Monday, October 28, 2019

Light, motley, whimsical

Korney Chukovsky, one of Russia’s most popular writers for children, died 50 years ago today. He was also an influential literary critic and analyst, a translator of English classics, and a supporter of writers persecuted under the Soviet regime. He kept a detailed diary almost all his life, but this was only published in the post-Soviet era. The diary’s editor calls it ‘a cultural document of major importance’, but it’s also one of the best kinds of literary diaries, ranging widely in content from dark self-analysis to playfulness (‘light, motley, whimsical’), from political commentary to personal revelation (‘My soul is empty. I can’t squeeze a line out of myself.’).

Nikolay Vasilyevich Korneychukov was born in 1882 in St. Petersburg, the illegitimate son of a peasant woman from Ukraine (whose name he was given) and a wealthy Jewish man whose parents forbade him to marry her. The mother moved to Odessa with Nikolay and his sister, where Nikolay studied at the local school. After being expelled, apparently for being illegitimate, he earned his diplomas through correspondence courses. He published a first article for the newspaper Odesskie novosti, and continued contributing a wide range of culture items. During this time, he reworked his pen name to Korney Chukovsky. Around 1903, he married Mariya Goldfeld, and they would have four children. 


Having taught himself English, Chukovsky went to London from where he worked as correspondent for Odesskie novosti between 1903 and 1905. Back in Russia, first in St Petersburg but then in Finnish Kuokkala (now Repino in Russia), he launched a satirical magazine (Signal), started translating works from English (such as those by Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, O. Henry, and Mark Twain) which became very popular. He also wrote analyses of contemporary European authors, publishing From Chekhov to Our Days (1908), Critique Stories (1911) and Faces and Masks (1914).

However, Chukovsky is best remembered for his children’s books: Krokodil (Crocodile, 1916), Moydodyr (Wash ’Em Clean, 1923), Tarakanishche (The Giant Roach
, 1923), and Mukha-tsokotukha (Fly-a-Buzz-Buzz, 1924). Some of these were famously adapted for the theatre, animated films, opera and ballet. After returning to St. Petersburg, he started to observe and write down the way children speak. This led him to publish From Two to Five (1933), a popular guidebook to the language of children. 

During the Soviet era, Chukovsky also edited the complete works of the influential Russian poet Nikolay Nekrasov. From the 1930s, he lived in the writers’ village of Peredelkino near Moscow. Often at odds with the establishment throughout his life - using his popularity to help authors persecuted by the regime, not least Solzhenitsyn - he won favour with the Soviet government later in life, and was awarded the Lenin Prize in 1962. He died on 28 October 1969. Further information is available at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, or Russiapedia.

Chukovsky was a committed diarist throughout his life, and left behind many notebooks. A two-volume Russian edition of his diaries only appeared after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991-1994 (edited by Elena Chukovskaya and Victor Erlich); and an English one-volume translation (Michael Heim) in 2005 entitled simply: Diary, 1901-1969 (Yale University Press). In his introduction, Erlich calls the diary ‘a cultural document of major importance’. Some pages of the book can be previewed at Googlebooks and Amazon.

A note from the publisher gives some details on Chukovsky diaries.’ The diary of Kornei Chukovsky is an immense document spanning seven decades and three generations, starting in prerevolutionary Russia and encompassing almost the entire Soviet era. Although little could be considered unimportant or uninteresting, about one-quarter of the original text had to be cut to make a book of readable length for the nonspecialist. The diary, kept with some irregularity from 1901 to 1969, is contained in twenty-nine notebooks. Because of the scarcity of paper in the 1920s some entries were scribbled on reverse pages of letters to Chukovsky or on separate sheets that were later stapled into appropriate notebooks. In an entry dated 27 May 1957, Chukovsky says that dozens of his diaries were lost. In the diaries that survived a number of pages had been torn out. Some years are barely or not at all represented. There are no entries dated 1915 or 1938 and very few entries for the years 1916-1917 or for the late 1930s. In this volume, the reader will find two kinds of ellipses: those originally made for the Russian edition, by Elena Chukovskaya, Kornei Chukovsky’s granddaughter (marked with < . . . >), and those made specifically for this edition (marked with [ . . . ]).’

Here are several extracts.

24 February 1901
‘Curious! I’ve been keeping a diary for several years and I’m used to its free form and informal content - light, motley, whimsical: I’ve filled several hundred pages by now. Yet coming back to it, I feel a certain reticence. In my earlier entries I made a pact with myself: it may be silly, it may be frivolous, it may be dry; it may fail to reflect my inner self - my moods and thoughts - granted, so be it. When my pen proved incapable of giving bold and concise expression to my hazy ideas, which the moment after they came to me I was unable to make out myself, when it ended up merely reflecting commonplaces, I bore it no particular ill will; I felt nothing more than mild frustration. But now, now I am ashamed in advance of every clumsy formulation, every sentimental outburst and superfluous exclamation mark; I am ashamed of the careless bumbling, the insincerity so characteristic of diaries, ashamed for her sake, for Masha. I categorically refuse to show this diary to her. < . . . >

Heavens, the rhetoric! Can I show this to anyone at all? [. . . ]’

27 November 1901
‘Novosti has published a long feuilleton of mine, “A Perennial Issue” signed Kornei Chukovsky. The editors identify me as “a young journalist with paradoxical but highly interesting opinions.” I feel not the slightest elation. My soul is empty. I can’t squeeze a line out of myself.’

9 September 1907
‘Had a visit from Repin today. He is very polite. His beard is grayish and -  you’d never know it from his portraits - grows straight into his mustache. He is unassuming. No sooner did he arrive than he climbed up on the couch and took down Vrubel’s portrait of Bryusov. “Good show. That’s Bryusov, all right.” Somov’s portrait of Ivanov. “Good show. That’s Ivanov, all right.” He called Bakst’s portrait of Bely “painstaking.” His comments on the engravings of Byron’s portraits: “banal” and “clich├ęd.” He approved of Lyubimov’s caricature of me. Then he took a seat and we talked about Rossetti (he is too academic) and Leonid Andreev (“Red Laughter” represents the insanity of war today; the governor is a combination of Tolstoy, Gogol, and Andreev). < . . . > When I showed him his Alexei Tolstoy, he said, “That was after his death. It influenced me. Some rotter touched it up. It’s terrible!” Then we went downstairs for tea, pears, and plums. < . . . > He had left his coat upstairs and ran up to get it so as not to be thought an old man. I saw him out to the gate and watched him depart, a hunched old man in a cape. [. . . ]’

16 June 1917
‘I nearly drowned yesterday. I jumped into deep water from the boat, swam a bit, and felt myself being pulled down. I couldn’t cry out to Kolya, I forgot how to speak; I could only show him with my eyes. (From childhood I was certain I’d die in the water like the Russian critics Pisarev and Valeryan Maikov.) At last Kolya caught on. [ . . . ]’

