Day by Day
On reading other people’s diaries, with recommendations worth spending time with.
There’s no book I’d rather have at my bedside than a good diary; never having been able to keep one myself, I enjoy marking the passage of days in someone else’s life in the discrete segments daily entries offer. The pleasure of such reading is cumulative, an accretion of details that provides all the joy of getting letters without the worry of writing back. A special quality of immediacy enlivens a diarist’s prose with provisional perceptions. “In diaries, as in life,” suggests Thomas Mallon, “people are much more changeable than they are in novels.” He’s right: a diary offers a kind of communion with the writer — a participation, almost, in the writing — that neither memoir nor fiction can.
The range of human nature the form exhibits — from the candid and ambitious epicureanism of Samuel Pepys in seventeenth-century London to the poignant discernment and vulnerability of Anne Frank in twentieth-century Holland, from the vicarish, Victorian sensibilities of Francis Kilvert to the aesthetic and moral alertness of André Gide — expands the resources of attention at our command. In the best diaries and journals, one can chart the passages of another’s inner life in ways that cut new facets in the glass of one’s own reflections.
Here are brief descriptions of eight rewarding examples of the form, prefaced by a salute to a volume that celebrates the reach and grasp of the genre as a whole.
A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries
Keep: diaries are the only kind of writing to take that verb. One doesn’t “keep” a poem or a letter or a novel, not as one actually writes it. But diaries are so much about the preservation and protection of the self that they demand the word right from the moment they’re being composed.
In this singular, curious, deeply satisfying book about the pleasures of literary eavesdopping, Thomas Mallon surveys the land of diaries, traversing centuries and continents to consider the works and days, the thoughts and passions, the doubts and delights of scores of diarists. He is a sensitive reader, inquisitive and informative, with a fine attention to the quirks and qualities of the material under his inspection. He’s also a wonderful, amusing stylist in his own right, as his comments on the youthful entries of the novelist Evelyn Waugh — “[he] is so often drunk in the twenties that one doesn’t so much read his diaries as marinate in them” — and the psychoanalyst Karen Horney — “One can hear the girl turning into the doctor right at the comma” — make clear.
Mallon has organized his subject by grouping his scribblers together as Chroniclers, Travelers, Pilgrims, Creators, Apologists, Confessors, and Prisoners, and the people met under each rubric — from Pepys to Virginia Woolf, Kilvert to Clara Milburn, George Templeton Strong to Thomas Merton, Trotsky to Lindbergh, Anne Frank to Albert Speer — are an engrossing lot. His capsule portraits of each diarist and his or her methods and milieus cohere into a compelling gallery of human experience, one that illustrates the fascinating opacity of private lives and the surprises of self and circumstance that every day delivers to even the most reflective individuals.
This is a very small book: fewer than a hundred pages, many of them covered with text for only half of their expanse. It collects thoughts and observations in concise, discrete segments of prose, often just a single sentence, as if the author, Sarah Manguso, were assembling a kind of secular devotional to document and amplify her contemplation of her days.
“I’d be able to recover from today if it weren’t for tomorrow. There should be extra days, buffer days, between the real days.”
Composed as a kind of pendant to the massive diary the poet and memoirist kept for a quarter century, which runs to 800,000 words (that diary being, Manguso writes in an afterword, “the writing that stands in for my entire life”), Ongoingness is a series of reflections on her obsessive impulse to record life, her urge to memorialize it in words, in the shadow of her growing recognition of how effortlessly time evades capture. Alert enough to temper its certainties with the erosive force of time’s indifferent hand, Manguso’s museum of aperçus tells us so much about writing, love, marriage, motherhood, and mortality, with such poignant realism, that one ponders her words with gratitude and wonder. Every page seems to carry an epiphany: “Today was very full, but the problem isn’t today. It’s tomorrow. I’d be able to recover from today if it weren’t for tomorrow. There should be extra days, buffer days, between the real days.” And: “I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against.”
In short, Ongoingness is a volume to treasure: a rendering of days that is usefully wise and, from time to time, exhilarating.
