Monday, April 25, 2016

The Private Life of the Diary

I’ve kept a diary since I was twelve. While I composed nearly illegible autobiographical scratchings in my first years of primary school at my teachers’ request, it wasn’t until I was on the brink of becoming a teenager that I felt I needed a more permanent arrangement. I suspect it had to do with reading The Diary of Anne Frank. My diary’s function has changed over the years – it once had a name (having discovered that Zoe was the Greek word for life, I thought my choice extremely clever), and I used to like my diaries in a variety of shapes and sizes, spangled with glitter, ruled with wide lines, shackled with locks and keys. For at least eight years my diary was the space in which to vent my feelings, and offered some form of therapeutic comfort. This meant it was largely about boys and is, as a result, very tedious to reread. But while the function of my journal has changed, each volume has been a solution to the manic desire to scribble. As I discovered reading Anne Frank, each encounter with a writer’s diary – whether I’m reading Dorothy Wordsworth or Virginia Woolf, John Cheever or Katherine Mansfield – prompts me to return to my own. And so reading Sally Bayley’s The Private Life of the Diary, fresh off the presses, has sent me scurrying back to my black notebook and black ink pen, ready to catch the cream of the morning.

In her biography of the diary form, the ‘story of the diarist as they move through the stumbling plot of life’, Sally combines astute readings of the best diarists with slivers of her unusual childhood in a matriarchal, overcrowded house on the Sussex coast. The book’s heroes are Woolf, Pepys, Boswell, and Plath, but her net catches other riches: Susan Sontag, Adrian Mole, John Lennon, John Adams, Emerson, Alan Clark, Tony Benn, and, my favourite fictional diarist, I Capture the Castle’s Cassandra Mortmain.

Sally’s own experiments with the diary form – as a seven-year-old sent to Switzerland as her family’s emissary; or dawdling in a nearby wood in order to find a private space of her own – are summoned by and threaded through the books she reads. Her readings expertly catch the tone and timbre of her writer-characters. ‘Diaries plunge us into the whirlpool of other people’s lives’, she writes on Woolf’s early diary: Plunge is a very Woolfian word. Flux is another, as is muddle. The Private Life of the Diary is what happens when you spend a life in books: language leaks from the pages, pooling into the writer’s reserve. Yet, with the confidence of a lifelong reader, Sally is never reverent: she’s not afraid to be bored by Sontag’s brittle intellectual posturing or to deflate Pepys’ pretentions.

Like the best diaries, this study is a collage of glittering fragments; of difficult memories; of the many attempts it takes to make a self; of nostalgia and historical distance. Besides the champagne of the book’s contents, The Private Life of the Diary is a beautiful artefact: slim, sleek-paged, type-set in Caslon, with a scarlet ribbon to keep your place as you dip in and out.

I was lucky enough to have Sally as my tutor at Oxford. She taught me Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell; we talked Boswell, and Shakespeare, Keats, Byron, Shelley, and Coleridge. She carried them at her fingertips. I was delighted to see that The Private Life of the Diary elegantly reveals the curious mind that ‘sauntered’ – as she would say, quoting Thoreau – through my tutorials, her wide ranging showing that nothing in the canon was safe from her sharp eye and sharper ear.

But the best part of The Private Life of the Diary is that it will send you back to the books: back to the Woolf who gossips about Bloomsbury love affairs and who worries about what her friends think of her novels; and to the Pepys who rashly buys a sword on credit. It’s a must-read for anyone who scribbles.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Eire go Bragh

St. Patrick’s Day came a little late this year. This arrived in the mail on Friday.

Between the promise of O’Connor, finishing Tim Robinson’s magisterial Connemara trilogy, whizzing through the second season of The Fall, and Patrick Radden Keefe’s New Yorker article on the bodies of those “disappeared” during the Troubles (March 16th issue), March has proved an Irish excursion. I’m almost in the mood for a thimbleful of Guinness.

