Sunday, March 29, 2015

Black, dead, inhuman

‘I have been ill now and in bed for over two weeks. That is why I have written nothing. And the new doctor gave me M. & B. tablets which, I suppose, made me feel even worse - black, dead, inhuman as a boulder - telescoped into myself till nothing could come forward.’ This is from the diary of Denton Welch, a British artist and writer born 100 years ago today. He struggled to keep on writing, despite severe health problems, but died tragically young.

Welch was born in Shanghai, China, on 29 March 1915, into a rich privileged family, but his mother (an American by birth) died when he was only 11. In his teens, he was educated at Repton, but he so hated the school he tried running away once. On deciding to become a painter, he enrolled at the Goldsmith School of Art, London. In 1935, when riding his bike, he was involved in a traffic accident. His spine was fractured, and he remained paralysed for several months. During his convalescence, he shook off the Christian Science religion that had been a feature of his childhood; and, eventually, he learned to walk again.

Welch never fully recovered his health, and he suffered repeated infections and headaches, but he continued to paint and draw. In 1941, Leicester Galleries, London, exhibited some of his paintings. Also, some of his poems were well received; and then his autobiographical, Maiden Voyage, for which Dame Edith Sitwell wrote a foreword, sold out. For the next few years, Welch moved home several times, first in south London, then to near Tonbridge, and finally to the village of Crouch near Sevenoaks. In late 1943, he had met Eric Oliver who moved in with Welch, becoming his lover and, increasingly, his carer.

Despite his failing health, these years with Oliver proved fruitful for Welch: most of his published works, such as In Youth Is Pleasure and the autobiographical A Voice Through a Cloud, date from this time. Welch died in December 1948. Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, or from James Methuen-Campbell’s biography, Denton Welch: Writer and Artist. Web pages with further details on A Voice Through a Cloud (Wikipedia and The Paris Review) also have more details on Welch. Alan Bennett’s article on Welch for The Guardian is also informative.

Between 1942 and his death, Welch wrote a personal diary, in thin paper-covered school exercise books; he left behind 19 of these. They were first edited by Jocelyn Brooke, and then published by Hamish Hamilton in 1952 as The Denton Welch Journals. In his introduction, Brooke explains that Welch’s handwriting was ‘scrawling and rather school boyish’, that he wrote at great speed with little regard for punctuation, and that his spelling was not very good. The published book contains only about half the original manuscript material, Brooke adds, partly because of concerns at the time about libel, partly because he edited out passages where Welch interrupted his diary to embark on a short story, and partly to avoid repetition.

Here are a few extracts from the Journals.

11 February 1944
‘This evening I bicycled to Penshurst. I climbed up the hill easily because I was with a man who worked at the railway and he talked all the time about the last war.

At the top, he said good-bye and I went on, on, down the hill past a soldier and the old neurotic home, ‘Swaylands’, which is now a military hospital. Two idle loosely hanging soldiers stood at the lodge waiting for something to be brought to them. They looked at me lazily and curiously as I sped past . . .

Nothing can make up for the fact that my very early youth was so clouded with illness and unhappiness. I feel cheated as if I never had that fiercely thrilling time when the fears of childhood have left one and no other thing has swamped one. The cheek is plump and smooth, the eye and the teeth are bright and one feels that one would lie down and die if these first essentials were ever taken away . . .

When I passed the ‘Fleur de Lys’ at Leigh, again I thought of Eric, for he told me that he used often to get tight there.

Curious to think that all this time while Eric worked on the farm, hated it, was utterly lonely, got tight as often as possible just for something to do, I was only a few minutes away in Tonbridge, walking the streets in my restlessness, trying to make myself iller and iller by any foolishness, wanting to die.

And we never met and all the years in between, seven, eight, we knew nothing of each other, they all melted away and wasted.’

21 April 1944
‘This morning I had a book, Planet and Glow-worm, from Edith Sitwell and a letter with her love. Then I went out in the sun and, feeling so much better, I lay on the top of a haystack and sunned myself and ate and actually fell asleep, and I forgot unhappiness and trouble and only felt in a daze with hot sun and cool wind on my face.

Edith mentioned my Horizon story which appeared on Wednesday. Cyril Connolly sent me fourteen guineas and said Hamish Hamilton wanted to know if I had a book of them in mind, because if so he’d like to publish it.

Lately I have a poem in the Spectator and two in Life and Letters and a story in New Writing and one in English Story.

Also I have sold two little pictures to a Mrs. Serocold

It is happiness to have things liked, but when I’m ill as I was on Wednesday and other days lately everything pales to nothing and I want to die more than anything on earth.

