The American Poseur’s Journal | Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook

Books, Literature

This section of Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook actually made me laugh aloud. She offers a wonderful parody of “a young American living on an allowance from his father who works in insurance”; the section recalls William Gaddis’s similar send-ups in The Recognitions (and again links the two novels together in my consciousness).

[The right side of the black notebook, under the heading Money, continued.]

Some months ago I got a letter from the Pomegranate Review, New Zealand, asking for a story. Wrote back, saying I did not write stories. They replied asking for ‘portions of your journals, if you keep them’. Replied saying I did not believe in publishing journals written for oneself. Amused myself composing imaginary journal, of the right tone for a literary review in a colony or the Dominions: circles isolated from the centres of culture will tolerate a far more solemn tone than the editors and their customers in let’s say London or Paris. (Though sometimes I wonder.) This journal is kept by a young American living on an allowance from his father who works in insurance. He has had three short stories published and has completed a third of a novel. He drinks rather too much, but not as much as he likes people to think; takes marihuana, but only when friends from the States visit him. He is full of contempt for that crude phenomenon, the United States of America.

April 16th. On the steps of the Louvre. Remembered Dora. That girl was in real trouble. I wonder if she has solved her problems. Must write to my father. The tone of his last letter hurt me. Must we be always isolated from each other? I am an artist – Mon Dieu!

April 17th. The Gare de Lyon. Thought of Lise. My God, and that was two years ago! What have I done with my life? Paris has stolen it … must re-read Proust.

April 18th. London. The Horseguards’ Parade. A writer is the conscience of the world. Thought of Marie. It is a writer’s duty to betray his wife, his country and his friend if it serves his art. Also his mistress.

April 18th. Outside Buckingham Palace. George Eliot is the rich man’s Gissing. Must write to my father. Only ninety dollars left. Will we ever speak the same language?

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What’s got into you? | Ventriloquism in Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook

Books, Literature, Reviews

In Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook, Marion Portmain, a housewife neglected by her husband, resolves that she will begin to live her life with the aim of helping other people. Marion believes that this change is a major breakthrough in her life, a moment to claim agency for herself and to find her own authentic voice in a world where she has been silenced and ignored.

She asks her friend, the book’s protagonist Anna Wulf for the address of an imprisoned South African political activist:

‘Do you remember that black leader, the African man you used to know? Mathews, or something like that?’

This was not at all what Anna had expected. ‘You don’t mean Tom Mathlong?’Marion had actually taken out a notebook and was sitting with a poised pencil.

Marion has taken up her own notebook, a parallel to the colored notebooks that Anna keeps to impose some semblance of order—or at least to contain—the chaos of modernity.

Anna protests Marion’s request; she implicitly condescends Marion’s naïvety and myopic worldview:

‘But Marion…’ Anna looked at Marion, trying to make contact with the woman she had been talking to only a few minutes before. She was met by a gaze from brown eyes glazed with a guilty but happy hysteria. Anna went on, firmly: ‘It’s not a nice organized prison like Brixton or somewhere like that. It’s probably a shack in the bush, hundreds of miles from anywhere, about fifty political prisoners, and very likely they don’t even get letters. What did you think?—that they had visiting days and rights and things like that?’

And here is where the scene becomes particularly intriguing for me, as Anna begins to break down the various sources that ventriloquize Marion’s “new” consciousness: 

Marion pouted and said: ‘I think that’s an awfully negative attitude to take about the poor things.’

Anna thought: negative attitude is Tommy’s—echoes from the Communist Party; but poor things is all Marion’s—probably her mother and sisters give old clothes to charities.

For Anna, Marion’s (attempt at) a new outlook is merely the weak synthesis of the language of Marion’s stepson’s communism with the stock-phrases of her aristocratic family’s noblesse oblige. Anna does not accept Marion’s “transformation” as authentic, but rather the product of tuning in new voices. 

As Marion continues, Anna analyzes her speech, her unvoiced comments interposed in parentheses that name the news sources from which Marion has “clipped” her thoughts:

‘I mean,’ said Marion happily, ‘it’s a continent in chains, well, isn’t it?’ (Tribune, thought Anna; or possibly the Daily Worker.) ‘And measures ought to be taken immediately to restore the Africans’ faith in justice if it is not already too late.’ (The New Statesman, thought Anna.) ‘Well at least the situation ought to be thoroughly gone into in the interests of everybody.’ (The Manchester Guardian, at a time of acute crisis.) ‘But Anna, I don’t understand your attitude. Surely you’ll admit there’s evidence that something’s gone wrong?’ (The Times, editorializing a week after the news that the white administration has shot twenty Africans and imprisoned fifty more without trial.)

