Saturday, January 30, 2010


Two months, a million words

Actually - 1,250,000 words, give or take. I finished reading the Diary of Samuel Pepys last night. Let me say that again, it feels really good - I finished reading the Diary of Samuel Pepys last night.

I burned through the second half of Volume IX because it's wildly riveting, justly famous as it is for its chronicle of the major crisis in Pepys's marriage, caused by his dalliance with his wife's hired girl companion. One fine day his wife walks in on them. Weeks of recrimination follow, which Pepys knows he well deserves, and he works to change his ways (with a few notable exceptions, of course, when he is fairly certain he won't be caught). He has other troubles, too - he believes he's going blind from overwork (much of it done by candlelight). He consults medical men and takes various courses of physic, but eventually stops writing the Diary because he feels he can no longer write it out himself, privately, because his eyes are in such pain. He can in fact no longer read and write for any length of time - his clerks take dictation, and his wife and servants read aloud to him. Oh, and besides those things (as if they weren't enough), he's also been asked by the King's brother, the Duke of York (the future King James II), to write a long letter recommending a complete restructuring of his own administrative offices of the Navy. Pepys does this, essentially sandbagging his scurrilous colleagues while thinking he is taking himself down with them at the same time. He writes repeatedly that he is perfectly content with this, feeling it is absolutely the right thing to do to have a clear conscience, which was apparently much more important to him in this matter than remaining employed. What a hell of a year.

He ends the Diary after asking for a few months of leave, to see if his eyes will heal away from all work, and he makes plans to travel the continent for a few months with his wife. What he doesn't know at this point is that his wife has less than a year to live. She will contract a fever on their return trip and die a few days after coming home to England.

All this drama is quite shocking and immediate on the page in stark black and white. People's lives are so fraught! With everything! All the time! A few weeks ago I took a Pepys-break to read An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in Conversation with Michael Toms (Larson 1988), and when I finished the Diary yesterday I had to return to the Joseph Campbell book and search up a passage that was stuck in my mind. Campbell says:

"There's a wonderful paper by Schopenhauer, called 'An Apparent Intention of the Fate of the Individual,' in which he points out that when you are at a certain age... and look back over your life, it seems to be almost as orderly as a composed novel. And just as in Dickens' novels, little accidental meetings and so forth turn out to be main features in the plot, so in your life. And what seem to have been mistakes at the time, turn out to be directive crises. And then he asks: 'Who wrote this novel?'" (p.24)

Directive crises indeed. Pepys's life seems like it was nothing but (plague, fire, war, loss, infidelity, infirmity). And yet. What a lot of joy he got out of it, what delight in music and books and theatre and loving, and in orderly hard work, and in pride at his rising station in life and his general good fortune. The thing that surprised me most about finishing the Diary was how greatly I didn't want this particular story to end. I wanted to keep on reading - about his trip to Europe, his wife's death, how he felt about it, and what he did next. Instead, the narrative just... stops. And I walked around all day today thinking about someone who's been dead for over three hundred years, and the grand autobiographical novel of his life.

I'll end with that thought, for now. I think I must make some observations about his life-long book-love, and I don't want to merely tack them on here, all willy-nilly. So, more on Pepys at a later date. But first, may I say it one more time? Humor me, please. I finished reading the Diary of Samuel Pepys last night.

What a marvelous thing. Please do tell us more about his relationship to books when you have the opportunity.

I am greatly impressed. No, I am in awe. That is a tremendous feat. Congratulations on a labor of love well done.

Pepys and his books. Boy, I'd love to visit the Pepys library someday and see his books. Anyone been there...?

Dan, no awe necessary (but thanks just the same). Sitting and reading feels like running a marathon sometimes - except it's the brain that's doing much of the work, not the body. Of course, I haven't run a marathon. But goodness knows I've seen enough of them to form some opinions.

Ryan isn't running Boston this year, by the way - he did run a qualifying time, but didn't sign up soon enough (registration closed months earlier this year). Maybe we'll have to make the trip anyway, and just visit bookshops.
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