Classics for Everyone: Doris Lessing

Book cover for The Golden Notebook by Doris LessingSometimes a book becomes a classic because it heralded a change. It marked a new direction for literature or society or both.

“The two women were alone in the London flat.” The opening sentence of Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook” let readers know this novel would be something different from much of the literature that preceded its 1962 publication. Here is a story showing women as they see themselves and each other, rather than filtered through the lens of male perspective.

When the British author passed away last month, her best-known book gained renewed attention. “The Golden Notebook” broke new ground with the way it focused on its female protagonists, and also in its structure. Before Margaret Atwood’s “The Blind Assassin” and David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” Lessing showed how a story-within-a-story motif could work in contemporary literature.

Her book contains a story, “Free Women,” that follows the lives of author Anna Wulf and her best friend, Molly Jacobs, both single mothers approaching mid-life. Interweaved with this narrative are sections from Anna’s various notebooks, each reflecting a different area of her life. The yellow one contains her novel-in-progress, or perhaps novel-in-stasis would be more accurate, as Anna suffers from writer’s block. The black notebook chronicles her thoughts about the time she spent living in Southern Rhodesia in her early twenties, prior to World War II. In the appropriately-colored red notebook she reflects on her involvement with the Communist Party. And she uses the blue one for her personal diary, a recording of day-to-day events. Finally, there’s the golden notebook, in which she tries to piece together her sanity by piecing together the contents of all of the other notebooks into an integrated whole.

“The Golden Notebook” isn’t action-packed. It’s short on car chases and long on conversations between the characters, often frank discussions about the intimate details of their lives. If this sounds uninteresting, I suggest watching the movie “My Dinner With Andre” to see how riveting a couple of hours of conversation can be.  Then pick up Lessing’s book and get to know Anna Wulf. Her central struggle is one most of us can relate to, even if we aren’t authors or single parents or members of the Communist Party in the 1950s. The real struggle is how to live authentically, how to bridge the divide between ideals and actions while meeting the practical demands of everyday life.

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Ida is a lucky seventh child who loves literature, kakuro puzzles and Doctor Who.
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