It is 50 years since Doris Lessing's most famous novel, The Golden Notebook, was published. As a recent retrospective in The Guardian made clear, it is a book that still has a capacity to inspire and divide readers. Diana Athill speaks for others when she criticizes Lessing for 'her tendency to overstate, and her style'. Yet, in a moving piece, Natalie Hanman describes how Lessing's book 'helped to steer [her] towards knowing which questions to ask' in her own life.
As someone who admires Lessing's work, I have sometimes found The Golden Notebook to be a hindrance when recommending her books. When I have mentioned my interest in her work to various people, I have been met with a sigh or found the other person rolling their eyes. 'Well, I've tried reading The Golden Notebook', they may say, or, 'I struggled through it - I got to the end'.
The Golden Notebook is a long novel and it is less formally inventive than Lessing herself has sometimes claimed (in another form of overstatement). Lessing says that writing the book 'changed the way I thought completely' - and this quality of thinking things out can make it an unusually provocative or personally helpful novel, as Hanman attests. The book also has value as a form of documentary realism. It captures (in Lessing's words) 'the intellectual and moral climate' of the late 1950s.
But I would argue that Lessing has written better books in the last 50 years, which have been overshadowed by the fame attached to The Golden Notebook and The Grass is Singing, her first novel.
Here, then, are five books that Lessing has written since 1962 that I would recommend to anyone who has struggled with The Golden Notebook, or who wishes to go beyond it:
The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five:
Lessing has dropped hints that she considers this to be one of her best books and has said of it: "this book goes down into me pretty deep... it will never happen again." The novel tells the story of a king and queen of different 'zones', their arranged marriage and its implications for their people. It is a legend, which borrows from science fiction for its form and premise, but also a realistic story about marriage, politics, community and the difficulty of knowing other people.
The Good Terrorist:
The 2010 film Four Lions made a convincing case that we should think of terrorism as the work of amateurs. Lessing's 1985 novel - which is dry, scathing and horribly believable - begins from a similar premise. She has said it grew out of listening to reporting of the bombing of Harrods in 1983: "Here the media reported it to sound as if it was the work of amateurs. I started to think, what kind of amateurs could they be? I got completely fascinated by this line of thought. Also, I happened to be in Ireland when they bumped off Mountbatten [...] and all the little boys, aged about 10 to 15, were rushing about, delighted, because of course they admire the IRA. I thought how easy it would be for a kid, not really knowing what he or she was doing, to drift into a terrorist group."
The Fifth Child:
One of my favourite Lessing novels, and the one I read first, at the age of 16 (probably the right time to read Lessing, who has retained something of a teenager's spirit throughout her long life). Lessing imagines a defiantly conventional couple, constructing a seemingly ideal life, which is interrupted by the birth of their extraordinary fifth child. The book makes a convincing case for how much of human character remains uncharted and that life is always likely to elude the naïve order we try to impose on it.
Mara and Dann: An Adventure:
Lessing has said she always wanted to write an adventure story, and perhaps few of her books are as pleasurable to read or have such imaginative scope as this one, which imagines a brother and sister travelling across Africa after a future Ice Age. It is a thrilling read and infused with Lessing's rich experience of the continent she grew up on - and with a late-discovered affection for her younger brother.
A combination of Lessing's writings about cats, from the feral creatures she encountered on the African farm where she grew up, to her domestic companions in London. This is a sharp, thoughtful book about human-animal relations - and one that, at moments, seems more revealing than Lessing's autobiography about the shape of her life.