A Fearless, Free, Literary Space: On Writers’ Diaries
Isabella Trimboli on Alix Cléo Roubaud, Marie Bashkirtseff, Anne Charlotte Robertson, and More
The image has vague provenance, circulating on corners of the internet that sever history and source. All we have is a caption, parroted across platforms: “Anaïs Nin with her diaries in a bank vault, c. 1950.” If the time-stamp is correct, this was around when Anaïs was writing erotica for a dollar per page, and self-publishing experimental novels that were met with disdain, if receiving any response at all.
She was spending more time in California, at the behest of Henry Miller, and would appear in Kenneth Anger’s bacchanalia The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome with a sparkling birdcage over her head. Her diaries were still being rejected by publishers, and it would be a decade or so before their publication would prompt the recognition she so desired.
In the black-and-white photograph, Anaïs’s head and chest peek out from behind a mountain of notebooks—decades of writing from a spectacular narcissist or proto-feminist, depending on who you ask. She leans her elbows on top of the pile and her hands are pressed against her cheeks. She offers the camera a tight smile—gleeful and proud. The picture has the aura of a hunter posing with a dead animal—look at what I’ve caught before it ran away!—but in this instance, what has been snared is the shape of a life, and bits of everyday experience: dreams, affairs, agonies, friendships, and a deluge of banalities.
Earlier this year, I find the photograph. I am giving in to mindlessness, scrolling, using my hands for something other than what they are supposed to be doing—typing. But the image pierces my inattention. I save it onto my phone and send it to friends. I like the fantasy it contains: that the story of a woman’s life—the one she tells, writes down, invents even—is worthy of extravagant and high-security protection. A bunch of battered notebooks treated with the same care and reverence as gleaming jewels, or government secrets.
Last year, in August, I move houses. Rent has become a burden, and I can no longer justify the big room with the balcony and the sun and the room for a desk. As I pack up my possessions, I find my life’s worth of diaries, stuffed in a musty cardboard box that I have carted around with me since late adolescence.
I have been a sloppy and intermittent diarist for most of my life. But reading my journals, I found a constant spread across all of them. What I had documented was not the shape of a life, but of a self defined by the men I had been attached to. I envisioned myself purely through these romances or relationships. For long periods, this was the sole subject of my diary-keeping.I like the fantasy it contains: that the story of a woman’s life—the one she tells, writes down, invents even—is worthy of extravagant and high-security protection.
In moments of being alone, or without directed desire, the diary ended without ceremony. This wasn’t startling—I will always indulge in the delights of devotion or longing!—but I was upset by the diary’s many absences. There were so many sadnesses and fears and joys and strange pleasures I had not thought to write down. There was only the faint sketch of great friendships or the art I was dedicated to. My imagination and my own writing had been relegated to the void. I had been a bad witness. Gloomier still, was how I’d bordered up one of the only places of personal jurisdiction, where personhood can remain perpetually open and undone.
In December and January, the work mostly dries up, as it always does. I am bored in the best way, leaning into lassitude and the shapelessness of weeks. It is boiling and sticky. I turn twenty-eight and feel weighed down by problems of living. They are basic and embarrassing problems, but impossible all the same.
They are the kind that are always there, but feel more urgent and unbearable as I get older: What to do with all the desires, frivolities, and obligations that seem eternally in combat? What to do when the money keeps running out? What to do with all the clichés of male cowardice, that prove themselves clichéd for a reason, that begin to pile up around a life like an unwanted edifice, that suffocate the heart?
I decide to read the diaries of other women, other writers, to see how they worked through these eternal problems. I read them one after the other—in bed, at public pools, sprawled out on the couch, in front of the air conditioner.
Reading these journals in quick succession, their unmediated voices took up a strange form in my consciousness, a chatty and profound polyphony. It began with Helen Garner and her trilogy of diaries, astonishing in their precision, terrifying in their repetitious marital woe (“We’re engaging in a bitter struggle to define ourselves, each against the other. He sets his face against things that have meaning to me, and my urge is to split hairs and demand exactitude. I suppose I’m just as unbearable to him as he is to me.”).