Saturday, February 21, 2015


My previous experience of Rachel Cusk is restricted to her travel book on Italy, The Last Supper, which was withdrawn in Britain because of objections from individuals who found themselves featured, unflatteringly, within its pages. It's very difficult not to write a book about Italy without being smug.

Then I read reviews (especially hatchet jobs) about her controversial divorce memoir, Aftermath. I confess I’m suspicious when a writer writes memoir after memoir, as if his own life is the only field of interest. I read memoirs – I am moved by the familiar voice – but I’m wary of their cultural predominance. Self-knowledge is a good springboard for knowledge of others. Orbiting one’s own life without ever calling into question the limitation of it seems myopic. (This, however, is not to say that personal writing can be divorced from art, or that it should be.)

But Outline is an expose of how fascinating and selfish and dreary and inescapable monologues on the self can be. The plot is slender: a writer goes to Athens to teach a writing course. The novel is structured as ten monologues, given by people the writer meets who can’t help disclosing themselves, speaking at length about their thoughts and lives, their shortcomings, and the shortcomings of others. The wealthy man who sits next to her on the plane. The students at her writing course. A fellow writer. A friend. They are driven to anatomise themselves in public, stamping themselves on the writer’s blank page. Despite being in the middle of some muted crisis, the writer allows her companions to speak with very little interruption or contradiction. What starts in the novel as speech, given in the figure of dialogue – that is, between quotation marks – quickly becomes the substance of the text itself. I’ve looked through the novel again to find a quotation, something to chew over, but I find I can’t take it from the continuing whole, which is so sleek and effortlessly integrated, without diminishing the part I’ve removed.

In any case, the writer’s silence cannot be explained easily as saying that women are reduced to silence by the volubility of men, even though she is female, and her male friends are voluble. Rather, the novel features explicitly feminist characters which are just as boring and long-winded about their own oppression. Outline suggests that people can’t help telling stories to each other. Narration, especially self-narration, is ongoing. The listener (or reader) is hypnotized by the voice which continues to talk, which in turn is so self-enthralled by his own life that he can’t doubt the value of his expression.

While the novel could be read as being about the act of writing, the novel is more interested in human instinct and social relations. It’s interested in a variety of voices, all self-involved. It just so happens that writers try to fix down those human instincts and social relations: for entertainment, for consolation, for exposure. It’s a fine-boned book and has tripled my regard for its author. I suspect it’ll make this year’s Man-Booker longlist.

Friday, January 23, 2015

I’m reading the journal of Katherine Mansfield. Every so often reading gives you a jolt of recognition or kinship: some kind of connection to the absent voice. This morning I read:

January 22. Weather worse than ever. At tea-time I surprised myself by breaking down. I simply felt for a moment overcome with anguish and came upstairs and put my head on the black cushion. My longing for cities engrosses me.

January 23. The old man breaking stones again. A thick white mist reaches the edge of the field.

The year is 1915 and a space of exactly a hundred year stands between Mansfield and me. One January is as bleak as another. Why is it so comforting to read about another’s misery? Why is this true about diaries and not Facebook? I imagine this is because diaries are private consolations, places to put despair so that it doesn’t leak into public life. Facebook, on the other hand, becomes a means of redefining a version of the public by one’s despair.

My brilliant, imaginative friend and former tutor Sally Bayley has written a history of the diary. She’s publishing it with Unbound books, a new crowd-funding model which has caught the eye of the publishing industry. Forbes discusses it here. Sally taught me mental breadth; her classes were exhilerating experiments. You can (and should!) support her work here

Monday, November 17, 2014

Blast-beruffled plumes

I’ve returned to Minnesota to find it transformed into a Brueghel painting.

Our hunters are gone north or even south, wherever there are more deer. This has been a bad year for deer, threatened by the cold of last year’s polar vortex and the high population of coyotes, which now carry a bounty on their heads.

