The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

golden-notebookTedious but interesting.

Anna, a writer of a one-time bestseller, keeps several notebooks — a journal, a novel, reflections on youth, etc — to maintain her sanity in a world in active opposition to her ideals. The book blurb and title would have you believe she combines all these into a golden notebook, however that only occurs in the final fifty or so pages of this seven hundred page book, which gives you a good idea as to how it’s paced.

Some classics resonate with time. Others are diminished by it. You can guess which I think The Golden Notebook is. In one of the prefaces, Doris Lessing notes that when the novel was first published, protagonist Anna was viewed as extremely “macho”. It’s just about impossible to get that impression nowadays so the effect is lost. Indeed, while heralded as a staple of literary feminism, and touching on misogynist elements of society that persist today, that portion of the novel feels out of touch with modernity. Largely because of how extremely passive Anna is. We recognize her situation sucks, but it’s hard to say exactly why she continues to sleep with these awful married men.

And feminism isn’t really the focus anyhow. The bulk of the book is a growing disillusionment of the English communist party in the 50s, as the Soviet dream fell apart and peoples across Europe came to know how terrible Stalin was. While it’s an interesting counterpoint to cold war America, since it was actually possible to openly be a communist without being blacklisted or imprisoned,  the text here is  highly specific and lengthy for a utopian mentality that barely exists* anymore. It didn’t feel necessary to read I guess I’m saying.

I finished it. Despite TEDIOUS being my prime descriptor. The characterization of Anna and the content did keep me going. I doubt I ever need to return to it.

*Yeah, yeah, there’s plenty of Marxists still around, but the specific ideal English communists treasured and its razor sharp focus on the Soviet Union is not the same thing.

A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

A-general-theory-of-oblivionPop Quiz: Name a country in Africa that notes Portuguese as an official language.

 

Think about it…

 

Waiting…

 

 

Answer: There’s actually six. Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe, and Equatorial Guinea.

A General Theory of Oblivion is about Angola. Its bloody revolution, booting out the Portuguese colonials, and later its civil war, conflicts of capitalism and communism. But mostly it’s about a cadre of individual characters, criss-crossing over the 30-40 years leading to the present. Chief among them is Ludo, a portuguese agoraphobe who moved from Lisbon to Luanda to be with her sister and brother and law. When the wealthy portuguese fled Angola on the eve of Revolution, this family stayed a bit too long, sister and brother in law disappeared, and Ludo was left to brick herself into her apartment and spend the next three decades in isolation. The other leads include military police, imprisoned dissidents, men unsure whether they’re portuguese or angolan.

Agualusa, a man of portuguese descent born in Angola, initially wrote this story as a screenplay, and it shows. It’s extremely short. I read it on my kindle, but goodreads lists the hardcover as 256 pages. It must be like 24 point font with 3 inch margins to stretch that long. The length is actually perfect, because I found the book pleasant but lacking in depth and feel my good will would have evaporated had it gone on much longer.

As a country’s history, it does not delve deeply. I barely know any more about Angola than I did when I started (which can be summed up as: nothing). And since the details revealed are minimalist, the book short, and the character list long, I never got the sense of most of the characters. As a book describing agoraphobia, it fails completely when stacked up against classics like We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Where it succeeds is in capturing a feeling. I get the sense of Luanda, Angola’s capital, and the various zeitgeists that flowed through it from Independence until today. I didn’t grow attached to the many characters, partly due to the clinical narrative style detailing them, but I found that same style of writing very readable. It didn’t ask much of me and I got more than I expected in return. The blurbs compare it to Kafka which is frankly laughable, but I don’t regret reading it.