Wednesday, June 23, 2010

recommendation: "The Assassin's Cloak" (2001 book)

"A diary is an assassin's cloak which we wear when we stab a comrade in the back with a pen." -- William Soutar

I've never kept a diary. I'm not sure why, but I'm more interested in writing about things I've learned, enjoy, or dream about than about my life directly (as this blog no doubt indicates).* But I love reading others' journals. I'm shamelessly seduced by the voyeuristic thrill of reading something personal and private--or even something meant for publication that only plays at secrecy (or those that don't even pretend, like blogs!). Whether it's hidden with the author's knickers or aired out for all to see, there isn't anything closer to brain-on-paper than a diary.

The Assassin's Cloak, edited by Irene and Alan Taylor (the edition I have is the giant, wrist-snapping hardcover published by Canongate Books in 2001), is a day-by-day anthology of the diaries of writers, artists, politicians, and other famous folks--admirable, reprehensible, most just in between. We are given glimpses into the lives of people like Lord Byron, Beatrix Potter, Franz Kafka, Noël Coward, Virginia Woolf, and Evelyn Waugh (to name just a few of the 170 writers whom I found most fascinating). The entries are generally post-seventeenth-century and mostly English-language, but some are in translation. From the jacket:
"Along the way we meet cads and charmers, sailors and psychopaths, rock stars and prima ballerinas, gossips, drunks, snobs, lechers and lovers. There is humour and tragedy, history and the humdrum, often recorded on the same day or in the same entry."
This emotional clash is what makes the anthology so attractive: the switchbacking path it takes you down is weird and conflicting, yet never jarring, and always enthralling.

There are several excerpts per day, so that you can see what was happening in the minds and worlds of people centuries and countries apart. You can't really follow the day-to-day activities of any one person, as his or her journal might be excerpted only a handful of times over the course of the year. But it's amazing when a familiar pen does crop up again and you get a look at the author's life in a different year, a different place, a wholly different emotional state. The author's name isn't given until the end of the entry, which adds to the fun: you become familiar with the voices, friends (or enemies), and events belonging to each person and can often identify who's writing before you reach the end.

The Assassin's Cloak is an inspiring daily journey, one that provides introductions to people you never thought you'd meet.

"No doubt diary-keeping is also a kind of vanity. One has the sauce to believe that every thought which comes into one's head merits recording."** -- James Lees-Milne (June 23, 1973)

* However, I love Twitter. There's something about as-it-happens commentary, rather than end-of-day recapping, that totally seduces me into participation. You will pry my Twitter from me only if you wish to contend with my bared fangs. How I wish all of these diarists had had Twitter!
** Which--unsurprisingly, considering my affection for Twitter--I absolutely agree with. Writing is the alchemical process that turns raw thoughts into precious things; we don't know what is precious until we've created it.

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