Artist as Writer: The Donald Friend Diaries as Literature

Paul Hetherington

from — Courtesy of Hetherington

I have entitled this talk ‘Artist as Writer’ but I might equally have entitled it ‘Writer as Artist’ because writing, drawing and painting should all be seen as different expressions, or different elements, of Friend’s overall artistic vocation—as, for that matter, should his artist’s books.

It is interesting, for example, that some of Friend’s artworks incorporate written material. Such artworks are reminiscent of his illustrated diaries in which image and word are so often combined as part of the same complex texture, and as different aspects of the same artistic quest. Friend’s diaries exhibit what one might call an artistic ambidextrousness. Where some people can switch easily from right to left hand as they work, Friend in his diaries switched easily from writing to drawing, and back again. His gifts were unusually wide-ranging. While many painters are good writers, and many writers are competent painters, few have shown the extraordinary facility that Friend demonstrated in both arts. (And while I have drawn most of my examples of Friend’s writing from his diaries covering the period up to and inclusive of 1943, his later diaries are equally compelling.)

What, then, are the hallmarks of Friend’s writing style? While some of his diary entries are very matter-of-fact, his style is more often various, finely observed, irreverent, iconoclastic, snobbish and expansive. He is a wonderful storyteller.

I got a little freshwater turtle—a tiny creature hardly bigger than a penny in circumference, and so cunningly designed, so neatly fitting, that he seemed to be more a work of art than of nature—an olive brown and green, jade colours shading to ivory, like a Chinese carving.

He is also a fascinating chronicler of his life and times; a kind of latter-day Australian Samuel Pepys—but more wide-ranging than Pepys.

The American sailors who periodically invade the town, land on the beach from great invasion barges such as they use in New Guinea. I stood awhile this evening watching them. They seem to be very jolly and undisciplined and full of loud voice. An odd thing I have noticed about Americans, they walk differently to us; they walk with a sort of mooch, a roll, a little like a camel, or like the sturdy Texan cowboys in films. Maybe that is why. They are so intensely Hollywood conscious, that with them one feels that every man is his own Gary Cooper.

Friend’s writing in his diaries always seems knowing even when it was the product of adolescence as if innocence either passed him by entirely or was dispensed with very early on.

He is sometimes self-indulgent, often a Romantic, at times cynical and bitter and disillusioned (as many Romantics can be). He has fine analytical skills and a superb ear for the music of words. Indeed, he loves words and their nuances in the way that many painters love the feel of the brush and palette knife on a canvas or board. He is aware of many of his own failings. For a writer who loves the play of surfaces, he is also capable of profundity. He has a marvellous, sometimes caustic and often bawdy sense of humour.

It seems particularly appropriate that Friend fantasised that his ancestry on his mother’s side included the famous libertine and brilliant, scandalising poet, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Rochester’s poetry is highly articulate and often obscene. He is a scarifying critic of human beings and their predilection for self-delusion and hypocrisy. Here is the opening of Rochester’s superb poem ‘A Satire Against Reason and Mankind’:

Were I (who to my cost already am

One of those strange, prodigious creatures, man)

A spirit free to choose, for my own share,

What case of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,

I’d be a dog, a monkey, or a bear,

Or anything but that vain animal

Who is so proud of being rational.

In a ‘Memoranda’ in his first diary Friend writes:

“I am Donald Stuart Leslie Friend, and am sixteen years of age, being blessed with a genius for art and a talent for writing. My mother, known in this and other writings as Adorable, is a lady of extreme beauty, wit and sophistication, it is from this gracious lady that I inherit all talents—she is the descendant of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who was reputedly an illegitimate son of Charles I. This explains Adorable’s eyes—so magnetic and brown are they that an aged servant, unknowing of the descent said they were the laughing, lovely eyes of Charles Stuart himself.

I have a sister Gwen, and two brothers, the elder, my senior, called Harley, being monstrous grim of appearance and most unbelievably grown-up for eighteen. Ten is younger, fair-haired and good-looking. I have been told by sages and seers that in June or July I shall leave for England. July is almost over, and I have been disappointed for the last three years. All predict a brilliant artistic career for me.”

This passage, and his allegiance to the Earl of Rochester, shows Friend’s precocious self-confidence, his snobbishness and sense of humour, his youthful Romanticism, and his sense of being a person apart. As he grew older, these qualities developed and matured in his writing they were never entirely banished.

