It was raining when I got up this morning (and noticeably cooler than yesterday), so I thought I’d have an excuse not to walk. Now the sun is coming out, and the temperature has dropped five more degrees, so I’m even less eager to get out but have no excuse. I had hoped to have more time to peruse the Sunday paper—or to read anything else.
I seem to have very little time for reading lately, especially books. Twenty years ago I read three or four books a week. Now sometimes entire months go by in which I don’t read a single book. Part of that results from the necessity to keep up with so many periodicals, including a weekly news magazine, but most of it is due to the Internet. Twenty years ago I was not online (indeed, I did not even own a computer). The amount of time one can spend (I won’t say “waste,” though that’s probably true of much of the time spent) online is astounding, and I don’t pretend that it is more valuable than reading books.
Recently, however, I have been reading an amusing book. It’s an ideal book for picking up and putting down because it’s written (and consequently can be read) in short snatches. It is The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks, by the late Canadian novelist, playwright, critic, journalist, and professor Robertson Davies, part of a compendium titled The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, published in 1986. The flap copy explains:
This fine book marks the first appearance in the United States of Robertson Davies’s mischievous alter ego, Samuel Marchbanks. During Mr. Davies’s years as editor and, later, publisher of Canada’s Peterborough [Ontario] Examiner, a regular column appeared under the name of Samuel Marchbanks, who, Mr. Davies claimed, “is one of the choice and master spirit of this age. If there were such a volume as Who Really Ought to Be Who, his entry would require several pages.” At once wit, litterateur, political theorist, philosopher, and all-around gadfly, Marchbanks became a popular figure in Canadian life, and some three volumes of his work were issued. Now, Mr. Davies has re-edited these earlier books—The Diary, The Table Talk, and A Garland of Miscellanea—for this handsome compendium volume, and throughout he offers comments on his friend’s tart and often curmudgeonly observations on the passing scene.
The Diary entries were published as daily newspaper columns, beginning in 1944; in 1947, Davies published a collection, choosing the best columns from 1945 and 1946 and adding a few new pieces. What struck me in reading them is how like blog entries they are. If Marchbanks were journalizing now, I thought, he would be writing a blog.
Any blogger who commits to a daily entry will occasionally be stumped for a suitable topic. Marchbanks was not immune; on the Friday of week XII (the entries are not dated), he writes:
How I abhor candid people! Today a candid friend told me that this Diary was drivel. What is the diary of any man likely to be but drivel? How many of us are able to record a deed of daring every day, or a ponderous reflection on the nature of the universe? How many of us are able to record that we have been reasonably honest, that we have kept our hands from picking and stealing, and that Lust and Covetousness have been strangers to our hearts? In my time I have read many diaries, published and in manuscript, and the noble and uplifting ones were invariably the work of men whom I knew to be engine-turned, copper-bottomed self-lubricating liars and hypocrites….One of the most irritating diaries I ever read was written by a fellow I know who used to pinch all the best remarks I made and attribute them to himself. Hell gapes for such villainy.
On Wednesday of week XVII, he writes:
A man who had been poking his nose into the MS. of this Diary told me he didn’t think it was very funny. This is the sort of comment which makes me secrete adrenalin by the bucketful. First of all, how did the ridiculous assumption spring up that my Diary was meant to be funny? What record of man’s life, shot through and through with toil and anguish, disappointment and shame, frustration and denial is ever funny? When Tolstoy gave up wealth and rank and, in an agony of pity and idealism, tilled the land with his peasants, was it funny? When Gauguin left a secure life in Paris and went to paint the beauties of Tahiti, casting his lot with savages, lepers and degenerates, was it funny? And when Marchbanks, furnace-fried and garden-torn [his furnace and garden were severe crosses to him], commits his reflections to his Diary, is that funny? No, baboon! No, donkey! Tragic, mystic, sublime, perhaps. But only a coarse and warty soul could find food for laughter here.
Despite this disclaimer, the book really is quite funny, though perhaps only in the aggregate, as I cannot seem to raise even the slightest smile with all the humorous excerpts I have persisted in reading aloud to my husband. The cumulative effect of Marchbanks’s curmudgeonliness, however, enhanced by Davies’s acerbic footnotes, is quite humorous.
Many passages struck a responsive chord. On Saturday of week XX, Marchbanks records:
It’s a strange world, and we are all more in the grip of primitive ideas than we care to acknowledge. The other day I saw a little girl trying to walk on a hardwood floor without touching the cracks. “The cracks are poison,” she explained, “and if you walk on them you’ll die.” Children invent magic; later in life we are still subject to this sway, but we invent “scientific” theories and “philosophies” to make it intellectually respectable.
Thursday of week XLI introduces a wonderful word I thought Marchbanks/Davies might have invented, but I see that it was first recorded in 1785 (though said to be obsolete in the 1890s):
Suffered an acute attack of the humdudgeon today; the symptoms of this illness are a sense of failure, self-contempt and mental fatigue; there is no cure for it; application to the bottle merely brings on a crying jag; a walk in the park suggests ideas of suicide; while the fit lasts all seems dross; sufferers from the humdudgeon should be left alone, though if they can be persuaded to lie down, with a pillow under the knees, it helps.
And of course he cannot fail to comment on the excess of commercialism surrounding Christmas (Friday of week XLVII):
Toronto is already in the toils of Christmas, and from several windows the hollow Ho! Ho! of a mechanical Santa Claus may be heard. Children watch these creatures with hard, calculating eyes, wondering if the old man is really crazy, or only pretending to be, like Hamlet….Everywhere I went Christmas preparations were going on, but they all seemed to be of a secular nature. Gnomes, elves, giants and Disney oddities abounded, and there were a few angels, but even they had been Disneyized, and made cute, rather than spiritual. A Man from Mars would never know that Christmas was a religious festival from what he sees here. Is it the final triumph of Protestantism that it has pushed the sacred origin of Christmas so far into the background that most people are able to ignore it?
From these few not entirely representative samples, you may gather that this is a book that would be worth your while, especially since it is the sort of book that even a busy person can read.