[Three quotations from Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. If these entice you, please visit my main blog for a longer consideration of the novel.]
During that period of three months when I wrote reviews, reading ten or more books a week, I made a discovery: that the interest with which I read these books had nothing to do with what I feel when I read—let’s say—Thomas Mann, the last of the writers in the old sense, who used the novel for philosophical statements about life. The point is, the function of the novel seems to be changing; it has become an outpost of journalism; we read novels for information about areas of life we don’t know—Nigeria, South Africa, the American army, a coal-mining village, coteries in Chelsea, etc. We read to find out what is going on. One novel in five hundred or a thousand has the quality a novel should have to make it a novel—the quality of philosophy.
But the point is, and it is the point that obsesses me…once I say words like good/bad, strong/weak, are irrelevant, I am accepting amorality, and I do accept it the moment I start to write “a story,” “a novel,” because I simply don’t care. All I care about is that I should describe Willi and Maryrose so that a reader can feel their reality. And after twenty years of living in and around the left, which means twenty years’ preoccupation with the question of morality in art, that is all I am left with. So what I am saying is, in fact, that the human personality, that unique flame, is so sacred to me, that everything else becomes unimportant? Is that what I am saying? And if so, what does it mean?
The nightmare takes various forms, comes in sleep, or in wakefulness, and can be pictured most simply like this: There is a blindfolded man standing with his back to a brick wall. He has been tortured nearly to death. Opposite him are six men with their rifles raised ready to shoot, commanded by a seventh, who has his hand raised. When he drops his hand, the shots will ring out, and the prisoner will fall dead. But suddenly there is something unexpected—yet not altogether unexpected, for the seventh has been listening all this while in case it happens. There is an outburst of shouting and fighting in the street outside. The six men look, in query at their officer, the seventh. The officer stands waiting to see how the fighting outside will resolve itself. There is a shout: ‘We have won!’ At which the officer crosses the space to the wall, unties the bound man, and stands in his place. The man, hitherto bound, now binds the other. There is a moment, and this is the moment of horror in the nightmare, when they smile at each other: it is a brief, bitter, accepting smile. They are brothers in that smile. The smile holds a terrible truth that I want to evade. Because it cancels all creative emotion. The officer, the seventh, now stands blindfolded and waiting with his back to the wall. The former prisoner walks to the firing squad who are still standing with their weapons ready. He lifts his hand, then drops it. The shots ring out, and the body by the wall falls twitching. The six soldiers are shaken and sick; now they will go and drink to drown the memory of their murder. But the man who was bound, who is now free, smiles as they stumble away, cursing and hating him, just as they would have cursed and hated the other, now dead. And in this man’s smile at the six innocent soldiers there is a terrible understanding irony. This is the nightmare.
—Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook