Women against Men

Anita Brookner

  • The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
    Joseph, 638 pp, £9.95, July 1982, ISBN 0 7181 0970 8

The Golden Notebook takes one back not only in time but in consciousness. It is just 20 years old, and yet, reread from the standpoint of 1982, it seems to belong to an immensely confusing period, weighed down by the anxieties of a decade that now seems remote, incomprehensible to those for whom the Sixties signify permissiveness, euphoria, liberty, and pleasure. It reminds us, among other things, that the Sixties inherited the dilemmas of the Fifties, surely the dreariest decade this century, and made an all too conscious attempt to bury them. Reading The Golden Notebook when it first appeared, I remember being impressed by its entirely grown-up seriousness; it connected in my mind with its not dissimilar counterpart in France, Simone de Beauvoir’s Les Mandarins. Both were concerned, overwhelmingly, with the lives led by thinking women, in and out of politics; both had to do with loyalty, disillusion, the fragmentation of beliefs formerly held to be indissoluble, and the effects of such fragmentation on the personality. More significantly, both had to do with the paradox of the thinking woman’s attitude to love and expectation in her personal life, and it is salutary, and not a little shocking, to reflect on how much has been gained, and how much more lost, in the 20 years of The Golden Notebook’s history.

The Golden Notebook sets out to be a Bildungsroman, and an attempt to give an accurate picture of mid-20th-century England, much as Le Rouge et le Noir and Anna Karenina had set out to do for the France and the Russia of their time. This is Doris Lessing’s explicit intention. In a confused and defensive preface, written for the edition of 1972, she states her dissatisfaction with the English tradition and asserts that no 19th-century novel by an English writer could claim the same sort of success as that enjoyed by Stendhal and Tolstoy. George Eliot, she finds, is disqualified by her morality.

Doris Lessing is a pioneer of feminist self-consciousness in its raw state, and the very rhythm of her remorseless, circular and outstandingly honest narrative reflects the essentially inward-looking perceptions of a woman, as opposed to the linear undertakings of a man. Therefore, instead of writing an up-to-date version of The way we live now, she has produced a seminal, almost a clinical work, a novel, perhaps, but certainly not a fiction, in which the heroine represents all that is most terrifying about the female archetype. And having isolated and delineated that archetype, she establishes it as an entity from which latterday feminists fearfully, hastily, and perhaps cleverly, have done their best to depart. It is an archetype which has as much to do with Freud and Breuer as with the brave new woman fashioned by Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan: yet the liberated woman of today must still contend with it, and measure her success in terms of her ability to do so.

The Golden Notebook was written at a time when women were beginning to have ambitions for self-realisation that came into conflict with their traditional roles. It was a time before instructions had been issued on how to combine domestic happiness with career expectations. But by the same token, the desperation of that edict – only combine! – had not yet come to dominate a woman’s thinking to the exclusion of other relevant factors in the case. The women in The Golden Notebook work because they are independent and slightly eccentric and because it is therefore natural and indeed necessary for them to conduct their lives in this manner. They also need the money, because they are spectacularly unsuccessful at being wives, mothers and mistresses. They attach no emblematic or suffragist importance to the fact that they work and maintain themselves, and, to state the position fairly, they hardly work at all by today’s standards: Anna, the heroine, is a writer, and her friend Molly is a small-time actress. These two women have a strong and rueful friendship and are never more united than when pointing out the shortcomings of a particular man. In the opening chapter of the book their chosen victim is Molly’s former husband, Richard, a vaguely plutocratic figure. They laugh at him: he, quite simply, fails to understand them.

And who could? They both exist at the fag-end of a number of exhausted possibilities. They have both been members of the Communist Party. They have both undergone psychoanalysis. They have agonised their way through apartheid in Africa and the Mau Mau threat, the Czech sabotage trials, the deaths of Stalin and Beria and the revelations subsequent to their demise, the activities of McCarthy and his witch-hunting senators, the perfection of the H bomb and the proliferation of H-bomb tests, the enormous increase in defence budget spending and the consequent delay in the implementation of health and social reforms, and Einstein’s recognition of the very real possibility of general annihilation. Their concerns are so vast and so important that Richard’s exasperation and his preference for his young secretaries are almost forgivable. These women inherit, from their own intellectual formation, a busyness, a grappling with central issues, a determination to come to terms with the truth, however unpleasant this may be, and also a responsibility for their own motives, a tendency to reify, an ability to dream in symbolical or even political terms, a willingness to mythologise their own predicament, which releases them, slightly shaken, from their past, only to teach them that they have very few guidelines to help them to deal with the future.

