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Friday
Mar122010

The Diary as a Form for the Novel

This issue we focus upon two novels, both of which use the format of diary entries as the structure in which to construct a novel. Both are outstanding novels in their own right.

 

The Lacuna

Barbara Kingsolver

2009

Harper Collins

Barbara Kingsolver is much celebrated as a writer of causes. She is the founder and financial backer of the Bellwether Prize for new novels that are socially conscious. Her own previous novels, most notably,  the Poisonwood Bible,  and to a lesser extent, the Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven, as well as her others, have dealt with, among other issues, women’s rights, the plight of the Native American and African Independence. In The Lacuna she addresses other themes, this time anti-communism , blacklisting and homophobia within an international and historical context. Being a committed admirer of Frida Kahlo, both in terms of her life story and her art, I was delighted to find that her life with Diego Rivera and that period when they both were involved with Leon Trotsky was the backdrop for a good part of The Lacuna.

The novel is written as a an autobiography, or more accurately, the publication of the diaries of a man named Harrison Shepherd, the son of a Washington, DC bureaucrat and a flamboyant   Mexican mother, who divorce when their son is young and she then moves back to Mexico to pursue marriage to someone with money and power. The diaries begin in the boy’s early adolescence when he is alone, most of the time, in the island hacienda of a rich Mexican man who is having an affair with his mother. The boy’s life moves from one of privilege, to one of near poverty in which he finds work mixing plaster for the muralist Diego Rivera and meets Rivera’s wife, the exotic artist Frida Kahlo. He works as a plaster mixer and cook and when the exiled Leon Trotsky is taken in by Rivera in Mexico City, he becomes Trotsky’s stenographer.

The novel, to me, was as interesting for its portrayals of Kahlo, Rivera and Trotsky and life among the intelligentsia in Mexico City in the nineteen thirties. The intricacy of the relationships between the three, as well as Trotsky’s wife, is a wonderful example of truth being stranger than fiction and of the life of major historical figures on a genuine world stage resembling the plot of a soap opera. It was a history with which I was not unacquainted and one which Kingsolver manages to capture without sacrificing the dignity of the characters.

Through much of the parts of the book devoted to Rivera, Kahlo and Trotsky, the diarist is a sort of background narrator and we only glimpse edges of his personality, less so than when he was a teenager , exploring the ocean off the coast of his island or running the streets of Mexico City. In the last third of the book, however, he moves to Asheville, North Carolina, where he achieves his lifelong ambition of becoming a novelist and, in fact, publishes a best seller. It is during this time that we become more acquainted with his personality, his desire for isolation – to the point of him becoming agoraphobic – and his homosexuality. He also develops a strong relationship, although a formal one, with his secretary, Violet Brown, who adores him and who becomes one of the few people he can  both admire and trust.

Unfortunately, Shepherd’s earlier association with the, now dead from assassination, Trotsky, results in his being investigated by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and harassment by the FBI as well as ruination of his career as a writer. In what at first appears to be a report of his suicide, we later learn that he has simply disappeared from view, presumably to return to Mexico.

Shepherd himself is one of the most ego-less, gentle heroes to become the central focus of a major novel, and, as such, he has a nobility that I found inspiring. His positives are his caring nature and his love of writing and his ability to suspend judgment toward those people in his life, such as his mother, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky, whom he loves. The descriptions of everyone in the book are carefully constructed, historically accurate when the characters are real, and represent a brilliant achievement in terms of weaving fiction and historical fact together in a seamless drama that is intensely interesting from beginning to end.

 

 

 

 

Any Human Heart

 Willliam Boyd

 2002

 Vintage Books

 

                Logan Mountstuart begins his life story, told in diary form, when he is 17 and about to finish Abbeyhurst College, the private boarding school he has attended from age 13, and be off to Oxford, although the diary itself is preceded by a preamble in which we learn that the writer, while English, was born of the marriage of a English manager and his Uraguyan secretary, in Montevideo, where he lived until age 8 when his father was transferred to Birmingham. The hero is a very clever boy, with equally clever friends, and with a vocabulary, which even for someone such as myself who is well educated, might require the reader to have one hand holding a dictionary while the other holding the novel. I found this an entertaining and engaging situation. Throughout the novel one has the feeling of reading  a story written at an elevated level – like reading Henry James.

                The hero attends Oxford, writes the commentary on French writers that will satisfy himself, intellectually, and does his best to find a lasting relationship, while engaging in temporary, ill-conceived engagements based upon lust , until he finds the woman he wants to be with the rest of his life. World War II intrudes at this moment in the story and the hero, for  reasons that seem obscure, decides to become a spy for the OSS in Switzerland and, imprisoned because they believe he is a Nazi spy, resides in custody for the duration of the war and when he is released, finds that his wife has not only remarried, but, along with his child, been killed in a V-2 attack in London.

                Logan Mountsuart’s life, from the time he finds out that his wife and child have been killed, is a mildly productive, but basically at loose ends existence, which continues through a period of operating an art gallery in New York, having an affair with an underage ex-girlfriend of his  deceased son, who committed suicide, enjoying an affair with the ex-wife of his best friend,  living in Africa and essentially  just passing time.  Despite this interlude of ennui, his diaries remain intelligent, witty, sophisticated and, increasingly, human. We watch as the hero matures and examines a life that has steadily lost its point.

                Finally, Mountstuart retires in France. He has enjoyed limited success in his chosen profession of being a writer and his engagement with people has  been limited even more by his own lack of focus and by the intrusion of tragedy. But the hero has survived intact. One wonders to what extent  he allowed himself to experience his passions as opposed to observing and recording them, but his life no doubt adds up to little more nor less than most others’ .

Any Human Heart is an exhilarating book from the point of view of enjoying the language and use of words the author is able to produce in an almost effortless manner while telling a poignant story of one man’s life, both lived and wasted and finally balanced. It is one of those books one reads and then re-reads to remind oneself that beautiful writing can take an ordinary story and elevate it to something special.

 

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