A Life Discarded by Alexander Masters

This is a book that sounded intriguing – the tagline was ‘148 Diaries Found in a Skip’. Literary giant Margaret Drabble and historian Kate Sumerscale provided high praise, but I struggled to finish it.

Masters discovered the mouldy and tattered diaries in 2001, full of dense handwriting and occasional drawings which began in 1952 and ended a few weeks before they were thrown out.

The blurb claims

The author of the diaries, known only as I, is the tragicomic patron site of everyone who feels their life should have been ore successful.

Masters seems to have been frustrated by the author’s failure to name themselves, and for a time he thought it was a man – until a description of bleeding revealed itself to be the authors’ first period. But diaries are generally for personal consumption, so I cannot see why a person would name themselves.

Masters dips into the diaries, searching for clues as to identify; he gets advice from graphologists though he has little faith in their trade. He finds a few hints as to the woman’s name and age, but it is not till about half way though that a friend suggests he try to put the books into chronological order, and discovers that many gaps exist in the collection, but also that the woman is still alive.

This is just bad research. When you get a project like this, your first act is generally to establish what you have to deal with, and putting them in chronological order is surely the first thing you do, like sketching the outline before filling in the details of a painting,  instead of drifting around asking advice of friends.

The blurb continues:

Part thrilling detective story, part social history, part love story, A Life Discarded is also an account of two writers’ obsessions: of I’s need to record every second of life and of Masters’ pursuit of this mysterious yet universal diaries.

I’m afraid the thrilling bit passed me by. I was more annoyed at the constant diversions, the personal intrusions of the author, his house moves, his friend getting cancer. It was as if he was doing lots of things to avoid getting on with the narrative, like many writers do a bit of cleaning or go for a walk, suggesting he was not as engaged as he and the publishers claim.  

We are introduced to a young woman who never becomes three dimensional. She has aspirations to be a great musician, a great writer, but is accused of not concentrating, of time wasting, so even with a degree fine art in the swinging 60s of London, she fails to blossom. She fails to keep a job in a library, and as a live in domestic, and spends much of her life as an incompetent live-in housekeeper for a man she hates. She lacks initiative, drive and there are few mentions of friends or family, though Masters may have omitted these.

What is bizarre about her is her passion for an elderly German emigre woman who began as a friend but treated her with contempt and another ‘crush’ on another very old woman, a nutritionist. These relationships were non physical and she considered marriage, but remained single.   

When Masters finally met her, he thought she would object to his book based on her diaries, but she gave him permission to use them as he pleased. She had not noticed her diaries were missing. She documented her strange, listless  life but had never read any of her diaries, and felt no sense of threat from her thoughts being exposed to the world.

Laura Francis was born in 1939 and began her diary in 1951 when given a diary and green ink. In our modern world where so many people expose their every movement to the public, it seems strange that she would write for no audience, not even herself. Her life is interesting as a record of a uniquely eccentric English life, and is now in the Guiness Book of Records as the most prolific diarist, but in Masters’ hands, it is hard to care.

Neither she nor Masters come out of the story with much merit, and whilst the story is of interest for its oddity, it is hard to relate or maintain much interest in either her or or biographer. The book seems like a wasted opportunity to tell what could have been a truly engaging story. 

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