Lamentable Thumbs

Blake Morrison

  • The Journal of a Disappointed Man by W.N.P. Barbellion
    Penguin, 394 pp, £9.99, November 2017, ISBN 978 0 241 29769 8

Confessional writers stake everything on their truth-telling. ‘I have displayed myself as I was,’ Rousseau says, promising ‘a portrait in every way true to nature’, a claim echoed by W.N.P. Barbellion when he writes: ‘My journal keeps open house to every kind of happening in my soul.’ But Rousseau was guilty of certain economies and the last words of The Journal of a Disappointed Man – ‘Barbellion died on December 31’ – are a lie: when the book came out 15 months later, in March 1919, the author was still around to read the reviews and bemoan their predictability: ‘One writes that it is a remarkable book. I told him it was. Another says I am a conceited prig. I have said as much more than once. A third hints at the writer’s inherent madness. I queried the same possibility.’ When they learned that the death notice was false, critics were aggrieved. But it wasn’t a cheap trick to gain sympathy. Barbellion hadn’t expected to see the Journal appear and was dead within six months of its publication. Besides, he said, ‘no man dare remain alive after writing such a book.’

There’s a further excuse for his faking his own death: Barbellion didn’t exist in the first place. The name was taken from a pastry shop on Gloucester Road and the accompanying initials from ‘the most wretched figures in history’: Kaiser Wilhelm, the Emperor Nero and Pontius Pilate. The man behind the mask wasn’t, as some thought, H.G. Wells but a tall, skeletal entomologist in his twenties called Bruce Frederick Cummings. The alias gave him the freedom to be intimate – to publish ‘whatever is inexorably true, however unpleasant and discreditable’. Writing as himself, he’d have given less away.

His choice of three initials was not an accident: he considered himself ‘a triple personality’. Throughout the Journal, a trio of disparate selves – naturalist, man of letters and lover – compete for attention; each of them has his moment centre-stage and all are pitted against a common enemy: death. Barbellion (let’s call him that) was 26 when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis – ‘disseminated sclerosis’ as it was then known, though the journal uses two blanks rather than own up to the words – but he had suffered from poor health for most of his life. The knowledge that he might not live long intensified the urge for self-preservation. His Journal documents ‘a titanic struggle between consuming ambition and adverse fortune’. It was a miracle that he reached the age of thirty.

In the early diary entries, which begin when he’s 13, the naturalist dominates. Many are unaffectedly boyish, or boyish for the time and place (rural Devon at the start of the 20th century). He describes riding his bike, bird-spotting (‘In all I have discovered 232 nests belonging to 44 species’), shooting at squirrels with a catapult, and keeping bats in an upstairs room. Looking back, he dated the day he swapped his stamp collection for a collection of birds’ eggs as the major turning point in his life. The thrill of finding the nest of a nightjar (with ‘two long, grey eggs, marbled like pebbles’) was just as erotic as seeing the face of a beautiful girl. Nothing he experienced as an adult could compare.

By his mid-teens he was reading Darwin, worrying about how to balance his two great ambitions in life (‘not to be too much of a naturalist and so overlook the beauty of things, or too much of a poet and so fail to understand them’), and diagnosing himself as melancholic. ‘As long as he has good health, a man need never despair,’ he writes at 17, but he’s already troubled by ‘cinema pictures of the circumstances of my death’. He spends a lot of time dissecting – one day a sheldrake, the next a corncrake – and when scooping out the eyes of a snake feels no qualms or queasiness but rather ‘patent delight … as though, on behalf of the rest of suffering humanity, I were wiping off the old score against the beast for its behaviour in the Garden of Eden’. The main dissecting, though, is of himself:

I like to keep myself well within the field of the microscope, and, with as much detachment as I can muster, to watch myself live, to report my observations of what I say, feel, think. In default of others, I am myself my own spectator and self-appreciator – critical, discerning, vigilant, fond! – my own stupid Boswell, shrewd if silly … I could botanise over my own grave, attentively examine the maggots out of my own brain.

To the charge – his own – of immodesty, he has the defence of scientific disinterest: what could be less vain than offering oneself up for examination? It’s not as if what the microscope reveals is very flattering. ‘My egoism appals me,’ he says, but he can’t wean himself off it and doesn’t really try. ‘I am rings within rings, circles concentric and intersecting, a maze, a tangle: watching myself behave or misbehave, always reflecting on what impression I am making on others or what they think of me.’ Ill-health makes him bitter and resentful, but there’s pleasure in that too: ‘A man with a grievance is always happy.’ And entomology is a useful antidote to egocentricity: ‘I have discovered I am a fly, that we are all flies, that nothing matters. It’s a great load off my life.’

