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The Yellow Notebook

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[The yellow notebook continued:]


* 1 A Short Story


A woman, starved for love, meets a man rather younger than herself, younger perhaps in emotional experience than in years; or perhaps in the depth of his emotional experience. She deludes herself about the nature of the man; for him, another love affair merely.


* 2 A Short Story


A man uses grown-up language, the language of emotionally grown people, to gain a woman. She slowly understands that this language comes from an idea in his head, it has nothing to do with his emotions; in fact he is an adolescent boy emotionally. Yet, knowing this, she cannot prevent herself being moved and won by the language.


* 3 A Short Story


Saw in the review of a book recently: ‘One of those unfortunate affairs — women, even the nicest of them, tend to fall in love with men quite unworthy of them.’ This review, of course, written by a man. The truth is that when ‘nice women’ fall in love with ‘unworthy men’ it is always either because these men have ‘named’ them, or because they have an ambiguous uncreated quality impossible to the ‘good’ or ‘nice’ men. The normal, the good men, are finished and completed and without potentialities. The story to be about my friend Annie in Central Africa, a ‘nice woman’ married to a ‘nice man’. He was a civil servant, solid, responsible, and he wrote bad poetry in secret. She fell in love with a hard-drinking womanizing miner. Not an organized miner, the manager, or clerk, or owner. He moved from small mine to small mine that were always precarious, on the point of making a fortune or of failing. He left a mine when it failed or was sold to a big combine. I was with the two of them one evening. He was just in from some mine in the bush three hundred miles off. There she was, rather fat, flushed, a pretty girl buried in a matron. He looked over at her and said: ‘Annie, you were born to be the wife of a pirate.’ I remember how we laughed, because it was ludicrous, pirates in that suburban little room in the city; pirates and the nice kind husband and Annie, the good wife, so guilty because of this affair, more of the imagination than the flesh, with the roving miner. Yet I remember when he said it, how gratefully she looked at him. He drank himself to death, years later. I got a letter from her, after years of silence: ‘You remember X? He died. You’ll understand me — the meaning of my life has gone.’ This story, translated into English terms, should be the nice suburban wife in love with a hopeless coffee-bar bum, who says he is going to write, and perhaps does, one day, but that isn’t the point. This story to be written from the point of view of the entirely responsible and decent husband, unable to understand the attraction of this bum.

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The Yellow Notebook

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  1. Harriet Rubin December 22nd, 2008 at 6:51 pm

    Fascinating how Lessing outlines Anna’s experiences first as a writer, and then in the few dozen pages that follow we get the conventional explanatory narrative of how Anna met Saul. This technique should suggest that Anna has distanced herself from the catastrophe of this affair with Saul. A less bold storyteller than Lessing would have given us the facts first, then the story ideas.

    But instead of distancing us, this technique brings us closer to the doomful affair of Anna and Saul. Lessing is playing with time and sequence in ways that are so unconventional. This time-warped form reminds me of how Anna has no will to change what happens to her. Things are decided for her. They are “written” for her. The short stories are the universal stories women live out; our lives are merely versions of this Master Plot or Cliff’s Notes of a Woman’s Life.

    It’s becoming popular in current bestsellers like Black Swan and Outliers to suggest that human will accounts for nothing. TGN is a brilliant study in how other forces move us. In that way, TGN is an echo of Tolstoy and his view of history.

  2. Naomi Alderman December 23rd, 2008 at 6:10 am

    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!

  3. Harriet Rubin December 23rd, 2008 at 11:52 am

    I am tempted to disagree, Naomi. I think the best work Lessing wrote is the first volume of her autobiography, in which, as I recall, these churls do not appear. Just think of how much more productive and perhaps even effectively political a writer could be without the distractions and demands of the Sauls of the world.

  4. Laura Kipnis December 23rd, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    I think the question we’re skirting (so to speak) has to do with masochism–and if I can be so retrograde as to say it–a certain female tendency to veer toward these experiences. It seems less the case that Anna has no will to change what happens toward her as that she selects what happens to her by selecting these men, then acts as though she’s not an agent, as though she’s some passive vessel. Anna *chooses* the distractions and demands of Saul, then revels in the pain he causes her.

