In writing a novel about a novelist and her novels, Doris Lessing comments extensively on the relationship between “fact” and “fiction,” the artist and her work. The protagonist Anna Wulf has long ago published her first novel, Frontiers of War, to commercial success. In Anna’s black notebook, the reader encounters the supposed “facts” that Anna folded into Frontiers of War; and in her yellow notebook, the reader sees her next attempt at fiction, a novel that initially appears to be a fictionalized version of her own life, as presented in the frame story Free Women. However, at the end of the book, the reader learns that it is closer to the opposite: Lessing reveals that the Free Women sections are not an objective version of events; they do not present the “real” Anna through which the reader must interpret Anna’s subjective and fictional reflections on her past. Rather, Free Women is actually Anna’s second novel, and what initially looks like fact is revealed as fiction; the novel in the yellow notebook, then, is not a reflection of the facts in Free Women but something of a preparatory sketch for it. Ultimately, to prioritize and seek out the “facts” of Anna’s life and experience is to entirely miss Lessing’s point: that fact and fiction are inevitably muddled and influence one another, and that the boundary between text and world, author and reader, is never absolute.
Anna’s depression revolves largely around her inability to write, or her creative block. Although Anna denies this, Molly, Saul Green and most of all the psychoanalyst Mrs Marks relentlessly point it out to her. Mrs Marks (whom Anna and Molly jokingly call “Mother Sugar”) asks continually about Anna’s creative process, and in their final conversation Anna realizes that she can create something new out of her personal experience rather than recycling the myths that Mother Sugar feeds her. Instead of seeing her life as examples of universal stories about “the wolves and the castle and the forests and the priests,” Anna decides that she must narrate it for herself, which is her first step toward overcoming her “creative block.” Once she can finally admit her block for the first time in the last iteration of the blue notebook, Anna almost immediately buys the golden notebook in which she consolidates her identity and gets the first line of Free Women from Saul. Her great achievement in the novel is her ability to write again, to reconcile the facts of her life with her writerly imagination.
Anna overcomes her block precisely by producing fiction out of facts—her novels are not imaginary stories to be contrasted against “reality,” but are adaptations of that reality. Frontiers of War, Anna admits, is an adaptation of her time in Africa—she focuses on a relatively minor dimension of her actual experience (George Hounslow’s relationship with the cook Jackson’s wife, Marie). Yet Anna worries endlessly about production companies that try to adapt Frontiers of War into a film, erasing its central political truth—the evil of British colonial racism—while pretending to preserve its other, more banal “truths” by keeping the love story the same. Meanwhile, Anna’s yellow notebook is her attempt to make sense of her romantic past by translating it into fiction. Indeed, the reader learns as much about this past from Ella’s story as through Anna’s own memories or admissions. The end of the yellow notebook also comprises ideas for short stories gleaned from Anna’s relationship with Saul.
Not only are Anna’s stories drawn from life, but her life also begins to imitate stories in the book. This can be seen, for example, when the story at the Party meeting about Comrade Ted visiting Stalin—which Anna insists one can “read as parody, irony, or seriously”—foreshadows the supposedly true story of Harry Mathews doing the same (even though Ted becomes enamored with the Soviets and Harry basically gives up on them).
Structurally, the status of the Free Women sections proves to the reader that it is impossible to precisely know what is fact, what is fiction, and what version of Anna is the “author” of the other versions. In the golden notebook, when Saul gives Anna the opening line “The two women were alone in the London flat,” it becomes clear that Free Women is Anna’s second novel rather than an “objective” picture of her life told from an omniscient point of view. At first, Free Women seems like the “truth” of Anna’s life, behind which the notebooks reveal her subjective feelings about her life. However, by the end of the book, it becomes clear that Free Women is actually Anna’s own fiction, built out of her own experiences, which are recounted most transparently in her notebooks—but never objectively, anywhere in the novel. Free Women and the notebooks reach incompatible endings: Anna’s relationship with Saul is far more tumultuous than hers with the fictional Milt; her madness is caused by Saul but merely resolved by Milt; and Anna ends the notebooks able to write Free Women, but ends Free Women deciding to become a marriage counselor rather than write. And Anna does not continue writing the notebooks after Saul leaves, so it is unclear what she did in his absence—besides, obviously, write Free Women. Ultimately, it is up to the reader to decide who the real Anna Wulf is and where she ends up when the novel is over.
Furthermore, the question of how the reader gains access to Anna’s private notebooks in the first place underlies the whole novel. Anna continually worries about anyone reading them, and in Free Women, she fears that Tommy’s suicide attempt is somehow related to reading them in secret. The golden notebook ends up in Saul Green’s hands, not Anna’s, leaving the questions of authorship and access unanswered: did Anna publish the notebooks alongside Free Women? If so, what did she include and leave out? Did she intentionally include all these ambiguities about authorship to reflect her sense that she has multiple identities? Is the reader Tommy himself, blinded to the story of Free Women by the material in the notebooks? Are the notebooks real at all, or perhaps simply merely the ones Tommy sees in Free Women, a fictional flourish by the Anna Wulf the novelist?
Lessing is not necessarily suggesting that the subjective reality of the notebooks is more “true” than the seemingly objective one of Free Women; rather, her layers of fiction show how readers’ instinctual faith in stories that sound factual can undermine their ability to see that remembered truth is a creative projection of experience and, in this novel’s case, the reader can reach the truth of Anna’s experience as much through her fiction as through her memories. Of course, it goes without saying that, just as Anna adapts her own experience to the yellow notebook and Free Women, Anna’s character is an adaptation of Lessing herself; the boundaries between author and character, reality and fiction, remain porous.
