Biographer Alexander Master’s latest highly unusual subject following his acclaimed 2006 “Stuart: A Life Backwards” (excellent TV adaptation starring Tom Hardy in 2007) and “Simon: The Genius In My Basement” (2012) made its presence known following a discovery in a skip. A friend found 148 diaries abandoned in Cambridge. He passed them on to another friend and when she became ill Alexander became the keeper of this extraordinary find, a vast number of diaries and notebooks filled with great intensity over a period of decades by person unknown.
What Masters had in his home was the work of the most prolific diarist of all time (Guinness Book of Records had recognised “newspaperman” Edward Robb Ellis’ 22 million words but here is something like 40 million words ) a record of one life and found in a skip.
It took Masters five years to discover the identity of the diarist. The words became something of an obsession for him. He pored over the writing looking for clues, at writing which became smaller as the writer aged becoming miniscule in later volumes. A life which had begun with hope and optimism with many potential avenues became frustrated, disturbed even close to madness as the sequence continued.
I’m purposely giving little away about Masters’ subject because the gradual uncovering of the biographical details is one of the great strengths of this book. Biographers obviously begin with research and getting to know and understand their subject before putting pen to paper, here we get a fascinating alternative process of nothing being known and everything having to be deduced from a personal monologue. Diaries are not the best way to discover some things, even the basic biographical details such as gender, name, description are rare in this type of personal writing (why would you write about the things you know already?) and remained very much hidden amongst the millions of words. The very nature of diaries is their tendency to be outlets for outpourings of the irrational and unanalysed. So how much of a person’s life is actually revealed in this way?
This is certainly a real life with a difference and it is the process rather than the life itself which becomes gripping. Extracts from the diary are not as prevalent as might be expected and are more used to put together a picture of the writer and why their life’s work ended up in a skip. It reminded me occasionally of Alan Bennett’s “Lady In a Van” but instead of the physical presence of Miss Shepherd turning up outside in her old van here we have the presence of the 148 volumes which takes over Master’s existence in much the same way as Miss Shepherd did.
Another strength is how Masters’ biography has to shift gears as details are uncovered. We have seen this recently in Kate Summerscale’s “The Wicked Boy” which changes track when research brings something astonishing about her subject to light but Masters is doing this all the time as assumptions are proved incorrect often built from passing remarks and gut feelings. The twists and turns in the development of his narrative are really quite thrilling.
There, I think I’ve completed this without giving much away. This book is best approached as a blank slate to really get maximum enjoyment from it. Read it before you find out too much about it.
A Life Discarded was published by Fourth Estate in hardback in May 2016 and in paperback in February 2017. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.
4 thoughts on “A Life Discarded – Alexander Masters (Fourth Estate 2016) – A Real Life Review”
Great shout Phil, my friend found a suitcase full of photos in Oxfam, here in Liverpool…Works by a rather unrecognised Czech artist-photographer, living for 30 years here in Liv. married locally. With no kids, so after his wife passed on, he was on his own and when he joined her, all his work handed over to Oxfam…Great scope for a booklet, intro into his previous work in France in 60ies and then here…The Czech fans would be surely interested…in his work
It is fascinating how things turn up like this- whole life works. The thing that really got me thinking in this book is how little the diaries initially gave away about the identity of the writer. I suppose if you find photos you have more of a clue about the photographer but here very little was given away- because the diary was such a personal medium, I suppose
Yes. You are right. e.g. when you take a pic, there is some tangible evidence…The only disadvant. with pics taking is the person who takes it, is never in it. So you end up with not knowing who’s who…and also my friend has a bit of a fear to dig deeper into the artist’s personal life…and discarded element of any artist, when no descendants…what she discovers. But I think, that’s the thrill of it…
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