  5. Harriet Rubin December 24th, 2008 at 6:56 am

    Do you think masochism is “a female tendency” and not a human taste? Sorry to keep referring to the book of my own life, but the Saul Greens of my world have had a deep substrate of passivity and desire for punishment lurking in the swagger. A dungeon-madame in Silicon Valley whom I once met claimed to have a flourishing business in whipping CEOs.

    Still, your comment about masochism cuts deep. Anna is such an extreme case of it. I wonder if masochism is less a complication now for women who can choose experiences without the mediation of men.

    And from a different point of view: A writer’s task is to suspend the will, to write what happens, to be swept up by destiny. Isn’t this partially what Anna is *choosing*? Isn’t this the cost of being a writer, to suspend the will?

    1. Laura Kipnis December 24th, 2008 at 10:01 am

      I’ve heard the same things about CEOs and dominatrices, though that’s a compartmentalized form of masochism whereas I do think for women (I’m overgeneralizing, but why not) it permeates daily experience far more thoroughly, from footwear to romance.

      I haven’t really thought about this in relation to writing, but I’d tend to disagree: I think writing requires enormous enormous amounts of will, not to mention ego. (Like right now, I need to find the will to stop blogging and get back to the book I’m supposed to be writing.)

      1. Harriet Rubin December 26th, 2008 at 11:51 am

        Writing requires determination, yes. But I also remember that in writing my first book, there was a moment when the material or something took over and began writing itself. I could feel the absence of my will and to the extent it vanished, the other voice took over. I remember it as quite a practice, to be so humbled in an act of ego, which is what writing is.

    2. Philippa Levine December 24th, 2008 at 10:35 am

      Please no, Harriet! If masochism is a female tendency (and I really don’t buy it), then surely it’s a learned one and snot something “innately” female. But since Laura mentions the phenomenon of the dominatrix, we should remember that there’s an awful lot of men willing to pay to indulge their masochistic predilections — and that — for me — puts the lie to the idea that women are somehow more masochistic than men. I suppose one might argue that men’s fascination with masochism is fascination for “the other” and that therefore this is identified female, but then one would have to apply that argument to a whole host of other preferences that might be coded differently. I worry that reading masochism as female essentialises female sexualities.
      In any case, Saul’s multiple personalities bump him from sadistic domination to all kinds of vulnerabilities which Anna notes and acts upon. Lessing offers a us ambiguity here even while she explores Anna’s alarming predilection for bullying overly-egotistical men.

    3. Nona Willis Aronowitz December 26th, 2008 at 6:55 pm

      “I wonder if masochism is less a complication now for women who can choose experiences without the mediation of men.”

      In a word, no.

  6. Nona Willis Aronowitz December 26th, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    That said, I do *not* think masochism is inherent in women, but maybe more attractive for men given society’s upbringing of them. When men feel a masochistic urge, many feel ashamed by it and sequester their experiences into paid sessions or roleplay in the bedroom with their wife, whereas some women such as Anna feed off of it. Although I have seen the opposite in both cases to be true.

    I guess it just depends on whether you think *anything* is “inherent” in either sex…kind of an obvious comment, but that’s what we’re talking about here, right?

  7. Laura Kipnis December 28th, 2008 at 7:58 am

    I had the occasion to reread Andrea Dworkin’s “Intercourse” when they did a 20th anniversary reprint of it a couple of years ago and was surprised at finding it a more compelling argument than I’d remembered–basically, that heterosexual intercourse is an act of possession (in the bad sense!) and colonization of women’s bodies by men, which enforces a masochistic condition in women. So it’s both an essentialist argument–an argument from biology–AND a social one, in that intercourse takes on the meanings of subjugation it does in the context of patriarchy. (I wrote about it in Harper’s Sept. 07, somewhat admiringly, I admit. Not that she’s necessary right, but I think she’s not entirely wrong either.) It’s clearly not an argument any heterosexual “sex-positive” woman wants to think much about admittedly, but also not irrelevant to TGN. Dworkin’s starting premise is that men basically hate women; what she doesn’t account for is that often the feeling is mutual. Lessing complicates the story–mutual need, etc–but the sexual alienation between men and women seems pretty pervasive. So is the element of female masochism (or is abnegation a preferable word?) in relation to sex.

    1. Naomi Alderman December 30th, 2008 at 5:13 pm

      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.

