Second Thoughts: Golden snarls: Doris Lessing on The Golden Notebook (Flamingo pounds 6.99)

THE Golden Notebook is being published in this country as a modern classic, but its start 30 years ago here and in the United States was greeted with snarls. The least of the epithets was the now demoded 'ballscutter'. It had not occurred to me I was writing a feminist book. I was only describing how women thought and talked in their kitchens, and this came as a surprise to men, while some women objected to being exposed as they saw it then. Only last week a man from Mexico wrote to say the book was a revelation because he had not known women talked about the world and politics as well as about men and children. Starting with my mother, the women I have known have always talked about everything.

Reviewers can be an emotional lot. Most - some men were the exceptions - were too roiled to notice the book's shape, which to me was the point, saying by implication that to slap labels on to oneself is a mistake. 'Men. Women. Bound. Free. Good. Bad. Yes. No. Capitalism. Socialism. Sex. Love.' Everywhere in 1958 and 1959 True Believers were reeling off with broken hearts and minds because of the failure of Communism, and it was already evident that emotional commitment to a cause leads to nothing but trouble.

Later, women's movements claimed the book, and ever since, in country after country, this has happened. Now I get letters from the granddaughters of the book's first readers, who pressed it into their hands as a guide to the situation of women. I have always had letters from people interested only in the politics, and from psychiatrists interested only in the theme of madness. It is salutary to have written a book which has nearly always been received in ways opposite to its intention.

It was written at a time when every part of me was in lively debate with every other, which is perhaps why the thing has a vitality that keeps it popping up in unexpected places. It has just been republished in China, and 80,000 copies sold out in two days. To women. In Brazil two girls from the favelas said the book was relevant to their lives. A black man who read it in prison in Africa said it had changed his attitudes to women.

I wrote my way out of one set of mind - what I call 'the Western intellectual package', obligatory then for any person claiming seriousness - which meant you had to be a materialist, both philosophically and practically: life must ascend for ever for everyone everywhere on a stairway of material prosperity. You had to own allegiance to one of the churches of Marxism and believe that the working classes were the inheritors and transmitters of every possible good. You had to be an atheist. By the end of the book I had arrived in a state of agnosticism about absolutely everything, religion, politics, philosophy. Or (the second sentence), 'Everything is cracking up.'

One thought, when planning the book, was that 19th-century novels I would like to read had never been written. Historical events and processes usually seem afterwards like records of lunacy, but that is because we don't have the key to them - the atmosphere, the zeitgeist - which made it all possible. This is what novels do well - give you the taste and flavour of a time. I had lived through a period, and I knew it, just ending, which would soon seem more than usually a tale told by idiots. I wanted to record it. Whatever else the book has succeeded or failed in, I think people wanting to know what the flavour of political life and debate was like in the Forties, the Fifties, will find it in The Golden Notebook.

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