A Life Discarded by Alexander Masters

Review published on May 18, 2017.

Biographer Alexander Master’s latest highly unusual subject following his acclaimed book 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 (the 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 that 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 is 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 that 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 that take 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 gain maximum enjoyment from it. Read it before you find out too much about it.

Phil Ramage 4/5

A Life Discarded by Alexander Masters
Fourth Estate 9780008130817 pbk Feb 2017

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