There is writing done against the background of war, illness, self-doubt, and industrial development: A civil servant in London in 1864 hears the noise of the new Charing Cross Railway and observes, "No one who has not tasted the pure & exquisite silence of the Temple at night can conceive the horror of the thought that it is gone forever"; a minor writer wonders year after year if his talent is substantial enough to justify "this endless poverty, borrowing, uncertainty, frustration"; an American climber in English society records scrupulously: "A Cinderella evening. Tonight there were two grand ballsóand we were invited to neither"; the Goncourt brothers relate a striking conversation with Flaubert; Virginia Woolf's thoughts the morning after Arnold Bennett dies should have been her epitaph; John Steinbeck broods over his own violence; Harold Nicolson writes magnificently as a bomb is about to fall on London. And, of course, there are the men who go on and on about women: Robert Musil (revolting), Cesare Pavese (malevolent), Franz Kafka (unexpectedly adorable), Stendhal . . . being Stendhal.
The diarist who got inside me is William Soutar, a Scottish poet of modest accomplishment who became bedridden in 1930 at the age of thirty-two and kept himself company for the remaining thirteen years of his life in the pages of a daily diary. His entries are sprinkled throughout the book, and, peculiarly enough, it is he who supplies the anthology with its title: "A diary is an assassin's cloak which we wear when we stab a comrade in the back with a pen." I say "peculiarly" because in these pages Soutar appears as a stoic whom life has made philosophical, not resentful. True, we read, "What diarist has not, at some moment, become ashamed of the numerous entries which belittle a friend or slight an acquaintance?" But in the same passage we also read, "I shall leave all my entries, even such as may shame meófor I do not hate anyone; and I know that the moments of human sympathy are not rare . . . [though] irritation, boredom, and actual antagonism are unavoidable. . . ."
Soutar is a man who does that rare thing: Taken out of the world of action, he uses his immobilized state to think usefully about world and self. "I sometimes wonder," he writes two years into his illness, "what strange necessity brought about the humiliation of my body. Man must look for a reason, and when he has lost his old gods must peer into himself. It is not a self-compliment to surmise that one had to sacrifice one's body to make a self." But (in these excerpts, at least) he neither pines nor broods nor complains, and entry by entry his thoughts deepen on the page until, at last, he becomes an unforgettable presence.
It is the accumulated short takes of William Soutaróstanding out against the many bright and brilliant bits of The Assassin's Cloakóthat have stayed with me. Coming as they didóslowly, one by one, separated by many other voices continuously calling outóthey taught me something, made me rethink the matter of my own distracting time, showed me I needn't discount it as more false or shallow or isolating than other times. The anthology forced patience on me; patience allowed me to experience Soutar; experiencing him, I felt connected. Suddenly, the short take of my own life did not seem emblematic of a time cut adrift. I saw that it takes courage to hang in there with it; and if you do, the "accumulation" will deliver.
Vivian Gornick is the author of The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001).