On the diary as a literary genre by Peter Zimmermann

Awake. Get up. Snow outside.

The diary or journal as a literary genre enjoys huge popularity in the publishing world. So why is this? Because it satisfies the need for authenticity? Because a reader gets closer to a writer through his or her fictional texts? Because when filtered through a writer’s viewpoint everyday life suddenly acquires structure and lucidity that you would never see so yourself? Max Frisch’s diaries are on a level par with his novels and plays. The diaries are even Paul Nizon’s main work. The same now applies for Karl-Markus Gauß. Siegfried Unseld’s diaries are regarded as key texts of post-war literature.

Nevertheless, I’ve never quite understood the value of diary writing, even though I occasionally enjoy reading literary diaries. It’s not because I’m interested in how writers experience their day – their experience is mostly no different from that of others. The weather, the digestive system, the family, ungrateful publishers – it’s all too familiar. Instead, I look for the episodes that serve a certain voyeuristic interest. I find it very appealing to read how Max Frisch, in his Berlin Diary, compiled personality sketches of Günter Grass, Uwe Johnson or Alfred Andersch with a complete lack of concern about making enemies. This was anything but flattering, though never ungentlemanly and always with a firm conviction about his personal worth and yet it wasn’t vain. In fact, this is vain because the subjects of his portraits can never defend themselves – much to the author’s satisfaction. These are such minor points and are less related to literature than the hype that surrounds the business. But even when the hype is non-existent the diary is a text wasteland that seeks its equivalents – have you flicked through Samuel Pepys lately? This situation largely arises because diaries are not simply fictional texts. There is a whiff of sincerity about them, so they are generally viewed as authentic: they are outlets for the soul. The diary is the place to vocalize spontaneous thoughts and where the writer slips out of the shoes of being the public person and puts his feet up. Yet this is obviously not the case, as a diary writer takes issue with his greatest opponent: himself. This leads to every daily report submitted for personal scrutiny being compelled to meet criteria that readers never demand. In other words, a text composed with an audience in mind has the capacity to be much more relentless, more unscrupulous and, as far as I am concerned, also more sincere than a text which is written with the writer in mind. I would even go as far to say that the allure of intimate details increases the degree of self-deception. And given that diary writers always flirt with the idea of actually going public with what seems private, then the notion of truth finally deteriorates to become the bugbear of literature. There is no truth in writing than what the writer self-construes. Perhaps truth is entirely the wrong kind of category to adopt to approach the world in writing. I realize that this sounds brutal if one considers Wolfgang Herrndorf’s work and structure – his co-writing with death, the attempt to find a language for a life with an illness leaving no chance for the individual. Yet this is the case: in the quest for language one stumbles across form. And form is not reality; it is merely a surrogate for the unmentionable.

At the age of 17 or 18 I first attempted to write a diary. My ambition was to be radically honest. After the first few entries I was already clear that this project had to fail because my description of the present led to a dead-end. There was no way from the here and now into a future – however it may have looked. I spent days and nights with all those characters whom I hung out with on weekends; they had a firm place in my life and they were subjected to the rudest critique or at least described as uninteresting. Suddenly, every one of them seemed dispensable – and in the end I did as well, since there was nothing left worth living for. I was neither able nor wanted to continue with this insight. I was prepared to give up the truth for the sake of this perspective.

If the diary is to literature what the self-portrait is to painting, I can state: I reminded myself of the individual who wrote about himself, yet I didn’t recognize him. This is like an artist painting himself in a bad mood and sloshing a black square onto the canvas. Decades afterwards he stands helplessly before it and knows: art is not life. And what one considers as life is not art by a long mile.

Literature is fiction. If literature is realistic, then reality is fictionalized to make it suitable for literature. This is fine, since one cannot write literature without a serious aesthetic ambition, without a desire for form. ‘Co-writing’ or Mit-Schreiben (Peter Handke) with the day, with daily impressions, accomplishments and encounters only exists as a process of transformation and redrafting. The sentence is never identical to the subject that it describes. Thought in itself already corrupts reality. The sentence corrupts the thought in a second step, and thus to a certain extent it expresses a double untruth. Basically, nothing is wrong with this. Yet one should know that when I say ‘I’, another subject is always intended and that this ‘now’ refers to a different time than the present. The fact that diaries are nonetheless favoured as examples of experienced reality may be explained with the following sentence from Marcel Proust, “Time passes, and little by little everything that we have spoken in falsehood becomes true.”

By Peter Zimmermann

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe on 24 September 2015.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory

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