Doris Lessing, who died on November 17 at the age of 94, wrote more than 50 books over her long career, including 27 novels, 17 short story collections, two plays, two volumes of poetry and four memoirs. Yet it was for her sprawling novel The Golden Notebook alone that she was known to most of her readers.
Originally published in 1962, it was recognized as a classic almost immediately. Ten years later, when I was working in a bookstore in suburban Washington, D.C., we ordered and sold the novel by the carton, it having since taken on the status of not just literary classic but also feminist manifesto, read alongside Our Bodies, Our Selves and The Second Sex.
The Golden Notebook was a remarkable achievement, unusual in structure and controversial in its themes. At its heart, Notebook is a repudiation of the totalitarian impulse that lies at the heart of so many political systems. Born in Iran in the waning days of the British Empire, Lessing had two deep wells of experience from which to draw: She grew up in Southern Rhodesia, which, if it can be credited, was a place more racially divided than even neighboring South Africa, and she was a longtime communist, her married name that of an East German diplomat. Those experiences made her a deeply committed foe of apartheid—and, though belatedly, an anti-Stalinist.
The Golden Notebook explores both regions of her past as told through the life of her protagonist, also a writer. Anita Wulf keeps four notebooks, each colored differently. The black one records her life in segregated Southern Rhodesia, the red one her involvement in the Communist Party, the yellow one her love life—and Lessing’s was messy—and the blue one her innermost thoughts, dreams, and emotions. It is the golden notebook into which she works to weave these four widely different narrative strands, moving back and forth among them to craft an extraordinary, and complicated, portrait of a woman who resists the structures, political and interpersonal, that govern her life, declaring her own liberation while asking hard questions: Is it possible to be married and a mother and have a career, to say nothing of an interior life? What does a woman owe to her family, to society, to herself?
Lessing kept busy after Notebook appeared, but she confounded critics by moving from inner space to outer space. Her themes still centered on human conflict, but the science fiction setting made them somehow less serious to some readers—Harold Bloom, for one, who famously dismissed most of her writing of the 1960s and 1970s. For her part, Lessing complicated her own narrative by critiquing aspects of the women’s movement she helped inspire, again stirring up the controversy that she seemed to court, or at least not avoid. She also denied that Notebook was expressly feminist, instead noting that the second line declared a kind of identity crisis worthy of Dostoyevsky. “I became a feminist icon,” she said. “But what had I said in The Golden Notebook? That any kind of single-mindedness, narrowness, obsession, was bound to lead to mental disorder, if not madness.”
Because of her turn to science fiction, that disdained genre, it was a surprise to some that Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2007, when she was 88. The honor did not surprise Lessing herself, who, ever the contrarian, complained about it in an interview with the British newspaper The Telegraph: “The Nobel Prize is run by a self-perpetuated committee. They vote for themselves and get the world’s publishing industry to jump to their tune,” she said. “They are always coming out with new torments for me.” She did, however, reject another honor, refusing to become a Dame of the British Empire. Her rationale: The age of empire is over, a fact that her rich body of work, full of conflict and redemption, extraterrestrial and this-worldly, both chronicles and celebrates.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.