Bruce Frederick Cummings (1889 - 1919) was a naturalist at the British Museum. He published his journals under the pseudonym Wilhelm Nero Pilate Barbellion.
“I will go on with this diary,” I read between the lines. “You shall have at least one specimen, carefully displayed and labelled. Here is a recorded unhappiness. When you talk about life and the rewards of life and the justice of life and its penalties, what you say must square with this.”
I first discovered Barbellion’s journal through Mike, a friend I’d made at an old job. At the time he lived in a tiny flat that was entirely devoted to storing his huge collection of books, with space for actually living in featuring rather lower on his list of priorities. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every wall was either covered in shelves, or home to a bookcase. In some cases, a load-bearing bookcase, essential for the upkeep of the ceiling. I’ve worked in libraries with fewer books than Mike’s old flat.
Mike had introduced me to Charles Bukowski, and from him John Fante, and then to the earlier work of Colin Wilson, all of whom I had all loved, so when he presented me with a copy of W. N. P. Barbellion’s The Journal of a Disappointed Man I was more than willing to dive in. I’m glad I did, because now it’s one of my favourite books, and one of only a few I regularly re-read.
If you want a summary, there’s a Wikipedia page for that which is sufficient. You can read the journal online in a number of places, I’ve linked my favourite. The problem I have writing this is that it is so difficult to summarize Barbellion’s life. A potted outline of his life robs it of all it’s power, because if you miss out the inconsequential, you’re left with “desperately wretched man is gloriously happy for 15 years, then dies”. The every day is what makes it what it is.
Barbellion suffered with multiple sclerosis. Shortly before he died, he wrote:
I am only twenty-eight, but I have telescoped into those few years a tolerably long life: I have loved and married, and have a family; I have wept and enjoyed, struggled and overcome, and when the hour comes I shall be content to die.
That line is just heartbreaking. I am twenty-eight.
Especially considering he didn’t really like his wife all that much, I don’t particularly believe it. Is anyone really content with their life? Really? temporarily, perhaps, but there’s always something that could be improved.
I’ve ticked off some of those same things, but I consider my life barely begun, not ready to end, and I can’t imagine ever really feeling that way. The pain and suffering he bore physically must have been a factor that weighed heavily on him, but twenty-eight just seems so young. It seemed young when I first read the book in my early twenties, and now I’m here it seems even younger.
I never cease to interest myself in the Gothic architecture of my own fantastic soul.
I think partially my love for him comes from feeling — certainly thinking — in the same way, about a lot of things. That duality of his grandiose prose accompanying the most mundane of lives. I do that. You’re reading it right now. The difference, I suppose, is that he left a body of work worth publishing. Despite his latter horror at his own work, it is a great piece of writing.
The other aspect of him that see in myself is his strange conflict with people – his fear of crowds and his general misanthropy, but then! he has such loyalty and a childlike glee when interacting with his friends. Some of the back-and-forth conversations he has — I’m thinking of one playful argument over how best to tend a garden — are exactly how I am with some of my friends:
With H—— in his garden. He is a great enthusiast.
‘I disapprove entirely of your taste in gardening,’ I said. ‘You object to the “ragged wilderness” style, I like it. You like lawns laid out for croquet and your privet hedges pruned into “God Save the King” or “Dieu et mon droit.” My dear boy, if you saw Mr ——’s wilderness at —— you’d be so shocked you’d cut and run, and I imagine there’d be an affecting reunion between you and your beloved geraniums. For my part, I don’t like geraniums: they’re suburban, and all of a piece with antimacassars and stuffed birds under glass bells. The colour of your specimens, moreover,’ I rapped out, ‘is vulgar — like the muddied petticoats of old market women.’
H——, quite unmoved, replied slowly, ‘Well, here are some like the beautiful white cambric of a lady of fashion. You’ve got no taste in flowers — you’re just six feet of grief and patience.’ We roared with laughing.
‘Do stop watering those damned plants,’ I exclaimed at last. But he went on. I exclaimed again and out of sheer ridiculousness, in reply he proceeded to water the cabbages, the gravel path, the oak tree — and me! While I writhed with laughing.
The mocking put-downs, the trying to outdo one-another. It’s exactly right.
A great deal of my love for this book, I’m sure, is that it reminds me of Mike, and that summer, and how little I get to see him now. Inevitably when I finish a read through I end up writing him an email or calling him. I think I’ll go do that now.
- With thanks to Kateri. We’ve been e-mailing back and forth about Barbellion and much of this blog post is lightly edited from those e-mails.