I am not by any stretch of the imagination the sort of reader whose passion is ignited at the thought of reading someone's diaries - not even a hero's diaries! So, after receiving this very large book for Christmas I wasn't altogether certain it would turn out to be an experience I'd entirely enjoy. However I am pleased to announce that I was totally wrong about this. The diaries are a delight! Burton had several articles that he'd written for various magazines published during his lifetime, and it remained an unfulfilled ambition of his to write a novel. He often rages against the shallowness of the acting profession and sometimes rails against his own reliance upon it for his income. His lifelong abiding pleasure was reading, and he appears to have enjoyed nothing better than being marooned for several weeks on end in his well-stocked beloved library at Gstaad (Switzerland), the home that he shared with his second (and third) wife, Elizabeth Taylor.
The first diary was written by RB at the age of fifteen in 1940, and although he makes regular entries these are generally short and amount to little more than a catalogue of the things that he did or interested him as a boy. It would be during the following year (sadly not recorded) that he formed the life-changing alliance with his school teacher and mentor, Philip Burton, the man whose surname he took as a stage name. The next diary was written in 1960, while he was still married to his first wife Sybil. Once again it is little more than a series of notes and what there is fizzles out by early July. It is the period 1965 to 1972, when married to Elizabeth Taylor, that the diaries really pick up momentum and become a fascinating read. And I don't mean in any kind of creepy voyeuristic sense, although it's certainly interesting to read about Burton and Taylor during the decade when they were probably the most famous couple in the world and were courted by the great and the good of European society. I suppose some will read these diaries mainly to glean what they can about Elizabeth Taylor, but for myself it was Burton's voice underlining the narrative that kept me going. Some of the entries are as long as chapters of a novel and are beautifully written. The writing becomes noticeably finer whenever Burton isn't drinking, and the diaries give an interesting insight into the often fear-driven mind of an alcoholic. After months of not drinking, after being warned off by his physicians, Burton, like any self-deluding alcoholic, writes in his diary that he has drinking under his belt. It was sad to witness, after pages of nicely turned-out prose to find just the word 'Booze' repeated for days in a row and to read on helplessly as the entries dwindle to scraps of information about places, and who visited on such and such a day and at such and such a time. The diaries continue fairly scrappily until 1983 and apart from a few months in 1980 never regain their impetus.
Burton is often indiscreet about those he knew. He is sometimes quite rude about people who are temporarily not in his good books; occasionally he enters into a bitter rant and is regularly quite insulting about his enemies. Yet for all his faults, of which he is well aware of and regularly berates himself for, he remains fiercely loyal to friends, family and those he cares about. Others, certainly his wives, were privy to the diaries, so it's possible that these accounts are not always a hundred percent honest. Who knows! However, I am certain the diaries give the keenest insight into the man that we are ever likely to get.
I started reading these diaries as a lifelong fan of the screen persona, but when I finally closed the book, I came away filled with a renewed admiration for the man. And not 'the man he might have been, if only he hadn't...' said in that mean and mealy-mouthed way people often adopt with fallen idols, but truly full of admiration and respect for the warm, loving, flawed, brilliant human being Richard Burton was.
(A word of warning - this book is big! The E-version might be a good idea if you plan reading on your daily commute to work)