I think all I can do is to keep my work going as long as I can. And if I can no longer, then I will die . . .’

8 May 1944
‘When you long with all your heart for someone to love you, a madness grows there that shakes all sense from the trees and the water and the earth. And nothing lives for you, except the long deep bitter want. And this is what everyone feels from birth to death.’

9 April 1945
‘I have said nothing about In Youth is Pleasure, and it has been out since February 22nd (I think). So far everything is so much better than I thought it might be - good reviews, except for Kate O’Brien in the Spectator, and quite long ones and lots. It was all sold out before publication, so now they are bringing it out again.’

30 May 1945
‘When I read about William Blake, I know what I am for. I must never be afraid of my foolishness, or of any pretension. And whatever I have I must use, painting, poetry, prose - not proudly thinking it is not good enough and so lock it inside for fear or laughing, sneering.’

26 August 1945
‘I have been ill now and in bed for over two weeks. That is why I have written nothing. And the new doctor gave me M. & B. tablets which, I suppose, made me feel even worse - black, dead, inhuman as a boulder - telescoped into myself till nothing could come forward. Now I am better, and so the other state seems unbelievable, but it is waiting for me again.’

29 January 1947
‘There were frost flowers thick all over the panes this morning and the milk was frozen. The pipes were frozen too, and the snow thicker than ever. I have not got out of bed, and will not till I hear the pipes thawing. I have been writing here, then eating chocolate as a reward. The panes are all dripping and splashing in the sunshine now. Eric has gone for a walk in the snow, and I wish I could go too. It is the most snow I think I have known in England.’

The Diary Junction

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Cramming preserves into a jar

The intriguing Polish writer Leopold Tyrmand died 30 years ago today. His youthful adult life was marked by the turmoil of the Second World War, after which he struggled, in his early writing career, through the years of Stalinism. Escaping to the US, he found some success, before again falling foul of the prevailing cultural and political climate. For three short months, after Stalin’s death and while still in Warsaw, he kept a very detailed diary. This was not published in English until 2014, but reveals Tyrmand had much to say about his own life - his politics, his relationships - as well about the very process of keeping a diary, which he likened to cramming preserves into a jar.

Tyrmand was born in Warsaw in 1920, the only child of a small-scale leather wholesaler and a mother known for her beauty. After leaving school in 1938, he travelled to Paris to enrol in the École des Beaux-Arts to study architecture. He was back in Warsaw, on a break from his studies, when Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939. Tyrmand fled east, like other Jews, ending up in Vilnius, where he joined the staff of a Polish-language newspaper published by the Soviets. His parents, meanwhile, were sent to the Majdanek Concentration Camp, where his father was murdered. His mother survived, and subsequently emigrated to Israel.

During the war, Tyrmand began to cooperate with the Polish resistance, but was arrested in spring 1941 by the NKVD secret police. On being transported to a Gulag corrective labour camp, his transport was bombed by the Nazis, and he managed to escape. With false papers, he returned to Germany where he worked in a series of menial jobs. In 1944, he secured a kitchen job on a German transport ship, intending to escape through a Norwegian port to neutral Sweden. He was captured, and spent the rest of the war in a camp near Oslo. He was back in Warsaw by mid-1946, and, later, made good use of his wartime experiences in his autobiographical novel, Filip, and several short stories. He also took a regular job as a journalist writing for Cut, a current events weekly.

During the years of Stalin’s growing influence in Poland, Tyrmand found his writing stifled, and work opportunities limited. It was not until after Stalin’s death, in fact, that he found some renewed success with Zły (published in English as The Man With White Eyes). He married a young art student, was responsible for organising jazz concerts, moved into a better apartment, and began to travel abroad. But, the relaxed cultural and political atmosphere did not last long, and again Tyrmand found himself at odds with the authorities, his activities repressed and his works censored. He got married again in 1959, to Barbara Hoff, an up-and-coming fashion designer. In the mid-1960s, though, he finally managed to get an export visa, first visiting Israel, and then the US, where he stayed.

Tyrmand struggled at first in the US, but, as a writer from behind the Iron Curtain, he was soon taken up by the New York Intelligentsia, and his writing was in demand from periodicals such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The American Scholar. But once again, with his insistent anti-communist stance and constant criticism of US political and cultural life, he began to find himself drifting out of favour. In 1971, he got married for the third time, to Mary Ellen Fox, and they had twins, a boy and girl. In the mid-1970s, he was invited to work with the Conservative Rockford Institute, editing the Chronicles of Culture magazine, and taking over as the institute’s director from its founder, John Howard. Tyrmand died on 19 March 1985. Further information is available from WikipediaNew Eastern Europe website, or a paper at

One of Tyrmand’s most significant literary legacies is a diary he kept for just three months at the start of 1954. This was first published in Polish in 1980 by the London-based Polonia Book Fund under the title Dziennik 1954. In keeping a diary at the time, full of political content as it was, Tyrmand was taking a considerable risk - Stalin was dead, but
 the official launch of a de-Stalinization policy was still a year or two away. 

