The Notebooks

The Blue Notebook

UK Edition
US Edition


Previous page
with comments


See all


Next page
with comments


We did. That was months ago. What frightens me now is — why did I go on with it? It wasn’t the self-flattery: I can cure this man. Not at all. I know better, I’ve known too many of the sexual cripples. It wasn’t really compassion. Though that was part of it. I am always amazed, in myself and in other women, at the strength of our need to bolster men up. This is ironical, living as we do in a time of men’s criticizing us for being ‘castrating’, etc., — all the other words and phrases of the same kind. (Nelson says his wife is ‘castrating’ — this makes me angry, thinking of the misery she must have lived through.) For the truth is, women have this deep instinctive need to build a man up as a man. Molly for instance. I suppose this is because real men become fewer and fewer, and we are frightened, trying to create men.

No, what terrifies me is my willingness. It is what Mother Sugar would call ‘the negative side’ of the woman’s need to placate, to submit. Now I am not Anna, I have no will, I can’t move out of a situation once it has started, I just go along with it.

Within a week of my having gone to bed with Nelson the first time I was in a situation I had no control over. The man Nelson, the responsible quiet man, had vanished. I could no longer even remember him. Even the words, the language of emotional responsibility had gone. He was driven by a shrill compulsive hysteria, in which I was also caught up. We went to bed for the second time: to the accompaniment of a highly verbal, bitterly humorous self-denunciation which switched at once into hysterical abuse of all women. Then he vanished from my life for nearly two weeks. I was more nervous, more depressed than I can remember being. I was sexless, too, I had no sex — nothing. A long way off I could see Anna, who belonged to a world of normality and warmth. I could see her but I could not remember what it was like to be alive, as she was. He rang me twice, making excuses, insultingly obvious, because there was no need for them — they were excuses made to ‘a woman’, to ‘women’, to ‘the enemy’, not to Anna; in his good moments he’d be incapable of such insensitivity. I had, in my mind, written him off as a lover, but intended to keep him as a friend. There’s a kinship between us, the relationship of a certain kind of self-knowledge, of despair. Well, and then one evening he came over, unannounced, and in his other, his ‘good’ personality. And listening to him then I could not remember what he was like when hysterical and driven. I sat there and looked at him, in the same way as I look at the sane and happy Anna — he’s out of reach, she’s out of reach, moving beyond a glass wall. Oh, yes, I understand that glass wall certain kinds of Americans live behind, I understand it too well — don’t touch me, for God’s sake don’t touch me, don’t touch me because I’m afraid of feeling.

The Notebooks

The Blue Notebook

UK Edition
US Edition


What is this?

You last read


You last bookmarked


Bookmark currentBookmarked!
Page 376



  1. Naomi Alderman December 13th, 2008 at 10:01 am

    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.]

    1. Laura Kipnis December 14th, 2008 at 1:29 pm

      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??

      1. Naomi Alderman December 14th, 2008 at 3:10 pm

        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.

      2. Philippa Levine December 14th, 2008 at 3:47 pm

        Hmmm, this is a hard one. I want (really want!) to agree with Laura but I’m not sure I do. This theme about the “real man” emerges over and over again, and in a whole bunch of different contexts, that I’m beginning to think it’s something with which Lessing herself keeps struggling in the novel, recognising the mobility of the phrase that Laura so beautifully points out, but endlessly coming back to a depiction of the real man that isn’t so flattering. I do think she keeps also trying to undermine that sense of the real-man as the masculine-man, for example in the many instances where men appear as creators (but almost always as destructors simultaneously). And then there’s what she calls the “men-babies” (UK ed. 424, so right here), a phrase that really struck me and which seemed to speak to Anna’s growing disillusionment and anxiety about her heterosexual relationships. Does that make me more pessimistic about Anna’s state of mind, perhaps, than Laura is right now?

      3. Laura Kipnis December 15th, 2008 at 1:09 pm

        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.

      4. Naomi Alderman December 15th, 2008 at 3:54 pm

        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 ;-).

      5. Naomi Alderman December 15th, 2008 at 4:18 pm

        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.

      6. Laura Kipnis December 16th, 2008 at 10:48 am

        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.

      7. Naomi Alderman December 19th, 2008 at 4:50 am

        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.

      8. Harriet Rubin December 16th, 2008 at 3:31 pm

        “people do use false certainties to hold together worlds they feel to be unstable.”

        Laura, are there certainties that are not false?

        “Real men” seems to me a neat oyxmoron. Men are our creations, too–fantasies of our limits–and we have become their creations, their fantasies, their disappointments. Lessing is constantly playing with projections and introjections of the genders and suggesting that, like her characters, we can never really know any truths.

