The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize in 2007 in literature. The book was written and published in 1962. It records the life of Anna Wuff and her experiences with the communist movements in South Rodhesia and United Kingdom. One of the most fascinating books I have read, Doris Lessing style is inimitable. It is academically stimulating to an academic like me, in that she uses a unique style of keeping 4 dairies which talks about 4 Freewomen and the final 5th Freewoman. The four coloured Notebooks are:
The Black Notebook: records her writing life;
The Red Notebook: records her political views;
The Yellow Notebook: records her emotional life;
The Blue Notebook: records everyday events.
The fifth is the Golden Notebook which brings the strands of her life together and holds the key to her ‘recovery’. It releases her from ‘madness’ and a final revelation that allows her to move on.
Many things are fascinating about the book and many are relevant even today. The story is quite depressing at times too. One of the themes that appealed to me, being an ‘old leftist’, was the terrific insight into the mind and lives of the left party workers, left sympathisers, and the culture of the whole clan. She begins with experiences of Anna with the communist movement in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) before World War II. Anna moved to London in 1949. She continued to associate with the left/communist movement in the UK. And here she displays her master writing technique with her in-depth understanding and portrayal of the decaying left movement in UK, the disillusionment of many members and her own stoic and consistent support as a sympathiser.
She returns to each Notebook four times in a unique style of keeping 4 dairies of 4 Freewomen. She records and documents the times, being aware that she lived in extraordinary times and was watching extraordinary events. The broad theme is the breakdown or fragmentation of the mind and society. In the Golden Notebook, Anna says ‘we live in a fast fragmenting culture’. She writes about the most ordinary and mundane lives lived by most women in those times, even today. Then the question posed in an interview with Doris Lessing is ‘why does what is written have so much more impact than what is said?’ How women criticised men was surely known to all women, but it ‘struck her as dynamite when written down’.
This thought was intriguing to me, as we appreciate the importance of silence, not expressing our deep thoughts even in words let alone in writing, in our Indian life and culture. For centuries women and certain social groups, read lower castes and classes, have been silenced and their voices have not been heard. We understand the importance of silence in maintaining the current prominent ‘culture’. As pointed out by a close friend, the Indian joint family survives together due to sacrifice, and I add silence, of some of the elder members, but in reality women of the house. The hierarchical structure of the family in India is maintained through the silence of its women and younger siblings. If one of them felt slighted, she maintained a discrete silence. If one of them suffered injustice, the silence continued. This, in its extreme, perpetuates domestic violence, male to female or senior to junior of any gender, as is the hierarchy in the family.
The Yellow Notebook notes Anna’s emotions. Things are changing today, oh to be young and carefree! To express freely in words and in writing. Once when my daughter spent a few days with a friend abroad and left, the young person wrote a blog on his sense of ‘loss’. She responded in another blog! This surprised me, how easily the young were able to express their emotions in writing and that too in public space. A feeling of loss at the departure of a dear one is something all of us have to learn to handle. It is a trauma, every time your child departs from home. One feels it, keeps silent. But the Young are Blogging!
How the world has changed! The young have no qualms, in wearing their emotions on their sleeves, writing about it in public. The minute to minute expression of thought, love, hope, despair, elation, the mundane on open sites for all ‘friends’ to see and read, is the new way of life. How much of this is real and how much is pretence? I’m sure real friends can judge this. Does this make the young more open to ‘feeling’, ‘emotions’? Does this mean they do not bottle up their thoughts and feelings as the ‘old’ people have learned to do? Would this public display make and break relationships faster than it did for us? Can people take advantage of this and harm them? The times have changed in our living memory and is far away from the world of Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook.
The idea of the Yellow Notebook, which records her emotional life, raises a train of thought. To what extent do we express our emotions in real life, in public, and now on social media! Do we express in words or in writing? Writing is definitely more powerful, particularly in today’s world in social media as this remains in cyber space and who knows when and who could retrieve it? The thought is scary!
The Golden Notebook is considered a classic post modern feminist masterpiece. Doris Lessing died in 2013 at the age of 94.