A Life Discarded: Alexander Masters

★★★★

148 Diaries Found In A Skip

This was a little breath of fresh air in my recent reading. I’d read an article about the book some time ago, probably in the Guardian, which whetted my appetite (though in retrospect I wish I hadn’t seen it because it gave away all of the developments and surprises). Masters, who has written two other books based on extraordinary lives – neither of which I’ve yet read – here takes on another challenge: the intimacy and mundane fascination of writing a biography of someone whose name he doesn’t even know.

All he has of this person, whom he christens ‘I’, are 148 of their diaries, stretching from the 1950s to the 1990s, which his friends Richard Grove and Dido Davies have discovered in a Cambridge skip. Tantalised by his subject’s anonymity, Masters sets out on a noble quest to give ‘I’ a voice at last and to find out what he can about this figure, whose very ordinary outward life hides an inner world full of passion, urgency, rage and thwarted ambition.

Rather than a biography, this is a biographer’s tale, told chronologically from the discovery of the diaries in the skip, through Masters’s subsequent investigations. He tackles the diaries in the haphazard order that they come to him, energised by the mystery which unfolds before him, and disinclined to destroy that mystery by putting the books into a chronology which will dull the thrill of uncovering new information. It’s a story of how biographers become obsessed with their subjects, and how subjective history can be. Even when faced with someone’s extensive written thoughts, there are vast swathes of information about them that remains unknowable. Masters makes a series of assumptions about ‘I’, forcing his own expectations onto the material before him, and as he progresses with his study of the diaries he finds that some of these assumptions are sustained, while others are comprehensively and dramatically refuted.

Masters’s passion for his subject takes him to unusual places: to the topographical sections of county libraries; to graphologists, musicologists and philosophers; and to a shrewd private detective. Each of these people can offer different perspectives on ‘I’s output as a diarist – an output, incidentally, that comfortably makes ‘I’ the most prolific diarist who ever lived (according to the Guinness Book of Records). The quest also gives Masters a purpose and drive at a difficult time, as he watches Dido – the joint discoverer of the diaries – dying from pancreatic cancer. There seems to be some kind of a tragic balancing act: as ‘I’ takes on ever greater form, reality and colour in Masters’s life, Dido gently fades away from the world. It is a poignant contrast. But Masters is always driven more by enthusiasm than by sentiment. He develops a gripping, almost voyeuristic relationship with the unknowable ‘I’, whom he accompanies through all the trials and traumas of life – the conviction of genius, the hopes and dreams, the failures, the longing for one’s talent to be recognised and, ultimately, the anxious, angry resignation to mediocrity. For years, he lives within another person’s mind.

And then Masters makes the most extraordinary discovery of all. ‘I’ is still alive.

I won’t say any more, because the less you know about ‘I’ in advance, the more wonderful the book is as you scrape away the layers, as in a game of pass-the-parcel. Suffice it to say that the book is lively, very readable and, with its short chapters, encourages the very worst kind of ‘one more before bed’ behaviour. From a personal point of view I was fascinated on two counts: first, as someone who’s kept an intermittent diary since the age of ten, and secondly as someone who has their own long-standing relationship with another person, as a kind of biographer. Like Masters, I’ve spent days poring over someone else’s words, squinting at terrible handwriting, reading between the lines and trying to use the text as a magic formula to unlock the secrets of another person’s mind and history. Unlike Masters, of course, I’ll never have the chance to meet my subject and to test how accurate my guesses have been. But the evocation of that process – the intensity of the one-sided relationship, and the thirst for more knowledge – is beautifully done here.

It won’t take you long to read this book, and it has the compelling quality of a thriller, albeit a very genteel and scholarly one. We become caught up in Masters’s enthusiasm to the point that, as he eventually finds his way to ‘I’s house, we stand with him, breath caught in our throats, waiting to see whether or not he rings the bell…

Buy the book

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

2 thoughts on “A Life Discarded: Alexander Masters

  1. The idle Mother says:

    Oooooooh…..sounds like one to read. I have just discovered a box of my grandfather’s diaries from 1920s to 1960s. They are scant compared to what is on offer here, but nevertheless intriguing.

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