Sunday, 17 September 2017

[Book Review] Antonia White: Diaries 1926-1957 (1991)

Antonia White, Diaries 1926-1957 [vol. 1], ed. Susan Chitty (Constable & Co: London, 1991)

I don't read a great deal of fiction, and until I saw this book in an op shop I'd never heard of Antonia White.  However, I love reading diaries or letters by artists (one of my desert island books is the Letters of Bruce Chatwin).

Diaries 1926-1957: Volume I
Image from here

White's diaries did not disappoint.  More than anything else, she was a writer's writer.  Clive James' memorable description of Turgenev could equally have applied to her -
The temptation is to call Tolstoy a stylist. But in Russian, Turgenev was the stylist. Turgenev was the one who cared about repeating a word too soon. Tolstoy hardly cared at all.

In the later stages of the diaries, especially as they stretch into the 1950s, you get a real sense of the life of a professional writer: the difficulty meeting editors' deadlines, self doubt, and becoming bored with one's characters or subject.  You also get a sense of the black hole into which prose stylists can fall, as she writes and rewrites the first chapter of an ultimately unpublished book (one thinks of Joseph Grand in Camus' La Peste, only without the hint of comedy).

Real life keeps breaking through, especially in the years up to 1950, as White chronicles a string of failed marriages and questionable relationships.  Susan Chitty - her daughter and editor - deserves praise here: White frequently writes about her own quite-active sex life and editing this material can't have been fun.

Antonia White was too singular a person for her diaries to be a time capsule of her age, either of the big- or small-picture type.  However, they do have the same crystal-clear quality of George Orwell and Earnest Hemingway without the former's bitterness or the latter's irony.  They may not be everyone's taste, but they should be on the list of every aspiring writer.

No comments:

Post a Comment