Monday, February 17, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Richard Burton Diaries

A shorter review of this book originally appeared on the Five Leaves Bookshop website

During his career, Richard Burton published the occasional bit of journalism – including the controversial New York Times article in which, apropos of playing him in ‘The Gathering Storm’, Burton was openly critical of Winston Churchill – and two very slim nostalgic volumes, ‘A Christmas Story’ and ‘Meeting Mrs Jenkins’, which hint at autobiography. It’s taken the publication of his diaries, however – nearly thirty years after his death – to reveal the true extent of Burton’s literary capabilities and the overall effect is to make one weep for the memoirs he never wrote, or the century-spanning picaresque novel he gave some considerable thought to but which, again, never materialised.

The diaries – edited by Chris Williams, whose love of footnotes is as all-consuming as Burton’s torrid passion for Elizabeth Taylor – are ordered into six main sections: 1939-1940, in which a series of regular but short entries give a snapshot of his childhood and a burgeoning love of literature; 1960, which is little more than an appointments diary; 1965-1972, which spans almost 500 of the 654 pages; 1975, documenting his brief remarriage to Taylor and an unhealthy amount of drinking; 1980, centring mostly on his theatrical tour with ‘Camelot’; and 1983, which ends as he’s about to take to the stage again in Noel Coward’s ‘Private Lives’, an ill-fated production that co-starred Taylor.

What of the gaps? Ah, thereby hangs the frustrating aspect of what is otherwise a compelling and immersive volume. Three things emerge as constant enemies of Burton’s diarism: boredom (although he sometimes writes to fill otherwise empty hours), drink (it’s no coincidence that his most prolific and detailed entries come on days when he’s trying to stay off the booze), and engagement with a role that genuinely interests him. The latter might seem obvious, but such roles were few and far between. Burton admits to actively disliking his profession – “I loathe, loathe, loathe acting” – and much of what he did during the Taylor years seems to have been motivated strictly by financial realities. The diaries during this period record almost casually his acquisition of extravagantly priced jewellery, a yacht, a private jet (“I did something beyond outrage” he says of dropping $960,000 for the latter – this in 1967!*) and the kind of house-hopping that would have the ‘Location Location Location’ production team weeping into their portfolios.

The downside is that barely a word is expended on ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’, ‘Becket’, ‘Night of the Iguana’ or ‘Villain’ and there’s nothing whatsoever on ‘Wagner’ or ‘1984’. There are, however, entire screeds on ‘Anne of the Thousand Days’, ‘Raid on Rommel’, ‘Staircase’ and ‘The Battle of Sutjeska’. The only exception to this inverse good film/no entries ratio is the underrated ‘Assassination of Trotsky’. Also, it would have been fun to read Burton at his bitchiest give behind-the-scenes accounts of ‘Exorcist II’ and ‘The Medusa Touch’ – but, again, this was sadly not to be.

What we do get, in plenitude, is an account of Burton’s life – the travel, the glamour, the fabulous restaurants, the glitzy hotels, the premieres and hobnobbing. In the wrong hands, this could have been the stuff of gloating. But everything Burton writes is tempered with his background, the poverty of his childhood, the admission – made repeatedly – that he’s been lucky. Moreover, fame and materialism didn’t lull him into intellectual moribundity. Throughout the span of the diaries, Burton demonstrates an inquiring mind, a thirst for knowledge, a keen engagement with the written word and a fascination with linguism. Put it this away: imagine you’re on a yacht, you’re worth millions, there’s an entourage on hand to give it the “yes sir no sir three bags full sir” at the merest inclination of your eyebrow, and you’ve got Liz Taylor lying on a sun lounger next to you. Would you just kick back and let a big wave of egomania wash of you, or would you spend the day reading a three-volume academic history of ancient Rome then work on bringing your Italian to fluency? 

Burton’s reading is voracious and eclectic. His love of poetry is writ large. For all that he socialises with royalty and fellow film stars, his most treasured acquaintanceships are with Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender. Lines of verse, often subtly paraphrased to mesh with the business of that day’s entry, are threaded through the journals. Editor Williams tediously annotates every one – well, almost; he misses a couple of bits by Henley – and insists on rendering the actual line. He also fussily records that ‘The Phil Donaghue Show’ was presented by Phil Donaghue, PT means physical training, and bangers and mash is a dish of sausage and mashed potato – things I’m guessing that most people know – yet doesn’t bother to translate entire sentences that Burton renders in French. There are footnotes to every page, up to six or seven per page most of the time, and they’re generally facile. After a while, I trained my eye to simply disregard them and got on with the infinitely measurable business of wallowing in Burton’s prose.

While ‘A Christmas Story’ and ‘Meeting Mrs Jenkins’ are polished and bear the evidence of careful revision, the diaries are exuberant and unmediated, entire entries fast-flowing in a rush of words. You hear Burton speak as you read them – that commanding voice with its dramatic emphasis. Just as Burton the orator had an intuitive understanding of cadence and rhythm, Burton the writer unleashes torrents of words to just the same effect. He directs those words at those around him, often sympathetically and sometimes satirically (his description of Andy Warhol as looking “like a cadaver when still and a failure of plastic surgery when he moved” is priceless), but mostly at himself and with almost brutal honesty.

I haven’t enjoyed an actor in his own words this much since ‘Ever, Dirk’, John Coldstream’s volume of Dirk Bogarde’s waspish and fascinating correspondence. Bogarde, of course, enjoyed a second career as a memoirist, novelist and reviewer in the last two decades or so of his life. It’s a damn shame Burton didn’t get to tread a similar path.

*The equivalent of about $6.5million today.

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