I read Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems, then seek out her Moscow diaries, where rapturous wisdom bursts from the hunger and deprivations of the Russian Revolution (“‘Know thyself!’ I did this. And it makes it no easier to know others. On the contrary, as soon as I begin judging another person by myself, there’s just one misunderstanding after another.”).
A housemate lends me Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, where the eleventh-century lady- in-waiting exhorts her organizing logic of the world through list after list—of what is difficult to speak, what is frustrating to witness, what is awkward or pointless, what is elegant and refined (“The eggs of a spot-billed duck. Shaved ice with sweet syrup, served in a shiny new metal bowl. A crystal rosary.”). A friend and I write together in the library, and one day she takes Susan Sontag’s As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh off the shelf, and whispers to me its scraps of genius. She copies down the line: “Decline of the letter, the rise of the notebook! One doesn’t write to others anymore, one writes to oneself.”
In February, I read Alix Cléo Roubaud’s Alix’s Journal. I read it because again I am scrolling, and someone posts a picture of the book, with a caption, an excerpt from the diary: “She was exasperated, by the end of the day to have consented to the rules of others.” I am compelled by the photograph on the cover: a self- portrait of Alix, where she’s twirling with a scarf around her chest. The image is faded and out of focus—mirroring how eyesight buffers under rapid movement, and the sickly discombobulation of spinning around in a circle for too long. I track down the only copy in Melbourne I can find, at a university library. I renew it again and again for the next few months.
In 1983, Alix dies from a pulmonary embolism, days after her thirty-first birthday. A year later, her husband, the Oulipo poet Jacques Roubaud, insists that Éditions du Seuil publish part of her diary; the last four years of her life in which they were together. He adds in her photographs and subtracts a few private passages. In France, it appears in 1984. In 2010, it is republished and translated into English.
“She wrote everyday, without going back, without correcting, without deleting; for herself; and perhaps, though she said nothing to this effect, neither for nor against, to be read after her death,” writes Jacques in the book’s introduction. When she moved from Canada to France in her early twenties, her diaries—which she had tended to since she was eighteen—were one of the only things she brought with her.
Alix’s father was a diplomat, and she endured a peripatetic childhood that cast a long shadow of un-belonging. A severe asthmatic, she decided to study philosophy in southern France, where the weather was warm and the fresh air would benefit her delicate lungs. She started writing a dissertation on Wittgenstein but never finished. But she never relinquished his ideas about the unbridgeable gulf between what can be expressed through language and what can be expressed only through non-verbal means. In 1978, she picked up photography while trying to better her breathing at a convalescent spa in Vichy.
In Alix’s Journal, a woman beholden to a sick body wants to loosen the bounds of corporeality, writing, art, and time. A fantasy of omniscience—”one wished to be the only one in the world to see everything”—soaks its pages. She writes in the fragmentary form, taking up the mantle of Wittgenstein and Walter Benjamin, who she so adored. These are fragments of momentary bliss, personal theory (“There are days when one is sure that if one is better dressed, or more beautiful, in a kind of ceremonial dress if you will, one could get down to work”) and assertions on photography (“Photography is indeed a form of silence. But still a diary can show its silences, as an incomplete image its completeness.”).
Then there are chronicles of the sudden suicide attempts that surprise even her, and the long stretches of despondency and chronic asthma, where she mopes around the house, unable to do anything except tear through detective novels and drink.Her diary is the only sovereign and free territory.
Her language doubles and smears, just like the bodies in her photographs. Words stutter, while punctuation warps, sometimes snapping off completely. This is heartbreaking and fidgety prose, caught between French and English, first and second person. Text and image infiltrate one another—the modalities stretch and swap. “She took photos everyday like one imagines Victorian women kept their journal,” she writes about herself. Words spread out or compress on the page, a physical formation.
