The Magazine

Dear Diary . . .

The art of speaking to yourself.

Dec 17, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 14 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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The Assassin's Cloak
An Anthology of the World's Greatest Diarists
edited by Irene and Alan Taylor
Canongate, 684 pp., $35

AN ANTHOLOGY of diary entries may seem a silly idea, rather like an anthology of everything. But, in fact, diaries are not infinitely varied. Some are to-do lists in living color. Others are extended brags, storing up triumphs against future blue episodes. Still others are exercises in esprit de l'escalier, meant to guard the writer from repeating his most egregious social blunders and committing those of others.

But all diaries are, after a fashion, therapeutic. That's why the modern diary dates only from the mid-seventeenth century, or roughly when modernity made therapy a priority. And it's why the 1,500 entries the Scottish journalists Irene and Alan Taylor have assembled in "The Assassin's Cloak" never seem like the mere grab-bag they are--even though the Taylors' selection, organized by calendar date, spans 170 writers and four centuries.

Many of the writers here owe their literary fame largely, even primarily, to their diaries (Pepys, Boswell, Gide, Count Harry Kessler). But the diaries of those renowned for other things (Goebbels, Alec Guinness, Che Guevara) are, if anything, even more rewarding. Andy Warhol marvels at the way the fashion designer Halston berates employees for sport. "What do you mean you don't know where the black [radio] station is!" he hollers at a cab driver. "You're black, aren't you?" Dawn Powell is shocked to find that the egomaniacal author William Saroyan has an immigrant grandmother who is even more self-absorbed than he. "She is so stupid," the old lady says of a California neighbor. "Think of it. She has lived next door to me for 28 years and still can't speak a word of Armenian."

You can see why people would want to keep such dirt to themselves. Tolstoy belittles his son for having "the same castrated mind that his mother has," but adds, "If you two should ever read this, forgive me; it hurts me terribly." The socialist Beatrice Webb, in 1890, describes her first meeting with her future husband Sidney in terms that would have precluded further contact, never mind marriage, had they been voiced openly: "His tiny tadpole body, unhealthy skin, lack of manner, Cockney pronunciation, poverty, are all against him. He has the conceit of a man who has raised himself out of the most insignificant surroundings into a position of power. This self-compliant egotism, this disproportionate view of his own position, is at once repulsive and ludicrous."

It should not surprise us that non-novelists are better at using their diaries to describe the world outside of their own heads. World War I nurse Florence Farmborough describes a German breach of Russian lines in April 1915 that leads to a horrifying all-out retreat and an order to abandon the wounded in the field hospitals where they lay. ("We had to wrench our skirts from their clinging hands.") Norman Lewis, who wrote an excellent book on Naples in wartime, describes the scene in his diaries from 1944: "Nothing has been too large or too small--from telegraph poles to phials of penicillin--to escape the Neapolitan kleptomania. A week or two ago an orchestra playing at the San Carlo, to an audience largely clothed in Allied hospital blankets, returned from a five-minute interval to find all its instruments missing."

DIARIES, of course, allow first stabs at aphorisms, descriptions, and other constituent parts of what will later be better-thought-out literature. More often than not these are dead ends, and far too many private literary failures make it into this book. There are lousy metaphors. ("The snow is thicker, it clings to the branches like white new-born puppies," writes Katherine Mansfield in January 1922.) There is the epicene preciosity of Gerard Manley Hopkins ("Young elm leaves lash and lip the sprays"), alongside the preening anality of Sylvia Plath ("Yet sun, lying low on the fresh white paint of the storeroom door, reflecting in the umber-ugly paint coating the floorboards, and shafting a slant on the mauve-rusty rosy lavender rug from the west gable window"). And there is the consistent mental mediocrity of Henry David Thoreau. ("How different are men and women, e.g. in respect to the adornment of their heads! Do you ever see an old or jammed bonnet on the head of a woman at a public meeting?")

THIS IS A VERY British book. Printed on stock used only for paper towels in other Western countries, it is three inches thick and light as a book of matches. It's riddled with misspellings, as if it had been typeset by drunks. The selection of diarists is skewed heavily towards English gossips (who exactly is Gyles Brandreth?) and Scottish invalids (like William Soutar, who gets more entries than anyone else in the book). And the editors' curiosity runs along very British lines.