        Having spent years in business working with captains of the universe, I’ve come to see men as Anna and Ella describe them: brutal and weak, predatory and dependent on women’s ideas and generosity, and typically on the verge of wanting to destroy women, just flat out wiping the earth clean of them. These “real men” are pretty unreal, especially to themselves. They haven’t a clue about what’s going on in them or between them and women. Gender is both a special kind of blindness and light.

  2. Naomi Alderman December 14th, 2008 at 8:44 am

    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.

  3. Nona Willis Aronowitz December 14th, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    I think she means Tarzan/James Bond, frankly. By now, Anna has made clear to me that she un-ironically values classic gender roles and feels most comfortable when they are acted out in a relationship. She loves mystery and chivalry, despite the fact that she often refuses to take certain kinds of bullshit. Other kinds, clearly, she takes quite often…and it’s for the thrill of the separation, the chasm of distance between woman and man.

    A couple of years ago I was reviewing Laura Sessions Stepp’s Unhooked for the New York Observer, a book that bemoaned girls’ promiscuity in high school and college and touted traditional gender roles. It took me a while to figure out why it bothered me apart from the obvious reasons, like *really* why, since I wasn’t trying to deny that the young hook up culture was often hurtful. And I eventually realized that I resented Stepp’s assumption that women and men were complete aliens to each other, that they couldn’t possibly understand one another and therefore had to keep some demure, proprietous distance.

    Now, equating a conservative journalist with a Communist novelist like Anna is a stretch, but it’s the way I understand this ‘real man’ concept. A person looking for, as Laura described, “a man capable of honesty, sexual intimacy, self-knowledge et al”– would they really use the wistful phrase ‘real man’ to explain it? It’s the same thing that’s wrong with Sex and the City: men placed at a distance will never fail to fall short of wild expectations.

    1. Naomi Alderman December 14th, 2008 at 5:33 pm

      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.

  4. Laura Kipnis December 17th, 2008 at 7:57 am

    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.

    1. Naomi Alderman December 17th, 2008 at 12:33 pm

      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?

      1. Philippa Levine December 17th, 2008 at 3:28 pm

        Well, if Saul is the “real” man, give me unreal (or no) men any day… The scenes with Saul were for me amongst the most terrifying in the novel.
        And if Naomi’s right about both Anna and Saul having a fantasy of realness going on, they’re doing a pretty poor job at it all told. The whole episode with Saul seems to me to have an unreal quality to it that Lessing exploits brilliantly — the walls, the floor, even the curtains in Anna’s big room becoming unreal, dissolving into menace and danger and clamminess.

      2. Laura Kipnis December 17th, 2008 at 9:29 pm

        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…

  5. Harriet Rubin December 18th, 2008 at 9:21 am

    Paul, Michael, Nelson, Saul…I can’t figure why Anna doesn’t recognize men are not gifts bearing love. She searches for love but finds nothing but horror. The Nelson episode rings dismally true to me.

    The afterburn for me of reading these pages is that I want to go swear off men once and for all. I wonder why, after reading TGN more than two decades ago, I married twice more. Anna is like a character in an epic, driven by destiny to experience every flavor of “real man” and find they all offer the same shallow and poisonous taste. Perhaps if women took literature more seriously, they would save themselves (we would save ourselves) for our work or for something of greater benefit to the world than relationships can provide.

    1. Naomi Alderman December 19th, 2008 at 4:58 am

      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.

      1. Lenelle Moïse December 19th, 2008 at 7:35 pm

        Reading your comments, I am reminded of a passage that comes later, where Anna concludes “that any act she might make would be without faith…but simply a sort of provisional act, hoping it might turn out well, but with no more than that hope. Yet from this attitude of mind she might very well find herself making decisions that would cost her life, or her freedom” (UK p.566).

        Time and time again, I see Anna acting out of senseless hope, diving head first into humiliating relationships with emotionally unavailable and/or sexually spooky and/or infantile and/or psychotic men. She shows herself no mercy, throws caution, sanity, self-preservation and prophetic dreaming to the wind, just to get laid or to get created or to avoid becoming “bitter, or Lesbian, or solitary” (Online p. 373)

        “Words have no meaning” emerges as Anna’s mantra. If this is true than “real” is meaningless and “man” is meaningless. According to Anna nothing matters (physically or otherwise)–not even love–but do it anyway. Even if it almost kills you. Even if it drives you mad. Hope for and pursue and make excuses for and cradle Tarzan and Bond and Michael and Paul and Stalin and Prince Charming–even if everything in your women’s experience, politicized gut and basic intuition tells you that his love is a fleeting illusion, that he will fail you, that your unhappiness is inevitable, that his protection is a figment of your imagination. Anna compulsively veers off onto Dead End roads–ignoring the signs–because she is lost, hopeful, curious and absolutely cracking up.