While out running errands yesterday morning I found myself with twenty minutes to spare before going to pick up a friend for lunch and so found a convenient seat and pulled out my e-reader. When I first bought this device I read on it a lot but these days I find that I use it most often when I’m out and about with the likelihood of a few minutes to spare here and there. It’s major attraction is how light it is and for that reason alone it wins the approbation of my osteopath, who has very strong views about my habit of lugging six hundred page epics around with me. Because I’m most likely to be reading in reasonably short bursts I keep books on it that lend themselves to fragmentary reading and currently that means Susan Hill’s record of a year reading only those books she already owned, Howards End is on the Landing.
The chapter to which I turned yesterday centred around books which are themselves collections of fragments, namely diaries and journals, and as I read of Hill’s journey through her own hoard I realised just how drawn I’ve always been to the works of people who recorded daily snapshots of their own existence and then thoughtfully shared them with the public at large. I think I must have started with Peter Hall’s account of his time as Artistic Director of the National Theatre, certainly I’ve enjoyed several other journals recording the development of particular theatrical productions. If you like the theatre and haven’t read either Antony Sher’s Year of the King about his Richard III or the diary he and Greg Doran kept of their South African Titus Andronicus, called Wozza Shakespeare then I can strongly recommend them both.
I’ve also collected a number of writer’s journals. The first of these would have been Katherine Mansfield’s Letters and Journals which I read when her short stories turned up on the syllabus for the final year of my degree course. One particular entry has stayed with me ever since:
June 10 1919
I have discovered that I cannot burn a candle at one end and write a book with the other.
re-worded by me at the time to read
I have discovered that I cannot burn the candle at one end and write essays with the other.
Sometime later browsing round the wonderful but no longer surviving Silver Moon Bookshop on the Charing Cross Road, I picked up Journal of a Solitude, the first of several diaries by the American writer, May Sarton. I read each of these as they became available despite the fact that I was vaguely conscious that had I actually met the lady we wouldn’t have got on and the same was true of Frances Partridge’s six volumes, which irritated me tremendously but which I read because they carried on the story of people I’d already come to know through what have to be my favourite examples of this type of literature, the letters and journals of Virginia Woolf.
Why I find these so compelling I’m not sure because I’ve always found Woolf’s novels very hard going. Perhaps they remind me more of her essays, which I do relish very much indeed. Twice now I have read through them in their entirety, on both occasions reading a month in the letters followed by the same month in the journals. If you have the time to climb this mountain (eleven volumes in all if I remember rightly) then this is the way to do it. In the letters you get the polite version, the public face, and then in the journals you find out what she really thought, how she actually felt about the people to whom she was writing those letters. Some writers clearly keep journals with publication very much in mind. I doubt that was the case where Woolf was concerned, certainly not while many of the people involved were still alive. The fallout would have been tremendous.
Reading Hill’s account of the time spent reacquainting herself with the many letters and journals on her own bookshelves has wetted my appetite for more in this vein, but it would be nice to discover something new. If anyone has any suggestions for examples out of the ordinary I would really appreciate it.