- …I’m just poised to shoot forth quite free straight & undeflected my bolts whatever they are.
— Virginia Woolf, journal entry October 2, 1932
I’m going to try something risky here, at least it feels risky to me. Word has it that others do it. My guess is that they do it all the time, but rarely admit to doing it. Me, I’m going to tell you right now: I have not finished the book. With only twenty-four percent of the thing behind me, I’m not even close to finishing it. I don’t mean to celebrate reading without diligence or writing without reading. I especially don’t mean to celebrate writing without reading what you’re writing about. I’m just telling it as it happens to be at the moment.
I planned to write about Troka el Poderoso, El Romance de Don Gaiferos, and A Walk in the City, puppetry and toy-theatre productions staged Monday night at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. A night of international puppet theatre: a fun subject, for sure. A friend and I arrived at the Graduate Center’s Martin E. Segal Theatre early, but it was already packed, too packed. We were turned away. I find myself even more overwhelmed than usual by politics and current events, I don’t have the words for them today. I’m left — or I’ve left myself — to write about a book I haven’t yet finished. There you have it.
Sweet freedom! I don’t have to make pretend I’ve finished the book, I don’t have to make it seem as if I’ve achieved a comprehensive understanding. I don’t have to do what some very highly esteemed critics often do and attempt to dress a book summary up in the guise of either review or criticism — an aphorism here, a statement of belief there, et voilà. (Well hello there, New York Times!) Without having skimmed or read the book in its entirety, I really can’t summarize it. I can only attempt to capture my experience of it up to page fifty-seven. And try not to summarize what I’ve read.
The book already: Simon Gray’s The Smoking Diaries. It is not a recently published book — it was first published in 2004. There is a more recently published book by Gray: The Year of the Jouncer — which I think might be a sort of sequel to The Smoking Diaries, if diaries can be thought to have sequels — was published in 2006. I have the sense that Gray is better known in England than here in the States and better known as a playwright than as a memoirist. Though his play Butley did have a run here in New York last fall, a run I missed. All to say, though Gray is a prolific writer, I wouldn’t say he’s celebrated, exactly — except for being a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, whatever honor that title bestows. Anyway, together these things make The Smoking Diaries appealing to me.
I’m blundering a bit, but the more I think about it, the less inappropriate it seems to respond only to the book’s first fifty-seven pages. I first encountered The Smoking Diaries in excerpted form in the literary magazine Granta before the book was published in its entirety. The excerpt stood alone just fine. I did not wonder what would happen next, I did not miss the rest of the book at all. Okay, I was curious about the rest of the book, but not in a desperate must-pre-order kind of way. Look, it took me three years to seek it out. In fact, maybe that’s what I ought to be responding to, the excerpt published in Granta several years ago. Nah.
“…I’m not going to write tonight, I shall sit here sipping my diet coke, smoke a cigarette, listen to the sea. First I shall write down one word at the beginning of the next line on my yellow pad, and start from there tomorrow. The word I shall write is… ”
— Simon Gray, The Smoking Diaries
Dear Diary, I Don’t Like You
Diaries. I was once a student in a class that focused for a few weeks on diaries as literature. The writer Fanny Howe was the instructor — a lovely, soft-spoken, patient lady. I was a tyrant, a terrible, terribly disruptive person in Fanny Howe’s class. I could not understand why we were reading diaries and given the chance to speak, I spoke mostly about the futility of reading them. What could we students possibly learn about writing from reading diaries, especially Virginia Woolf’s diaries? There is no intention in a diary entry. That’s what I was stuck on: the lack of intention, the lack of form and purpose. I found diaries’ loosey-gooseyness deeply frustrating. I’ll just jot down whatever comes to mind here. Oh my, look at that lovely flower. Oh, so-and-so is about to arrive for tea. Oh, I feel blue today. Oh, I think I’ll take a nap. Oh, oh, oh…
Diaries read the way hummingbirds fly. That’s how I understood them anyway. Flitting appeared to be the organizing principle, the prominent gesture. I resented having to read such twaddle. I could not see the point. I asked why, why we were reading the stuff. Why? I would say that all I heard in response was the rubbing of crickets’ forewings, but the sound, had there been a sound, would have been more like that of hummingbirds’ wings beating in and out of my range of hearing. Isn’t this fun?
Enter Simon Gray
The Smoking Diaries begins on Gray’s sixty-fifth birthday: as good a time as any to reflect on smoking (he is still a smoker, at least at page fifty-seven he is), drinking, the death and illness of family and friends, childhood, writing, and fellow and possibly prematurely senile vacationers in Barbados, among other subjects (there’s your summary). I’ve thought for a long time now that sensibility is far more important than subject (and there’s your statement of belief). Gray’s book reaffirms that belief. In spades.
Here’s Gray on the death of his father, a passage worth quoting in full:
- One afternoon I came in to find him agitated, knotting the end of his sheet with his fingers, turning his face one way and the other on his pillow, muttering. When I asked him what was up, was he OK, he wouldn’t answer at first, then finally whispered that they’d taken his cigarettes, he didn’t know what to do to get the back. I asked the matron where his cigarettes were. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘we think his smoking probably contributed to his illness.’ ‘But you say he’s dying.’ Yes, she said, he was dying. ‘Then why not let him have his cigarettes?’ ‘Because they’re bad for him.’ ‘But if he’s dying — ‘Because he smoked.’ But what did that matter now? ‘It matters because he shouldn’t smoke.’ And so forth, for quite some time, until I took it up with a doctor — and old friend of my father’s — who countermanded the matron’s orders. I sat beside him and held his free wrist as he smoked the first of his recovered cigarettes. He gave me such a smile, a smile of such gratitude, that I felt I’d at last become a son to him, and a bit of a father too. A day later an aneurysm burst, and he began to drown in his own blood. He was saved into a quicker death by his friend the doctor, who gave him a lethal shot of morphine, just as he had done for my mother. Piers was with me for his death. Nigel, flying in from Montreal, arrived half an hour too late. As the three of us stood around his bed, wondering what to do, what exactly was the procedure, etc., a nurse arrived with a tray of food. ‘Now eat it all up,’ she said as she put it down beside his bed and flashed him a nursey smile. ‘Make sure he does,’ she said as she went out. ‘He needs it.’ They took him away eventually, and we took away the things he’d had beside his bed, his spectacles, a book, his package of cigarettes, and a rather bulky gold lighter, that I suppose was a present from someone or other.
I am in my sixty-sixth year and I have smoked heavily for fifty-nine of those years. I began in Montreal — no, I need a break here. Light up, settle back, watch something on television.
Okay, so this passage sounds a lot like what we might find in a memoir, no? But note the diarist’s shorthand: OK, etc. And note, too, the sensibility, the restraint. We tend to let it all hang out in our diaries. Gray doesn’t do this, at least not when it comes to certain categories of experience. Strangers earn comment, but a nurse setting a tray of food beside Gray’s father and urging the dead man to eat does not. What more is there to say?
Dear Diary, I Take It Back
Well, there’s something to be said for the unstudied quality of Gray’s writing; there’s also something to be said for the way Gray can carry his readers from a hospital room years ago to the present moment’s restlessness. It’s the book’s shifts from reverie to quiet lament, from quiet lament to current unease that strike me. There’s no plot here, not in the conventional sense, not by page fifty-seven. There is just a rambling mind doing its thing, noting what it observes and remembers, drawing the connections it’s inclined to draw. The universal plot.
— Suzanne Menghraj