Meanwhile, some of her photographs seek out the immaterial and invisible. Fifteen minutes at night to the rhythm of respiration is a haze of indistinct trees that Alix captures by placing her camera on her chest, leaving the shutter open for fifteen minutes. The French writer Héléne Giannecchini, who has done the most to bring Alix out of the shadows in recent years, calls it a “self-portrait by the breath.”
I’m interested in how Alix blends and conjoins, but never effaces herself, like I had effaced myself. All this fading and confusion, all this banishing of boundaries, and yet Alix appears, fleshy and radiant on the page. Maybe it’s her ambitions that never quieten, that she acknowledges with both disgust and wonder. As well as a photographer she wants to be a writer, for her journal “to be a draft.” But then she remembers her marriage: “Impossibility of writing, married a poet,” she writes. Her diary is the only sovereign and free territory.
She even wryly frets about her material being spread outward, untethered from her forever: “Lively desire, upon re-reading the notebooks, to end analysis. I’m giving the best of myself there.” Beyond her husband, there doesn’t seem much of an encouraging or generative milieu. Who is she surrounded by? Mostly men, often former lovers turned friends. She worked alone, exile being her established way of life.
One of these friends is the French filmmaker Jean Eustache who enacts the first public trace of her photography in his brilliant television short Les Photos d’Alix (1980). In the film, Alix is seated next to Jean’s teenage son Boris, who asks her questions about the photos. They are straightforward and simple, of the how, when, and why variety. She responds in declarative statements that knot complexities into his line of inquiry. Her brown bob swishes gently from side to side, and a long necklace looped around her neck brushes against the table. Her speech is detached and cool, but never disinterested.
I watch the film, so taken in by her casual conviction. My mind is immediately massaged into agreement; of course, the only real photos are childhood photos, yes, every photo is sentimental, and sure, still-life images are always of objects bound to perish. And what is a self-portrait? Everything, really.
Midway into the film, Jean, who loves to pull a prank, desynchronizes image and sound. What Alix describes stops corresponding with the images laid out in front of us. We hear about a sunset, but all we see is a dark hotel room full of grimy mirrors. “Do you recognize me?” Alix says to Boris, while pointing to a grassy field filled with plastic chairs.
Alix did not live to see the next real public trace of her work—an exhibition of If Some Thing Black, a series of photographs, which were shown in the summer of 1983 at Les Rencontres d’Arles. These are my favorite photographs of hers, and they appear in the last few pages of Alix’s Journal. They are nude self-portraits, taken in an empty, barely lit room. In a few of the images, Alix is upright, light radiating off her chest. In others, she is lying corpselike on the floor. In some, her body is multiplied but fading—about to vaporize into the atmosphere.
In one photograph, she has grafted in a childhood portrait of herself, looming over her horizontal body.
Looking at these photographs, I see pre-emptive mourning, or some kind of purgatory. Lifetime is divorced from temporality or trajectory—childhood, the adult body, and the afterlife merge into one. There is a parallel found in her journal, when she writes: “don’t believe in history; to confine oneself with chronology.”
How to depict a life without the strict container of chronological time? In her diaries, Alix inspires a new notion of self-inscription, based on a restless mode of gathering and accumulation: of selves, books, beds, photographs, phone calls, tears, dresses, clouds, afternoon light, and alcoholic drinks. This is a vast, uncontrollable assemblage that cannot be defined by days alone.
Reading Alix, I think about my own journals, and how I’d forgotten all the form’s freedoms and possibilities: The chance to take time in your hands. To repudiate resolution and history—and dissolve the fantasies we tell ourselves about life’s sequentiality. To indulge in ongoingness, the foggy middle of experience. To coagulate one’s inner world with the outer. To bend and loop language so that it gets close to the true texture of emotion, aliveness, and having a body.
I’m reminded of this line by Hélène Cixous, in her famous call for écriture féminine: “Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst with forms much more beautiful than those which are put in frames and sold for a stinking fortune.” That’s what I want—a way of grappling with my life that does away with the frame, that ushers in luminous torrents.