14 February 1918
‘With Lunacharsky. I see him nearly every day. People ask why I don’t try and get something out of him. I answer I’d feel bad taking advantage of such a gentle child. He beams with complacency. There is nothing he likes more than to do somebody a favor. He pictures himself an omnipotent benevolent being, dispensing bliss to all: Be so good, be so kind as to . .. He writes letters of recommendation for everybody, signing each, with a flourish, Lunacharsky. He dearly loves his signature. He can’t wait to pick up his pen to sign. He lives in a squalid little flat off a nauseating staircase in the Army and Navy House opposite the Muruzi House. There is a sheet of paper (high-quality, English) on the door that says “I receive no one here. You may see me from such-and-such a time to such-and-such a time at the Winter Palace and at such-and-such a time at the Commissariat of Education, etc.” But no one pays the slightest attention to it: he is constantly barraged by actors from the imperial theaters, former emigres, men with harebrained schemes or out for easy money, well-meaning poets from the lower classes, officials, soldiers, and more - to the horror of his irascible servant, who rages each time the bell rings: “Can’t you read?” Then Totosha, his spoiled and handsome young son, runs in, shouting something in French - never Russian - or the ministerially unceremonious Madame Lunacharskaya. It is all so chaotic, good-natured, and naive that it seems a comedy act. [ . . . ]

Lunacharsky is late for his appointments at the Commissariat of Education: he gets involved in a conversation with one person and makes others wait for hours. To show how liberal he is, he has a portrait of the Tsar hanging in his office. He calls in his visitors two by two, seating them on either side of himself, and while he talks to one of them the other can admire the Minister’s statesmanlike acumen. It is a naive and harmless bit of swagger. I asked him to write a letter to the Commissar of Post and Telegraph Offices, Proshian, and he willingly picked out a letter on his typewriter to the effect that I was such-and-such a person and he would be delighted if Proshian agreed to reopen Kosmos. [ . . . ]’

12 November 1918
‘Kolya showed me his diary yesterday. It’s very good. He writes perfectly decent poems - and by the dozens. Otherwise he’s impossible: he forgets to turn off lights, he’s hard on books, he ruins or loses things.

A meeting with Gorky yesterday. He outlined the preface he’s going to write for our project, and suddenly he lowered his eyes, gave a wry smile, started playing with his fingers, and said, “Only with a government of workers and peasants are such magnificent editions possible. But we’ve got to win them over. Right, win them over. So they don’t start quibbling, know what I mean? Because they’re real schemers, those devils. We’ve got to win them over, know what I mean?”

I had a run-in with Gumilyov at the meeting. A gifted craftsman, he came up with the idea of creating a “Rules for Translators.” To my mind, no rules exist. How can you have rules in literature when one translator ad-libs and the result is top-notch and another conveys the rhythm and everything and it doesn’t go anywhere? Where are the rules? Well, he lost his temper and started shouting. Still, he’s amusing and I like him.

Gorky looks like an old man when he pulls on his silver-rimmed glasses before reading something. He receives batches of letters and pamphlets (from as far as America these days) and skims them with the eye of a merchant poring over his accounts.

Kolya may not be a poet, but he’s poetry personified!’

Monday, October 21, 2019

The rush of what is said

Jack Kerouac, author of one of America’s most celebrated novels, On the Road, died 50 years ago today. He is remembered particularly for that book, but also as the leader and inspiration for a whole generation of Beat writers. Although he left behind a lifetime of diary and notebook entries, only a limited selection has ever been published, and this was not until 35 years after his death. The New York Times said of his diaries that they ‘rescued Kerouac from the cultists’ and ‘secured his admission to the mainstream hall of fame’. In one particularly apposite entry, Kerouac tells his journal, ‘It’s not the words that count, but the rush of what is said.’

Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachussetts, in 1922. He was recruited to be a student at Columbia University, New York, thanks to his football ability, but stopped playing before long because of a broken leg. He proved uninterested in studying, and quit before the year was out, having already decided to be a writer, and having met Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. After travelling around for a while, he joined the Navy but was honourably discharged for having a schizoid personality. Many more jobs followed, including merchant seaman, forester, and railman.

Kerouac’s first novel written in the mid-1940s - The Town and the City - was not published until 1950, but received some literary acclaim. However, dissatisfied with literary conventions, Kerouac developed a new style of writing, spontaneous and free flowing, and it was this that formed the basis of his most famous book, On the Road. Written in 1951, the book was first published by Viking Press in 1957, and brought Kerouac almost instant fame. It tells of several frenetic road trips across the US and is considered, Wikipedia says, ‘a defining work of the postwar Beat Generation that was inspired by jazz, poetry, and drug experiences’.

Further books followed, such as The Dharma Bums based on Kerouac’s experiences with Buddhism and a mountain climbing trip he took with the poet and essayist Gary Snyder. Kerouac married three times: his first marriage was annulled after a year, the second broke up after two months, and the third - to Joan Haverty - did not last much longer. Haverty left Kerouac while pregnant, in 1951, and it was only nearly a decade later, after a blood test, that he acknowledged Jan Kerouac as his daughter. Kerouac’s early death in 1969 - on 21 October - was caused by a lifetime of too much drinking. The internet is awash with information about Kerouac, one of the most iconic of American writers - try Wikipedia, The Beat Museum, Dharma Beat.

Nearly thirty years after Kerouacs’s death, in 1998, The Atlantic Online ran a story about a hoard of unpublished Kerouac material, including ‘a voluminous diary that [Kerouac] started at the age of fourteen’. It said that ‘the great bulk’ of the writings had been turned over to Douglas Brinkley, director of The Eisenhower Center for American Studies and a professor of history at the University of New Orleans, who plans to produce a multi-volume edition of the Kerouac diaries. The article included a short preview by Brinkley himself. Here is one paragraph from that 1998 preview:

‘While gathering material for On the Road, criss-crossing America, Kerouac stopped in the eastern Montana town of Miles City. Soon Kerouac had one of his many epiphanies. ‘In a drugstore window I saw a book on sale - so beautiful!’ he wrote in his diary. ‘Yellowstone Red, a story of a man in the early days of the valley, & his tribulations & triumphs. Is this not better reading in Miles City than the Iliad? - their own epic?’ Kerouac was intent on creating his own Yellowstone Red story - but in a modern context, where existential jazz players and lost highway speedsters would be celebrated as the new vagabond saints.’


A full listing of Kerouac’s diaries and notebooks can be found at the website of the New York Public Library. A single volume edition of the Kerouac diaries, edited by Brinkley, was published in 2004 as Windblown World, with the subtitle The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954. Indeed, it focuses only on Kerouac’s first two novels; and there is no sign of any further volumes from Viking or Brinkley.

‘Wherever novelist Jack Kerouac wandered in his peripatetic life,’ Brinkley writes in his introduction, ‘he usually kept a spiral notebook or railroad brakeman’s ledger with him just in case he wanted to scribble down a spontaneous thought or compose a haiku. This was not an unusual trait for a serious writer. Old-time reporters, in fact, never left home without their cigarettes and notebook, and Kerouac was no different. So Allen Ginsberg knew exactly what he was doing when, in 1953, he snapped the elegiac photograph that adorns this book’s cover. There is the handsome Kerouac on an East Village fire escape, gazing out over a sea of New York buildings, brooding like Montgomery Clift under the tenement-filled sky at dusk. With a “Railroad Brakeman Rules Handbook” protruding out of his jacket pocket, this photograph represents the iconic Kerouac; it’s as if he offered Ginsberg his best Jack London-like pose for posterity to ponder.

