#20BooksofSummer: No. 16 – Barbellion

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’.

The author in an uncharacteristically jaunty pose in his youth.

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.

25 Years Since

A bit of erasure poetry for you tonight (well, more prose than poetry), which I’m linking to that wonderfully welcoming venue for sharing poems and ideas, the dVerse Poets Pub.

It’s almost exactly 25 years since our revolution in Romania. For many years I called it a ‘stolen’ or ‘so-called’ revolution, as we saw people tarnished by their Communist and security forces links become the most vocal proponents of the free market (and profiting hugely by it). But, no matter what followed, that doesn’t diminish the magic and hope of those few days when we really believed we could change the world. I found my diary from that time and have chosen a few lines from here and there to give you a feel for the atmosphere.

 

21decembrie.wordpress.com
21decembrie.wordpress.com

Dad was called in to the office on Sunday evening.

‘Don’t send any Christmas cards abroad just now.’

Helicopters flying overhead.

In Timişoara, rubber cudgels. Bullets too, so we hear.

We’re all hoping for more.

‘No public gatherings, curfew at 8 p.m., keep your ID card with you at all times.’

The school is strangely empty, profs barricaded in the Dean’s office.

Nearly holidays but no tickets:  trains have been cancelled.

‘Those imperialistic and fascist forces trying to destabilise our fatherland.’

They’ve smashed bookshop windows and burnt Ceauşescu’s books.

They dared the army to shoot:

‘We are the people, who are you protecting?’

Asociatia21decembrie.ro
Asociatia21decembrie.ro

Rumours, rumours everywhere.

This morning he calls a public meeting, shown live on TV,

with slogan-filled banners, portraits of the Beloved Couple.

I’m on my knees, praying for something to happen.

Suddenly, someone interrupted – I heard, I heard the boos!

Utter befuddlement on his face:

‘You mean, they really don’t like me?’

Transmission cut for a few endless minutes.

radardemediaMy parents begged me not to leave the house.

‘All students should resign their party membership:

a party that can kill its own people has lost all credibility.’

Tanks rolled up, shooting continued into the night, dogs barking wildly.

No heroics, more like running, finding shelter.

Smashing glass with your bare head.

Radio switched on every few minutes.

What were we expecting?

All we heard were patriotic songs.

Fotomagazin.ro
Fotomagazin.ro

Then at 12:55 p.m. the music stopped:

‘This is Radio Free Bucharest. We have an important announcement to make.’

Appeals to go out to help, provide medical aid, electricity, food.

It feels like civil war.

I went to a hospital to offer my first-aid skills but they only took the gauze.

We want to hug. We need to run.

Trucks loaded with people, unarmed yet willing.

A joy to see how well-behaved and selfless people are,

even if enemies and sharpshooters lurk atop buildings.

In the breaks between the shooting, we help

provide free drinks.

Companionship of perfect strangers.

I drop the cherries in my pie, keeping time with the machine-guns.

This morning our block of flats was shot at:

it’s Christmas Eve.

From Cartim.ro
From Cartim.ro