Jan and Stevie

I was just thinking, we only get to read the published diaries of people who are already famous for their writing, and that’s too bad. It seems a shame that no one is interested enough in reading my half-baked yet poetical little trains of thought that they would publish them in a book. I know I personally would be interested in reading the personal diaries of damn near anybody.

The current issue of The Paris Review has excerpted the dairies of the Welsh writer Jan Morris, who they call a historian and essayist but who I have always thought of as a travel writer. She was an extremely intelligent writer, in any case, who packed tons of allusions into every thought and always made interesting connections. The Paris Review informed me that she began keeping a daily journal for the first time at the age of ninety—smiley face emoji—and those entries will be published as a book later this year. The excerpts are as charming as they are impressive. Morris writes about the first time she ever flew in an airplane, a de Havilland Rapide biplane she rode in from Cairo to Alexandria in the 30s, but also about her marmalade preferences and the books she keeps on the passenger side of her beat-up Honda, in case she gets bored at a stop light. (It’s two volumes of de Montaigne’s collected essays—actually, one big book that she tore in half to make them fit into the door pocket. When I read this I remembered that I ripped a book in half once, a paperback copy of A.M. Homes’ novel This Book Will Save Your Life that I was very close to finishing. I was about to leave my house for the airport but couldn’t wait until I returned from my trip to find out how the book ended, and since I didn’t want to have to lug one more thing on my trip with me I tore the big book at its spine and only brought the unread portion with me. After I finished reading that I threw it in a trashcan at the airport. Wonderful book.) 

In her diary, Morris also talks fondly about spending time with her partner, “my Elizabeth,” and the small house and gardens they shared in the Welsh countryside, and I guess what I’m saying is that this sort of accounting makes for very interesting reading. All on its own. I know that Morris had an unusual and colorful life, but do I need to know this to enjoy hearing her talk about drinking coffee at a cafe in the village, or what her shadow looks like when she takes a walk at dusk? I don’t know if I do. Big lives are fascinating but so are small lives. And anyway, even those rare people who get to live big lives are also living out the small details in parallel. Everyone has relationships, habits, preferences, private sorrows and little pleasures. These things are always interesting, provided the person finds the right way to share them with you.

I am reminded of the essays of the English poet Stevie Smith, some of which were collected in a volume I treasure called Me Again. This book also has many of her poems and the quirky, heart-breaking doodle-drawings she made to go with them. I love the book so much that I tend to hug it to my chest before I put it back on the shelf. This is because I love Stevie Smith’s writing, of course, but also because I love thinking about Stevie Smith. A good book is good company, the writer’s voice like a friend having a conversation with you, but some writers keep me company beyond the words they’ve written. They live in my imagination as if they’re people I know, or once knew. This is how I relate to Stevie Smith, maybe because her writing voice is so singular, clear, and true. The details of her life seem to fascinate other people too; the playwright Hugh Whitemore wrote a stage play about her and the household she shared with her elderly aunt, and in 1978 this was adapted into a haunting little film called Stevie that, once I got a copy of it on VHS, I devoured and incorporated into my essence like The Blob. 

One of the short pieces in that collection, “Simply Living,” reads a bit like a strange diary entry. In it, Smith talks about the small pleasures of her quiet life with her aunt, and she describes cutting vegetables in her kitchen while looking out the window, “a slim young parsnip under my knife.” She also talks about taking a break from her work mid-morning, every day, to share a glass of sherry with her aunt. Back when I found this book, I shared a similarly close relationship with my mother, who I lived with and then near, in an apartment around the corner from her house. I made a photocopy of this essay and gave it to her because I knew she would like that detail about the parsnip and the knife, and also because I expected her to recognize the similarity of our relationship to the one Smith had with her aunt. I never said as much—things like this are never explicitly said in my family—but I expected my meaning would come through in my gesture. (In my family we communicate like this, in code, via movie quotes, shared books and articles, and from the imagined perspectives of our pets. “Gracie says she misses you.”) I even went to the liquor store and bought a bottle of sherry for me and my mom to share in the mornings, but we both hated the way it tasted and couldn’t get used to feeling a little drunk so early in the day.

During her lifetime Stevie Smith published a few novels and lots of poetry, to much acclaim. She ran in London literary circles and may have dated George Orwell, and she was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1969. But alongside all this, for all of her adult life, she lived not in the city but in an unstylish suburb, in the same house from the age of three until her death. She worked as a secretary, never married, and lived for only three more years after the elderly aunt who had raised her died. Her life was big and small at the same time. But isn’t that true of us all?

stevie

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