Anna, the heroine, is in fact released into chaos, into fragmentation. Anna is the writer, whose one novel, Frontiers of War, has earned her enough to live on and who is now suffering from writer’s block, not the sort of block that makes writing impossible but the sort of block that can only produce episodes and cannot conceive of a coherent narrative. In order to overcome this block, Anna buys four notebooks with different-coloured covers: a black notebook, which is to do with her life as a writer; a red notebook, concerned with politics; a yellow notebook, ‘in which I make stories out of my experiences’; and a blue notebook, which tries to be a diary. This design serves well for much of the book, and it enables Doris Lessing to present impressive and discrete accounts of colonial life in Africa (as part of Anna’s own history and the inspiration for her novel), of the latter days of a Party member, of the vague but dawning knowledge that compassion for society may exist outside the Party’s programme and structure, and of attempts to write another novel in which Anna will be objectified as Ella and in which Ella will be confronted with those same difficulties which Anna has failed to resolve.

All these devices fail. Ella, the fictional character within the novel, disappears when she comes up against the problems that beset Anna, the fictional character devised by Doris Lessing. And the device of four separate notebooks fails, as Anna’s confusion grows under the weight of the chaotic world in which she finds herself living. But the main threat to Anna, to her precarious sense of order, to her ability to control phenomena by ‘naming’ them, lies in the central problem of her life as a woman: her failure to secure a man’s love in terms of the rigorous truthfulness which her experience has taught her to practise and to expect, and which is exacerbated by her vocation as a writer, for, as she says, ‘when I’m writing I seem to have some awful second sight, an intuition of some kind; a kind of intelligence is at work that is much too painful to use in ordinary life; one couldn’t use it at all if one used it for living.’

Anna also says: ‘The Russian revolution, the Chinese revolution – they’re nothing at all. The real revolution is women against men.’ And there is no doubt that this is the most important and significant aspect of the book. The paltry Richard fades into the background as more and more personable and complicated men throng into the foreground: Ella’s married lover, Anna’s unloved and unregretted husband, various Pauls and Michaels, and a persistent and disturbing American character who is called, variously, Nelson or Hank or Milt or, finally, Saul. These lovers are marked by what Anna perceives as a typically male abnormality of the personality: in fact, Saul is so abnormal that he threatens Anna’s own sanity, although it must be said that that sanity has already been breached by the enormous dismay Anna experiences as she comes to recognise the incompatibility that exists between men and women.

These love affairs are failures, and they fail for reasons which are demonstrably important. In her search for a truthful union, Anna, the emancipated and independent woman, comes up against the phenomenon of a certain kind of male anxiety, which is in effect a fear of engulfment. For a man dominated or circumscribed by this anxiety, it would seem that the greatest victory is to make love to a woman (or to be thought to be making love to her – a device used by Saul to arouse Anna’s jealousy) and then to get away. Anna perceives that there is a certain male ethic which decrees this to be right: such behaviour will ensure a man credit in the eyes of his peers, and, more important, it will safeguard what he feels to be his essential integrity. Such a man will make an initial and proprietory raid on a woman but will turn away once he has elicited the maximum response, for it is precisely this maximum response which he neither wants nor needs. As Anna says, in one of those insights that leap off the page: ‘with my intelligence I knew that this man was repeating a pattern over and over again: courting a woman with his intelligence and sympathy, claiming her emotionally; then, when she began to claim him in return, running away. And the better a woman was, the sooner he began to run.’

Anna cannot solve this problem. The repetition and confusion in this section of the book, which is the penultimate section, are imprinted with madness and despair. Yet Anna knows that when her daughter comes home from school she will revert to being a normal, cheerful and predictable figure. Traditional expectations will have triumphed over the penalties of thinking and feeling beyond the expected norms, and if there is further material for scrutiny here it is left undisturbed. The book ends with a symbol and an anti-climax. Saul and Anna agree to part, each bidding the other write a novel. Anna goes out and buys another notebook, the golden notebook of the title. The adjective ‘golden’ implies some sort of omniscience or perfection, as in Golden Legend, Golden Bough, Golden Section, and it may be that Anna intends the final notebook to contain some sort of summary or overview. But Saul wants it, and after a short struggle Anna gives it to him. He uses it to write a short political novel which, we are told, does well. Anna goes round to see her friend Molly and finds her about to marry a wealthy Hampstead businessman. Anna herself decides to get a job, probably in welfare or social work. No irony is intended here: it is as if exhaustion or ‘working through’ has brought about a certain practical sense of what is possible.

What follows from this given, and remorselessly examined, dilemma of ‘women against men’ is, perhaps indirectly, a recognition and a compromise. In much popular writing today on feminist matters, and indeed in Betty Friedan’s The Second Stage, there is an uneasy line of thinking which proposes that the proper companion for the liberated woman is the excessively uxorious man, the man who shares the burdens of housekeeping and child-rearing, so that his wife or partner is free to pursue her career and interests on equal terms. However, it must be conceded that, except in the sphere of domestic arrangements, the uxorious man may be precisely the man least likely to satisfy the imaginative requirements of the liberated woman. This is the dilemma which has succeeded the admittedly harsher dilemma at the heart of The Golden Notebook. This is the way we live now.

