Thursday, February 19, 2009

Summer Books

These are weirdly similar. I wonder if there is a publishing term for this kind of cover. Tahoma Cockatoo Light, or something. And whether they sell best when it is grey outside.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

How Could You Be So Cruel?

Yesterday evening, raking through some old four track tapes retrieved from my parents’ attic over Christmas, looking for one or two missing Planet Sunflower songs which must surely be in this shoebox somewhere. I found the saddest song I ever wrote. Thought it was lost. Christ. Happy Valentine’s Day.

The Long Vacation – How Could You Be So Cruel?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Doris Lessing – ‘The Golden Notebook’

[From a red notebook, written during the course of reading the first half of this novel.]

4th Jan. Started Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, which is helpfully prefaced with instructions on how to review it! There are three standard approaches, apparently, which are never mixed: women’s rights, politics, madness. What fun...

5th Jan. The first section reads like a demonstration of why authors shouldn’t explain their books. In this section, Molly returns home after a year’s absence and talks to her friend Anna (author of the notebooks which constitute The Golden Notebook). Is her absence what has caused her 20-year-old son Tommy to become so unhappy? His father Richard joins them, to discuss what is to be done. He is a hot-shot businessman, Molly a semi-successful actor (i.e. in work, but unable to turn down bad plays), and Anna a writer (one novel published, procrastinating over the second). There is a suggestion that Anna and Richard had a fling whilst Molly was away. Richard and Molly divorced after Tommy was born; he remarried, she didn’t. There are ideological divisions: when they met in 1935 they were all Marxists, involved via pressure groups in the Spanish Civil War. The women remained left-ist, and arty; Richard got a job in the city through his dad, made lots of money. It is absolutely as creaky as it sounds. Worse: Molly and Anna both used to visit the same psychiatrist, and are able to psychoanalyse each other with gestures and arched eyebrows.

11th Jan. Anna Wulf ponders her one novel, Frontiers of War:

But the emotion it came out of was something frightening, the unhealthy, feverish, illicit excitement of wartime, a lying nostalgia, a longing for licence, for freedom, for the jungle, for formlessness. (p. 77)

On the following page she goes further: ‘a longing to become part of dissolution’, ‘nihilism’, and:

The emotion is one of the strongest reasons why wars continue. And the people who read Frontiers of War will have had fed in them this emotion, even though they were not conscious of it. That is why I am ashamed, and why I feel continually as if I had committed a crime. (p. 78)

13th Jan. Currently (the ‘Black Notebook’ section) there is a group of communists in Africa, all quite disagreeable. They remind me of the irritating and murderous students in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

17th Jan.

And you, Ella. You tell the wives of workmen who are all just as good as their masters to use the styles and furnishings made fashionable by businessmen who use snobbery to make money. (p. 196)

This is better. Ella is a fictionalised version of Anna, who works for a low-brow fashion magazine, rather than Anna’s communist publishing firm. This comes from the Yellow Notebook, which is very good on mood, especially the part in which Ella and Paul begin their relationship: she is repelled and attracted by him in turn, and sex is often an event which will cause a swing from one mood to another.

20th Jan. Back with Anna:

I am ashamed of the psychological impulse that created Frontiers of War. I have decided never to write again, if that is the emotion which feeds my writing.

At her communist publisher’s, she has the job of reading manuscript submissions, and:

I read this dead stuff praying that just once there may be a short story, a novel, even an article, written wholly from genuine personal feeling.

And so this is the paradox: I, Anna, reject my own ‘unhealthy’ art; but reject ‘healthy’ art when I see it. (p. 311)

Her involvement in the Communist Party almost seems calculated to counter her own emotive writing. She lectures on art, disapproving of the move from the communal art of the Middle Ages to the personal art of the Twentieth Century.

From the Blue Notebook:

...who is that Anna who will read what I write? Who is this other I whose judgement I fear; or whose gaze, at least, is different from mine when I am not thinking, recording, and being conscious. And perhaps tomorrow, when that other Anna’s eye is on me, I will decide not to leave the party? (pp 312-13)

The day she arbitrarily decides to record turns out to be the day she leaves the Communist Party, and the day she recognises that her long affair with Michael is over. Writing fixes, crystallises.

[My red notebook ends here, for lack of space. The next one is lime green, which I am slightly regretting – that and bright pink were all the shop had. However, it has nothing to say about The Golden Notebook.]

Doris Lessing’s preface says that once a reader has fully understood an author’s intent, he / she may as well stop reading. By this measure, The Golden Notebook is extraordinarily successful, because having finished it I still don’t know, different possibilities keep suggesting themselves. The writing does improve after the first couple of sections – possibly these are deliberately plain, to reflect Anna’s writer’s block. The ‘Blue Notebook’ section giving an account of that single day is great, for its hyper-awareness, mixing the three themes mentioned in the preface (for the first time in the novel?) in a convincing fictional context. Also terrific is the three-pronged ending, which gives different accounts of the time Anna spends in her flat after her daughter leaves for boarding school. At first she is alone, then a lodger appears and they jump almost immediately into bed, with varying degrees of ennui. The ‘Golden Notebook’ is the strongest of the accounts: Anna’s personality is infected with the insane variability of Saul’s character, and what with the whiskey and the tiger they both drift close to madness. Or rather, it could be madness, but it could also be that unhealthy thing out of which some art, at least, is made, and which if handled carefully can be used to break writer’s block.

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