I have always liked Doris Lessing and was pleased when, in October 06, she was given the Nobel Prize. This came as a surprise to her, since she was out food-shopping with her invalid son at the time and was pursued to the park and in and out of taxis by journalists: she thought it was just “another prize” and was not terribly interested, having won them all already.

 

I read her first two books — The Grass Is Singing and another whose title I have forgotten — some years ago and found them agreeably lightweight. I always liked her wit and acerbic anti-communism when she popped up in interviews. I always felt I should one day have to read The Golden Notebook (1962) on which her serious reputation rested.

 

The Nobel award, accordingly, spurred me to obtain and read it and, page-turner though it is, experience all the pangs of disappointment. The structure is that of a novel within a novel within a novel, though she tells us she wrote it all consecutively. It is not quite clear what are the gains of the experiment: a young man, blinded (improbably) after a suicidal bullet at one level, is married and being offered a notably sighted job at another.

 

In many ways the African scenes are the most vivid — contain the greatest detail — but even here a group of young adults is mainly sitting around wallowing in the Marxist doldrums — or drinking. Lessing is at her best in the no-holds-barred observation of interpersonal events, but in the end the mediocrity of all these characters, turning from Marxism to Freudianism in the 1950s, is overwhelming. She herself, in an aggressive introduction added in 1971, seems rather proud to have left school at 14. She launches upon an attack on the meritocratic education system — she thinks readers should just drift “from sympathy to sympathy” — but one suspects this is because, without any criteria of critical excellence, her book cannot be judged or evaluated!

 

It needs to be said, again, in passing, that the great attraction of Marxism is that petty personal morality is submerged in a larger purpose — overriding, unswerving, historical. This of course is what human beings have dreamed of down the ages — do whatever you like and it will always be justified!

 

Though Lessing seems to me equally fair or acerbic as between men and women, the women are tremendously dismal — utterly promiscuous, but before opening her legs to the latest passing man, each heroine notes deftly that she fails to find him attractive. All affairs are conducted with a married man, so it is scarcely surprising that everyone gravitates to a state of chronic misery. This is what life is like at the lower end of the emotional spiral. But ordinary people, who happen not to be communist intellectuals, surely have more common sense and better instincts for self-preservation.

 

So on most counts — the ‘experimental’, the feminist, the novel of ideas — The Golden Notebook seemed to me vastly overrated. And one should add the characterisation is notably flat and thin, an effect compounded by the replication of characters from level to level.

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