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Review | Negative Capability: A Diary of Survival, Michèle Roberts | Book of the Week

Who am I addressing in this diary? Diaries are private documents, written for the author alone. The diarist writes to herself. Perhaps keeping this diary will compose a self for me, a future self, a possible self, a strong self I’ve touch with. In any case I need to keep on writing it. If I don’t, I may lose myself in that strange, timeless, scattered state again.”

An intimate confessional, a personal dialogue between the diarist and their persona, a record of private thoughts and feelings, an internal investigation juxtaposed with external observations of people set against a certain social and literary milieu – everyone is fascinated by diaries. A writer’s diary is of particular interest and very readable since storytelling is second nature. The text becomes a work of literature in itself, and is not just a record of daily doings.

Doyenne of diarists, Anais Nin, wrote: “I do not delude myself as man does, that I create in proud isolation. I say we are bound, interdependent. Woman is not deluded. She must create without these proud delusions of man. The theme of the diary is always the personal, but it does not mean only a personal story: it means a personal relation to all things and people. The personal, if it is deep enough, becomes universal, mythical, symbolic.”

April in Orchard Street, South East London: Michèle Roberts is wrestling with rewriting a rejected novel in her basement flat workroom overlooking the street. Her neighbour is banging about upstairs. There’s a fox in the back garden.

“Failing is part of writing though not all writers admit to failing ever. ‘Fail again,’ said Samuel Beckett, ‘fail better’.”

The author of numerous novels – including Daughters of the House which was awarded the WH Smith Literary Award and shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1992 – and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, Roberts feels shipwrecked with “two months of craft smashed on the rocks.” The pain of rejection is exacerbated by her unsympathetic, frosty (then) agent. She has a spat with her glamorous friend Susan, and puts on a brave face in public, being cheerful at literary parties where she does not say that her novel has been rejected – “I wasn’t going to give snipers or snoopers a chance to pity me of delight in my misfortune.”

The reader is right there with Roberts in Morrisons, inside her head, looking at the vegetables, and raging inside, feeling like a small speck of existential nothingness. She describes the inner self-hating voice and how she makes a relationship with it, and passes on tips to her creative writing students about how to deal with it. She conveys very well disappointment and despondency while going about the daily business of living, running errands, going to East Street market, or walking from Walworth to Herne Hill.

This kind of writing is hard to do without coming across as a self-pitying victim and Roberts pulls it off beautifully, getting the balance just right. Her voice is strong and resilient. Mischievous humour underpins her description of literary snobbery at a book launch in an exclusive bookshop in Bloomsbury, (Virginia Woolf territory – her diary which she began age fifteen was her confidant and creative cornerstone). This la-di-da scenario is offset by a cosily enjoyable holiday in Italy with writer-publisher friends. Negative Capability is essential reading for hopeful newcomers on the publishing scene, as it affords a good deal of insights into the realities of the writing life.

The narrative moves on to the Mayenne, and Paris, in June and July . . . then Evron, La Ciotat, Avignon, Dublin and Herne Bay, with intermittent returns to Orchard Street. Roberts describes cherry picking and a car boot sale à la française near her house, La Lièvrerie. A fellow Franglaise, I relished her descriptions of growing up in England and France, the contrast between a childhood spent between parents in town and grandparents in the country, in London and Normandy respectively, and her exploration of the mother-daughter conflict. Her writing about French country life and local village families is perfect for fans of Freda White’s Three Rivers of France, Peter Mayle and Joanne Harris.

Staying with a friend in an Air BnB flat in Paris (already a thing of the past, post-Covid 19?) and not wanting to be seen as a pudgy perspiring Brit panting in the concrete heat of the street, but a sleek and chic French woman, had me laughing out loud: how very painfully familiar! Les belles parisiennes are in a class of their own when it comes to haughty glamour.

Roberts writes movingly of how the old wounds of a hurt young woman deep inside are reopened when trouble strikes, and if one is not careful, are projected on to the present. A woman alone, she reflects on past relationships and sex, and reads Anthony Storr’s Solitude in which he questions the modern view that “happiness can only be found in intimate attachments, more especially in sexual fulfilment . . . If we did not look to marriage as the principal source of happiness, fewer marriages would end in tears.” 

With its sub title A Diary of Surviving, not only is Negative Capability a way for its author to work things out like a form of therapy, an exercise in honesty, a source of anecdotes and literary inspiration (for use in a future novel perhaps?), a comforting place to heal and reflect, transcending time and place . . it is a message of hope. Overcoming adversity is difficult, but not impossible.

While Alain de Botton has Marcel Proust to help him change his life, Roberts has the poet John Keats to help her change hers. She quotes from a letter Keats wrote in December 1817 to his brothers George and Tom: “Several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

And so, going beyond the world of literature: never mind failure and doubt and uncertainty, let go of the need to control, accept the contradictions and out of the chaos something new will emerge.

Negative Capability: A Diary of Surviving gives the reader something really special. Roberts’ intimate, candid writing is underpinned by a dry humour, wry observations, and a poignant strain of melancholy perfect for our time. The way she portrays her characters leaves you  wanting to know more about them and their lives. And you long to know if her rejected novel will find a home.

Ultimately, could Negative Capability: A Diary of Surviving herald the beginning of a new School of Bibliotherapy, a philosophy for a new creative women’s revolution against the slide towards greater ineqality? How we need something like this right now with the world gone to hell in a Covid-driven handcart. I’ll be the first to sign up . . .

Negative Capability: A Diary of Surviving by Michèle Roberts is published by @SandstonePress on 28 May 2020. Demy hardback 9781913207144 RRP 14.99GBP Ebook 9781913207151 RRP 9.99GBP

The interview with Michele Roberts for The BookBlast Podcast is released on 28 May 2020.

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georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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