Illness is usually a private matter; a diary, too. But The Journal of a Disappointed Man, a wrenching but deeply humane diary by a young Edwardian suffering from a terminal condition, places the most private ordeal in public view — with extraordinary consequences. For anyone who has ever suffered, or seen a loved one suffer, Bruce Frederick Cummings (1889–1919) — who, two years before his death, published his diaries under the pseudonym W. N. P. Barbellion — offers a candid but ultimately uplifting portrayal of the ravages of disease and the larger mysteries of mortality. In its unsparing recapitulation of a life cut short, his diary stands as one of literature’s great monuments to endurance in the face of adversity; it is also, as Noel Perrin calls it, “one of the great affirmations in our literature.”
Cummings, born into a family of journalists, starts keeping a diary at age thirteen, and its early entries — “Went out with L — to try to see the squirrels again” — show his keen interest in zoology and nature. Despite no formal scientific education, he eventually lands a job at London’s Natural History Museum. Yet among the early entries on newts and frogs — and on girls, whom he chases with only moderate success — Cummings records coughs and sweats, palpitations, and worse. Soon his doctor concludes that he suffers from multiple sclerosis (although the disease is not named in the book). But the doctor doesn’t tell him. Though this now sounds shocking, it was standard practice at the time for doctors not to disclose mortal illnesses to their patients; the belief was that ignorance of one’s lot was better for one’s peace of mind. Only in November of 1915, after being exempted from military service, does Cummings unseal a letter his doctor provided for the inspectors: He has been suffering from MS for more than a year, and has not much longer to live. Unbeknownst to him, and as he would only discover sometime later, his wife already knew his diagnosis.
From this point on, the diary turns more and more to interior, emotional terrain, even as the descriptions of his worsening illness are inscribed with a naturalist’s attention: “I become dreadfully emaciated,” he writes in August 1917. “This morning, before getting off the bed I lifted my leg and gazed wistfully along all its length. My flabby gastrocnemius swung suspended from the tibia like a gondola from a Zeppelin. I touched it gently with the tip of my index finger and it oscillated.”
Yet The Journal of a Disappointed Man is neither dismal nor disheartened. In fact, Cummings’s descriptions of his failing health give greater force to his benevolent, even transcendent meditations on life, and love. His time on earth compressed into just thirty years, Cummings nevertheless has no sense of injustice, and as his condition worsens he comes to see what we should all see: that every day is a gift, that we exist for one another and not just ourselves, and that our tendency to see such truths as clichés stands in the way of our fuller humanity. “If there be no loving God to watch us,” he writes, “it’s a pity for His sake as much as for our own.”
Diary of an Art Dealer 1918–1939
March 21, 1921, New York
A great change has come over the United States which will have grave consequences! The government has prohibited the sale of alcohol; the latter has become so rare that it fetches the price of a work of art. Drunkenness is going to look for new gullets, and they will be rich ones.
In this volume, the art dealer René Gimpel (1881–1945) records his life in Paris and New York through a vigorous era in splendid company: the aged Renoir and Monet are here, and Picasso, Proust, and Charlie Chaplin; dealers, collectors, and other denizens of the art world are brought before our attention, too, as well as assorted Rembrandts, Titians, Gainsboroughs, and Van Dykes. Still, it is Gimpel himself — droll, classy, generous — who quietly cuts the most impressive figure, charming us with his intimate, intelligent — albeit one-sided — conversation.
Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship, 1948–1971
This is a remarkable memoir — a keenly observed, intensely intelligent, affectionately cast diary of the last twenty-three years in the life of Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), kept by the great composer’s factotum, colleague, and friend, the noted conductor and writer Robert Craft (1923–1915). In 1948, when Craft was twenty-five, he joined the Stravinsky household as a sort of musical acolyte to the maestro, but he soon became a confidant — indeed, a surrogate son — to the composer and his wife, Vera. In the diary entries that compose this book, Craft’s erudition in matters of music and culture illuminates with insight, wit, and at times sardonic canniness the rarefied personalities and situations he was fortunate to witness firsthand. The cast of characters that animates his journal is extraordinary, and the conversations caught by Craft make us intimates of T. S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh and Ingmar Bergman, Balanchine and Giacometti and Schoenberg, Kennedy and Khrushchev, to name a few.