To H.G. Wells, who wrote a foreword to the Journal when it was first published, Barbellion was a product of ‘that most unfortunate class, the poor educated, who live lives of worry in straitened circumstances’. Instead of going to university, he earned his keep on a local paper, where his father worked. Later, he came to regret not making more of journalism, but at the time he’d rather have been studying a starfish’s water-vascular system. Deeply ambitious as he was, he worried he was wasting his talent: ‘I have more than a suspicion that I am one of those who … grow sometimes out of a brilliant boyhood into very commonplace men.’

Prospects improved when he was offered a post at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, but then his father had a stroke and he was forced to turn it down. ‘To be flung back into the dirt and sweat of the newspaper world seems very hard,’ he writes. The breakthrough came nine months later, when his father died. ‘It is not death but the dreadful possibilities of life which are so depressing,’ he wrote on the day of the funeral. Within weeks, he took an exam for a job at the Natural History Museum, and passed with flying colours: ‘I’m in, in, in!!!!!!! being first with 141 marks to spare.’

London wasn’t quite the life-changing experience he’d hoped for. His diary apologises for saying so little about the place. But then again: ‘The truth is that I live in a bigger, dirtier city – ill health.’ In a long jeremiad, written years later, he bewailed the lack of opportunities given him in his job, despite being ‘one of the ablest zoologists in the place’ (‘I probably know more about Lice than was ever before stored together within the compass of a single human mind’), and the thwarting of a parallel literary career, as his articles were rejected by a range of periodicals, including Punch. He could at least boast one published book: The Bed-Bug: Its Habits and Life-History and How to Deal with It appeared in April 1917, as the fifth in a series of short zoological texts. By then he’d left the museum, because of his illness – a colleague had to complete the book for him.

His love life had its disappointments, too. ‘To me woman is the wonderful fact of existence,’ he enthuses, and the wonders never cease: there’s the beautiful young mother he sees on the bus on his way to the Albert Hall; the girl he bids farewell to on a railway platform in Devon; the Irish girl at the theatre whose smile so obsesses him that he tries placing an ad in the personal columns to track her down. Nothing came of that (the paper returned his money, ‘no doubt mistaking me for a White Slave trafficker’) or of his other infatuations: ‘I who am capable of passionate love am sexually starved, and endure the pangs of fiendish solitude … I despair of ever finding a woman to love.’

Then he does find one, unnamed at first but eventually becoming E– (his cousin Eleanor Benger, so I learn from looking beyond the new Penguin edition, which lacks footnotes and is short on background information). Unfortunately, love only brings more problems: ‘It’s a sad business when you fall in love with a girl you don’t like.’ At times he’s on the point of proposing but ‘there is always something which drags me back from the achievement of my desires.’ He’s put off by her ‘lamentable’ thumbs and thinks he would fail what he calls ‘the onychotomic test’: ‘Whether you can endure the thought of cutting your sweetheart’s toenails. Or whether you find your Julia’s sweat as sweet as otto of roses.’ The vacillating Prufrockian comedy continues for months. When he does finally force the moment to its crisis and proposes, and she turns him down, it’s a relief: ‘I am unhappy because she does not care for me, and I am chiefly unhappy because I do not care for her.’ He goes on seeing her even so, and when she retires to a farm in Kent, to convalesce after a nervous breakdown, he joins her there. His candour doesn’t extend beyond describing kisses but it’s clear they are lovers: ‘You see I am a biologist and we are both freethinkers. Voila!’ Back in London, he’s in a quandary again: ‘I am in love with her: but I am also mightily in love with myself. One or the other has to give.’ It’s the ego that gives. They marry in September 1915 and in characteristic Barbellion fashion spend the evening after the wedding looking at tombstones (‘What a lot of men have had wives!’).

Marriage poses a threat to the ‘secret liaison’ he’s having with his diary: ‘For an engaged or married man to have a secret super-confidante who knows things which are concealed from his lady seems to me to be deliberate infidelity.’ He decides that she will have to read everything he writes; no more secrets. She, though, is keeping a secret from him. To ‘prevent mutual recriminations in the future’, she agrees to see his doctor. But what the doctor tells her about his condition (that it’s terminal) she doesn’t pass on to him. It’s only by chance that he finds out: after being passed unfit for military service, he opens the doctor’s letter out of curiosity and learns that he is showing ‘visible symptoms of – –’. A year passes before he discovers that E– already knows the truth. He is impressed by her tact and courage: ‘Oh! Why did she marry me? They ought not to have let her do it.’

As well as worrying if it was right to marry, he worries if it’s right to have a child: what hope for the offspring ‘of a father with a medical history like mine, and a mother with a nervous system like hers?’ A child comes along, nonetheless (‘A baby is only a kiss carried to a rational conclusion’). He tries to disregard her presence. The pram in the hall is a threat to his freedom (‘A baby in exchange for my ambitions, a nursery for my study’) and his hopes of posthumous fame: ‘If only I could rest assured that after I am dead these Journals will be tenderly cared for – as tenderly as this blessed infant!’ For ‘blessed’ read ‘damned’: elsewhere he refers to her as a ‘monster’ and admits that ‘Parental affection comes to me only in spasms … Bullfinches or Swallows seen thro’ the window rouse me more.’ In time, however, despite his best efforts, ‘What I have always feared is coming to pass – love for my little daughter,’ whose growing up he won’t live to see.