The diary breaks off abruptly - in mid-sentence - on 2 April 1954, because, as Tyrmand explains in an afterword, he was about to sign a contract for a novel. The published diary also includes a preface written by Tyrmand. In this, he explains the genesis and subsequent history of the diary, and, to some extent, analyses its contents. The work was finally translated into English in 2014, by Anita Shelton and A. J. Wrobel, and published by Northwestern University Press as Diary 1954. Some pages can be read freely online at Googlebooks.

From the start of Tyrmand’s preface:

‘The facts are as follows:
- I wrote the diary over the first three months of 1954.
- For twelve years, the handwritten notebooks lay at the bottoms of rarely opened drawers.
- In 1956 (it’s obvious at what moment) the Universal Weekly published an excerpt from the diary - the only one that has appeared in print in Poland.
- In 1965, after years of futile applications for a passport, I was finally going to the West in an oldish Opel. I hadn’t decided to emigrate, but I took the manuscript of the diary with me, hiding it, with the help of a trusted mechanic, near the differential. It was an unnecessary precaution; what the customs officials at the border crossing wanted to know was whether my novel Zły was going to be reprinted. After that, their attention was drawn to an antique candlestick on top in the first suitcase they opened. They kept the candlestick and wished me a good journey.
- A few months later the notebooks were deposited at the editorial offices of the Parisian Culture, in Maisons-Lafitte, where they gathered dust for another four years.
- In 1968, when I chose freedom, the diary crossed the Atlantic and traveled with me from place to place for five years. Having settled down in New Canaan, Connecticut, I typed up the manuscript and prepared it for publication as a book.
- In 1974, the London-based Wiadomości (an émigré weekly) began to publish the diary in instalments; the last one came out in 1978. Around half of the full text saw the light of day in emigration in this way.
- The present book represents the entire diary, unchanged for editorial reasons, moral quandaries, political requirements, or concessions to friends and acquaintances.’

Right at the end of his preface, Tyrmand says this: ‘This diary, written in the prime of manhood, and reread at the twilight of middle age, brings me a feeling of fidelity to my own self - which has always seemed to me something desirable and worthy of sacrifice.’

Finally, here are a couple of extracts from the diary itself. Most of the entries are long, running to several pages of small typescript, but Tyrmand is always interesting, whether writing about his relationships, his city, politics or the act of keeping of diary.

5 January 1954
‘I thought that the notebook in which I am keeping this diary would last me for a few months, but now I doubt I’ll fit in all of January. And it devours energy and time. But it draws me in. [. . .]

I took a tram today across Leszno Street and Iron Street to the East-West Route. There, you can still see a good bit of old Warsaw from before the cataclysm. The ugly tenement houses from the turn of the century, so despised by the prewar aesthetes and social do-gooders dreaming of glass houses, have been burnished with a patina of charm by the passing years, sentiment, and ill fortune. They evoke the shoddiness of yesteryear which nostalgia has already ennobled. Especially since they are neighbours to the socrealism of the new Muranow housing estate, which looks like a group of cakes from a street peddler’s basket: small stucco tympanums stuck on as if by a confectioner over oblong windows straight out of primitive functionalism. Facades like dirty icing on a stale cake.

Supper at the Writers’ Club among the same faces, all reflecting the dullness of the choice they made. That’s what it seems like to me, but I may be wrong. Maybe they have sleepless nights, only I don’t know it. The atmosphere at the Club is like that of a prewar Jewish boarding house in Otwock, except that it’s more expensive here, and the food is worse. Everyone knows and dislikes everyone else.

In the afternoon my liver was aching. What’s that about? Hardly a drop of vodka passes my lips; I drink herbal infusions. Could it be that my health, which until now I have boasted about, and which has carried me so reliably through the war, camps, prisons, and private passions, has now been knocked out by infectious hepatitis? But no matter. I already have thirty-three years clocked. For my generation, that’s a ripe old age.

