Doris Lessing died yesterday at 94. I remember reading her Golden Notebook over 40 years ago and although the details of the novel are little more than vague in my brain, my emotional response as a reader is not. I remember feeling awed by the words of this novel and the way it was structured. I remember being pushed, stretched, and challenged by its words and vision. I remember it expanding and questioning my understanding of relationships, gender roles, and story. These words seem too soft. My memory is that I was shaken and transformed, unsettled and reorganized.
Critics have called this book a classic piece of feminist literature. It is taught in feminist literature courses in colleges across this country. Women of a certain age, like myself, have all agreed that it was a book which changed their emotional and thinking lives.
In the many tributes I have read about her, her curmudgeonly personality has been documented including her claim that The Golden Notebook has been completely misunderstood, that her theme was very different from the way readers have seen it. And this is what has become so intriguing to me. The notion that an artwork, once it is created, no longer belongs to the artist, that art has a life of its own, that the artist can no longer control its meaning once it has been released into the cosmos. “There’s nothing feminist about The Golden Notebook,” Lessing claimed. I am reminded of Georgia O’Keefe’s boisterous retorts to critics that her flower paintings alluded to female genital parts. “They are only flowers,” she responded angrily.
This notion of the artwork being organically alive and its significance flourishing and morphing as it interacts with readers and viewers is provocative and compelling. It is what makes art vibrant and alive and much larger than any human being could ever imagine to understand.
I have just checked out The Golden Notebook from the library. I thought I had an old copy at home (I can still see the cover of the copy I read so long ago), but it has disappeared along the way of these 43 years. I intend to sit down tonight and begin to read it again. I know the book will read differently to me now than it did decades before. I know I will respond in a totally different way because the times and the culture have so fundamentally changed. The words of The Golden Notebook are exactly the same, but everything else around it has radically changed, especially this person reading it.
It is this altering of the context around a piece of art which impacts its meaning and relevance. If the art holds, then the experience of it is bound to add yet another enriching layer. This is what is exciting and thrilling. To make art, the artist only performs half the job. The rest of the work is up to us.
Thank you, Doris Lessing, for reminding me.