In April, the chill has set in, but my friends and I refuse to go inside; we tremble together in flimsy coats, babbling on about flus and foolish spending and lingering disappointments and heartache. I read Marie Bashkirtseff: The Journal of a Young Artist. I read it because I am reading academic papers about the diary, and what they might mean for women (Cynthia Huff: diaries stress “the bonds of our lives that are seemingly mysterious because we have been so accustomed to separating, to privileging one part of ourselves in our race to establish hierarchies.”).Marie’s journal was only the second diary ever to be published by a woman in France, preceded only by the bleak Catholic letter-journals of Eugénie de Guérin.
They are mostly dull—smothering fun, ecstatic writing under deadening analysis. But Marie, the power-hungry painter, is a constant presence on these pages. I go to the library to read the old editions of Marie’s diary in their collection. It is so giant it exists in two huge volumes. They are like bibles, yellowed and mottled with brown stains.
I also look up her paintings online. They are mainly portraits, of girls who rarely glance up. Their eyes are fixed on a book in front of them, or they are assiduously sketching a nude figure in art class. She also set her gaze on the grubbier streets of Paris, painting hungry children and disobedient waifs. But despite her subjects’ fates diverging cleanly down class lines, they share a look of resignation and silent anguish. Her figures are bored or sullen or exasperated, rendered in tones that reflect their youthful weariness: velvety greys, foggy greens, and patches of pale pink.
Her work—respectable, refined, if a little bland—was par for the course during Paris at the time, and Marie was duly rewarded for it. During her study at Académie Julian, one of the few private art colleges to accept female students (where Marie held a reputation for constantly munching on bonbons and bringing her pet puppy to class), she has two works accepted at the salon. In 1885, a catalogue attributed 229 works to her, but most went missing or were destroyed during World War II. Around sixty works remain. In janky digital repositories, I find the same few paintings—the gloomy women, the sodden girl clutching an umbrella and the cluster of street kids huddled around a boy with a bird’s nest. In total, I count about twenty-seven works.
But in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, her nineteen- thousand-page diary, scrawled across 106 notebooks, tracing her life from thirteen years old up until her premature death at twenty-five, has been lovingly preserved. An abridged version of the journal was first published in France in 1887, at the behest of her bereaved mother, who was intimate with the solemnity and devotion of her daughter’s diary keeping. One of Marie’s first editors, the French author Renée d’Ulmès, wrote that this mass of notebooks was precious “not because it describes such an entertainment or such an event, but because it reveals the mentality of a young girl.”
Marie Bashkirtseff: The Journal of a Young Artist is the diary of a relatively unknown woman, on the threshold of intellectual life and artistic glory, where dedication to truthfulness superseded shame. It was an unprecedented hit—George Bernard Shaw called it the literary sensation of its time. Then, the published diary as a genre was in its infancy, and the woman’s diary was even more of an anomaly. Marie’s journal was only the second diary ever to be published by a woman in France, preceded only by the bleak Catholic letter-journals of Eugénie de Guérin—the dutiful, spinster sister of radical poet Maurice de Guérin, whose writings were largely addressed to her brother and his waning spirituality.
Marie’s journal broke the code. Her reputation as a painter was minor, relatively insignificant. She was not mystical or devout, doling out lessons in asceticism like Eugénie or other diarists of the time. She was not linked to any well-known writers, artists, or socialites, though she did attempt to write herself into the lives of literary figures. She sent a letter to the novelist Edmond de Goncourt, decrying his flimsy depiction of a girl’s coming of age in Chérie (he never replied). She did manage to strike up a cunning correspondence with Guy de Maupassant, who initially thought she was a man, and then later tried to arrange some sort of tryst (she stopped replying).
Never mind, they all make their way into the journal. She mentions the two writers as people who could vouch for the diary’s value and validity. This was argued in her unfinished preface to the journal, written a few months before her death, as tuberculosis tore apart her lungs. It fills in the biographical details lacking in the text.