How, then, did Friend approach the task of writing in his diaries and, in particular, how much is the voice of the diaries a literary, rather than simply a candid and personal, voice?

One way of addressing this issue is to note that from his first diary onwards Friend seems aware of his role as observer; and as the artist consciously shaping the narratives that he constructs (and it is also worth remembering here that many of his paintings are complex visual narratives, full of absorbing, accumulating detail).

For example, he writes on 29 January 1931:

Today I left Sydney—bound for the arid north-west. Mother put me into the train. I sat down and read until we had passed Beecroft; then I lit a cigaretto and made a lengthy detour of the train—which to my boredom and disgust, rendered naught but a few odd old fogies, odiously smoking their pipes, with their expansive, pink-tipped nasal organs closely embracing the racing news. I reflected bitterly on eternity as I munched an ancient meat pie at Newcastle. So it went on—until I read (not wept) myself to sleep.

Friend at 16 years of age is striking a world-weary and worldly-wise pose, suffering from ‘boredom and disgust’, and distanced from those he meets by a superiority that he does not define but which is implicit in what he writes. Yet there is something attractive about this young man, despite his airs. This is due to the fact that as one reads this passage, and other passages like it, one sees that Friend does not entirely believe his own pose. He is partly sending himself up, already indulging a sophisticated sense of irony, which undercuts his posturing. This tendency of Friend to continually complicate his own vision is one of the secrets of his gift as a writer. Even when he writes badly, one sees that he can write.

Like most creative artists Friend looked first to himself and his own experience for his raw material. This is not only conclusively demonstrated by his fine, often quirky self-portraits, both in his diaries and elsewhere, but it is also shown in many of his diary entries, especially those in which he writes about writing. As early as 1931 Friend states that his diaries are:

“a setting down of my own personal thoughts. Should any unwise persons venture herein without my express permission, the references to any of them which may displease are just rewards of inquisitiveness.”

On 18 June 1931 he writes:

“Louise and George have arrived!  The meals—(it is scarcely permissible to write of food in a diary as ‘tis a subject, like the weather for space filling, but I mention it here as I should an earthquake)—luscious steak and kidney pie, and fritters.”

And on 29 June 1931: “It’s hard to write a log about work—sheep work, and the whole week is symbolised by the ride over the frost—the galloping gorgeous rush.”

Already Friend is preoccupied with what he can and cannot write about in his diary, and about the private nature of what he wishes to express. Very soon he also shows that he is interested in the question of literary style; of how he should express himself.

On 23 July 1931 his diary entry reads:“I wrote to Sydney Long a rather brief letter, for what is there to write about? I have a thousand things to write of, and a million subjects to draw, but I am mostly engrossed in thinking in the language of Michael Arlen, which is far the best language to think in, barring French. His phraseology fascinates me, and I spent many hours of spare time reading his stories.”

On 24 July Donald Friend added:“I have started to write a book in the style of Arlen—the subject is to be some amusing incidents of the life at Gladswood Gardens—so far I have progressed splendidly—nothing in the world gives me greater joy than slinging off at eminently respectable pillars of the society.”

This precocious self-consciousness as a writer and expressed ambition to develop a literary ‘style’ has been transformed 12 years later, in 1943, into a much more sophisticated sense of the world and literature, and of their relationship. Interestingly, in the following passage Friend makes remarks that once again take issue with the ‘respectable pillars of society’ that he has criticised as an adolescent. He also demonstrates the breadth of his reading:

The rich and vulgar are rich and vulgar because their talents make them so. They are as unhappy as anyone else, and quite as incapable of analysing that discontent, and mentally too shallow to find relief in an ideal world. The ideal world would seem to them futile and stupid because it has nothing to do with money. ‘Keats,’ they would say, ‘or Rupert Brooke, or James Joyce, or Auden, or Shelley or Shakespeare—what sort of a living did they make?’

By 1943 Friend is both impatient of many prevailing attitudes towards reading and writing, as this passage shows, and is also able to express himself most persuasively. He has become a fine stylist in his own right.

To read Friend’s diaries after adolescence is to enter into a world that seems complete unto itself and which is authoritative. Even if some of his allusions are puzzling, and some details occasionally unclear, Friend’s diaries are nevertheless invested with what I would call the authority of literature.