In the evening Bogna showed up, in a foul mood. I also wasn’t exactly in the pink, so there was tension in the air from the start. Getting undressed, she turned out the light, which she usually doesn’t do, and then in the dark she knocked over the humidifier hanging on the radiator, spilling water all over the freshly waxed parquet floor. Nothing sets me off quite like an attack on the shine of my floor, but we were already kind of down to fundamentals, and a fight about spilled water would have been farcical. Instead, when it was all over I just said, “Listen Bogna, I know that your sixteen years and my loathsome pedantry put together are pure surrealism. Isn’t it better to end it?” To that, Bogna, sated, calmly replied, “Uh-huh. You always talk like that when you’ve gotten off.” ’

8 January 1954
‘ “To thine own self be true. To thine own self be true - this above all!” cries Hamlet, as everyone knows. This is an apt bidding. Today it’s tormenting me more than usual. Because I am not myself. But who, then? The devil knows. I have been so determined to be seen as stifled and bypassed by the revolution, the historical moment, my society, and even my own self that I don’t recognise myself. Now I’ll probably never sort it out.

This diary is a substitute for creativity. It’s my justification of myself to myself, and not an independent construction, in and of itself legitimate and fully formed. And is this at all what I am? I always believed and judged that a man must express himself through action, I looked for the call to action, to do my duty - everything else is masturbation, and sooner or later it disgusts. I have been denied creation and action. By whom? It’s embarrassing to keep repeating it.

A diary somehow cannot accommodate what is to be told, what can be told only through creative work, epitome, and metaphor, which are literary devices. There’s always something in this text that doesn’t make it for me, doesn’t satisfy me. What? The right, or privilege to detach myself from the concrete, to cobble together my own law, in harmony with a wider law one must seek with one’s imagination. To be permitted, unrestrained by anything, my own composition of the detail. When I take the bus across Warsaw, my city, which I know better than most people, I can’t note everything faithfully and adequately or I’d fall into idiotic nominalism that would force me to fill up several dozen pages a day. Yet every morning I read my notes from the preceding days and something is missing, something it seems to me I failed to grasp: here, the period, there, insights, yet elsewhere, myself, and instead of them, there are trivialities and cliches, which I’ve already completely forgotten. What I wrote yesterday about McCarthy strikes me today as awkward and shallow. But is this diary supposed to serve as an outlet for someone whom communism has denied the right to have his say about America, who doesn’t have the right to publish what is of immediate value and should be read from day to day? [. . .]

While eating, conversing, touching Bogna, I think impatiently about what I must not lose, what must be captured and recorded. Cramming preserves into a jar, which may never be consumed. This raises the question: were Pepys, Chłędowski, and Gide also crushed by the elephantiasis of the writer’s imperative, or did they know how to confine their diary writing to the margins of their mental and manual effort, endowing it rather with the charm of an evening spent pleasantly jotting memoirs in one’s bathrobe?’

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The day came at last

‘The day came at last as all days must come if one waits long enough. The day that ended my old & commenced my new life - a change for the better I have not the smallest shadow of a doubt - the day that ends this daily journal, having living tablet to write upon instead.’ This is Barclay Fox, part of a prosperous and important Quaker family in 19th century Cornwall, writing in his diary about his wedding day. Interestingly, he predicts - accurately - that he will no longer be interested in keeping a diary. He died 160 years ago today, leaving five children, not yet 40.

Barclay Fox was born in Cornwall in 1817 into a rich Quaker family that had many business and industrial interests in and around Falmouth. His father, Robert Were Fox, was a well known physicist and geologist, and was very involved with the family’s iron foundries. Barclay Fox married Jane Backhouse in 1844, and they had four sons and a daughter. Although Fox took part in the family business - he was made partner of the shipping brokers, G. C. Fox, and was general manager of the iron foundry at Perranarworthal, he also travelled abroad. Indeed, he was in Egypt when he died, on 10 March 1855, from tuberculosis. There is very little further biographical detail readily available online, but Wikipedia does have an entry for him, as does The Peerage.

Fox appears to have kept a diary for most of his life, starting when he was a teenager, but with far fewer entries after his marriage. Unlike the diary of his sister, Caroline, (see below), it was not published until 1979, when Bell and Hyman brought out Barclay Fox’s Journal as edited by R. L. Brett (including entries from 1832 to 1845). Thirty years later, in 2008, Cornwall Editions brought out a new edition of the 1979 book with a fresh introduction by Charles Fox, a preface by Bert Biscoe, and additional journal entries from 1845 to 1854. Some pages of this latter edition can be browsed at Amazon.

Here are a few extracts, including several from around the time of Barclay’s wedding.

1 January 1832
‘Breakfasted at Grove Hill. A cold day, got a cough, stayed at home from the afternoon Meeting. Papa gave me this book.’