She writes of her noble, provincial origins near Poltava (present-day Ukraine) and incinerates her family members. There is her mother, who is “ravishing” but “ignorant of the world.” Her father, whose extramarital affairs break up her parent’s marriage. Her brandy-loving Uncle, whose amoral, dodgy dealings “destroyed us all.” There are the governesses, that teach her French and music (though she was largely self-taught, giving herself lessons on Latin, Geography and English).
Then there is the trial in Russia, where her mother and aunt are implicated in, but then cleared of, colluding in the death of a brother-in-law. She writes of itinerant upbringing across Europe, where her family’s wayward reputation trails her, and she becomes “tortured by vanity.” She also stresses that if she dies young, her journal should be published.
Three years later, when the journal is published, it is received as some sort of stumbled-upon artifact of the young feminine psyche—untainted and unmediated. This is not untrue, but it fails to understand the journal’s considered orchestration. Marie staked out the parameters of her writing early on in her adolescence. She would not be vain enough to self-censor. She would not let shame get in the way of vile truth. She would not think before she came to the page—as she writes in one entry, in 1876:
I never know what I’m going to write, but so much the better; there is nothing uglier than a studied journal, dressed to the hilt, especially when one is not a great writer. But I prefer my letters to those of Madame de Sévigné. “O she ass” you exclaim. Sévigné’s style is so affected, so worked over, without apparent simplicity, that it makes me sick; whereas I have no style. I make mistakes, but at least I don’t adorn what I write. It is with deep conviction that I shall never be read, and with the still deeper hope of the contrary, that I write my journal.
But this propensity for no style mutates into style. The writing is breathless, sentences flung around that land in unexpected, grimy places. It is a style befitting to her subjects: her weakness for extravagant dresses, her inflamed ego, her wildly swinging moods, her despair, and her family’s stained reputation. The tone of the diary is manic (but then so is adolescence, and becoming a young woman), splintering across wants and fleeting sources of attention. The French writer Maurice Barrès said that she had ‘five or six exceptional souls in her delicate, already failing body’. But despite her self-obsession, she is rarely interested in asserting her individuality on the page. She is special insofar as lives, recorded, reflected upon, and self-interrogated, are always special. Another entry:
This journal is the most useful and most instructive of all writings.
It’s an entire life, in its smallest details, a woman with all her thoughts, hopes, deceptions, meanness, beauties, miseries, disappointments and joys. I’m not a woman yet, but I will be. It will be possible to
follow me from childhood to death. The life of a person, an entire life, without any disguise or lying, is always great and interesting.
The original published journal, edited by the French poet André Theuriet and overseen by Marie’s mother, cut out all damning mentions of the family’s various scandals, softened her callousness towards suitors, and removed the many florid descriptions of Marie’s skin and breasts, which she proclaimed, repeatedly, to be perfect. A narrative was grafted over the more protean text: of a young woman out of step with her historical moment, whose tenacity allows her to excel anyway, only for death to intervene too early. In English, restoration of the original diary only comes in the late nineties, when the academic Katherine Kernberger picks up the mantle of her late mother, who was obsessed with translating the original French text.How to write about something that is made for no one, but imagines, or hopes for, an audience anyway?
This arc—of a woman out of time, thwarted by illness—is too clean anyway. Marie’s nature, and her insatiable, totalizing ambitions, would not be well received anywhere, at any time. The diary, by its nature, is a document of time passing, but I’m interested in how Marie’s journal counters the threat posed by temporality. Here is writing that chronicles a woman’s mind in the present, attendant to the day-to-day. Yet this ritual is kept largely in order to outrun one’s impending vanishing. The journal has one foot out the door, planted in the expanse of the future—rightfully imagining the crumbling tomb, the paintings stored away, soaked in dust. Remembrance, or legacy, then, cannot be left up to fate. It must be reverse-engineered.