Unlike that photograph, there is nothing posed about these journal entries, published here for the first time. The printed text of this volume of journals draws on material entered by Kerouac in ten notebooks from June 1947 to February 1954. Though these journals are presented here as a single entity, the editing has involved minor interweaving between one notebook and the next. Kerouac’s doodles, deadend rants, and marginalia have not been included. But I’ve tried to stay as close to the original journals as possible, correcting Kerouac’s punctuation and spelling only when it was necessary for clarity’s sake. I’ve also inserted occasional footnotes, as unobtrusively as possible, in order to provide context when necessary.’

A review by Publisher’s Weekly, on Amazon.com, explains that the ‘selections from a series of spiral notebooks into which the fledgling author constantly poured story ideas and private thoughts offer an intimate perspective on those novels’ development.’ It goes on to say: ‘Anybody who’s ever started a novel will grasp Kerouac’s obsession with his daily word count and the periodic frustration and self-doubt. ‘I know that I should never have been a writer,’ Kerouac laments at one dark moment; in another, he wonders, ‘Why doesn’t God appear to tell me I’m on the right track?’.’

There’s a longer review, by Walter Kirn in The New York Times. He says the book’s publication may ‘at first strike readers as an attempt to squeeze yet more toothpaste out of Kerouac’s flattened tube’, but that ‘unlike other posthumous volumes that have worn Kerouac’s name, it’s readable’, and tells ‘a story of self-invention, perseverance and breakthrough that should help rescue Kerouac from the cultists and secure his admission to the mainstream hall of fame, where he deserves to rest’.

Here’s a further taste of Kirn’s review: ‘Despite the reputation for self-indulgence that continues to cling to him, Kerouac was a reflective, vigilant artist who constantly, and consciously, strove to overcome his limitations - the chief one being, as he saw it, his own self-critical temperament. ‘I’m going to discover a way,’ he wrote, casting forward to On the Road while he was completing The Town and the City, ‘of preserving the big rushing tremendousness in me and in all poets.’ One could call the effect he was after ‘willed spontaneity’. Verbal diarrhea it was not. The journals show him evolving toward his ideal almost by the month. Released from his monastic labors in his mother’s kitchen, the ascetic, introverted Kerouac took an abrasive dust bath in the real world and emerged a broader, stronger artist, who combined a mind for the transcendental with a feeling for the particular.’

And, a last quote from Kirn: ‘The traditional rap against Kerouac - that he was a sort of half-baked dopehead primitivist who prized sensation over sense - crumbles on a reading of his journals. For every entry concerning a wild night out with his colorful cohort of insomniac poets, opiated philosophers and autodidact ex-cons, there’s a meditation on Mark Twain or a list of favorite Renaissance poets. There’s no way around it: for all his hobo posing, Kerouac began as a New England highbrow. . . He trusted, finally, in his own energy, but it was an energy produced from the finest sources: great books, adventurous friends, high moral purpose and wide experience. ‘It’s not the words that count,’ he wrote, ‘but the rush of what is said.’

Finally, here are several extracts from Windblown World.

16 June 1947
‘Just made one of those great grim decisions of one’s life - not to present my manuscript of “T & C” to any publisher until I’ve completed it, all 380,000-odd words of it. This means seven months of ascetic gloom and labor - although doubt is no longer my devil, just sadness now. I think I will get this immense work done much sooner this way, to face up to it and finish it. Past two years has been work done in a preliminary mood, a mood of beginning and not completing. To complete anything is a horror, an insult to life, but the work of life needs to get done, and art is work - what work!! I’ve read my manuscript for the first time and I find it a veritable Niagara of a novel. This pleases me and moves me, but it’s sorrowful to know that this is not the age for such art. This is an excluding age in art - the leaver-outer [F. Scott] Fitzgeralds prevail in the public imagination over the putter-inner [Thomas] Wolfes. But so what. All I want from this book is a living, enough money to make a living, buy a farm and some land, work it, write some more, travel a little, and so on. But enough of this. The next seven(TEEN) months are joyless to view - but there is as much joy in these things, there is more joy, than in flitting around as I’ve done since early May, when I completed a 100,000-word section (Mood Log). I might as well learn now what it is to see things as they are - and the truth is, nobody cares how I fare in these writings. So I must fare in the grimmest, most efficient way there is, alone, unbidden, diligently again, always. The future has a glorious woman for me, and my own children, I'm certain of that - I must come up to them and meet them a man with things accomplished. I don’t care to be one of those frustrated fathers. Behind me there must be some stupendous deed done - this is the way to marry, the way to prepare for greater deeds and work. So then -‘

27 January 1948
‘Had a fist-fight with my novel and drew 2500-poor-drops-of-blood out of it, and after the smoke of the battle was over, something probably important occurred to me: - to try writing in quick first drafts of just sheer dialogue and sheer description of the action, without pausing to arrange it all in sentence-form, that is, logical and rhythmical and clear. Not that I believe too strongly in clear and logical writing, but I do believe in the kind of writing that give effortless pleasure to the reader. In the end, I am my own greatest reader. Also, I believe in sane writing, as opposed to the psychotic sloppiness of Joyce. Joyce is a man who only gave up trying to communicate to human beings. I myself do that when I’m drunk-weary and full of misery, therefore I know it’s not so honest as it’s spiteful to blurt out in associations without a true human effort to evoke and give significant intelligence to one’s sayings. It’s a kind of scornful idiocy.’

25 July 1948
‘. . . to the beach. We played in the waves for hours, lay in the sun. We had dinner at my house, and then the summernight fields and softness and great stars bending close-pack’t, and odourous darkness, and flowers and hidden gardens, and the whole universe melting and falling down the skies all crumbled and soft, all blurred and transcendental with milky light, all immortal, all sacrificial and sighing, all too impossible to keep and bear so beautiful and so sad. I wonder why our life must quiver between beauty and guilt, consummation and sadness, desire and regret, immortality and tattered moments unknowable, truth and beautiful meaningful lies, knowledge and the genius of illusion, love and chagrin, “Time” and minutes, what-we-do and what-we-want - or - other poles quivering elsewhere in greater, softer darknesses. Later, at night, wandered in the Bowery enjoying a few beers and thinking love-thoughts, then saw Lucien and Barbara and got out-drunk and staggered home in the morning . . . and Allen was crying because he thought nobody wanted to hear his new “silence and transcendence" visions, although, being silent and transcendent, of course, he could not utter them, and we could not utter our understanding, and the Big Error, or (to me) the Big Truth, hovered near touching us almost with its unknown wings. However there was no reason for me to get so drunk. I think I got drunk for the first time simply because I was happy, no other big reason, and because I was in love, in its living room resting.’

31 May 1949 [The printed date is wrong, though I can’t tell whether the source of the error is in Keorouac’s original manuscript, or in its preparation for print. The subsequent entry to this one is dated ‘Wednesday June 1’]
‘Tuesday June 1 - I’m thinking of making On the Road a vast story of those I know as well as a study of rain and rivers. Allen expresses weariness with my “rain-&-rivers” preoccupation now, but I think it’s only because I have not explained manifestly what they mean: as I did in the notebook “Record” on pages covering ‘New Orleans to Tucson.’ That’s clear in my mind.

There is never a real goldstrike, or a real “scientific advance,” only a revelation in the heart on one day or the next, subject to horrible change and further revelation. “Revelation is Revolution,” as Holmes says, insofar of course, as it is a change, miserably from mere day to day.

