Comparative Literature Studies 40.4 (2003) 439-441
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Marginal Voices, Marginal Forms: Diaries in European Literature and History. Edited by Rachel Langford and Russell West. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999. 211 pp. $42.
Nowadays we wonder sometimes whether more is written (rightly or wrongly) about meta-literature than about literature itself; and of course, many words are spilled (since ink is hardly around any longer!) on the legitimacy of such an approach. The fact is that among the many approaches to "marginality" one at least enjoys a long pedigree and has been debated for a good number of decades, perhaps centuries: the diary.
Diaries have been around in one way or another for a long while perhaps precisely because they involve so many kinds of marginality. The most important among these (and I found my view confirmed several times by different authors in the present collection) seems to be that diaries are somehow half-way between the oral and the written, partaking of features belonging to both. Almost as important is the symbiosis between the documentary and the fictional (or the "constuctivist", not to say the imaginary). Finally, the broad aperture and communication between the literary-canonical on the one hand and the ordinary-colloquial on the other in the case of many diaries ought not to be overlooked.
Fortunately, all these features are touched upon in one way or another by the essays in the volume. This is not to say that the reader will not miss a number of methodological issues. For instance, the relationship between the "diary" and the "memoir" is hardly ever discussed. Can we consider the former as the raw material for the latter? Do we simply notice a slide in the center of gravity from the documentary and colloquial (diary) to the structured and literary or audience-oriented (memoir)? I think many readers and instructors would have welcomed such methodological examinations, as they would have welcomed a discussion of the relationship between epistolary works and diaries (Richardson and scores of others) and others. This [End Page 439] all may seem a little pedantic, but I am sure my view will be shared by many other readers. The choice of many decidedly non-canonical works for analysis in the volume has advantages and disadvantages. We learn more about works that may not have been familiar to us, but we lose something in terms of context and commensurability.
The West/Langford collection contains at least two articles which opt clearly for an empirical (indeed in one case a numerical) method: that of Anne Roche and particularly that of Philippe Lejeune (pp.175-211) Another two articles are based on the fully justified observation that over time female authors have been inclined quite often to resort to just this mode of communication (the diary): Luisa Quartermaine on Caroline Marsh (a distinguished American woman of letters in the mid-19th centuries, rarely remembered nowadays) (pp. 61-77); and Ursula Tidd on Simone de Beauvoir (pp. 136-146). Two essays deal with the voices of the persecuted under tyrannies: Suzanne zur Nieden on Victor Klemperer's war-time journal, a work rediscovered relatively recently (pp 147-155), and an ambitious analysis of the much-better known "Anne Frank Diaries" by Hanno Loewy (pp. 156-174).
A shrewdly penetrating piece on Jules Valles (pp. 90-106) written by Rachael Langford (pp. 90-106) points to the manner in which the diary may become a building-stone for the novel (this is also dealt with in the above-mentioned piece on Simone de Beauvoir).
The dissection of Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year by Frank Lay (pp. 37-49) and of Joseph Conrad's Congo Diaries by Russell West (pp. 107-125) are undoubtedly among the best essays in the book to the extent to which they actually explain the transfer of the informational into the constructively aesthetic.
Thus, on the whole we have a chronological, as well as a comparatist, and a methodological survey of diary-writing in the text. Most of the authors try to go beyond...