Marie dies in 1884, at twenty-five, from the consumption that has trailed her for years. Fifteen years later, Mary MacLane, an American teenager living in the mining backwater of Butte, Montana, publishes a memoir, essentially her own diary. It receives similar outrage and adoration, and instantly becomes a bestseller, with hundreds of thousands of copies sold across the country. In it, she writes about loving the devil, lusting over women, and her rare, singular genius, which she proclaims has no real contemporaries. The only person she compares herself to is Marie. Later, in their adolescence, Anaïs Nin and Katherine Mansfield stumble across Marie’s diary and begin to reconsider the value of their own.
In a way, I feel like Marie, tending to an impossible project, trying to cobble together “entire” lives, in their “smallest details” and shove them into the light. I wanted to write about these women as meticulously as they had written about themselves, return the favor in the only way I can. But I don’t have a lifetime.
Impossible too is writing about the diary form. I’m chasing after something faster than me, that refuses to be pinned down. I find myself getting lost in its contradictions and capaciousness. How to write about something that is made for no one, but imagines, or hopes for, an audience anyway? Something that is off the cuff but also constructed. Unmediated but moderated by editors, publishers, partners. A way of recording and laying down a personal reality, that does not nullify multiplicity.
The self is not fixed, but reflects and refracts, appearing in innumerable variations.
In May, I watch a five-hour cut of Anne Charlotte Robertson’s promethean Super-8 project Five Year Diary. I watch it because a friend tells me about her. She knows I am looking for diaries from women who were not writers by vocation, that had never known true recognition, that wrote about themselves obsessively and with self-scrutiny. She tells me about watching her shorts at a film festival, laughing at their mania and wit. I take the work my friends press into my hands seriously—it always has the thrill of a secret, and feels like a special embrace. I hound other friends to help me find copies of her film work.
In Five Year Diary, nothing really happens beyond the walls of Anne’s home and garden, but that is everything and enough. What did she shoot? The moon, methodically. The making of her vegetarian meals. Her host of ever-changing, antipsychotic medications. Her family, birds, men and stone cherubs. Waterfalls and her long, mournful face, that looks as if it came straight out of an Edvard Munch painting. Like Alix—writing and photographing at the same time that Anne is filming herself—her body was her most crucial instrument, but also the source of all her self-loathing.
Longing is the diary’s only organizing logic. She fixates on her weight, and wishes for the arrival of her ‘one true love’. She even calls her project a “trousseau” for her future husband, an answer to what she had been doing with her life up until they fatefully meet.
When Anne began Five Year Diary, she was thirty-two years old, depressed and dieting, living alone in Boston, Massachusetts. By the time of its unceremonious ending, she is forty-eight, and the diary is nearly forty hours long. She tells reporters that she had to keep going, because her movie, the movie of her life, didn’t have a happy ending.
But she does something more valuable here—she gives form to a life deemed formless. Anne was unmarried and childless. She was unemployed and poor. For long periods, she was a ward of the state—on disability benefits, and in and out of psych wards. Without the typical markers of a woman’s or artist’s life, she created new contours. She gave credence to the seemingly incidental and subordinate.
The film’s run time might suggest something painfully glacial, but Anne’s diary is gloriously circuitous and maniacally rhythmic. Mundane actions, sped up by time lapse, chopped and squished, have the texture of dance. Anne is a bolt of orange, speeding through her apartment, fussing about. Housework becomes an ecstatic parade of repeated, never-ending action.
I watch the diary in my bedroom, seemingly the only appropriate place to watch these intimate gestures. Anne’s face fills my laptop screen, becoming part of my own life’s detritus: cardigans strewn across the floor, empty mugs filled with stiff tea bags, tubes of lipstick and the silverly plastic film of medications. In the three instances where Five Year Diary was screened in its entirety, Anne brought her living room to the gallery, cluttering the space with notebooks, diaries and audio recordings. She described her vision as a ‘home movie basement view room, a diary den, a bomb shelter, a comfortable living room filled with the artifacts from the life of a twentieth-century woman’.
In 1983, two years after Anne began Five Year Diary, she moves to Framingham, Massachusetts, to live with her mother.
