Mine is a generationóurban, educated, middle-aged, many of us living alone long years at a timeówho grew up endorsing intimacy as a first value but have become habituated to the solitary state inflicted on us by modern times. As a result, we have become eccentric. No matter how much we hate our loneliness and desire the sustained company of friends and lovers, we find, increasingly, that the "short take" in human relations is the one we're actually up for: the two-hour coffee, the three-hour dinner, the twice-a-week evening. We've become inured to an emotional diet of ongoing brevity. But we often don't know this about ourselvesólonging as we regularly do for what we think of as steady connectionóso the discrepancy between what we say we want and what we may actually want makes us somewhat strange.
I can hardly describe the satisfactionóthe reliefóI have known in these past weeks, coming home, after a day and an evening out in the world, to The Assassin's Cloak, a huge anthology of diary entries (put together by a pair of Edinburgh academics, Irene and Alan Taylor) that routinely delivered to me a degree of pleasure so great that the situation I've just described became clarified. I seemed, night after night, to be exactly where I wanted to be: in the company of many kinds of people, all speaking wonderfully well, entertaining and absorbing me without stint, and all within the limits of the Inestimable Short Take. As I say, the pleasure was a revelation.
Everyone under the sun is here, from the seventeenth century to the twentieth: poets, painters, novelists; housewives, invalids, prisoners; politicians, journalists, actors; English, American, Russian, French; the famous and the obscure; the good and the nasty; the noble and the ridiculous. Together their entries amount to a steady accumulation of intelligence, humor, and spirit, delivered in every emotional keyóagitated, bored, angry, envious, thoughtful, misanthropicóand many with the power to startle or move in just a few paragraphs. Or, better yet, a few words. Consider the following:
"Gandhi has been assassinated. In my humble opinion, a bloody good thing but far too late." (Noël Coward)
"I think that people who manifest their love for you, physically, when they know your lack of reciprocation, are abominably selfish." (Kenneth Williams, English actor)
"Not many remarks about art have so gripped [me] as Meier-Graefe's comment on Délacroix: 'This is a case of a hot heart beating in a cold person.'" (Bertolt Brecht)
"Marya called for her passport. I feel I refrained from . . . only out of shame and the fact that she had pimples on her face." (Leo Tolstoy)
"Heart hurt for first time in years." (Dawn Powell)
"When a public figure joins the church at the age of fifty plus, it means one thingóhe's planning to run for President of the United States." (Drew Pearson)
"I yearn for a beautiful woman with no sexual anxieties who will just take me! Have inhaled too much orgone radiation." (Wilhelm Reich)
"I have discovered that I cannot burn the candle at one end and write a book with the other." (Katherine Mansfield)