Snouty

John Bayley

  • The Faber Book of Diaries edited by Simon Brett
    Faber, 498 pp, £12.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 571 13806 3
  • A Lasting Relationship: Parents and Children over Three Centuries by Linda Pollock
    Fourth Estate, 319 pp, £14.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 947795 25 1

Imprisoned though he is in that wonderfully self-satisfied French tradition of announcing and defining, Derrida must none the less be said to be spot-on about diaries. He says in Of Grammatology: ‘I can answer the threat of the other as other (than I) only by transforming it into another (than itself) through altering it in my imagination.’ I recalled these oracular words when browsing in the Faber Book of Diaries, a gripping compilation, with several diary entries from different centuries for each day of the year. The effect of variety, and of uniformity, achieved by Simon Brett’s use of this method, and by the breadth of his selecttion, is very striking.

Equally striking is the illustration of Derrida’s point about ‘the other’. Diarists could indeed be said to be afraid of themselves, and to transform those selves into ‘another’, as the language-user disarms the world by inventing words for it, words quite different from the things they describe. The diarist’s ‘other’ is neither himself, nor his self as it appears to those who know him, but a third entity – the diary self. Its company becomes familiar, reassuring, misleading. Why do some people need it so much, a fix that becomes hard to do without? ‘What a vile little diary,’ wrote Katherine Mansfield on January 1915, ‘but I am determined to keep it this year.’ Bereavements and troubles made the ‘other’ in it infinitely precious, a release from the daily grind of consciousness, in which most people without the lust for words have to be content to remain.

Nonetheless, that third entity speaks to our consciousness, as reader and outsider, as no other literary form can. It is the writer as he most needs himself, the thing that keeps him from what Derrida calls ‘the anguish of dispersion’. The fascination of the best diaries is that the writer cannot but seem unhinged, slightly cracked, if only in the sense that anyone looks slightly cracked if unexpectedly seen intent on some private business. A real diary must seem not to have been written for us, but only in order to satisfy the diarist’s secret need, which like most addictions remains unexplained. It is not exactly self-absorption: Boswell’s sense of himself soon palls. It is not vanity, ambition, the desire to see oneself is print – any of the usual publishing reasons. Gerard Manley Hopkins describing a peacock’s tail gives an almost embarrassing impression of easing himself, as if the intensity of his sense of the thing can only find this outlet.

I have thought it looks like a tray or green basket or fresh-cut willow hurdle set all over with paradise fruits cut through – first through a beard of golden fibre and then through wet flesh greener than greengages or purpler than grapes – or say that the knife had caught a tatter or flag of the skin and laid it flat across the flesh – and then within all a sluggish corner drop of black or purple oil.

Typing that out makes one see and feel the tailness of a peacock’s tail as never before, but the metaphors – flesh, green wetness – unlike those in a comparable poem, retain their secret involuntariness. As in the best diaries, there is, too, an involuntary social touch. ‘Paradise fruits’ are presumably Kiwi fruit, and it is interesting to find these apparently well-known to the Victorian bourgeoisie.

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