Review of Toby Litt’s A Writer’s Diary – birth, death and pencil sharpener | Fiction

Toby Litt’s latest novel, originally released online via Substack, is an extremely readable achievement. Spanning nearly 400 pages, A Writer’s Diary charts one man’s life over the course of a year. Animated by the constant approach of two intersecting classic narrative themes, birth and death, the architecture of the novel is relatively conventional, as its protagonist, a writer named Toby Litt, navigates the emotional impact of these two events of life.

Litt presents himself as a writer who avoids proof; his approach to letting deep feelings flow through is defined by a Chekhovian taciturnity that doesn’t always engage the reader emotionally. However, his novel does not deal with these fundamental life events, not really, and the restraint with which he articulates them leaves room for a different exploration. Narratively, the book documents a couple’s journey to parenthood, a vulnerable process after three previous miscarriages, contrasted with the narrator’s slow loss of his mother to cancer. These simple tectonic movements unfold with a sort of tidal inevitability, but the surface of the book is concerned with something entirely different. Toby (the protagonist, rather than the author of the book) receives a diary from his partner for Christmas and writes in it daily. So the novel tells how huge life events are analyzed in days; their impact on a consciousness that remains everyday, routine, preoccupied with anxiety and pencil sharpening and work, even as it is swollen and shaken by life and death.

The result is an investigation into form that seeks to verify what forms a novel can take. If imaginary structures are models for thought and models for thought are models for life, A Writer’s Diary asks: what if we view our lives through the prism of the order in which they occur, not through its emotional weight? Fixing his narrative to the rhythms of a diary, Litt is constantly distracted from the bigger emotional picture, just like all of us are, always. Hour after hour, our lives are cups of tea and dishwasher unloading, a string of simple gestures, many of which we don’t pay much attention to. This insight evokes the narrow and decidedly humble scope of, for example, Samuel Beckett’s fiction; as with Beckett, Litt’s design is to narrow our focus. “We often spend less time looking at things than we spend more time looking at,” he writes – and this paradox, and the attempt to resolve it through attention, is the real subject of his work.

The result is highly digressive and sometimes exquisitely boring: “Could I spend a week writing about pencils?”; “there is more to say about the powder”. But these longeurs are part of a sophisticated riff on the nature of the fugue, a structural pattern introduced into the language to great effect by the late Belfast writer Ciaran Carson, who is dubbed here. The novel also brings traces of its genesis online. His entire weeks spent revolving around the thought of Keats, pencil sharpeners, educational seminars, recall the blogs of Mark Fisher, one of the most interesting writers to have made the web his home.

White male authors, who absorb the lessons of current conversations about appropriation and seek to rewrite their own place within the narrative, are regularly seen turning inward to the moment — writing autobiography or autofiction, narrowing their focus. There is a rich literary tradition of trying to see infinity in a grain of sand, of course. But the current trend is also a response to a specific cultural moment, where writers who previously felt comfortable occupying whatever space they wanted in the fictional world are trying to reorient themselves. Reducing your horizons to counting pens on your desk doesn’t seem like a definitive answer to questions about narrative appropriation. But it has prompted a thought-provoking investigation into how we weigh and evaluate the days of our lives.

A Writer’s Diary is published by Galley Beggar (£10.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at 20p from each Guardian Bookshop order will support the Guardian and Observer 2022 charity appeal. Delivery costs may apply.

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