W.N.P. Barbellion: The Journal of a Disappointed Man (& A Last Diary)
You will never guess where I first encountered Barbellion (in a roundabout way) and in fact many of my reading recommendations in my early teens.
The novel Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, which seems to be forgotten nowadays, but which I bought after watching the film adaptation with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. The book differs quite a bit from the film, but I really enjoyed reading about a young girl going to college and educating herself by reading all sorts of classics – so I copied Judy’s reading list. It was there that I discovered Marie Bashkirtseff in this absolutely brilliant quote:
We’re reading Marie Bashkirtseff’s journal. Isn’t it amazing? Listen to this: ‘Last night I was seized by a fit of despair that found utterance in moans, and that finally drove me to throw the dining-room clock into the sea.’ It makes me almost hope I’m not a genius; they must be very wearing to have about—and awfully destructive to the furniture.
Once I read Bashkirtseff (very appealing to a moody teenager), I then heard comparisons being made to another diary, by Barbellion. Virginia Woolf mentioned him too in her diaries and that was the final trigger. I managed to find him in the very old-fashioned British Council library in Bucharest (I think some of the books there dated from pre-WW2) and was entranced. And he certainly recognises the similarity to Bashkirtseff:
She feels as I feel. We have the same self-absorption, the same vanity and corroding ambition. She is impressionable, volatile, passionate – ill! So am I…She has written down all my thoughts and forestalled me!… To think I am only a replica: how humiliating for a human being to find himself merely a duplicate of another.
Confession time: I’m embarrased to say that I completely misunderstood the author and the book at the time. I assumed that he was a fictional character – that this was an early attempt at what is now known as ‘auto-fiction’. The fact that the author did not actually die at the end of diary (at the time I did not know of the posthumous follow-up) made me think he was exaggerating his illness (MS). So I read this more as the work of a precocious, moody talent, self-absorbed young man, almost comical in his cynical view of the world. Teenagers are pretty heartless when it comes to others, and I thought his despair was exaggerated for comic effect. I mean, even the title is a wonder of passive-aggressive British understatement – how can you not smile?
And then there are all of those sharp, unvarnished opinions of Victorian and contemporary authors . This was the bit that Virginia Woolf loved: the description of Emily Bronte as Mrs Nietzsche, declaiming ‘No coward soul is mine’ ‘with her fist held to our wincing nose’.
This time round, I was a lot more sympathetic to the author and to his illness. He is so desperate to leave behind some sort of legacy, while feeling that he is running out of time. He can be so harsh on himself, too, yet his self-flagellation alternates with moments of robust egotism, and this juxtaposition of pride and shame, coupled with complete honesty, is both poignant and funny. And very relatable. I think he’d have had one hell of a Twitter account! (Although the trolls would have drive him crazy.)
My first impulse is always to credit folk with being nicer, cleverer, more honest and amiable than they are. Then, on reflection, I discover unpleasing characteristics. I detect their little motives and hate myself for not speaking. The fellow is intolerable, why did I not tell him so? Bitter recriminations from my critical self upon my flabby amiable half.
Yet he is not entirely preoccupied only with himself – he is such a keen observer of the people around him, any casual encounters in the street or on public transport. And he has a good sense of societal changes too, of how the war (WW1 in this case) is presented to the general public. Although he is resigned to his own death, he is still able to notice social injustice and rage against it. One of my favourite quotes is this one from October 1914 (by which point the ‘it will all be over by Christmas’ motto was starting to ring hollow):
It is dreadful to think how we have all accommodated ourselves to this War. Christian resignation is a feeble thing. Why won’t this demure widow with a loud voice blashpeme against this iniquitous world that permits this iniquitous war?
By December 1918, he correctly observes that people are all too eager to forget the horrors of war and return to ‘normality’.
See how soldiers deliberately, from a mistaken sense of charity or decency, conceal the horrors of this war. Publishers and Government aid and abet them. Yet a good cinema film of all the worst and most filthy and disgusting side of the war – everyone squeamish and dainty-minded to attend under State compulsion to have their necks scroffed, their sensitive nose-tips pitched into it, and their rest on lawny couches disturbed for a month after – would do as much to prevent future wars as any League of Nations.
A book quite unlike any other, and thank you go Backlisted Pod for being such a champion of it. This is one of those books you keep by your bedside and dip into every so often, confident you will discover a little gem every time.