Monday, May 02, 2016
unscrupulous, nasty, and frivolous?
A rainy day. Here we are. Um, so. Yeah. James Lees-Milne. Have I mentioned him before? ;O)
After several weeks of reading his diaries (the John Murray hardcover reprints) I feel like I am beginning to know him and learn his language. I'm in the thick of it. In volume four, today, it is late April, 1948. I don't want to get ahead of myself, though, and so will begin at the beginning, by saying yet again how much I enjoy reading other people's diaries. Lees-Milne is a conscientious diary-keeper and writes every day, or nearly every day. Most of his entries are not long, just notes with the details of "I did this, I did that, so-and-so was there, and said such-and-such." He does have decided opinions about everything and everyone, and states them often, with long strings of adjectives attached like kite tails. Even so, his diaries are so much less snarky and scandalous than I set out thinking they were going to be. In fact they seem neither snarky nor scandalous at all, really, and not just by today's standards (do we have standards...?). Yet another lesson in abandoning all preconceived notions about anything. So far his diaries are just diaries - observations, notations, records of the day-to-day. But his day-to-day is quite different from ours, and so I read on, fascinated. Through many lunches at many clubs. And many visits to many historic houses for work and for pleasure. Days of action and days of boredom. Books he's reading and writing. Views on politics and religion. Friends wandering in and out (and what friends they are: the Mitfords, Emerald Cunard, Ivy Compton-Burnett, various Sackville-Wests, Harold Nicolson, the Pope-Hennessy family - a veritable waterfall of names). And as an impossible-to-ignore backdrop to everything, in the first two volumes and beyond, the war. Bombs dropping in London, for months on end. Uncertainty and death.
He originally means to write his diaries only during the years of the war, and in fact he quits writing them after peace is declared. But soon starts again:
"Sunday, 6th January.... An explanation is now called for. Why do I resume this diary which three months ago I brought to an end? There is no explanation. I merely missed it like an old friend." (Diaries 1946-1949 p.3)
But I'm getting ahead of myself, jumping right in to volume three like that! How about the earlier ones? Well, the first two alternate in tone between Siegfried Sassoon's memoirs and Edward Gorey screenplays, if he had ever written such things. As I read along, I kept thinking of Gorey's mock-Edwardian-roaring-twenties country house folk, languishing on settees and going mysteriously missing during thunderstorms, etc. Like this, Lees-Milne at a country house for the weekend:
"Sunday, 9th August. The others sail spasmodically on the lake in their beastly boats, but the weather bores me and I don't go near it. When we all meet the fun is not furious and the conversation not sparkling. I feel discontented and unwell. Indeed I wonder why on earth I ever came." (Diaries 1942-1945 p.78)
Most of his writing, however, isn't so self-indulgent. Instead it's a long look at one person's experience during an extraordinary time. He writes about everything, including diary-keeping itself:
"I said that more people ought to keep diaries, but the trouble was that the most unscrupulous diarists were too scrupulous when it came to putting personal truths on paper. James (Pope-Hennessy) said that Cecil (Beaton's) diary would be the chronicle of our age, that we would only live through it. I said Eddy Sackville West kept one. James said, 'We could not be hoisted to posterity on two spikier spikes.'" (ibid p.196)
And he worries about what posterity (us) might think of him, because of the self-portrait he writes:
"I fear that in this diary I disclose the nastier, the more frivolous side of myself. I sincerely believe and fervently hope that I am not as nasty as I may appear. It is difficult to be entirely honest about oneself, because one does not necessarily know oneself. One thinks one knows. The consequence of being as honest as I try to be, must surely be that readers of these lines would pronounce me worse than many of my contemporaries who do not keep frank records of themselves. Frank? Not entirely, because I withhold things." (ibid p.384)
But isn't this why we read other people's diaries? To encounter the whole person, whether he or she would like us to or not? The writer of diaries always discloses more than originally intended, it seems to me, allowing us to read between the lines, as well as reading the lines themselves. And besides, no one can be nasty and frivolous all the time. Lees-Milne certainly isn't, if he is at all. I think about this when I write in my own diary. Sometimes I even write: this is how I am feeling, even when I wish I wasn't feeling this way, and am not in the least proud to be feeling what I am most certainly feeling. Ugh. It can entail painful self-revelation. But cathartic, too. I truly believe that keeping a diary is an excellent way to get otherwise haunting things off your mind and on to paper, where they belong, so you can get on with your day. I'll have more details about his diaries, not mine, soon. I'm enjoying them mightily, on so many levels - as personal disclosure, as a new language about art and architecture, as literary history, and especially as a record of all those small events which slowly add up to the whole of life. Even with everything happening here, regarding my own life and art, I'm happy that I still managed to read through three volumes of Lees-Milne and begin the fourth. And I only have one errant volume left to buy, out of the twelve-volume set. The hardcover copies I see online for sale are beyond my comfort zone, price-wise, even though there are many copies available (oh how I dislike online used book pricing algorithms and the havoc they engender). So I wait, and hope that someone will list a slightly less expensive hardcover, with a dust jacket, and describe both accurately. Is that too much to ask? Possibly. Beneath a Waning Moon, volume ten, is what I seek, in case anyone reading this knows of a copy for under, say, forty bucks. I have some time before the situation becomes desperate - at least as long as it takes for me to read volumes four through nine. I'm ordinarily a fast reader, but life events of late have me reading at the proverbial snail's pace, so I'm not worried. Yet.