I'm not likely to ever appear on Desert Island Discs, but of the three things they ask of you – seven records, one book and one luxury item – I think I'd have the greatest difficulty in deciding upon a single book to satisfy me for the rest of my days.
Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook is exactly the sort of book to which you could dedicate a few lifetimes and still uncover fresh layers on subsequent reads.
Yes, this book is layered. But it's not layered like an onion – neat, even and stacked – it's layered like a scrunched up ball of paper – violent, overlapping and chaotic. Less than 100 pages in I understood that this – my initial reading – wouldn't be enough. Having finished it this afternoon I was gasping for breath. It's now been added to a pile – alongside James Joyce's Ulysses – of books that I'll need to read again at some point.
And that pile could act as a shortlist for the sort of books that I could happily take to a desert island, though I doubt that even a few decades in the sun would be enough to uncover all that could be uncovered. These aren't Desert Island Books. They're Eternity Books. Afterlife Books.
Like everything written at any point before today, The Golden Notebook is, in parts, a little dated. It's also utterly, horribly overwhelming. It's about so many things that it would be disingenuous to say that it's “about” any one thing, but it can be broadly summed up as an exhaustive exploration – in extreme close-up – of one woman's nervous breakdown, one thought at a time – over 576 demanding pages.
And in detailing this descent, it touches on so many themes that reading The Golden Notebook is like simultaneously reading five heavy novels at once in the back row of a particularly demanding socio-economic lecture.
Art, literature, identity, humanity, creativity, motherhood, communism, race, sex, gender, betrayal, writer's block – you can't describe this book without sounding like David Bowie describing his latest album.
I was very, very pleased to finish, because every single second spent with The Golden Notebook eventually felt unbearably heavy – just like, I imagine, would every single second spent with depression. I'm glad to have come out from the other side, but I don't regret, for one second, having picked up the book in the first place. Maybe I'll return to The Golden Notebook when I've more time on my hands, more experience under my belt and no tempting pristine copy of Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas – freshly donated by a friend. But until then, I feel drained.
But what a wonderful, indispensable draining experience it was. Because Doris Lessing! This was my first exposure to Doris Lessing, but even if I just had the text of The Golden Notebook to go on, I'd already have enough evidence to suggest that even a word as magnificent as “genius” doesn't even begin to describe her.
Because bookending The Golden Notebook was an preface from Lessing – recently written – and an interview. On this initial exposure, I took much more from her non-fiction than I did her fiction, simply because her words and her ideas are nothing short of inspirational – perhaps even life-affirming.
I've been thinking a lot, recently, about the position of critics in our society. Do we need them at all? Probably not. But Lessing puts their role – their responsibilities – in a most intriguing light:
“...writers are looking in the critics for an alter ego, that other self more intelligent than oneself who has seen what one is reaching for, and who judges you only by whether you have matched up to your aim or not... But what he, the writer, is asking is impossible. Why should he expect this extraordinary being, the perfect critic (who does occasionally exist), why should there be anyone else 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...It is not possible for reviewers and critics to provide what they purport to provide – and for which writers so ridiculously and childishly yearn.”
So according to Lessing, critics have an unrealistic idea of their position in society, and writers have nobody but themselves to blame for this, for it was they who placed critics on their pedestal.
But it apparently goes further than this. Lessing believes that, from a very young age, we're conditioned – even brainwashed – to refuse to recognise the true value and intent of what we read.
“It starts when the child is as young as five or six, when he arrives at school. It starts with marks, rewards, “places”, “streams”, stars – and still in many places, stripes. This horserace mentality, the victor and loser way of thinking, leads to “Writer X is, is not, a few paces ahead or Writer Y. Writer Y has fallen behind. In his last book, Writer Z has shown himself to be better than Writer A.” From the very beginning, the child is trained to think in this way: always in terms of comparison, of success, and of failure.”
Lessing extrapolates political connotations from this – children are conditioned to respect authority, to not think for themselves – but when I read this I also applied it to every other kind of criticism – especially music criticism, the obtuse nature of which has given me so much gripe in recent years.
“These children who have spent years inside the training system become critics and reviewers, and cannot give what the author, the artist, so foolishly looks for – imaginative and original judgement. What they can do, and what they do very well, is to tell the writer how the book or play accords with current patterns of feeling and thinking – the climate of opinion.”
When I read that, I wanted to shout: “Ha! Take THAT, every critic with whom I've ever taken issue.” I wanted to reach through the page and give Doris a high five. 15 pages into my first ever exposure to the writing of Doris Lessing, and I already wanted to marry her.
Critics aren't nearly as important at they think they are – or as they want us to think they are. Instead, due to inherent weaknesses instilled from childhood, they are nothing more than, as Doris so brilliantly puts it, “litmus paper”. They're not arbiters of taste and opinion. They're products of taste and opinion – just like everyone else.
Critics – and writers too – could learn a thing or two from Doris. It seems that the relationship will always be codependent, but there's nothing stopping it from being healthier.
Less cynical and pessimistic – but infinitely more poignant – is the interview included at the end of my copy of The Golden Notebook. Asked if she stops reading other people's books when writing her own, she replies:
“ I have stopped with my current book, because my time is running out. I'm 87 [she's now 93], I'm not going to live forever and I want to finish this book I'm writing now. I'll go back to being a good reader when I finish it.”
Finally, she offers a very good reason for good people - “boulder pushers”, as they're called by The Golden Notebook's protagonist – to remain optimistic. She's asked how living through “one of the most tumultuous centuries in our history” has affected her.
“Well, I've lived through Hitler, ranting and raving; Mussolini too; the Soviet Union, which we thought would last for all time; the British Empire, which seemed impregnable; the colour bar in Rhodesia and elsewhere; the heydey of European empires. It was inconceivable to think that these would disappear. They seemed permanent. Now not one of them remains – and I think that is a recipe for optimism!”
So to sum up, I think I'm in love with Doris Lessing.