This idea of authority—of the confident, resolved voice of an author speaking of his or her life in a way that seems true and right—may seem a little old-fashioned. After all, the new worlds and theories of post-structuralism and post-modernism have complicated and problematised the very idea of ‘truth’, and have questioned the authority of the authorial voice.

Nevertheless, I would like to emphasise this point about the authority of literature and, in order to do so, I will quote briefly from a favourite book of mine, Jane Austen’s Emma. I will then quote some lines of a sonnet by Shakespeare. These are both fine examples of literature’s authority; of its confidence of movement and its capacity to bring with it a deep and intuitive knowledge of human affairs.

Here is the short opening paragraph of Emma: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable house and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet number 23, beginning ‘As an unperfect actor on the stage’, concludes in the following way:

O, let my books be then the eloquence,

And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,

Who plead for love, and look for recompense,

More than that tongue that more has more expressed.

O, learn to read what silent love has writ:

To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

And here is Donald Friend in his diaries on 22 April 1943: “The only real peace I had in Sydney was at Tas Drysdale’s. There, one could relax happily and talk and drink and somehow feel safe from all complications. Friendship is the only deep and safe thing I have. The kisses, nightingales, roses and wine were a flop.

The journey to Albury was unexpectedly pleasant. The train was practically empty. I slept most of the way, and read Prokosch’s Skies of Europe. It got colder and colder as we journeyed south, until at last we came to the region of rolling tree-dotted hills, and then, as night fell, Table Top Mountain lit spasmodically by a frozen, clouded moon. Then Albury. It was about nine o’clock, blowing a piercing wind. A taxi took me to Hume. I knew something was wrong as soon as I saw the lights of the camp. There they were, distant, seen through a veil of trees. But there was an odd emptiness about them. It is winter, I thought, that makes them look vacant and forlorn. I left the taxi at the gate. The sentry box was empty. Then when the taxi had gone I felt quite suddenly completely alone. No sentry, no human in sight; only the empty road and parade ground and empty huts and the bright lonely road lights. I shouldered my kit bag and began almost running through the bleak night towards the battery headquarters. Suddenly I realised that there were no tents anywhere to be seen. No tents at all. The slopes where A Battery had been lay still and naked in the moonlight. Then I knew for certain. The regiment had moved.”

All three passages move confidently and subtly and, without trying to accord Friend the same literary stature as Shakespeare or Austen, I would maintain that Friend’s writing sits comfortably in their company.

The work of all of these writers has depth—that is, as one reads them, one is aware that much more thought and feeling lies behind them than they express. And part of this implicit charge of knowledge, like an electrical current that animates the writing, is an awareness of contradiction; of how, within the expression of one point of view, or one feeling, other viewpoints and feelings lie buried and are equally alive. Put simply, the three quoted passages are truly complex works resonant with a rich and deeply apprehended sense of the world.

In this light, I would like to discuss what I mean when I speak of ‘literature’. The Macquarie Dictionary defines literature as ‘writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features’. It then lists some literary genres, including poetry and biography, but does not mention the personal diary as a literary form.

This omission is hardly surprising. While various private diaries are honoured in the literary pantheon—perhaps in English the most famous example are the extraordinary diaries of Samuel Pepys written in the 1660s—private diaries do not always fit comfortably into the category of ‘literature’. Such diaries are usually a combination of private musings, autobiographical reflections and private personal performance, including considerable amounts of self-justification.

Private diaries tend not to have a tightly constructed or self-consciously ‘literary’ form. On the other hand, various works of literature have adopted some of the manners of the private diary or, for that matter, of personal correspondence (of which there is a considerable amount included in or attached to the pages of Friend’s diaries). Here I am thinking of books such as Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, with its rambling inconclusiveness, or Samuel Richardson’s extraordinary epistolary novel Clarissa, or Elizabeth Jolley’s Diary of a Weekend Farmer, published in 1993—there are numerous examples that one might cite. Jolley’s book includes material from her private papers, numerous paintings by Evelyn Kotai, two of Jolley’s poems and a substantial quotation from another author. In this way it is like a tidy and constrained version of Friend’s diaries, without Friend’s reach and magnificent variousness.

