Published in 1962, it’s framed as a story called ‘Free Women’, that of writer Anna Wulf and her friend Molly living in London in the 1950s.
Anna has a child called Janet whose father she divorced after only a year of marriage. She lives with Janet, preferring not to marry again and rely on a man. But she does need men, and has lots of affairs with them. Plagued with writers block, she decides to keep four notebooks – the black one, which records her writing and contains within it a story of a woman’s life in Africa, the red one, which deals with her disillusionment with communism, the yellow one her emotional life, a fictionalised version of Anna’s own life in the character of Ella, and the blue one about everyday events in Anna’s actual life in the form of a diary. The last of the notebooks, the golden one, attempts to make sense of all the rest.
So we are dealing with multiple stories but all by the same narrator and novels within novels. It is one of the most complex forms of a novel I’ve read and yet its not confusing or hard to follow. The notebook that interested me most was the story of Africa, which is the theme of many of her other novels. Its a brilliant portrait of a group of young leftist stirrers and their somewhat disturbing interactions with the racist whites and repressed black people around them. Doris Lessing, in her 1971 introduction to the book, talked about how annoyed she was that most of the critics ignored this unique and ground-breaking structure when the book was published. She wanted the notebooks to show what was behind the story of ‘Free Women’.
Instead they focused on the strident feminism that rings throughout all the notebooks. Some have even called the book castrating. She talks about the desperate women she encounters out canvassing for the communist party ‘going mad all by themselves,’ their guilt and self-doubt that they should be happy with their lot but are not. When she (I use ‘she’ interchangeably for each notebook and ‘Free Women’ because they are all ultimately about the same person) goes to a party at her lover’s house and feelshumiliated in front of the man’s wife, she says how much she dislikes women for their capacity for not-thinking when they are reaching out for happiness. There’s a lot of detail about sex, menstruation, homosexuality and promiscuity, which at the time must have made an earth-shattering impact.
Doris Lessing said in the 1971 introduction that the book was more in the European than the English tradition of a novel, in that it is a novel of ideas. There’s plenty on reflections of communism and how it went wrong with Stalin and the usefulness of psychoanalysis and how sometimes its necessarily to ‘break-down’ to put yourself back together again. The only part that annoyed me was a stretch near the end where she really is starting to break down, but the rest I thoroughly enjoyed. At 576 pages, I could only have tackled it on a camping holiday where there was nothing else to do, but its brilliant if you want a novel that’s complex, smart and full of big ideas.