Lamentable Thumbs

Morrison, Blake. 2018. Lamentable Thumbs. London Review of Books, 40(12), pp. 37-39. [Article]

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Review of The Journal of a Disappointed Man by W.N.P. Barbellion, Penguin, 394 pp, £9.99, November 2017, ISBN 978 0 241 29769 8.

Confessional writers stake everything on their truth-telling. ‘I have displayed myself as I was,’ Rousseau says, promising ‘a portrait in every way true to nature’, a claim echoed by W.N.P. Barbellion when he writes: ‘My journal keeps open house to every kind of happening in my soul.’ But Rousseau was guilty of certain economies and the last words of The Journal of a Disappointed Man – ‘Barbellion died on December 31’ – are a lie: when the book came out 15 months later, in March 1919, the author was still around to read the reviews and bemoan their predictability: ‘One writes that it is a remarkable book. I told him it was. Another says I am a conceited prig. I have said as much more than once. A third hints at the writer’s inherent madness. I queried the same possibility.’ When they learned that the death notice was false, critics were aggrieved. But it wasn’t a cheap trick to gain sympathy. Barbellion hadn’t expected to see the Journal appear and was dead within six months of its publication. Besides, he said, ‘no man dare remain alive after writing such a book.’

There’s a further excuse for his faking his own death: Barbellion didn’t exist in the first place. The name was taken from a pastry shop on Gloucester Road and the accompanying initials from ‘the most wretched figures in history’: Kaiser Wilhelm, the Emperor Nero and Pontius Pilate. The man behind the mask wasn’t, as some thought, H.G. Wells but a tall, skeletal entomologist in his twenties called Bruce Frederick Cummings. The alias gave him the freedom to be intimate – to publish ‘whatever is inexorably true, however unpleasant and discreditable’. Writing as himself, he’d have given less away.

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English and Comparative Literature


21 June 2018Published Online

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Date Deposited:

25 Jul 2018 10:03

Last Modified:

25 Jul 2018 10:14


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