There is no heaven and no reward, and no judgment either (Allen says his lawyers “will be judged”): - no: - there is only a continuum of living across preordained spaces, followed by the continuum of the Mystery of Death. That death is a Mystery makes Death acceptable therefore; because Mystery never ends but continues.

Still waiting for the family.’

25 November 1948
‘Went to movies in N.Y. with Ma - Stan Kenton, French picture, etc. She wore her best clothes and how I love my mother, my sweet, dear little mother. . . a person like all the other treats I happen to know so accidentally. What thoughts I’ve been having since that binge, from whiskey-sickness which always induces visions. My mother is just “it.” I brood over her with such delight. I think Hal Chase is crazy for mistrusting me . . . I hope Hal comes back to me I love people. I know now how geekish we all feel. I am not worth kissing anybody’s feet, not even that so poseful. Why don’t we all die? Why do we live with such pain of living? Why do I feel pain when I think of Marian, or Lucien, or Burroughs? - a pain that is just “it.” Everything is “it.” It’s got it. We’ll know when . . . When I think of them all, and hateful me in the middle (reason, see, so hateful.) What a big hole in the world! And in that hole, that amputation, there it is . . . why we don’t die. “She will not put motion at rest (that I dislike (or dislove) her) (Marian) until she see you again.” How avid we are! How can I hate anyone as much as I hate myself? - therefore, we all love each other don’t we.

It's not true that you must love yourself to love others, as Ann Brabham said. You must hate yourself with that pain, then you cross the shadow-bridges to the other side of eternity, where their avid faces twitch, pale, gone, gone . . . Above I said “I love people.” What an asinine thing to say. That was self-love. I have no right to be loved, haven’t I? It’s all somewhere around here and it’s the reason why we don't die. For we know superciliousness does not come from a supercilious source . . . and many other things. I’ve lost all my warm consolations. I sit on the hundred fathoms - everybody please love me.’

17 June 1948
‘Madly, painfully lonesome for a woman these June evenings . . . and on I work work. I see them walking outside and I go crazy . . . “no time, no money.” - but my desire for a woman is at its highest pitch right now. If my ego were attached to love, as it should be, instead of to work, I’d have me that woman tonight and forever. “No time, no money . . .”

Or, yet, why is it that a man trying to do big work by himself, alone, poor, cannot find one little wisp of a woman who will give him her love and time? Why is it that a man with money and success has to drive them away . . . or as Hal Chase says, a man with a woman belonging to him, sporting her odor, has to drive them away ... the Lesbians! This experience is going to make me bitter, by God. But an idea just came to me. (Meanwhile, of course, you see, I do believe that ‘feeling sorry’ for oneself is one of the truest things on earth because you can’t deny that someone like me, healthy, sexual, even poetic, slashed, pierced, riven with desire and affection for any pretty girl I see, yet unable because of ‘time and money’ to make love now, now, in youth, as they parade indifferently by my window . . . well Goddamit, you just can’t deny it! It isn’t right! There’s too much aloneness in a world yearning, yearning, yearning . . . and too many whores, real true whores. To hell with them? No . . . the point is, I want them. Someday I’ll go to France, to Paris, that’s what . . . where, like Jean Gabin if you can find a pretty love at the carnival in the night.) (In the night, in the night, in the sky-night and lights, the soft warm knees parting, the breathless clasp, the gasp, the tongue, and best of all, the low murmuring voice and what it says.) Well, as I say, I’m going to be bitter about this. This may be sexual inadequacy (no time, no money), but . . . just wait, woman, just wait.

Went to bed, after irritating work with a faulty typewriter-hand, with a .350 average.’


This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 21 October 2009.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Couldn’t you get married now?

‘Washing up after tea Jack [Franklin] expressed his regret that I was unmarried. “Oh, Auntie, such a pity you are wasted. You would make such a splendid wife. Look at the way you make cakes, and iron Dad’s shirts, and the way you can shop and cook! Couldn’t you get married now?” ’ This is from the diary of Australian writer, Miles Franklin, born 140 years ago today. She remains much revered for her novel My Brilliant Career as well as for her encouragement of other early Australian writers.

Franklin was born at Talbingo, New South Wales, on 14 October 1879, the eldest child of Australian-born parents. She grew grew up on a property called the Brindabella Station (in the Brindabella Valley) where livestock was reared on crown land (squatting - without legal rights, though they rights come in time through usage). She was educated at home, and then at Thornford Public, where she was encouraged in her writing, not least by the editor of the local newspaper. While still a teenager, she wrote a romance to amuse her friends, but then sent it to the Australian writer, Henry Lawson. He wrote a preface and submitted it to his own publisher in Edinburgh. My Brilliant Career was published in 1901, and became an immediate success. However, Franklin became distressed because the public saw similarities with characters from her own family. She withdraw the novel from further publication, and it was not reissued until after her death. A sequel, My Career Goes Bung, she had written around the same time, was not published until 1946.

Franklin turned to other ways to earn a living, nursing and being a housemaid. In 1906, she moved to the US, where she undertook secretarial work 
in Chicago for Alice Henry, also an Australian, at the National Women’s Trade Union League. She also co-edited the organisation’s journal. While in the US, she wrote On Dearborn Street (not published until after her death) and Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909). She suffered regularly from ill health, and spent time in a sanatorium. In 1915, she moved again, this time to England, where she worked as a cook and freelance journalist. During the latter stages of the Great War, she served in the Balkans as a cook and orderly for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. From 1919 to 1926, she worked with the National Housing and Town Planning Association in London. She organised a women's international housing convention in 1924.

Franklin returned to Australia in 1927, where she published several historical novels under a pseudonym, though one - All That Swagger - was published under her own name in 1936. However, she again felt dissatisfied with home and Australian literary life and so returned to London, via the US, in pursuit of publishers. She was back in Australia in 1932, after her father died. She joined the Fellowship of Australian Writers in 1933 and the Sydney P.E.N. Club in 1935, and became an active campaigner for Australian literature, encouraging young writers, and supporting literary journals. She never married, and died in 1954. She left a bequest to establish a literary prize - the Miles Franklin Award - which was first won by Patrick White in 1957. Further information is available online at Australian Dictionary of Biography, State Library (New South Wales) or Wikipedia.

Franklin left behind a large hoard of autobiographical written material, diaries and notebooks, held by the State Library, New South Wales. The library lists its Franklin holdings as follows: pocket diaries, 1909-1954; literary notebooks, 1934-ca.1948;  diaries, 1926-1954; and miscellaneous notebooks, [ca. 1850-1954?]. It has also made available online images of more than 300 or so pages from one of Franklin’s pocket diaries (1917-1918). In 2018, Franklin’s last ever diary - which had been thought lost - was found in an old suitcase, and donated to the State Library; see The Age for more on this. The article includes Franklin’s last ever diary entry, on 16 September 1954: ‘Went to Eastwood by ambulance to be X-rayed. Ordeal too much for me. Day of distress and twitching. Returned to bed’.

