gall and gumption

Monday, January 09, 2006

More On The Golden Notebook

I like the idea of a book built around notebooks. I love notebooks. Also colored pencils and watercolor paints. I am a nut about paper. You know what's sad? My favorite kind of watercolor paper was this Fabriano Artistico, because I just loved the texture. it was not like the others, instead of a random texture it was a sort of wove texture, as if it had been laid on a grid. And apparently some wise head at the 500+ year old Fabriano mill decided that the thing they needed to do was make their paper just like all the other papers. And now I can't find the old stuff any more. I have a small stash of it, and then after that . Of course I am so infrequent at painting now that it isn't a serious worry. I found some Czech paper that I like almost as much but it is really expensive and you have to stretch it.

Anyway the thing is I am a fool for notebooks, sketchbooks, paper, notepads, I just love it all. So a book built around notebooks is nice. And I did like the central character Anna's feeling about her notebooks.

But basically I think that the book has become a bit dated, like the movie JAWS. I imagine that at the time when it was written and for a long time afterwards, people thought it was really exciting to sit around and talk at length about whatever Jungian discoveries they were getting out of their therapy sessions. A person's waffling for pages and pages and oh my god she's still on about this about whether or not to leave the moribund communist party ("It is pellucidly clear that it is moribund," as Henry Browne would say), would be interesting to someone. As for me, I think you'd find yourself carrying me home blind drunk from any party where all that was the subject of conversation.

The novel demonstrates something I'm not sure I'll be able to describe, but it's something about how at any given time people are at risk of being bound up by the conventional wisdom or the intellectual fad du jour. But the novelist can't be. Otherwise time marches on and leaves the novel looking like Richard Dreyfuss in JAWS. The novelist is accountable to a much longer time frame and a much larger view. And that doesn't necessarily mean larger subject matter. Great novels can be written about Big Ideas. But the novelist in writing about them has to be in command of the meanings, of the relationships among these things. Even if that command is sort of contingent and accidental, the novelist should not be floundering about helplessly along with the characters.

I want to say that a novelist should not share his characters' point of view, but he should enter it - and then be able to depart from it for some other perspective. When once you get the feeling that a novelist can't see his way through whatever is blocking the characters' vision, you lose something. The character of the novelist in a work of fiction, I mean what MM used to call "The presence of the author in the work," could certainly be allowed to be an artifact, at least as much of an artifact as a character like, oh, say, Mr. Woodhouse in Emma. But if that artifact goes wrong in its design, if the reader can't rely on it for guidance, then what do you have, exactly?

I remember once, years ago, teaching a short story class to some junior high school students. I threw in Dorothy Parker's short story about the woman waiting for the phone to ring, which I had always rather liked. The students hated it. "We hate being inside of this woman's head," they said. And they were right. I read it and laughed at the woman, but they read it and tried to identify with her and they couldn't. They hated being in her head.

When you get inside the head of Anna in The Golden Notebook, you are inside the head of a woman for whom everything she is supposed to be believing in is failing and there is only this somewhat chaotic helplessness and dependency - that neediness that just won't quit. Art isn't working for her. Political engagement isn't working for her. Marriage didn't work for her. Affairs haven't been working for her. She really really needs a man, she feels at sea without a man anchoring her life. And yet except for the one who died early in her life they are all pretty worthless, liars, cheaters, disloyal, and they all sooner or later just walk out -- because they can. And she can't seem to think her way out of the need for one. I don't know, maybe one can't. I've certainly been there. But what Lessing seems to be saying is that this is the fault of the world and not of the woman. Well, it is a problem of the world. It is the core thing between men and women.

But all of Anna's approaches to it are so helplessly bound up in these totally moribund intellectual fads, communism, revolution, Jungian psychotherapy. And I dunno, maybe I was too bored in the parts where she was dreaming her way out of them. But to conceive of the problem in these ways is to make for a lot of talk and no action. Towards the end of the book Anna is listening to a lot of Bessie Smith. But apparently she was not listening to the lyrics. She would have heard Bessie Smith singing about all those things.

Up on Black Mountain
A child will slap your face.
Up on Black Mountain
A child will slap your face.
Baby's cryin for liquor
And all the birds sing bass.

Bad as it is up there, she's going to look for her man because she is THAT MAD at how he has treated her.

Anna in The Golden Notebook didn't, apparently, listen to my absolute Bessie favorite, "When I Get Home I'm Gonna Change My Lock And Key."

Take off those clothes or I'll shoot them off
I'll shoot them off if I hear you cough.
You just got to be the latest squeeze?
Well, let them squeeze you in your BVDs.

It's also strange for me reading this book to think that at the time of Anna's experiences boatloads of West Indians were arriving and facing years of discrimination in housing and employment, setting out on the long journey of transforming the society in ways that this novel doesn't even begin to imagine. Which it would not be fair to bring into consideration of the novel except that it purports to be about political realities. But it isn't, it's about living inside of certain political myths and getting stuck there - and, well, you just shouldn't have gotten stuck like that. Easy for me to say, maybe. But I'm not much of a joiner.


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