At this point it might be salutary to refer to Trollope’s masterpiece, if only to measure the enormous distance that separates the traditional norms of the 19th century from the expansive thinking of the 20th century, with particular reference to matters of love and longing. Here is Trollope:

The man had no poetry about him. He did not even care for romance. All the outside belongings of love which are so pleasant to many men and which to many women afford the one sweetness in life which they really relish were nothing to him. There are both men and women to whom even the delays and disappointments of love are charming, even when they exist to the detriment of hope. It is sweet to such persons to be melancholy, sweet to pine, sweet to feel that they are now wretched after a romantic fashion as have been those heroes and heroines of whose sufferings they have read in poetry. But there was nothing of this with Roger Carbury. He had, as he believed, found the woman that he really wanted, who was worthy of his love, and now, having fixed his heart upon her, he longed for her with an amazing longing. He had spoken the simple truth when he declared that life had become indifferent to him without her. No man in England could be less likely to throw himself off the Monument or to blow out his brains. But he felt numbed in all the joints of his mind with sorrow. He could not make one thing bear upon another, so as to console himself after any fashion. There was but one thing for him: – to persevere till he got her, or till he had finally lost her. And should the latter be his fate, as he began to fear that it should be, then, he would live, but live only, like a crippled man.

And Doris Lessing, on the fantasy of the third person:

If I were to write this novel, the main theme or motif would be buried at first and only slowly take over. The motif of Paul’s wife – the third. At first Ella does not think about her. Then she has to make a conscious effort not to think about her. This is when she knows her attitude towards this unknown woman is despicable: she feels triumph over her, pleasure that she has taken Paul from her. When Ella first becomes conscious of this emotion she is so appalled and ashamed that she buries it, fast. Yet the shadow of the third grows again, and it becomes impossible for Ella not to think. She thinks a great deal about the invisible woman to whom Paul returns (and to whom he will always return), and it is now not out of triumph, but envy. She envies her. She slowly, involuntarily, builds up a picture in her mind of a serene, calm, unjealous, unenvious, undemanding woman, full of resources of happiness inside herself, yet always ready to give happiness when it is asked for. It occurs to Ella (but much later, about three years on) that this is a remarkable image to have developed, since it does not correspond at all to anything Paul says about his wife. So where does the picture come from? Slowly Ella understands that this is what she would like to be herself, this imagined woman is her own shadow, everything she is not. Because by now she knows and is frightened of her utter dependence on Paul. Every fibre of herself is woven with him and she cannot imagine living without him.

My feeling here is one of loss rather than gain: loss of honour, loss of virtue, loss of unity. And there is also a loss of simplicity, which is apparent in the clarity of Trollope’s writing and the complexity of Mrs Lessing’s. Yet she did not invent the contemporary woman, any more than Trollope invented the gentleman: they simply invented them in literature. And having once been invented, it was inevitable that such prototypes should become part of the collective thinking. There can be no doubt that both these books are extremely important, Mrs Lessing’s awesome exploration no less than Trollope’s sturdy and uncompromising narrative. Trollope went on to write an equally sturdy autobiography. Mrs Lessing returned to The Golden Notebook in 1972, to write a preface. The world had moved on in the ten years that had elapsed. It had seen the student uprisings of 1968, events of which Mrs Lessing speaks with warm approval. Unity, except in the most temporary, political sense, looked even less possible. And in this preface Mrs Lessing herself seems to betray traces of the old dialectic. In one paragraph she praises the breakdown of subjectivity and its replacement by the understanding of self as microcosm (‘growing up is after all only the understanding that one’s unique and incredible experience is what everyone shares’) and in the next she laments as painful the absence of the intelligent critic: ‘why should he [the writer] expect this extraordinary being, the perfect critic (who does occasionally exist), why should there be anyone who comprehends what he is trying to do? After all, there is only one person spinning that particular cocoon, only one person whose business it is to spin it.’ Her concern is, increasingly, freedom from restraint, and if this involves a break with or from tradition, acceptance, or the control of reason, the gain in truth will be assumed to be adequate compensation. Hence, perhaps, her impatience with the morality of George Eliot. Hence, too, her emulation of Stendhal, who quotes, on the title page of Le Rouge et le Noir, Danton’s dictum, ‘La vérité, l’âpre vérité’. It can be said that the truths contained in The Golden Notebook are indeed harsh. It can also be said that these particular truths have not been examined in so rigorous and exemplary a fashion since the first appearance of this extraordinary book, in the remote and already misrepresented days of 1962.