In 2004, Allen & Unwin, in association with the State Library, published The Diaries of Miles Franklin as edited by Paul Brunton. According to Brunton, none of Franklin’s material, with the exception of the pocket diaries, is strictly chronological. He says he selected diary entries from all the different sources and placed them in one chronological sequence (though each one is given a precise citation at the back of the book). Some pages can be read online at Googlebooks. An interesting academic essay on Franklin and her diaries by Sandra Knowles can be accessed via the Sydney University Open Journals website. Knowles finds Franklin’s diaries more authored and less revealing than Brunton’s commentary suggests: ‘This essay,’ she says, ‘argues that Franklin’s diaries are a performance of privacy and authenticity, through a consideration of her diary audience. Her diaries do not reveal an artificial Franklin, but rather challenge the notion that diaries produce authentic representations of their diarists.’

Here are several extracts from Brunton’s book.

31 August 1935
‘Mother particularly cross, & needing to be endured and humored. Went to door at 11 a.m. and there were Ed & Maggie [Bridle] come to spend day. Glad to see them especially Maggie - but there goes my day. And on Saturday afternoon after I have finished charing the house and polishing the floors I find myself stiff with fatigue. When I wash the dirt from me I lie down for an hour in the afternoon as then Mother seems appeased for a while by the sacrifice of me to charing - but here went my respite . . . Nor & Jack [Norman and Jack Franklin] went to movies and kept me awake till 12.05 a.m. By that time I was so nervous & weary I couldn’t sleep at all and had to arise early to get Norman’s breakfast.’

20 December 1936
‘We called on Miss G [Gillespie] on the way home. Washing up after tea Jack [Franklin] expressed his regret that I was unmarried. “Oh, Auntie, such a pity you are wasted. You would make such a splendid wife. Look at the wav you make cakes, and iron Dad’s shirts, and the way you can shop and cook! Couldn’t you get married now?”

“I’m too old.”

“That oughtn’t to be against you. You could keep house well, and write books in your spare time. I’d marry you, only you are my relation.”

“Consanguinity as well as age spoils my chances,” said I, smothering a grin. The dear youngster was the general as well as the particular Australian male. Write books in my spare time. People 3 & 4 times his age have no more understanding of writing & its demands upon the writer.’

12 January 1938
‘Hot day. Mother spiteful. Norman morose. Ivy A. [Abrahams] in tears. I took Lily to town & did chores: typewriter, looking for washer for Mother etc. Life Hell - can’t write, nothing to hope for - even death has ceased to be a refuge.’

6 September 1943
‘And I am left alone in the desolation of my family graves. Anguish, desolation, nostalgia. It is sad beyond endurance to return to old scenes, but when the scene is empty the arena cold . . .

Each death in my circle, and particularly the going of those who have known or shared my childhood, drenches me with chill terror of the emptiness of this strange isolated land. It is as if I felt the tremors of the first exiles. We took it from the Aborigines. We do not yet possess it spiritually. We destroy, deface, insult, misunderstand it - whack it - but it resists. In the shock of bereavement - the thinning of family support - I see a dark spirit running over the land, a spirit akin to a sardonic smile, with the same mockery that is in the laugh of the kookaburra - that laugh which is loud, robust, hilarious, but aches with a mystery so baffling that it is tragic. That dark smile that runs over the land as if all the nostalgia of oblivion lay there unquenched and unforgiving.

I must not again go alone. The gone-awayness is too sapping. The sunlight caresses the gravestones and the wind sweeping over them intones the very essence of that oblivion from which we came and to which we go.’

12 June 1951
‘Early morning temperature still 2 points below normal. Grey, drizzling mild day again. I telephoned May - Leslie still in bed, poor girl. I began to go over ‘Ten Creeks’ finally for the printer. Solitary confinement - it takes willpower to suffer it without depression.’

1 July 1951
‘Showery day again. Big fire all day. Returned to essay but the discomfort of cold and chilblains kept me from accomplishing any but a page or two. Solitary confinement all day, not even a telephone call in or out.’

22 July 1951
‘Cold day - soon greyed over. I stuck close to essay - didn’t even read paper. At 4 p.m. washed my head, then washed floor & lavatory. Must have been too much. I suddenly had to feel sick so lay on bed till 7. Took no tea. Listened to radio & went to bed. Lit fire at 9.30 a.m. Solitary confinement all day. One telephone call - did not answer it.’

12 September 1951
‘Fine day again, didn’t even take Mrs Morgan’s chicks the greens. Went to butcher, so fatigued I find my stuff is full of repetition & disjointed - a rough draft really and I ache so I can’t straighten my shoulders. Wanted to get to bed by 9 but Mrs Fogden came in & wasted 40 minutes, then jean telephoned & now it is 9.30. Too tired to go for bread so took some of that Mrs A threw over for the chooks.’

8 October 1951
‘Cold cloudy day. Very tired. Pottered. Cut down another limb off the loquat tree, etc. etc. Totally alone all day, not even a wrong number on the telephone. Read some more of ‘Kon-Tiki’. Such a decent book. Perishing - had the heater again in the evening.’

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Germans are here

Eighty years ago today, a young Polish girl, Mary Berg, was turning 15, yet she was far from celebrating, for her world had very recently been upturned - ‘Everyone is afraid to go out. The Germans are here’, she wrote in her precious diary. She and her family spent most of the war in what became the Warsaw Ghetto, but eventually - thanks to her mother being an American citizen - they managed to organise their flight from German territory, to the US, as part of a prisoner exchange. Soon after, Mary’s diary was serialised in American newspapers, and then published in book form.

Mary (Wattenberg) was born in Lodz  Poland, in 1924. Her father was a prosperous art and antique dealer, and her mother was a dress designer, American born of Polish parents who had returned to Poland when she was but 12 years old. Mary had a younger sister Anna. As the Germans neared Lodz in the summer of 1939, the family fled, on bicycles, to Warsaw; but, a few weeks later, they returned home only to find their shop and apartment vandalised. The Germans requisitioned their apartment in December 1939, and within a week or two the family was summoned to Warsaw by the American consulate. There they remained, as with other Jewish citizens, increasingly confined to a specific area of the city, which, eventually in November 1940, was officially established as a ghetto. When the mass deportation of the Jews (to extermination camps) from the ghetto began, in mid-1942, the Wattenbergs, due to their American connection, were instead sent to a prison in Pawiak, and then to an internment camp in France. In March 1944, finally, they took a train to Lisbon, and a boat to New Jersey.

On arriving, Mary was befriended by a young Yiddish journalist, S. L. Shneiderman who was intrigued by her diary. Subsequently, he worked with her to decipher and transcribe the shorthand script, flushing out some details, for publication in a Yiddish periodical. An English translation in the Jewish Contemporary Record followed (under the shortened name of Berg to protect any family still alive in Poland). It was published as a book by L. B. Fischer in February 1945 - The Diary of Mary Berg - but went out of print in the 1950s. Although, initially, Mary Berg gave interviews and appeared on radio programmes, she later refused to take part in Holocaust-related events, and distanced herself from the diary, preferring to live quietly and privately. Wikipedia states: ‘She is believed to have lived in York, Pennsylvania for many years, where she wed William Pentin and was known as Mary Pentin. Her known relatives, descended from her sister, Anna, who married a pathologist, Leon Williams Powell Jr. and had four children, have either refused to provide or have disclaimed any new or additional information about Berg, so little is known about her years in the United States.’ She died in 2013. A little further biographical information can be gleaned from Encyclopedia.com.