W. H. Auden, the librettist for Stravinsky’s 1951 opera, The Rake’s Progress, saunters through these pages like the Muses’ most enchanted minion, lighting up Craft’s chronicle with both eccentricity and eloquence. Stravinsky himself appears as an emblem of creative energy; that the artistic achievements and other activities Craft chronicles belong to the composer’s seventh, eighth, and ninth decades is astonishing. Vera Stravinsky is shown to be a woman of savvy and noble parts; not least, Craft’s narrative portrays a moving and utterly surprising love story. Exhilarating in its range of reference and discernment, a pleasure to read and return to again and again, Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship represents one of the primary cultural documents of the twentieth century.
June 12, 1944: Awakened by her husband at five am with news that German soldiers are in the vicinity, Iris Origo (1902–1988) spends an anxious morning with the refugee children housed at her farm in southern Tuscany. “In the afternoon,” she writes,
while I am with the children in the garden rehearsing the “Sleeping Beauty,” I hear a lorry drive up, and some of these same German troops come tramping, fully armed, into the garden. They do not look attractive. I go up to them, not without some inner apprehension, and ask them what they want. But the answer is unexpected: “Please — wouldn’t the children sing for us?” The children sing O Tannenbaum and Stille Nacht (which they learned last Christmas) — and tears come into the men’s eyes. . . . So they climb into their lorry and drive away.
Such surprising and poignant incidents are recounted again and again in this remarkable diary, which documents, with immediacy and no little eloquence, life in a remote area of the Tuscan countryside during eighteen months of the Second World War, from January 1943 through July 1944.
Its author was the child of Lady Sybil Cuffe of Desart Court in Ireland and the American diplomat William Bayard Cutting. She grew up at the Villa Medici in Fiesole, and came to Val d’Orcia upon her marriage to an Italian marquis. At their manor, La Foce, the Origos created a world of learning (she authored several scholarly biographies, including an especially splendid one of the poet Leopardi), labor, and compassion, improving the land and the life of its natives. But neither their privilege nor their location spared them from the fears, perils, and uncertainties of wartime life, as this personal record proves.
The ordinary tasks of living get harder by the day as the conflict closes in, while Origo’s concern for the safety of the young refugees from Genoa and Turin who are in her charge grows greater. Rumors of the war’s progress fill the air; cataclysmic events are occurring nearby, but no one is sure what they are or what they mean. Occupying German forces and advancing Allied soldiers pursue each other as Italian partisans and escaped POWs of every stripe roam the countryside. With shells exploding about them, the couple leads a beleaguered band — including sixty children — eight miles on foot to Montepulciano in the hope of escaping the violence of the retreating Wehrmacht.
One of the most remarkable records of the experience of noncombatants during World War II, War in Val d’Orcia is a testament to the nobility of “the shared, simple acts of everyday life,” even — especially — in the face of destruction and death.
Covering the years 1870 to 1879, the diary of the Reverend Francis Kilvert (1840–1879) is an addictive pleasure, offering an unparalleled portrait of life in the English countryside in the mid-Victorian era. Few diaries are as enjoyable to read.
A vicar’s son who spent most of his short life (he died at age thirty-nine, within a month of his marriage) in Wiltshire and Wales, Kilvert was a man of modesty and good cheer. His diary entries are filled with the everyday encounters of a clergyman’s quiet life, although they frequently blush with his interest in a comely young woman. Attentive to natural phenomena and the whims of the weather, he is a pleasure to follow on his long walks from one village to another through the rolling landscape of the Welsh borders. He is unselfconscious in documenting his daily rounds among his often doting parishioners, and his easy acquaintance with both gentry and laborers introduces readers to a variety of Victorian experience. Over the course of the decade his diary covers, Kilvert fashions an intimate portrait of an age and a way of life that in our hurried era seems unfamiliar: Time is so expansive, small distances are so great, conversation is so fruitful, and nature is so close that one feels truly transported to another world — a world it is a long delight to visit.