Hostilities in France, meanwhile, get little mention. ‘It is fortunate I am ill in one way for I need not make my mind up about this War.’ Over time, he does make up his mind, describing it as ‘a tragic hoax’ and condemning the gloating hyperbole of the press: ‘Why call this shameful Filth by high sounding phrases – as if it were a tragedy from Euripides?’ The war even infects his study of nature: observing the ‘kinetic ardour’ of cabbage butterflies, he compares them to ‘white aeroplanes in a hail of machine-gun bullets’. His suffering, as a ‘creature in a No-Mans Land’, is equated with that of men in the trenches. Just as soldiers, ‘from a mistaken sense of charity or decency, conceal the horrors of this war’, so he downplays the severity of his illness to colleagues and friends. It’s only in his diary that he can express the worst.

Fearing he will run out of time, he readies his journals for publication. He has already taken great pains for their preservation, packing them off like evacuees to the countryside, in a coffin-like box, lest a Zeppelin raid destroy them (‘I saw each bomb labelled “Barbellion’s contemptible ambition”’). Rereading them bucks him up: ‘I see what a remarkable book I have written. If only they will publish it!’ They will but it’s not straightforward; with Barbellion nothing ever is. The would-be publishers, Collins, belatedly ask to be relieved of their undertaking, for fear ‘of the injury to the firm’s reputation as publishers of school-books and bibles’. Chatto & Windus step in but demand cuts (‘The publishers rejected two splendid entries about prostitutes’) and Barbellion loses faith that anyone will be interested in the ‘beastly little subterranean atrocities’ in his mind (‘Who is going to lend an ear to the words of a claustrated [sic] paralytic?’). When the book finally appears, friends and relatives tell him he hasn’t painted his true self: ‘That’s because I’ve taken my clothes off and they can’t recognise me stark!’ Where they are spared exposure (he uses only initials, not names), he doesn’t spare himself.

All this material from the years 1918 and 1919 is revealed in A Last Diary, the sequel to the Journal, which is included in the new Penguin edition, along with Wells’s preface and an intelligent afterword by Barbellion’s brother, A.J. Cummings. At a time of widespread illness and death (the Great War, the Spanish Flu), Barbellion’s anguish struck a chord and he resisted any temptation to end on an uplifting note: the last two entries in the Journal read ‘Miserable’ and ‘Self-disgust’, and The Last Diary closes with the words: ‘Tomorrow I go to another nursing home.’ Yet he’s never so lively as when anticipating his death, and there’s no shortage of humour. Clive James is known to make jokes about the slowness of his passing but Barbellion got there first: ‘Won’t all this seem piffle if I don’t die after all! As an artist in life I ought to die; it is the only artistic ending – and I ought to die now or the third Act will fizzle out in a long doctor’s bill.’

Before he does fizzle out, he’s careful to position himself. Among the list of influences he cites are the Goncourt brothers, Emily Brontë, Hardy, Tolstoy and Thomas Browne. He’s quick to see the merits of Joyce, praising Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for its truth-telling and enviously tracking the progress of Ulysses when it is serialised in the Little Review: ‘Damn! It’s all my idea, the technique I projected.’ He feels an even closer bond with the diary of the Ukrainian artist Marie Bashkirtseff: ‘We are identical! … We have the same self-absorption, the same vanity and corroding ambition … how humiliating for a human being to find himself merely a duplicate of another.’ The one memoirist he loathes is Gibbon: ‘How I would love to have bombed you out of your self-satisfaction!’

Barbellion felt fully justified in his existential despair. ‘The only sober man,’ he wrote in one entry, ‘is the melancholiac, who, disenchanted, looks at life, sees it as it really is, and cuts his throat.’ His brother and his publishers were keen to emphasise a brighter side and it’s there in Enjoying Life, which appeared around the time of his death in 1919. Along with longer essayistic entries omitted from the Journal as well as scholarly articles such as ‘Some Curious Facts in the Distribution of British Newts’, it includes a piece on journal writers – self-chroniclers whose ‘own existence seems so insistently marvellous that at the close of each day, being incontinent, they must needs pour out their sense of wonder into a manuscript book’ – that is instructive about the art he practised so well. And he did certainly revel in the marvel of his existence, all the more because he knew it would be brief. As he put it in an entry of December 1912, at the age of 23: ‘Nothing can alter the fact that I have lived; I have been I, if for ever so short a time. And when I am dead … my dust will always be going on, each separate atom of me playing its separate part – I shall still have some sort of finger in the Pie … Death can do no more than kill you.’