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Biography 24.4 (2001) 951-953

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Elizabeth Podnieks. Daily Modernism: The Literary Diaries of Virginia Woolf, Antonia White, Elizabeth Smart and Anaïs Nin. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's UP, 2000. 407 pp. ISBN 0-7735-2021-X, $65.00.

The stimulating title of this book introduces its central paradox. Diaries are by definition linear; the disruption of chronological narration is one of the [End Page 951] most recognizable characteristics of early Modernism. Elizabeth Podnieks argues persuasively that the techniques of diary-writing, for example dashes and ellipses indicating a fluid stream of thought, resemble those in Joyce's or Woolf's fiction. This leads to the more problematic assertion that the "diary may be considered the quintessential text of modernist fragmentation" (91). The fragmentation referred to is the regular intervention of the date; on this basis, all diaries from any period are Modernist within Podnieks' definition, "at once fragmentary and unified" (106).

Podnieks focuses on four women writers: Virginia Woolf, Antonia White, Elizabeth Smart, and Anaïs Nin. She argues that the diary as a genre is a fluid form which crosses generic boundaries into autobiography and fiction. Some of her writers appear to create in their diaries a fictitious version of their domestic lives--what they would have liked to happen rather than what actually occurred. Disappointment, neglect, and embarrassment can be transmuted into an idyllic childhood and passionate love affairs in a diary; Podnieks suggests that rewriting the script may provide a kind of therapy and eventually enable self-analysis. The writers' relationships with their diaries are described. It is always intimate and sometimes as powerful as a human bond, in that Nin, for example, comments that all the men in her life "would slay the journal if they could" (325), as if it were a sexual rival. Podnieks shows how the writers reread, rewrite, and edit their diaries, arguing that all of them saw their journals as publishable texts, though the evidence for this is much stronger for Nin than for Woolf.

Podnieks is particularly illuminating in her detailed account of the physical appearance of the original diaries. Woolf's early interest in book-binding is exemplified revealingly through her 1899 diary: "A sudden idea struck me, that it would be original useful & full of memories if I embedded the foregoing pages in the leaves of some worthy & ancient work." She chose Isaac Watts' Logick: or, The Right Use of Reason, and pasted her hand-written pages on to Watts' text; as Podnieks suggests, this was a resonant action. White's diary is contained in thirty-nine notebooks; Smart's challenges the researcher with a poem beginning: "Keep out / Keep out / Your snooting snout" (229). Nin's diaries are self-consciously presented as texts from the first, written when she was eleven years old.

Podnieks' own strategy is as fluid as that of the diaries, in that it fluctuates between biography, literary analysis, and gender studies. Perhaps in consonance with its theme, though not with the diary as a form, its organization is resolutely unhistorical, which this reader found unhelpfully disorientating, and sometimes misleading. Post-impressionism is linked to an essay by [End Page 952] Woolf written in 1935; a passage from White's diary written in 1967 is described as Modernist. Though Podnieks rightly asserts that there are many versions of Modernism, it would be helpful to the reader to have a theorized model of how the writer interprets Modernism, rather than a random list of characteristics which, individually, are not necessarily Modernist. Thematically, dreams and transgressive sexuality are staples of Renaissance drama; stylistically, fragmentation and disruption occur in metaphysical poetry. Inclusiveness about subject matter is not in itself Modernist. What is needed is an analysis of the experimentalism involved in Modernism linked to diary writing.

The argument is not clarified by the assertion that there "are strains of autobiography that could not be transcended in the works of Joyce or Eliot" (86), and that good poetry "is not dependent upon the extinction of personality" (88). That writers use their...