So, while it’s still autumn in England (I’ve been assured), winter has come. The nights are long, the wreaths are out. I’ve been reading restlessly – Robert Walser and GB Shaw. But some nights, Thomas Hardy feels just right for November melancholia. Here’s ‘A Darkling Thrush’:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

I will leave Frost for December.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Short Story Season I

The New Yorker Fiction podcast, which I’ve now gobbled up in its entirety, has recently been a lifeline while I’ve been travelling from house to house, city to city. It’s been responsible for kick-starting my renewed interest in the short story – more to come – and for introducing me to writers I’ve long known by name but never read: like Elizabeth Taylor.

Paul Theroux read Taylor’s ‘The Letter Writers’ this past January for the podcast and the story remains one of her best, alongside (and forgive the list) stories such as ‘Taking Mother Out’, ‘Swan-Moving’, ‘A Sad Garden’, ‘The Ambush’, ‘The True Primitive’, ‘The Little Girl’, ‘Hare Park’, ‘The Prerogative of Love’, and ‘The Thames Spread Out’. Travelling with the hefty paperback on planes, trains, and automobiles, I feel I’ve dragged round my little plot of England to keep me company.

(A quick note on editions: an NYRB edition of her stories has just been published but it is a selection, rather than Virago’s Complete Stories. Forgo the glamorous selection and cart around the lunker.)

My tutor S. has compared Taylor to John Cheever, saying both are accomplished stylists. This is undoubtedly true, but Taylor submerges her style in composition, humour, and compassion. With Cheever, I always feel like I’m drinking a glass of wine and am drunk before I’ve come to the end. Taylor is sherry or port rather than champagne. Several of her stories do follow the masterful shape of the short story’s ideal, where you respond to the cleverness, the justness, of it. Others are portraits or studies of an era, of a certain kind of Englishness, of character. The way one might travel to a long-romanticized place; the way one might respond to unfamiliar children; how a West Indian immigrant might experience life in London: thought-experiments of feeling. To read her is to become aware of how people subtly disappoint each other. The stories reveal a writer intrigued – not repulsed – by human failings. I don’t think it’s necessary to like your characters – last year the novelist Claire Messud was involved in a national discussion about female writers and their characters’ likeability, and I’m personally quite put off by the whole question – but to read Taylor is to see what kind of revelations come from sympathy. David Baddiel’s likening of Taylor to Jane Austen is just. Both display moral curiosity, and are never sentimental so as to miss having a laugh at someone who deserves it.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Eastern promises II

James Wood may not practice the sexy theoretical criticism of the academy, but for all his critical conservatism, he’s an animal which may soon become extinct: a Critic. Unafraid to draw attention to an emperor’s nudity (his review of David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks in the New Yorker a few weeks ago was laudatory but notably cool), he offers a critical opinion I’m inclined to trust. Wood has become a barometer, as the best critics are, rather than a salesman. Thanks to Wood, I’ve been put onto Jenny Offill (Dept of Speculation), and Wood’s essay on Lázsló Kraznahorkai in 2011 alerted me to the Hungarian writer’s work. I’ve finally read Kraznahoraki’s first novel, Sátántango, first published in 1985 and translated by the British-Hungarian poet George Szirtes in 2012.

A still from Bela Tarr's 1994 adaptation of Kraznahorkai's novel

Sátántango is a maniac’s rain-sodden rant: powerful and nightmarish and dull. Beckett meets Kafka: difficult and alienating, mythic and vague. A dead cat you hug. In the novel, a group of individuals living on a run-down Hungarian estate barely survive the dripping continuity of their sordid, decaying lives. The news that two men long thought dead have been resurrected stirs them up. Irimiás, one of the two men, however, has plans for the villagers.

The whole novel is the scribblings of an obese, alcoholic, obsessive doctor. The fictional instinct is one that proceeds out of terminal solitude and disease: fiction happens when there is no one to observe but the itch to record continues.

When the novel is over, you are glad to be rid of it. Then again, by the time you have read it through, you get the sneaking suspicion that it should be read from the beginning again. The novel itself demands it.

One could write essays on Sátántango. (I imagine someone has/will.) But for the moment, I’m going to chew on its grimy apocalypse before committing myself. Revelation comes with rereading.