One might say that Edmond (1822–1896) and Jules de Goncourt (1830–1870) shaped the model of the modern man of letters: By dint of informed taste and obsessively self-studied sensibilities, they — by their own lights, at least — rose above the trivialities of the bourgeois world to dwell in a state of intermittent inspiration and perpetual ennui. Their high-minded artistic ambition as determined, if unsuccessful, novelists was matched to a worldly predilection for decadent pursuits, and their Journal is a kind of conversational companion to the highly wrought soliloquies of Charles Baudelaire. As Geoff Dyer notes in his introduction to a recent reissue of Robert Baldick’s superb selection from the brothers’ voluminous diaries, the Goncourts were “self-styled ‘John-the-Baptists of modern neurosis.’” Yet for all the brothers’ self-absorption — perhaps because of it — Pages from the Goncourt Journal is a joy to read.
Beginning in 1851 and continuing almost to the end of the century (after Jules’s death in 1870, Edmond maintained the chronicle alone), the daily record of incidents, reflections, gossip, and indiscretions is spiced not only with insights into literature, art, and fashion, but also with witness to historical events such as the 1870–71 Siege of Paris and the subsequent uprising that gave birth to the Commune: “The sufferings of Paris during the siege? A joke for two months. In the third month the joke went sour.” The loneliness of authorship — “I keep hearing people say that nobody is capable of self-abnegation and self-sacrifice any longer. Yet I have sacrificed to literature, if not a grand passion, a very serious and tender affection” — is balanced with its conviviality: “Dinner at the Café Riche with Flaubert, Zola, Turgenev, and Alphonse Daudet.” There are discoveries all the more striking for the offhandedness of their narration:
Yesterday I spent the whole day in the studio of a strange painter called Degas. After a great many essays and experiments and trial shots in all directions, he has fallen in love with modern life, and out of all the subjects in modern life he has chosen washerwomen and ballet-dancers. When you come to think of it, it is not a bad choice.
As addictive to readers as they clearly were to their writers, the journal entries attempt to capture what Jules described as “all the interesting things which are lost in conversation.” To an astonishing degree, they succeed; if Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century, the Goncourts were its devilish recording angels.
“There were two Virginia Woolfs: the rather gorgeous artist and the busy, observant, ironical, everyday woman. We’re lucky to have books by both of them,” Anatole Broyard once wrote. While the gorgeous artist takes center stage in works such as To the Lighthouse and Orlando, the everyday woman displays her astonishing vitality and her intermittent but fateful anguish across the five installments of her complete diary, here admirably abridged into a single volume by Anne Olivier Bell.
“I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage & haddock by writing them down.”
Woolf began her diary in 1915, while recovering from a breakdown and her first suicide attempt, and she continued it until four days before drowning herself in the River Ouse, in March 1941. She wrote through the births and deaths of friends and relations, and through bouts of her own madness. She recorded details of weather and war, of her own writing and the shared work with which she and her husband, Leonard, built their Hogarth Press, of house hunting, of who said what at dinner. Woolf was the brightest star in the constellation known as Bloomsbury, and the “who” that came to dinner encompassed John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Vita Sackville-West, and Lytton Strachey. Many other luminaries pass through these pages, including Sigmund Freud, who, with Freudian slipperiness, presents Woolf with a narcissus.
Most memorable in these diary entries is the alertness with which Woolf perceives all about her, from mundane domestic arrangements to dramatic personal doubts and crises. Literary struggles and triumphs take their place between caustic assessments of her contemporaries and sympathetic concern for friends and relations. The elegiac power of her best fiction is matched here by her awareness of life’s fleeting presences: “Occupation is essential,” she writes in her penultimate entry, three weeks before her death. “And now with some pleasure I find that its [sic] seven; & must cook dinner. Haddock & sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage & haddock by writing them down.”