A Life Discarded, by Alexander Masters
What a conflicting book this is. The subject is fascinating. A diarist whose life was a colossal failure. And not just in material terms: she never lived up to the deeply held visions she had of herself as an artist (written, musical, visual). The journey from the young magical vibrations of ambition to the bleak imprisoned despair of late middle age rivals Larkin’s letters. We have potentially been gifted a great diarist of the twentieth century.
Best of all, our diarist is not a politician, a gossip, an author, a socialite, or any other sort of extroverted lackey on the social merry-go-round. She’s a failed librarian who ended up working as a live-in housekeeper for a bully. In her adolescence she fell in love with a pensioner who seduced her by playing a Beethoven sonata, and who then berated her endlessly about being useless and a failure and unloved. That particular devotion lasted thirty years.
The diary is not a mere compendium of misery. (Although at an estimated five million total words, it certainly is a compendium.) There is poetry in the way she writes about herself. ‘I who am always young will inevitably be old.’ Laura, (that is the diarist’s name), has the true, tortured soul of a creative person.
O glorious blaze of the imaginative world!
Would like to enter into it again and write, write, write;
only stopping for meals or a walk as I used to.
A pity that I can not allow myself to do that now —
the material business of everyday life has to be seen to.
I have nothing to say.
Whenever we hear from Laura, we enter into the plangent yearning of the life un-lived, as only the poetic, and the diary writers, can describe: ‘How I wish I was Barbara Windsor.’ And she is a master artist of the misery of low self-confidence.
It is rather as if I were on my bicycle — bicycling
along merrily, and then a car passes too close, so
that I wobble; so that if I’m not careful, I’ll fall
off altogether, out of fright. That is an analogy —
E’s criticisms being the passing car.
E is the old woman Laura was in love with for thirty years.
Here comes the conflict. All of these marvels are hidden from us. Rather than simply edit the diaries and publish them, or produce a straight biography that constantly shows us more and more of Laura, of her diaries, Alexander Masters wrote a book that purports to be a new fangled form of biography.
It is part of the genre of books that has developed ever since Richard Holmes published Footsteps, where we follow the biographer on their journey to discover their subject. The trouble is, Masters’ journey takes up far too much space and isn’t very interesting.
I had a constant yearning to hear more about the deeply fascinating diaries, and I was endlessly faced with mundane descriptions of Lebanese restaurants and the like. To think that instead of giving the space to another line from the diaries, Masters chose to write: ‘The air was sharp with the scent of fresh herbs and the noise of clanging colanders.’ God preserve me.
The diversions are not always mundane, sometimes they are positively disgraceful. As well as several pages of sub-Raymond Chandler dialogue with a Private Investigator (who ends up contributing more or less nothing to what we know about Laura), Masters gives over a fair amount of space to Graphology.
Graphology is not a debatable subject. It is fraud. It is pseudoscience. There is no empirical evidence to back up any of its claims or practices. We could compare it to astrology or phrenology. It ought to have no more place in a biographer’s pursuit of his subject than seances or tarot cards. Needless to say, the attentive reader will already have drawn the conclusions the graphologist does, albeit without the naive certainty that mystics tend to supply.
We then discover, four fifths of the way in, that Masters spent years reading the diaries (and writing his book) without ever putting them in chronological order. His girlfriend had to berate him multiple times before he organised them like this. He then discovers that not only is he missing the vast majority of the diaries, but that his subject is not dead, as he assumed, but alive. Rather than marvelling at this as he does, I began to wonder why anyone thought it was a good idea to make this sort of incompetence the denouement.
A similarly disjoined chronology is his practice throughout the book. It seemed screamingly obvious from the start that the writer of the diary was a woman, but that fact is concealed from us for about half the book. The dramatic reveal goes off like a wet match. Similarly, the mysterious Peter seems to be a husband in a terrible marriage. The revelation Laura is his live-in housekeeper (she says it is like being in a sexless marriage) falls a little flat.
The constant practice of withholding information is done for no other reason than to give the book a ‘plot’. (His word). Things are told all out of order so that we get the joy of going on Masters’ journey with him. If this book was a supplement to the published diaries, or had been compressed into a long article for the London Review of Books, it would be fascinating.
It is, however, the only access any of us will have to the diaries — and my impression is that they stand a good chance of being fascinating reading, albeit in need of editing. This means that Masters’ book, rather than being the charming, affable, slightly dotty book that we all love to read about clever people stealing diaries out of skips in the academic suburbs of Cambridge, is in fact a self-indulgent act of gatekeeping.
Laura is the subject, not Masters. She doesn’t need a plot: she wrote a diary. Until the publishing industry loses interest in this fad for Gladwell-esque books about subjects that would be better off presented more directly, readers will have to plough through descriptions of ‘breezy afternoons’ in Cambridge and weird metaphors wrung out of anecdotes about christenings and physics, just to get access to some of what Laura wrote.
When she was young, Laura was full of the idea that she would one day be recognised as a great artist. Masters’ book was taken as that recognition. I can only hope that one day Laura will be given the treatment she really deserves.
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