Fact, Fiction, and Authorship ThemeTracker
Fact, Fiction, and Authorship Quotes in The Golden Notebook
Most novels, if they are successful at all, are original in the sense that they report the existence of an area of society, a type of person, not yet admitted to the general literate consciousness. The novel has become a function of the fragmented society, the fragmented consciousness. Human beings are so divided, are becoming more and more divided, and more subdivided in themselves, reflecting the world, that they reach out desperately, not knowing they do it, for information about other groups inside their own country, let alone about groups in other countries. It is a blind grasping out for their own wholeness, and the novel-report is a means towards it. Inside this country, Britain, the middle-class have no knowledge of the lives of the working-people, and vice-versa; and reports and articles and novels are sold across the frontiers, are read as if savage tribes were being investigated. Those fishermen in Scotland were a different species from the coalminers I stayed with in Yorkshire; and both come from a different world than the housing estate outside London.
What Ella lost during those five years was the power to create through naivety.
“It seems to me like this. It’s not a terrible thing — I mean, it may be terrible, but it’s not damaging, it’s not poisoning, to do without something one wants. It’s not bad to say: My work is not what I really want, I’m capable of doing something bigger. Or I’m a person who needs love, and I’m doing without it. What’s terrible is to pretend that the second-rate is first-rate. To pretend that you don’t need love when you do; or you like your work when you know quite well you’re capable of better. It would be very bad if I said, out of guilt or something: I loved Janet’s father, when I know quite well I didn’t. Or for your mother to say: I loved Richard. Or I’m doing work I love …”
(At this point, Ella detached herself from Ella, and stood to one side, watching and marvelling.)
And so this is the paradox: I, Anna, reject my own "unhealthy" art; but reject “healthy” art when I see it.
The point is that this writing is essentially impersonal. Its banality is that of impersonality.
15th September, 1954
A normal day. During the course of a discussion with John Butte and Jack I decided to leave the Party. I must now be careful not to start hating the Party in the way we do hate stages of our life we have outgrown. Noted signs of it already: moments of disliking Jack which were quite irrational. Janet as usual, no problems. Molly worried, I think with reason, over Tommy. She has a hunch he will marry his new girl. Well, her hunches usually come off. I realized that Michael had finally decided to break it off. I must pull myself together.
She was thinking: If someone cracks up, what does that mean? At what point does a person about to fall to pieces say: I’m cracking up? And if I were to crack up, what form would it take? […] Anna, Anna, I am Anna, she kept repeating; and anyway, I can’t be ill or give way, because of Janet; I could vanish from the world tomorrow, and it wouldn’t matter to anyone except to Janet. What then am I, Anna? — something that is necessary to Janet. But that’s terrible, she thought, her fear becoming worse. That’s bad for Janet. So try again: Who am I, Anna? Now she did not think of Janet, but shut her out. Instead she saw her room, long, white, subdued, with the coloured notebooks on the trestle table. She saw herself, Anna, seated on the music-stool, writing, writing; making an entry in one book, then ruling it off, or crossing it out; she saw the pages patterned with different kinds of writing; divided, bracketed, broken — she felt a swaying nausea; and then saw Tommy, not herself, standing with his lips pursed in concentration, turning the pages of her orderly notebooks.
From this point of the novel “the third,” previously Paul’s wife; then Ella’s younger alter ego formed from fantasies about Paul’s wife; then the memory of Paul; becomes Ella herself. As Ella cracks and disintegrates, she holds fast to the idea of Ella whole, healthy and happy. The link between the various “thirds” must be made very clear: the link is normality, but more than that — conventionality, attitudes or emotions proper to the “respectable” life which in fact Ella refuses to have anything to do with.
“But now I can feel. I’m open to everything. But no sooner do you accomplish that, than you say quickly — put it away, put the pain away where it can’t hurt, turn it into a story or into history. But I don’t want to put it away. Yes, I know what you want me to say — that because I’ve rescued so much private pain-material — because I’m damned if I’ll call it anything else, and ‘worked through it’ and accepted it and made it general, because of that I’m free and strong. Well all right, I’ll accept it and say it. And what now? I’m tired of the wolves and the castle and the forests and the priests. I can cope with them in any form they choose to present themselves. But I’ve told you, I want to walk off, by myself, Anna Freeman.”
It occurs to me that what is happening is a breakdown of me, Anna, and this is how I am becoming aware of it. For words are form, and if I am at a pitch where shape, form, expression are nothing, then I am nothing, for it has become clear to me, reading the notebooks, that I remain Anna because of a certain kind of intelligence. This intelligence is dissolving and I am very frightened.
Then I remembered that when I read my notebooks I didn’t recognize myself. Something strange happens when one writes about oneself. That is, one’s self direct, not one’s self projected. The result is cold, pitiless, judging. […] If Saul said, about his diaries, or, summing his younger self up from his later self: I was a swine, the way I treated women. Or: I’m right to treat women the way I do. Or: I’m simply writing a record of what happened, I’m not making moral judgements about myself — well, whatever he said, it would be irrelevant. Because what is left out of his diaries is vitality, life, charm. “Willi allowed his spectacles to glitter across the room and said …” “Saul, standing foursquare and solid, grinning slightly — grinning derisively at his own seducer’s pose, drawled: Come’n baby, let’s fuck, I like your style.” I went on reading entries, first appalled by the cold ruthlessness of them; then translating them, from knowing Saul, into life. So I found myself continually shifting mood, from anger, a woman’s anger, into the delight one feels at whatever is alive, the delight of recognition.
Whoever he be who looks in this
He shall be cursed.
That is my wish.
Saul Green, his book. (!!!)
“Write down: The two women were alone in the London flat.” […] “On a dry hillside in Algeria, the soldier watched the moonlight glinting on his rifle.”