In 2007, Oneworld Publications reissued the book (‘prepared’ by Susan Lee Pentlin) as The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing up in the Warsaw Ghetto, and, in 2019, the book was reprinted again for a 75th anniversary edition. Some pages can be previewed at Googlebooks but the full work can also be found online at EPDF. Many reviews can be browsed at Goodreads. Here are several extracts from the diary, including the first entry, written on Mary’s birthday 80 years ago.

10 October 1939
‘Today I am fifteen years old. I feel very old and lonely, although my family did all they could to make this day a real birthday. They even baked a macaroon cake in my honor, which is a great luxury these days. My father ventured out into the street and returned with a bouquet of Alpine violets. When I saw it I could not help crying.

I have not written my diary for such a long time that I wonder if I shall ever catch up with all that has happened. This is a good moment to resume it. I spend most of my time at home. Everyone is afraid to go out. The Germans are here.

I can hardly believe that only six weeks ago my family and I were at the lovely health resort of Ciechocinek, enjoying a carefree vacation with thousands of other visitors. I had no idea then what was in store for us. I got the first inkling of our future fate on the night of August 29 when the raucous blare of the giant loud-speaker announcing the latest news stopped the crowds of strollers in the streets. The word “war” was repeated in every sentence. Yet most people refused to believe that the danger was real, and the expression of alarm faded on their faces as the voice of the loud-speaker died away.

My father felt differently. He decided that we must return to our home in Lodz. In almost no time our valises stood packed and ready in the middle of the room. Little did we realize that this was only the beginning of several weeks of constant moving about from one place to another.

We caught the last train which took civilian passengers to Lodz. When we arrived we found the city in a state of confusion. A few days later it was the target of severe German bombardments. The telephone rang again and again. My father dashed from one mobilization office to another, receiving a different-colored slip of paper at each one. One day Uncle Abie, my mother’s younger brother, rushed unexpectedly into our house to say goodbye before leaving for the front. He was ragged, grimy, and unshaven. He had no uniform; only his military cap and the knapsack on his shoulders marked him as a soldier. He had been making his way from one city to another, looking for his regiment.

We spent most of our time in the cellar of our house. When word came that the Germans had broken through the Polish front lines and were nearing Lodz, panic seized the whole population. At eleven o’clock at night crowds began to stream out of the city in different directions. Less than a week after our arrival from Ciechocinek we packed our necessities and set out once more.

Up to the very gates of the city we were uncertain which direction we should take -toward Warsaw or Brzeziny? Finally, along with most of the other Jews of Lodz, we took the road to Warsaw. Later we learned that the refugees who followed the Polish armies retreating in the direction of Brzeziny had been massacred almost to a man by German planes.

Among the four of us, my mother, my father, my sister, and I, we had three bicycles, which were our most precious possessions. Other refugees who attempted to bring with them things that had been valuable in the life they had left behind were compelled to discard them. As we advanced we found the highway littered with all sorts of objects, from fur coats to cars abandoned because of the lack of gasoline. We had the good luck to acquire another bicycle from a passing peasant for the fantastic sum of two hundred zlotys, and we hoped it would enable us to move together with greater speed. But the roads were jammed, and gradually we were completely engulfed in the slow but steady flow of humanity toward the capital. [. . .]’

15 October 1939
‘We are again in Lodz. We found our store and our apartment completely looted; the thieves had cut the larger pictures out of their frames. My father is miserable over the loss of the Poussin and the Delacroix he bought in Paris for a considerable sum only a few weeks before the outbreak of the war. We have been here in Lodz for only two days, but we know now that it was a mistake to return here. The Nazis are beginning to intensify their acts of terrorism against the native population, especially the Jews. Last week they set fire to the great synagogue, the pride of the Lodz community. They forbade the Jews to remove the sacred books, and the “shames,” or beadle, who wanted to save the holy relics was locked up inside the temple and died in the flames. My mother cannot forgive herself for having persuaded my father to bring us back here.’

22 July 1942
‘Today the ghetto had a bloody Wednesday. The misfortune everyone expected has struck. The deportations and street pogroms have begun. At daybreak, patrols of Lithuanians and Ukrainians led by Elite Guards surrounded the ghetto, and armed guards were stationed every ten yards. Anyone approaching the gates or showing himself at a window was shot on the spot. The Lithuanians and Ukrainians displayed great zeal in their murderous work. They are tall young beasts of seventeen to twenty who were especially trained for their job by German instructors.

For a long time there has been talk in the ghetto of the impending replacement of the German guards, mostly old soldiers, by young Ukrainians and Lithuanians. Now these rumors, which were generally disbelieved, have been confirmed.

Last night the German authorities informed the Jewish community that all the inhabitants of the ghetto would be transported to the east. Only forty pounds of luggage are allowed per person; all remaining possessions will be confiscated. Everyone must bring provisions for three days. The deportation was supposed to begin this morning at eleven o’clock. The order exempts only those Jews who are employed in German factories and workshops in the ghetto, as well as the officials of the various ghetto institutions. This includes the Jewish police force, the community officials, the employees of the ambulance service, the hospital staffs, the undertakers, and all possessors of registration cards issued by the Labor Office who have not yet been assigned jobs. The families of these chosen people are also exempt from deportation.

The Jewish police is charged with the sad task of preserving order during the deportation and of employing force against those who refuse to give themselves up.
The concentration point of this mass migration is situated at the Umschlagplatz on Stawki Street. The Germans demand 3,000 persons a day for deportation. The panic in the ghetto is indescribable. People with bundles in their hands run from one street to another, and do not know what to do. Many are trying at the last moment to obtain jobs in the German factories of Toebens and Schultz, which are situated in the ghetto. I was told that some people are paying bribes of as much as a thousand zlotys for such a job. The Jews themselves are trying to organize large workshops to make goods for the Germans, in order to give employment to people threatened with deportation.

Today the Jewish police gathered up all the beggars from the streets and emptied the refugee camps. These unfortunates were locked up in freight cars without food or water. The transports are being sent in the direction of Brzesc, but will they ever reach there? It is doubtful that all these starving people will arrive at their destination alive; they will perish in their sealed cars. A hundred persons are crowded into each car. The Polish prison guard who whispered all these details to us had tears in his eyes. He lives near Stawki Street, and he witnessed horrible scenes of people being driven into cars with whips, just as though they were cattle.

Today we received a package of food from Uncle Abie, in which he enclosed a note. Fortunately for us, he is on the police force, otherwise he would not have been admitted to Dzielna Street. His short note expressed despair. He cannot accept the idea that, as a policeman, he will have to help in the deportation, and is thinking of resigning from his job. But, on the other hand, his job protects him from deportation. He wants to know what we think about it.

From our window I can see that something unusual is going on in Korczak’s children’s home. Every now and then someone walks in and, a few minutes later, comes out leading a child. These must be the parents or families of the children, who in this tragic moment want to be with their loved ones. The children look clean, and are dressed neatly though poorly. When I bend out of the window I can see the corner of Smocza Street. There is terrible confusion there; people are running back and forth as though possessed. Some carry bundles, others wring their hands.