The grim chill and slag heaps of Boston are replaced by a quieter misery, but a bigger garden. She becomes obsessed with the gazebo in the backyard, where she hoped to have her wedding someday. She would film it almost daily, tracking as the light moved with the seasons. ‘Monet did his haystacks,’ Anne would say later, ‘and I have done the gazebo in the backyard.’
In the cut I watch, the diary lurches from this period to 1994. Anne is now forty-five years old. She is still living with her mother, still on disability benefits, and still suffering from psychosis. She plants seedlings and hides vodka in cups of orange juice. But her diary, occasionally—finally!—is being screened. “I was so overwhelmed with what I saw,” writes Jonas Mekas, in a letter to her that year, “I don’t think it’s me who is a film diarist: it’s you! It’s you!”
But longing still orders her life. I burst into pained laughter when I watch a reel of her at the airport, where she announces to the camera: “My film is playing at the Museum of Modern Art, and I am one hundred and ninety-five pounds!” Years later, the same old self-torture. Yet another want has been added to her list: children. Her reels are full of the engorged bellies of friends and the fascinations of children at play. She has become a doting aunt.
But then her three-year-old niece dies one morning, and the doctors have no explanation for her death. Anne has a nervous breakdown and is sent to a psych ward. Reality plummets into darkness. Anne films herself from what looks like the garden of the hospital, tear-stained and facing the camera: ‘I have a right to go insane,’ she says, ‘I have a right to grieve.’ These are despairing, difficult scenes, but they are a reminder of the many ways to mourn, the many ways to remember. When she is discharged, Anne’s camera pans over her mother’s overgrown garden, calling out to the dead through blooming flowers.I love what this passage makes clear, what I have found so true reading all these journals: that the diary cannot be reduced to myopia or indulgence, that it is a gesture towards others, that “open-hearted firmament” unshackled from the reins of time, or place, or bodies or death.
Anne would continue to edit and revise the diary until 1997. Then she stopped. She died fifteen years later, from lung cancer. After her death, the many reels that made up Five Year Diary were found pushed into the back of her bedroom closet. This was the sole copy—she had never been able to afford to print duplicates, so this single version continued to circulate sporadically, eroding each time it played.
In an article entitled “I always liked my diary better than anything else I wrote,” Helen Garner writes about her daily compulsion to record, witness and collate details; how this drive gave her the ability to write her first novel Monkey Grip, and how critics at the time smugly accused her of simply publishing her journal. She is hurt, but they are not wrong. I read the article years ago, but I remember it in June. I find the piece and read aloud the last paragraph to my housemates, in our icy kitchen:
What I’ve learnt, from editing the diaries into books and putting them out there, is that during those thousands of private hours, I’m never alone. If I go far enough, if I keep going past the boring, obedient part of me with its foot always riding the brake, and through the narrow, murky parts that are abject or angry or frightened, I find myself moving out into another region, a bigger, broader place where everybody else lives: a fearless, open-hearted firmament where images swarm, and there’s music, and poetry that we almost understand, fleeting moments of sky and dirt, subtle changes in the light, a feather of a hesitation, mistakes and pain and getting over pain, all kinds of shouting and dawn and small nice things to eat, and being allowed to carry a stranger’s baby round a garden, and singing in the car all the way home.
I love what this passage makes clear, what I have found so true reading all these journals: that the diary cannot be reduced to myopia or indulgence, that it is a gesture towards others, that “open-hearted firmament” unshackled from the reins of time, or place, or bodies or death. It may be a solitary act and a private correspondence, but it is also a summoning of sorts, that can reach across an alienated expanse.
There is a line from Alix’s Journal that seems like an explanation of what I’m trying to express on the page, right here: “The story of what I consume is also my story.” In February, as I’m reading in bed, dazed and languid, I jot down the sentence in my phone. Months later, the line continues to haunt. I keep on repeating it to myself. The sentence seeps in and metabolizes, fusing with my own thoughts and language.
This essay appears in HEAT Series 3 Number 10, available now.