‘Marion, what’s got into you?

This scene responds to an earlier section of The Golden Notebook (I wrote before about it here) in which Anna’s note-book becomes pure collage: She no longer writes in her own “original” language, but rather cuts fragments from newspapers and pastes them directly into her diary. The section highlights (and rhetorically demonstrates) the novel’s theme of the disintegration of language, meaning, and order—one of the central problems of postmodernist literature.

Anna’s question to Marion at the end of the passage I’ve cited — “What’s got into you?” — is a banal commonplace, yet utterly sincere, authentic—-and all the more authentic for its underlying irony: Anna has already decided what’s “got into” Marion (The Tribune, The Daily Worker, etc.). 

Lessing’s passage here underscores just how susceptible we are to not-knowing, just at the moment when we feel most confident in our belief. Marion feels wholly authentic here, feels her way-of-seeing as rich, full, clear, alive—but it’s this very feeling of clarity that blinds her from seeing herself (seeing herself) parroting back the stock language of the sources that have infiltrated her consciousness.

Anna is far more attuned to her own self-blindness; indeed, her color-coded notebooks are a means to account for the discursive narratives that might try to give shape to the messiness of consciousness. In one extended episode, Anna attempts to write a complete narrative of a particular day, but as she repeatedly notes, her awareness of her project leads to such a heightened self-consciousness that every observation she makes about the day is placed under radical suspicion—she sees that she sees herself seeing (herself), but, intuiting her consciousness’ structure, also understands that there are ways in which she cannot see herself seeing (herself).

Can Anna’s realization of the limitations of first-person-perspective help to free her? I have not yet finished the novel, but so far, Lessing depicts the question as a deep, painful struggle. Anna grapples with a disintegrating sense of self, a self that can identify (and cut out and paste and record and document) the voices that have “got into” her, even as those voices destabilize her identity.

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

Books

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Ran out of time this week before I could write about anything I’ve been reading. So a quick riff, from top to bottom, in the pic above:

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

I’ve been reading this at night with my seven-year-old daughter. I’ve read it maybe a thousand times now. Lewis is not the best prose stylist, but he fuses together bits of pagan and Christian myth better than the best.

On the iPad:

The Possibility of an Island, Michel Houellebecq

My least-favorite Houellebecq so far—has some wonderful rants at times, but Houellebecq keeps embedding these terrible pop culture references (following his hero Bret Easton Ellis’s lead?) that usually dull the edge he’s been sharpening. And the narrator’s spite at this point is almost unbearable—reading it makes me feel like Gandalfdore drinking that poisonous potion in Harry Potter and the League of Bad Mentorsjust sucking down venom.

The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

Great stuff. A little over two-thirds finished. Wrote about is some here.

Lanark, Alasdair Gray

I might regret that I never wrote a Big Fat Review of Lanark, Gray’s bizarre cult novel. The book is a weird chimera: It starts as a weird sci-fi/fantasy trip—closer to Kafka’s The Castle than genre-conventional fare though, to be clear. Then it shifts into this modernist Künstlerroman that seems to want to be a Scottish answer to Joyce’s Portrait. Then there’s a short story inserted in the middle, a return to the dystopian fantasy (heavy streaks of Logan’s Run and Zardoz and Soylent Green—very ’70s!), and, right before its (purposefully) dissatisfying conclusion, an essay by a version of the author, who defensively critiques his novel for characters and readers alike. Gray wants to have written the Great Scottish Epic. I’m not sure if he did, but Lanark has moments that are better than anything I’ve read all year—even if the end result doesn’t hang together so well.

The Bowling Alley on the Tiber, Michelangelo Antonioni

Sketches and figments that Antonioni never turned into films. Not sure if he intended to.

Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor

Good lord.

O Pioneers!, Willa Cather

There’s a tendency in American fiction to posit the American Dream as a masculine escapist fantasy. This version of the Dream is perhaps best expressed in the last lines of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck declares: “But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” Always more territory, always more space outside of the (maternal) civilizing body. Cather answers to that version of the Dream in her character Alexandra Bergson, who cultivates the land and claims her own agency through commerce and agriculture.

The Selected Poetry of Emilio Villa, translated by Dominic Siracusa

What a strange and wonderful book! I wrote about it here. Confounding.

The Unknown University, Roberto Bolaño

Okay, so I wrote about the first section in detail here. More or less finished it. Bolaño’s best poems are basically prose (that’s not a knock).

Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, Chris Andrews

Wrote about it a bit here; will write more when I finish. Makes me want to reread Bolaño (although I almost always want to reread Bolaño).

(In a Sense) Lost & Found, Roman Muradov

The plot of Muradov’s debut graphic novel floats like a dream-fog in surreal, rich art as the ludic dialogue refuses to direct the reader to a stable referent. Great stuff.

“The Undertaker’s Chat” — Mark Twain

Books

“Now that corpse,” said the undertaker, patting the folded hands of deceased approvingly, “was a brick—every way you took him he was a brick. He was so real accommodating, and so modest-like and simple in his last moments. Friends wanted metallic burial-case—nothing else would do. I couldn’t get it. There warn’t going to be time—anybody could see that.

“Corpse said never mind, shake him up some kind of a box he could stretch out in comfortable, he warn’t particular ’bout the general style of it. Said he went more on room than style, anyway in a last final container.

“Friends wanted a silver door-plate on the coffin, signifying who he was and wher’ he was from. Now you know a fellow couldn’t roust out such a gaily thing as that in a little country-town like this. What did corpse say?

“Corpse said, whitewash his old canoe and dob his address and general destination onto it with a blacking-brush and a stencil-plate, ‘long with a verse from some likely hymn or other, and p’int him for the tomb, and mark him C. O. D., and just let him flicker. He warn’t distressed any more than you be—on the contrary, just as ca’m and collected as a hearse-horse; said he judged that wher’ he was going to a body would find it considerable better to attract attention by a picturesque moral character than a natty burial-case with a swell door-plate on it.

“Splendid man, he was. I’d druther do for a corpse like that ‘n any I’ve tackled in seven year. There’s some satisfaction in buryin’ a man like that. You feel that what you’re doing is appreciated. Lord bless you, so’s he got planted before he sp’iled, he was perfectly satisfied; said his relations meant well, perfectly well, but all them preparations was bound to delay the thing more or less, and he didn’t wish to be kept layin’ around. You never see such a clear head as what he had—and so ca’m and so cool. Jist a hunk of brains—that is what he was. Perfectly awful. It was a ripping distance from one end of that man’s head to t’other. Often and over again he’s had brain-fever a-raging in one place, and the rest of the pile didn’t know anything about it—didn’t affect it any more than an Injun Insurrection in Arizona affects the Atlantic States. Well, the relations they wanted a big funeral, but corpse said he was down on flummery—didn’t want any procession—fill the hearse full of mourners, and get out a stern line and tow him behind. He was the most down on style of any remains I ever struck. A beautiful, simpleminded creature—it was what he was, you can depend on that. He was just set on having things the way he wanted them, and he took a solid comfort in laying his little plans. He had me measure him and take a whole raft of directions; then he had the minister stand up behind a long box with a table-cloth over it, to represent the coffin, and read his funeral sermon, saying ‘Angcore, angcore!’ at the good places, and making him scratch out every bit of brag about him, and all the hifalutin; and then he made them trot out the choir, so’s he could help them pick out the tunes for the occasion, and he got them to sing ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’ because he’d always liked that tune when he was downhearted, and solemn music made him sad; and when they sung that with tears in their eyes (because they all loved him), and his relations grieving around, he just laid there as happy as a bug, and trying to beat time and showing all over how much he enjoyed it; and presently he got worked up and excited, and tried to join in, for, mind you, he was pretty proud of his abilities in the singing line; but the first time he opened his mouth and was just going to spread himself his breath took a walk.

“I never see a man snuffed out so sudden. Ah, it was a great loss—a powerful loss to this poor little one-horse town. Well, well, well, I hain’t got time to be palavering along here—got to nail on the lid and mosey along with him; and if you’ll just give me a lift we’ll skeet him into the hearse and meander along. Relations bound to have it so—don’t pay no attention to dying injunctions, minute a corpse’s gone; but, if I had my way, if I didn’t respect his last wishes and tow him behind the hearse I’ll be cuss’d. I consider that whatever a corpse wants done for his comfort is little enough matter, and a man hain’t got no right to deceive him or take advantage of him; and whatever a corpse trusts me to do I’m a-going to do, you know, even if it’s to stuff him and paint him yaller and keep him for a keepsake—you hear me!”

He cracked his whip and went lumbering away with his ancient ruin of a hearse, and I continued my walk with a valuable lesson learned—that a healthy and wholesome cheerfulness is not necessarily impossible to any occupation. The lesson is likely to be lasting, for it will take many months to obliterate the memory of the remarks and circumstances that impressed it.

By Mark Twain. From Sketches New and Old.