Dzielna Street must have been opened for traffic, because suddenly many passers-by have appeared there, and until now it was empty. Often I can see whole families, parents with their children, the mothers holding babies in their arms, and the bigger children following them. There must be many Jews who are reporting voluntarily for deportation - those who have no other way out, no possibility of hiding. The Germans give them a kilogram of bread per person, and promise them better working conditions. But these desperate volunteers do not fill the quota of 3,000 people a day. The police must supply the rest by means of force. They drag their victims out of their homes or seize them in the streets.’

26 December 1943
‘This time we got away with only a scare. The Nazi commission has vanished and the whole camp, Jews and non-Jews, breathed with relief.

This year our Chanukah feast coincided with Christmas, and many Jews and Gentiles felt that this fact was symbolic. Chanukah candles are lit in many of the rooms occupied by Jews, while the Christmas tree in front of the church is decorated with tinsel. Perhaps our common suffering and persecutions will finally eradicate blind race hatred?’

Monday, October 7, 2019

I have been to the Commons

‘I have been to the Commons and found the interior so rich and beautiful as the exterior - the House itself tho’ not over large - of fine carved wood and full of members.’ This is from the diaries of Alfred Deakin, the second prime minister of Australia, who died a century ago today. He served three relatively short terms as PM, and is considered a pivotal figure in the history of the country. He left behind a wealth of autobiographical material including diaries which a recent biographer, Judith Brett, found very useful in terms of revealing Deakin’s inner world.

Deakin was born in 1856 in Melbourne, his parents having immigrated from Britain in 1850. His father was involved in the carrying and coaching trade, later becoming a manager with a decent salary. From an early age, Deakin was schooled with his sister at a girl’s boarding school, however by early 1864, he was enrolled at Melbourne Grammar School as a day boy. Aged 15, he matriculated to enter the University of Melbourne, by evening attending lectures on law, by day earning wages as a schoolteacher and private tutor. He spoke frequently at the university debating club, and was a keen spiritualist. In 1877, he was admitted to the bar, but was more interested in literature and writing (publishing Quentin Massys: A Drama in Five Acts, for example, and A New Pilgrim's Progress). He also wrote for the leading Melbourne newspaper, The Age, after meeting its editor, David Syme, in 1878. Syme proved influential in drawing Deakin into politics, and encouraging him to take on policies of protectionism.

After a turbulent year of elections, Deakin entered the legislative assembly in Victoria in 1880, where he would remain for 20 years. Despite his youth and inexperience, he was a prominent force in negotiating a compromise to secure the Council Reform Act of 1881. The following year, he married Elizabeth Martha Anne, daughter of a prominent spiritualist, with whom he had three daughters. Deakin went on to sponsor an important irrigation bill, as well as measures to protect factory workers; he was also a leader in the federation movement. He attended the conferences that drafted the constitution bill making Australia a commonwealth, and then went to London in 1900 to guide the bill through Parliament.

After serving as attorney general under Sir Edmund Barton, the Australian Commonwealth’s first prime minister, Deakin himself became became prime minister in 1903 as leader of the Liberal Party, in coalition with the Labor Party. A second coalition (1905-1908), also with Labor, passed a series of important nation-building acts - concerning, for example, an Australian currency, copyright, the judiciary, tariff protection, military service. A third coalition (1909-1910) with the Conservatives soon proved unpopular. He retired from Parliament in 1913 but went on to chair the 1914 Royal Commission on Food Supplies and on Trade and Industry. He died on 7 October 1919. Further information is readily available online at the Australian Dictionary of National Biography, Wikipedia, Deakin University, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and National Archives of Australia.

Deakin left behind a large amount of autobiographical material, all held by the National Library of Australia. He seems to have kept diaries for much of his life, though he destroyed some early ones (particularly after completing an autobiography The Crisis in Victorian Politics) or digested them into edited versions. He also kept prayer diaries, travel diaries, and a series of diary-type notes called ‘Clues’. Although there are no published versions of any of this diary material, the National Library of Australia provides a substantial amount of information on Deakin’s archives, including his diaries along with images of the pages.

Judith Brett, who recently published an important biography on Deakin, says in her Sources and Bibliography, that ‘Deakin’s inner world is well documented in the many private notebooks he kept during his life.’ She also says that she found all the autobiographical writing, ‘very difficult to navigate.’ Nevertheless, she does quote extensively from the diaries, notebooks etc. in The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (The Text Publishing Company, 2017). See Googlebooks to preview some pages and The Sydney Review of Books for a review.

Here is a paragraph from Brett’s text which includes quotations from Deakin’s diary dated 24 and 31 March 1887:
‘With so many friends to show him round, Deakin felt immediately at home in the great metropolis, which he judged to be just a vastly scaled-up Melbourne: “Put only one story on the houses, have the streets not quite so clean and a good deal older and twist and tangle all the straight ways and you have London.” Society too was familiar, dinners. At Homes, balls and banquets. Deakin’s debut in London society was at a dinner at Sir Henry Holland’s, the colonial secretary, followed by an At Home for three hundred or so, which “consists of a great crush in, spasmodic small talk in breaks of about five minutes each with a few of your neighbours, and then a great crush out again”. For an outsider looking in on the glittering crowd, with no friends to greet, no political business to transact, the titled men and women were but “faces in a gallery of pictures and talk a tinkling cymbal. . . Titles don’t grow out of a man or a woman - they are stuck on from the outside, and are always artificial and often ridiculous. Even a pallid aesthete with fringed hair, a despairing expression, and a crimson velvet gown did not move me.” ’

The following extract is transcribed directly from the diary page image found at the National Library of Australia website:
April 1887
‘I have been to the Commons and found the interior so rich and beautiful as the exterior - the House itself tho’ not over large - of fine carved wood and full of members. Heard no speaking of special note. Two feeble old Liberals moved an amendment and an aldermanish but capable Conservative made a good solid reply. Easter coming. Start for Scotland on Thursday.’

Finally, here are a few more short extracts from Deakin’s diaries as found in Brett’s book.

3 August 1890
‘Youth is past and manhood unfolded to its full but I find myself still feeble, still doubting, still uncertain of my life and part.’

4 August 1901
‘The web & woof of history discloses the Divine patter thro’ the dim light of understanding. The myriad unseen influences of individuals living or called dead & the myriads of unguessed agencies operating upon & among them without which the secret of life cannot be mastered.’

11 August 1901
‘Virtue is an ordering of the self - continuous, unflagging and ever wakeful to the best ends one sees.’

28 July 1903
‘Determined to resign re High Court.’

30 August 1903
‘I have this year for the first time realised age - the beginning of old age, enfeeblement, of withdrawal, of a spent force.’

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Gandhi’s London diary

‘What led to the intention of proceeding to London? The scene opens about the end of April. Before the intention of coming to London for the sake of study was actually formed, I had a secret design in my mind of coming here to satisfy my curiosity of knowing what London was.’ This is how Gandhi - born 150 years ago today - started a diary he wrote in London aged 19. Only the first 20 pages of the diary still exist, but the text is available online, and appears fairly banal. However, Gandhi has been the focus of diaries written by others, not least Mahadev Desai, his personal secretary, and the French writer/idealist Romain Rolland who did much to enhance Gandhi’s reputation in Europe.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on the coast of present-day Gujarat, India, on 2 October 1869. He lived an extraordinary life, and is considered the country’s most important political and spiritual leader. He led India to independence in the middle of the 20th century, and was a pioneer of resistance (to the British rulers) through mass civil disobedience without violence, thus becoming an inspiration for similar civil rights movements across the world. He died in January 1948, leaving behind 100 volumes of collected writings, amounting to over 50,000 pages of text. Wikisource has an incomplete listing of the volumes, plus a photograph of them.