Such examples are reminders that ‘literature’ is no tidy category with clearly defined boundaries. Rather, literature is a sprawling category that is always moving and being reshaped by the works, however unorthodox, that shoulder or sidle their way into the pantheon. Friend’s diaries belong there as a fascinating contribution to the literary sub-category that one might call ‘private writing’. But this raises another issue. How private, after all, is the writing in Friend’s diaries?

In this respect, I confess that my comparison of Friend’s writing with that of Shakespeare is not arbitrary. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are the most famous example in the English language of private poems made public. They tantalise the reader by seeming to portray the intimate details and progress of at least two love affairs, but to this day no-one can agree who the poems are about.

In other words, they are not truly private works but instead they make literary capital, in the most marvellous way, out of their pose of privacy. (I am not suggesting, by the way, that Shakespeare was at all insincere about his affections in the Sonnets—quite the contrary. But as he uses his poems to marshal and articulate deep and at times difficult emotions he consciously turns his private emotional drama into literature.)

I would contend that Friend does much the same thing in his diaries. He creates a private and public persona at once, always conscious that his words may outlive him, always conscious that he has a responsibility to his literary style. As I have indicated, even as a 16-year-old he was searching for such a style, and in these early diaries he adopted many self-conscious poses. In 1930 he writes about his mother, for example, as if she were a figure from some melodrama:

She is beautiful to look at, has perfect taste in clothes and everything else, her conversation and repartee are famous in many circles.

This is touching in its rather gauche ludicrousness. Later Friend’s characterisations became more sophisticated, but as author he remained like a subtle stage producer, aware of the possible effects that his utterances might have, even when he was apparently at his most candid. This was partly his literary instinct at work but I suspect that it was also what leads to some of his more unjust and sniping remarks in the diaries. At times his urge to place himself upstage of his enemies, even of some of his friends, gets the better of him.

As Shakespeare speaks of himself in his sonnet, so we may speak of Friend—as an ‘unperfect actor’ who projects himself in his diaries in the way that another writer might dramatise a character in a novel. When Shakespeare writes ‘O, let my books be then the eloquence, / And dumb presagers of my speaking breast’ we might think of Friend’s diaries—his books—in the same way. And, like Shakespeare in his works, when Friend uses the personal pronoun ‘I’ in his diaries, he means himself, Donald Friend, but not always and not entirely.

Emily Dickinson, the nineteenth-century American poet, wrote in one of her letters: ‘When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean me—but a supposed person’. Friend, too, is a ‘supposed person’ in his diaries in the sense that he creates a persona; a speaking voice which represents him as he wishes to be and which, despite its frankness, also partly obscures him (I don’t have time today to explore what I think he obscures, but part of this seems to be what was truly private and personal).

Of course, Friend is not unusual in adopting the strategy I describe. Many artists and writers adopt similar strategies in their work, which is one of the reasons literary critics often talk of the ‘voice’ of a poet or a writer. By voice they partly mean literary style, but they also mean that (often hard-to-define) quality of utterance created by the author by which he or she may be identified. Friend’s is a complex, many-faceted and beguiling voice, full of a candid-seeming artifice. It is fundamentally literary.

And, given this, it is not surprising to see him use a variety of literary forms in his diaries, including poetry. Friend’s interest in poetry is attested to by a 1943 diary entry in which he writes:

I was considering how appallingly difficult it is to produce a single perfect specimen of art, even a small one. Take that autumnal poem of Verlaine for an instance. Those words he used had lain centuries in the language, were familiarly used. And the sombre melancholy theme had set a thousand poets to work long before this time. But it was he who flowed the two together, utterly simply, in the most movingly perfect pattern. All right, there are still whole languages of fine words left, of great ideas that we all know; for me there are lines, colours, tones, contours and shapes unlimited. They are all there, at my disposal. But God, what a task to single out just two or three of them and fuse them into such a thing as that poem, delighting the whole world and holding them breathless at a sight of supreme beauty. I don’t think I’ll write a good poem—lots of quite amusing ones, hardly differentiated from doggerel except for a newer use of words and subtler ideas. But I think sometimes I can say what I want to more gracefully in my own sort of verse than I could in paint or prose.

Friend’s own poems are not as polished as his best prose, yet they do show his satirical skill. Some also demonstrate his ability to heighten language in order to express deeply-felt emotion—which is not an easy thing to do. Here is one of them, entitled ‘Conversation at Dusk’:

I quietly talk with you, as one comes home:

Home to clean gentle eyes, like lamplight glowing.