9 January 1832
‘Commenced schooling today by myself in the new schoolroom and made an address to it in 6 Latin verses. I knocked out a pane of glass with my whipping top. A very wet day. I have begun to go to bed at 9 instead of 10.’

10 January 1832
‘2 Aunts came to breakfast, we all read our poems to them. After breakfast, I went with Papa to Perran to try the intensity of the magnet [Barclay’s father experimented with magnetism] with William Henwood, first in the valley and then on the top of the hill. We found the needle varied half a degree. In the evening, we 3 went to the Bank and read our poems again to Grandmamma and Aunts. Rather wet day.’

27 March 1832
‘J Richards, Cavendish & I went on board the Alchymist with Uncle Lewis. Explored the cavern at Pennance with Cavendish in the afternoon. John Wall went back to Bridgenorth this morning to his sister’s marriage. Fine day.’

4 April 1832
‘The marriage-day of Cavendish’s sister - a holiday of course. In the morning rowed with Cavendish to the Aurora frigate. In the afternoon some of the Classical School boys came to a game of cricket & tea, after which Papa showed us some experiments on galvanism etc. Very fine day.’

22 March 1840
‘Had the long anticipated pleasure of meeting John Mill, the exquisite writer in the London & Westminster. His voice, face & manner betoken delicacy of feeling, mildness, clearness and correctness of view, with that entire absence of assumption & affectation which distinguishes the really great from the really little.’

24 March 1840
‘Walked with Mill and Sterling after dinner. Mill sketched simply and beautifully the opposite habit of mind of himself & Carlyle; he being a generalizer, Carlyle an individualizer. His own turn was abstraction, Carlyle’s realization; the former is characteristic of the moral philosopher, the latter of the poet. He had only once or twice actually realized scenes of which he read and from that experience could easily understand the fancied inspiration of poets. For historic events to come home to him with the reality of actual presence would be more than his nerves could bear. When he first saw the great Truth 12 years since, that the earnestness of a writer is the only thing about him worth attempting to imitate, and the inevitable inconsistency of a copied style makes it more than vain, it seemed to him like a Revelation. There is sincerity of depth of assent in his emphatic Yes which is very peculiar. He is the most candid, genuine and clear-reasoning man I ever met with.’

29 November 1841
‘The deluge of 1841. The rain poured down in streams instead of drops, the low lands are inundated, walls & hedges are washed away. The water in some of the houses at Penryn is 4 or 5 feet deep & the inhabitants with their pigs are taking refuge in the top storey according to my father’s report, who went to Carlew this morning. The road about Stewart’s bone mill is converted into a rapid river 3 or 4 feet deep in some places. The like has not been known in this county within the memory of man. It is a happy thing for the old ladies that they can read of the covenant made with our forefathers that the world should never be drowned again, for certainly this looks somewhat suspicious. With Sterling for about an hour in the evening, to my usual edification.’

9 October 1844
‘Wedding-eve! My father & mother arrived at 9; the girls, with my Grandmother & Aunt C, in the afternoon. C has not lost her cough, but both give a clean bill of themselves & bright reports of their northern experiences. We dined at Southend with a large party, including 9 of the bridesmaids. At 7 William appeared seemingly well-strung-up to the occasion. We had much pleasant & interesting chat over the breakfast-room fire till the arrival of Uncle C & the lawyers put an end to it. He & William in conjunction with J Hodgkin & Edmund are our Trustees. This second legal visitation gave me the opportunity of a few last words with Jane who is all herself  - free from frights & fancies, considerate of all, calm & self-possessed. No perturbation at the thought of tomorrow.’

10 October 1844
‘The day came at last as all days must come if one waits long enough. The day that ended my old & commenced my new life - a change for the better I have not the smallest shadow of a doubt - the day that ends this daily journal, having living tablet to write upon instead, “The soul’s living home” as Coleridge calls it most truly.’

31 December 1844
‘Here ends the best & most blessed year of my life. It is as tho’ I had reached the goal of my boy-existence & found it but the starting post of a new one. The mountain tops before me show higher then ever & life is becoming a more earnest business with a larger sphere & higher pleasures & deeper responsibilities - no longer alone but blest with the companionship of a noble & pure spirit, with the possession of a deeply-loving heart; how abundantly grateful ought mine to be!’

Barclay’s sister, Caroline, has long been considered a diarist of note. Memories of Old Friends: being extracts from the journals and letters of Caroline Fox, 1835-1871 was first published in two volumes in 1882 by Smith, Elder & Co., and contains many references to her brother. Her diaries are freely available online at Internet Archive.

The Diary Junction