The very first volume, which covers the years 1988 to 1896, contains the first 20 pages of what is now called Gandhi’s London Diary. According to A Comprehensive, Annotated Bibliography on Mahatma Gandhi by Ananda Pandiri (which itself runs to three volumes), the diary originally included 120 handwritten pages. In 1909, Gandhi gave it to his nephew who was travelling to London; ten years later the nephew gave it to Mahadev Desai. By then, Desai had become Gandhi’s personal secretary and would stay so for over 25 years. For some unknown reason, Desai copied out only the first 20 pages of the diary, and the contents of the other 100 pages remain unknown.

Here are the first and last surviving paragraphs from Gandhi’s London Diary. All the pages between these two extracts are devoted to an analysis of how the trip to London came about, and a description of the sea voyage. Thus, in fact, it is not a proper diary at all.

October-November 1888
‘What led to the intention of proceeding to London? The scene opens about the end of April. Before the intention of coming to London for the sake of study was actually formed, I had a secret design in my mind of coming here to satisfy my curiosity of knowing what London was. While I was prosecuting my college studies in Bhavnagar, I had a chat with Jayshankar Buch. During the chat he advised me to apply to the Junagadh State to give me a scholarship to proceed to London, I being an inhabitant of Sorath. I do not perfectly remember the answer I made to him that day. I suppose I felt the impossibility of getting the scholarship.’

. . .

‘Mr. Mazmudar, Mr. Abdul Majid and I reached the Victoria Hotel. Mr. Abdul Majid told in a dignified air to the porter of the Victoria Hotel to give our cabman the proper fare. Mr. Abdul Majid thought very highly of himself, but let me write here that the dress which he had put on was perhaps worse than that of the porter. He did not take care of the luggage too, and as if he had been in London for a long time, stepped into the hotel. I was quite dazzled by the splendour of the hotel. I had never in my life seen such pomp. My business was simply to follow the two friends in silence. There were electric lights all over. We were admitted into a room. There Mr. Majid at once went. The manager at once asked him whether he would choose second floor or not. Mr. Majid thinking it below his dignity to inquire about the daily rent said yes. The manager at once gave us a bill of 6s. each per day and a boy was sent with us. I was all the while smiling within myself. Then we were to go to the second floor by a lift. I did not know what it was. The boy at once touched something which I thought was lock of the door. But as I afterwards came to know it was the bell and he rang in order to tell the waiter to bring the lift. The doors were opened and I thought that was a room in which we were to sit for some time. But to my great surprise we were brought to the second floor.’

Elsewhere on the internet, one can find information on Tim Watson’s theory about the missing diary pages being suppressed to hide Gandhi’s affiliation to freemasonry; and there are other Gandhi conspiracy theories in his book Gandhi - Under Cross-Examination


More interesting, though, are the diaries written by others which have Gandhi as their focus. In contrast to Gandhi, for example, his secretary Desai was a committed diarist, and eventually published nine volumes - Day to Day with Gandhi. These can read freely online at Internet Archive or  the Gandhi Heritage Portal. Here is one extract.

15 October 1924
‘Four weeks have ended today since the tapasya of the fast for 21 days was begun. I had ended that chapter with a description of Bapu’s mental struggle and of the happy ending of the fasting vow. It seems that the painful duty of having to write about the fourth and even the fifth week will fall upon me, because it will take Gandhiji at least a fortnight to be up and doing. After a long fast a man may usually feel dull and listless, may not relish new food or may even be tempted to be a glutton, as a reaction from his long abstinence. Bapu has suffered from none of these. He has now begun to take ordinary food with the same ease and cheerfulness as those with which he had begun the fast. The vow ended at 12 noon, but because of the prayer etc. the fruit juice could be taken at about 12.45 p. m. Two days later he began to take milk and gradually increase its quantity - 2 ozs., 3, 4 and so on - and today he has come to 25 ozs. of milk and a few oranges. Before the end of the fast, quite a number of Jain munis (sages) had written to him specially to send their blessings and felicitations as well as detailed suggestions as to how to taper off the fast. The letters revealed inordinate love for Bapu, but owing to his vow to take only five articles of food in a meal, he has not been able to follow in practice anyone of these instructions except that of taking fruit. Even with the diet he is taking at present, everything - sleep etc. - goes on with clock-work regularity. [. . .]

Bapu is generally open to visitors at all hours of daytime except this period of prayers etc. A friend urged: “Now, please, enough of such a terrible vow! Wickedness is certain to persist to some degree in this world.” Immediately Bapu countered with a laugh: “Don’t you suppose I am vain enough to think I possess the power to remove the wickedness of the world! If I fasted, it was only for my own purification. It was my religious duty to undergo that much penance. That has been done. The fruit rests with God.”


Gandhi was also a star character in the diary kept by the French writer and idealist Romain Rolland. Indeed, in 1976, the Indian government published a volume of Rolland’s writings concerning Gandhi: Romain Rolland And Gandhi Correspondence (Letters, Diary Extracts, Articles, Etc.), this too is available at Internet Archive. (NB: An earlier Diary Review article on Rolland - Love of humanity - stated that the only published extracts from Rolland’s diaries in English concerned Herman Hesse. However, this was clearly incorrect as the Gandhi book contains many extracts from his diaries translated into English.) Here are several extracts.

February 1929
‘Gandhi announces in Young India his intention not to leave India this year and to give up the journey to Europe which had been settled on. I understand his reasons only too well; it is an armed vigil. Gandhi has recently obtained from Congress that a final deadline should be set for England by which to grant India her requested constitution. After this deadline, which expires on 31 December next, Gandhi has promised to join the rest of his people in seeking total and unconditional independence. It is thus important that he should not leave the battle-posts at which he is waiting. I write to him, however (17 February), to say that if he cannot come himself he should send to Europe one or several Indians whose moral personalities carry worldwide authority in order to enlighten Europe about the struggle which is about to begin. It is only too clear that as soon as it starts the British Empire will blockade India and flood world opinion with its own false reports so as to turn the world against India. India should thus take the first step.’

December 1932
‘Gandhi is talking about another fast to obtain the opening of a temple to the untouchables; I tell him by cable that European opinion will not follow him in a repetition of his heroic act of last October, if it is for a secondary objective.’

December 1937
‘Gandhi gravely ill in Calcutta (where he wore himself out trying to obtain the liberation of the political prisoners). Tagore, himself scarcely out of bed after a serious illness, comes to see him, and there is a most touching scene. Tagore arrives, still very weak, and unable to climb the stairs. At the doorway he learns that Gandhi is better; he is pleased and, not wanting to disturb him, offers to leave without seeing him. He is told that Gandhi would like to see him and that, but for his state of health, he himself would have gone to Santiniketan. Tagore allows himself to be carried in an armchair; he finds Gandhi at prayer; he remains seated during the prayer, but does not want to disturb the prayer by speaking to him, and he leaves praying for him and blessing him.’


This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 2 October 2009.