  8. Harriet Rubin December 29th, 2008 at 6:56 am

    Laura, I wish we “sex positive” women would think more about the meaning of subjugation. Andrea Dworkin not only thought about it; she lived her recognition of what the hetero/male world demands of women: she abdicated from it. She was Sumo sized, dressed like the farmer in the dell, and never used a tweezer. She was confrontative and loud–She turned herself into a poster freak for an argument against a male world where a woman has to lie about everything in order to succeed…or perhaps survive. The hetero world has gotten only more colonizing since Dworkin’s first book. The evidence: how many voices like Lessing’s and Dworkin’s are there now? One of the most pointed “messages” in TGN is that masochism is not just a symptom but is essential to female survival. How can it be otherwise than that we eat our young. The male world demands male ideas, voices, and designs.

    I suspect that Lessing, after the nihilistic work of TGN, decided to remove herself from the domineeringly male media/publishing world and plunge into science fiction, a publishing category that evades critics paid by male editors, that befuddles publishing conglomerates run by male beancounters, and that defies expectations of a male careerist, ladder driven world.

    1. Naomi Alderman December 30th, 2008 at 5:21 pm

      “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.

    2. Naomi Alderman December 30th, 2008 at 5:33 pm

      “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.

  9. Laura Kipnis December 29th, 2008 at 9:53 am

    Yes, yes, yes–it’s exactly the unlovely Dworkin’s point that women have to lie to themselves to survive, and need male approval to be able to live within their own skins and solicit this approval via sex. (I kept using the word “ouch” in the review in response to her twist-of-the-knife arguments.)

    But I still find it hard to divide the world into the male and female categories that you do, Harriet, especially these days where the publishing beancounters are equally female, where women are equally careerist and conservative. I can’t see any difference between women editors and men, frankly. The issue in publishing now is the role of the conglomerates rather than gender; the depressing thing is that gender progress–which has been enormous–has had no effect on these larger issues of corporate depredation.

    1. Naomi Alderman December 30th, 2008 at 5:36 pm

      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.]

  10. Philippa Levine December 29th, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    While I don’t think the era of the feminist publishing house is completely over (although it’s a shadow of its former self), I think Laura’s right that women involved in publishing (and at the editorial level, this is still a surprisingly female world) are caught up in the corporate maelstrom, and their jobs depend upon their behaving in allegedly gender-blind ways. Like Laura, I see very little difference between men and women when they’re inside the corporate structures that dictate so much of our lives.
    As for Lessing’s turn to science fiction, it’s an interesting choice for her to have made as a woman conscious of gender issues. It remains even now a pretty masculine world (despite a few iconic women writers), no?

  11. Harriet Rubin December 30th, 2008 at 11:01 am

    I wish I could make my point better, because I think it is essential for women writers to appreciate how marginalized if not ghettoized they are now. Masculine categories of thought and attention predominate, and they are not limited to gender. So women in publishing, and in other arenas, promote male authors and rational voices. Politics outsells poetry, history fills the shelves over analyses of the American or global soul, when in fact spiritual matters have more consequences upon how we live. Does the attention to war and sport increase the incidences of war and the fortunes made by the NFL, etc?

    Moreover, there are very few editors who would publish a Dworkin or Lessing today: female writers who happen to take on feminist issues. Without a market for tough, female voices, women today are writing like men, articulating male concerns in male literary and publishing forms, not for experimental reasons but for royalties and power.

    I rarely see women’s bylines in the major media. I think a lot goes unreported because of this absence.

  12. Philippa Levine December 31st, 2008 at 11:50 am

    I don’t know how much difference it would make if we were to see more female bylines, to be honest. I totally agree with Harriet that women still get marginalised, that the days of the old-boy network are far, far from over, and that allegedly “masculine” topics get pushed to the fore. But that doesn’t mean that a female presence (whatever that is) would herald change or improvement. Women, as Harriet has noted, have got where they are now by “writing like men” — but that doesn’t mean, does it, that there’s some essentially female way to write that’s different, some biological tick that produces different ideas or values? I would like to see more recognition of women’s talents — but I’d also say that recognition of different issues and different values, whoever espouses them, would probably have as marked an effect. I’m really really wary of biologising or essentialising male/female difference, even while I’ll go to bat endlessly to ensure women don’t get the short end of the stick.