, 2008
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?
Page 132 November 21st, 2008
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.
On the blog November 20th, 2008
Not so much bored as depressed, Harriet. I'm hoping it picks up - and there are really wonderful moments - but having just sat down with it for 90 minutes I find I'm feeling really bleak. About human relationships, about the possibility for happiness in life, about whether love is always just an illusion. Right now I'm eager to toss it aside and go and remind myself of my real life, away from the misery of this book.
Page 152 November 20th, 2008
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?
Page 113 November 19th, 2008
"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.
Page 72 November 19th, 2008
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.
Page 119 November 16th, 2008
"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.
Page 112 November 16th, 2008
"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.
Page 106 November 16th, 2008
‘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.
Page 63 November 14th, 2008
"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.
Page 63 November 14th, 2008
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. And this: "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.
Page 52 November 10th, 2008
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.
Page 80 November 10th, 2008
"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.
Page 83 November 10th, 2008
‘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.
Page 38 November 9th, 2008
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.
Page 48 November 9th, 2008
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.
Page 52 November 9th, 2008
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?
Page 63 November 9th, 2008
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.
Page 63 November 9th, 2008
"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.
Page 20 November 6th, 2008
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).
Page 16 November 6th, 2008
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.
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