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The golden notebook : a novel

The Golden Notebook
by Doris Lessing
The Golden Notebook Perennial Classics edition Chapter One Free Women: One Anna meets her friend Molly in the summer of 1957 after a separation The two women were alone in the London flat. 'The point is,' said Anna, as her friend came back from the telephone on the landing, 'the point is, that as far as I can see, everything's cracking up.' Molly was a woman much on the telephone. When it rang she had just inquired: 'Well, what's the gossip?' Now she said, 'That's Richard, and he's coming over. It seems today's his only free moment for the next month. Or so he insists.' 'Well I'm not leaving,' said Anna. 'No, you stay just where you are.' Molly considered her own appearance--she was wearing trousers and a sweater, both the worse for wear. 'He'll have to take me as I come,' she concluded, and sat down by the window. 'He wouldn't say what it's about--another crisis with Marion, I suppose.' 'Didn't he write to you?' asked Anna, cautious. 'Both he and Marion wrote--ever such bonhomous letters. Odd, isn't it?' This odd, isn't it? was the characteristic note of the intimate conversations they designated gossip. But having struck the note, Molly swerved off with: 'It's no use talking now, because he's coming right over, he says.' 'He'll probably go when he sees me here,' said Anna, cheerfully, but slightly aggressive. Molly glanced at her, keenly, and said: 'Oh, but why?' It had always been understood that Anna and Richard disliked each other; and before Anna had always left when Richard was expected. Now Molly said: 'Actually I think he rather likes you, in his heart of hearts. The point is, he's committed to liking me, on principle--he's such a fool he's always got to either like or dislike someone, so all the dislike he won't admit he has for me gets pushed off on to you.' 'It's a pleasure,' said Anna. 'But do you know something? I discovered while you were away that for a lot of people you and I are practically interchangeable.' 'You've only just understood that? ' said Molly, triumphant as always when Anna came up with--as far as she was concerned--facts that were self-evident. In this relationship a balance had been struck early on: Molly was altogether more worldly-wise than Anna who, for her part, had a superiority of talent. Anna held her own private views. Now she smiled, admitting that she had been very slow. 'When we're so different in every way,' said Molly, 'it's odd. I suppose because we both live the same kind of life--not getting married and so on. That's all they see.' 'Free women,' said Anna, wryly. She added, with an anger new to Molly, so that she earned another quick scrutinising glance from her friend: 'They still define us in terms of relationships with men, even the best of them.' 'Well, we do, don't we?' said Molly, rather tart. 'Well, it's awfully hard not to,' she amended, hastily, because of the look of surprise Anna now gave her. There was a short pause, during which the women did not look at each other but reflected that a year apart was a long time, even for an old friendship. Molly said at last, sighing: 'Free. Do you know, when I was away, I was thinking about us, and I've decided that we're a completely new type of woman. We must be, surely?' 'There's nothing new under the sun,' said Anna, in an attempt at a German accent. Molly, irritated--she spoke half a dozen languages well--said: 'There's nothing new under the sun,' in a perfect reproduction of a shrewd old woman's voice, German accented. Anna grimaced, acknowledging failure. She could not learn languages, and was too self-conscious ever to become somebody else: for a moment Molly had even looked like Mother Sugar, otherwise Mrs. Marks, to whom both had gone for psycho-analysis. The reservations both had felt about the solemn and painful ritual were expressed by the pet name, 'Mother Sugar'; which, as time passed, became a name for much more than a person, and indicated a whole way of looking at life--traditional, rooted, conservative, in spite of its scandalous familiarity with everything amoral. In spite of --that was how Anna and Molly, discussing the ritual, had felt it; recently Anna had been feeling more and more it was because of; and this was one of the things she was looking forward to discussing with her friend. But now Molly, reacting as she had often done in the past, to the slightest suggestion of a criticism from Anna of Mother Sugar, said quickly: 'All the same, she was wonderful, and I was in much too bad a shape to criticise.' 'Mother Sugar used to say, "You're Electra," or "You're Antigone," and that was the end, as far as she was concerned,' said Anna. 'Well, not quite the end,' said Molly, wryly insisting on the painful probing hours both had spent. 'Yes,' said Anna, unexpectedly insisting, so that Molly, for the third time, looked at her curiously. 'Yes. Oh I'm not saying she didn't do me all the good in the world. I'm sure I'd never have coped with what I've had to cope with without her. But all the same . . . I remember quite clearly one afternoon, sitting there--the big room, and the discreet wall lights, and the Buddha and the pictures and the statues.' 'Well?' said Molly, now very critical. Anna, in the face of this unspoken but clear determination not to discuss it, said: 'I've been thinking about it all during the last few months . . . now I'd like to talk about it with you. After all, we both went through it, and with the same person . . . ' 'Well?' Anna persisted: 'I remember that afternoon, knowing I'd never go back. It was all that damned art all over the place.' Molly drew in her breath, sharp. She said, quickly: 'I don't know what you mean.' As Anna did not reply, she said, accusing: 'And have you written anything since I've been away?' 'No.' 'I keep telling you,' said Molly, her voice shrill, 'I'll never forgive you if you throw that talent away. I mean it. I've done it, and I can't stand watching you--I've messed with painting and dancing and acting and scribbling, and now . . . you're so talented, Anna. Why? I simply don't understand.' 'How can I ever say why, when you're always so bitter and accusing?' Molly even had tears in her eyes, which were fastened in the most painful reproach on her friend. She brought out with difficulty: 'At the back of my mind I always thought, well, I'll get married, so it doesn't matter my wasting all the talents I was born with. Until recently I was even dreaming about having more children--yes I know it's idiotic but it's true. And now I'm forty and Tommy's grown up. But the point is, if you're not writing simply because you're thinking about getting married . . . ' 'But we both want to get married,' said Anna, making it humorous; the tone restored reserve to the conversation; she had understood, with pain, that she was not, after all, going to be able to discuss certain subjects with Molly. Molly smiled, dryly, gave her friend an acute, bitter look, and said: 'All right, but you'll be sorry later.' 'Sorry,' said Anna, laughing, out of surprise. 'Molly, why is it you'll never believe other people have the disabilities you have?' 'You were lucky enough to be given one talent, and not four.' 'Perhaps my one talent has had as much pressure on it as your four?' 'I can't talk to you in this mood. Shall I make you some tea while we're waiting for Richard?' 'I'd rather have beer or something.' She added, provocative: 'I've been thinking I might very well take to drink later on.' Molly said, in the older sister's tone Anna had invited: 'You shouldn't make jokes, Anna. Not when you see what it does to people--look at Marion. I wonder if she's been drinking while I was away?' 'I can tell you. She has--yes, she came to see me several times.' 'She came to see you? ' 'That's what I was leading up to, when I said you and I seem to be interchangeable.' Molly tended to be possessive--she showed resentment, as Anna had known she would, as she said: 'I suppose you're going to say Richard came to see you too?' Anna nodded; and Molly said, briskly, 'I'll get us some beer.' She returned from the kitchen with two long cold-beaded glasses, and said: 'Well you'd better tell me all about it before Richard comes, hadn't you?' The Golden Notebook Perennial Classics edition . Copyright © by Doris M. Lessing. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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The golden notebook : a novel