And crisp decided voice, warm as the winerose fire.

On familiar hearth, burning dusk in a tall room.

For hours engrossed we talk: You calmly reassure,

Moving with mellow grace, so gravely going,

So definitely, as do tall trees—

Gesturing straight trees—that make pacts with the wind,

And then with wavings re-enact its woodwind song.

Your immunity from chaos brings this old release

From the urgent womb-to-tomb migration of the throng:

Delivers me from time, leaves far behind.

The foolish world of four dimensions drowned in dark.

That’s how I feel, when we two quietly talk.

This is a persuasive and tender poem which, while having clichéd moments, also contains some beautiful phrases (such as ‘so gravely going’). It demonstrates Friend’s range as a writer and the subtlety with which he was able to chart his emotional life when he chose to do so.

More generally, it is worth noticing Friend’s mastery of the well-constructed phrase, sentence and paragraph in his diaries. His narratives are usually tightly written, succinct and fast-paced. His vocabulary is wide and will often surprise with its inventiveness—another hallmark of the stylist who writes not only to record but writes also for posterity—or, at least, for an imagined future reader. To demonstrate that Friend was indeed concerned with posterity—with what will last—and to give another example of his capacity to craft beautiful prose, here is a moving diary entry from 1943:

I am rather furious with myself at the moment. I have the opportunity to write and an empty mind—or rather a mind full of unrelated stuff with no focal point, comments on this and that with no relation to the day and hour. This is a ghastly waste. There is nothing to do but sit in the pale afternoon sun and improvise until I think of something. You see, I have not lost one whit the obsession that has given an urgency to everything for this last year and a half—the feeling that each hour may be my last of leisure and privacy. So at such times as this, when I have time to set down something which will preserve my shape for the future, and yet am oppressed by mental inertia, are an exasperating torture. One somehow feels that by recording all these trivial things they are somehow given permanence and body. Why should it matter at all? Why bother to give a lasting (how can one even know it will last?) form to the jiggle of memories and comments, so that other people at other times can read what I was thinking about, and what I knew. Well it is futile. But anyway I do it. I try to tell myself I do it entirely to satisfy myself; but at its best, that is only half true. If I were doing that I’d probably invent a complete language of my own, and go the whole hog and write down everything—but everything. And such a record would turn white the hairs of he who read it, as do all stupendous experiences, such as hanging all night over a chasm suspended by a rope that’s slowly being sawed through. And furthermore, I am lonely enough without indulging in such an extreme introversion.

Here is Friend mastering a sense of crisis through language; constructing and construing his difficulties into words of considerable pathos. The bright voice of the adolescent would-be literary stylist has matured and darkened.

And here, finally, is Friend in 1982, relatively late in his life, writing of his diary again: “It stands to reason, nobody would keep a diary who did not find himself and his world absorbing.

As I do. And in this book I shall attempt to revive something of the spirit of those earlier diaries full of drawings and letters and the excitement of life diaries which are already a legend, & generally assumed to be a unique personal exposé of our art world from the 1940s on. No more slipshod, neglected journals like those of my past five years or so.

Such is my resolution or to be more realistic, my good intention. For I am aware that the essential ingredient for a fascinating diary is a fascinating life. And that in my rickety incurable ill-health, bodily feebleness etc, is hardly within my capabilities. A month of fascinating incidents would most certainly kill me. However, there remains the life of the Spirit and that of the Mind: the latter presents no problem at all.”

Friend’s emphasis on the life of the mind is telling. His diaries are fascinating partly because he thinks so well in his writing; because he controls his material with such a conspicuous, and often beguiling, intelligence. In this respect it is worth recalling the opening passage of Emma.

Just as Austen’s writing evinces a most compelling self-control, so much of Friend’s best writing in his diaries demonstrates a similar quality although Friend’s is admittedly a self-control that is very often informed by an obvious exuberance for life. As artist and writer, Friend knew that the most successful works were those which were ‘made things’; which were consciously constructed rather than the products of spontaneity. His diaries as a result are full of the most engaging and subtle, and often quite magnificent, writing.


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2 responses to “Artist as Writer: The Donald Friend Diaries as Literature

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