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‘I have abandoned’, begins W.N.P Barbellion, writing in his journal aged thirteen, ‘my essay on how cats spend their time.’ From this charming opening these diaries unfold, concerning themselves with natural history, self-identity and increasingly, as Barbellion’s health declined while a still-young entomologist at the Natural History Museum, contemplation of mortality. Indeed, he is so good on death that one of his most extraordinary passages bears quoting in full:  

‘I have discovered I am a fly, that we are all flies, that nothing matters. It’s a great load off my life, for I don’t mind being such a microorganism – to me the honour is sufficient in belonging to the universe – such a great universe, so grand a scheme of things. Not even death can rob me of that honour. For nothing can alter the fact that I have lived; I have been I, if for ever so short a time. And when I am dead, the matter which composes my body is indestructible – and eternal, so that come what may to my ‘Soul’, my dust will always be going on, each separate atom of me playing its separate part – I still have some sort of a finger in the Pie. When I am dead you can boil me, burn me, drown me, scatter me – but you cannot destroy me: my little atoms would merely deride such heavy vengeance. Death can do no more than kill you.’

Re-published at last by the marvellous Little Toller Books, Barbellion’s Journal has for too long been a lost classic of Modernist life-writing. Reading it is the best way to change that.

Little Toller/paperback/£10.00/9780956254566

Dan Eltringham

 

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