Arnold Bennett in His Journals
The Journals of Arnold Bennett. 1911-1921. Edited by
THERE are many totally different types of diaries, each of which will make good reading. The author may be a genius in action or in art, and in this case no detail of his private life can fail to interest us ; however trivial the happenings we read it with eagerness just because these things happened to Napoleon I or to Leonardo da Vinci. The author again may be otherwise utterly unknown ; in this case the matter of his diary is of greater. concern. He was intimate perhaps with people of importance and thus can give new lights on them, or he lived in stirring times, and -we are eager to know how they struck a contemporary. Or he may, though otherwise equally unknown reveal himself in his diary as a human figure, and, whether lovable or detestable, he gives us if he is sincere, a genuine picture of himself, and that perhaps is the best diary of all, especially if the author wrote without idea of publication. Or again his diary may be a work of great literary art ; in that case we read it for the beauty of the writing. He invests cona:xon things with the garment of distinction.
But whatever is the type of diary, it is absolutely necessary that the diarist should have felt a personal interest in what he tells us. That, if he can write at all, will be enough to interest us too, for interest is more infectious than influenza. Some- times two or three of these types are combined. Pepys, for instance, the supreme diarist of all, lived in stirring times and gives a vivid picture of them, he was an amazing snob, and renders vivid the distinguished folk with whom he had contact, he reveals himself as an intensely human and jolly figure, but, above all, he had a matchless gusto for life.
Now Arnold Bennett was certainly a distinguished man ; he wrote a masterpiece, but I do not think that those who find great pleasure in his diary will do so because he was the author of Old Wives' Tale. He had a quantity of eminent friends, but he tells us nothing worth hearing about them. He lived in stirring times, for the whole period of the War is contained in this volume, but the account of his visit to the front s singularly jejune. Nor can anyone find in his diary a treasure of literary art, for it is nothing of the sort. A large proportion of it is mere jottings of wholly trivial incidents and observa- tions. His train was an hour and fifty minutes late in arriving at Chicago, but the journey somewhere else was more punctually performed. The railway station at Washington was fine ; the White House was "rather small but distinguished." There were women chauffeurs at Boston and a fearful racket. An eminent musical conductor perspired so much that he had to change his clothes three times a day. There was a scarcity of porters at Brussels, a quaint valet at the Reform Club, and a Food dinner at the 'Ivy.' A woman in the train had an elaborate luncheon-basket, she had many rings and manicured hands. Such jottings are innumerable and cannot have any conceivable intrinsic interest for the reader.
But here the psychological factor enters. They were of immense interest to Bennett : life was a perpetual banquet to him, and for this feast he had the appetite of a gourmand and the appreciation of a gourmet, and out of the very multi- plicity of these trivialities there emerges the figure of himself with a curiosity ever alert and thinking nothing human to be alien to him. He had the same unappeasable gusto for life as Pepys, and though he gives us no intimate glimpses of himself we get to know him through Isis endless observation of other people. He never grew up. His appetite remained us capacious and as ekperimental as a boy's. This applied to physical matters as well as mental, and though he knew perfectly well that his digestion was a most rebellious servant he records how he drank a bottle and a half of stout to his great undoing. Often the physical machine creaked and ached, but never did bodily ailments take the edge off his zest : even an abscess in the ear was not enough to make him stop work. Work to him was the supreme -interest, and no doubt many of these bald jottings were made with an eye to future use. He continually notes down how many words he has written in a given period, and at the end of the year there is a grand addition sum and a stupendous total. Much of this -Output, as no one knew better than himself, was hack-work, but it all counted; and he puts down exactly what he received for it. He is jubilant over beating his own records both in his
output and his earnings : the two were bound up together in his mind and probably he could not have told you whether it gave him more satisfaction to have written snore than he had ever done before in a year, or to have received more money for it. The infected reader rejoices with him.
Bennett published one volume of his diary, for the year 1929, in his lifetime ; it is reasonable to suppose, therefore, that he contemplated the publication of the two volumes which have appeared since. There is scarcely a line in any of them of emotional or psychical stuff : once in the first posthumous volume he laments that he can never get through a day without grating on somebody's nerves, but there never was a diary so free from any sort of introspection. His views about .his work are equally free from Flaubertism : never did he wriggle about on a sofa trying to capture the mot juste. He knew what he wanted to say and was satisfied to say it as plainly as possible without any sweating of blood and tears : that he regarded as the greatest nonsense. Writing came easy to him, and like a plain sensible man he looked on it as a trade, and disposed of his goods at the highest price they would fetch. He loved his friends and his work, he wrote a masterpiece, and though highly prejudiced against what he did not understand, like public schools and universities, he was the most sincere of men, and, to the end of his life, avid for experience and observation. How much the diaries have been edited and how much has been omitted is known only to the editor, but it is quite possible that they are printed just as he wrote them, and that he confided to them only what anyone might read. But there is quite enough in them as they stand to make a reader desire to know what lay below this