The Diary of a Body by Daniel Pennac

The Diary of a Body by Daniel Pennac

Title: The Diary of a Body

Author: Daniel Pennac

Review by Jade Craddock

In the nineteenth century, the brothers Grossmith brought us The Diary of a Nobody and now Daniel Pennac brings us The Diary of a Body. The title of the book is perfectly self-explanatory – this one indeed does exactly what it says on the tin – but more than that it largely does only what it says on the tin – that is, it focuses on the body to the exclusion of many of the other realities of the journeller’s life, which makes for both a fascinating yet circumscribed narrative. Indeed, relationships, work, family, love, where they don’t involve or impact on the diarist’s physiology, are omitted, left to play out, unacknowledged, off page.

The typical essence of the novel, the grand narratives, substituted for this alternative narrative, the macrocosmic for the microcosmic, the subject of man’s relationship with the world returned to the primal realm: man’s relationship with his body. Instead of the social, economic, professional routines of life – weddings, shopping, offices – we have the physical – nose bleeds, chickenpox and polyps. And we also have the banalities of the body – the functions/reflexes we are all subject to but like to ignore – sometimes in technicolour detail.

Whilst it’s a novel idea to narrow the gaze (Pennac gives new meaning to the idea of navel-gazing), turn it back on oneself and one’s body, inevitably it means there are absences. And although most of these can be accounted for by the author’s singular commitment to delineating the body, one of the absences is felt more keenly: war. The diary runs from 1936 through to 2010, the French diarist turning sixteen in 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War. Yet these years, which arguably had amongst the most impact on the physical and bodily experiences of man, especially those of fighting age, are skirted over: the diarist condensing his adventures in the French Resistance to a series of footnotes to the main diary.

‘I lost interest in my body’

The author’s decision to limit both the character’s role in the Second World War and the extent given to the recollection seems somewhat remiss. Admittedly, this is not a war novel, but it is about the acute realities of the body, the physical experiences it goes through, and what is more acute, more physical, than warfare. Whether on the front line or in the resistance, the Second World War would have left no body unchanged, and the diarist’s explanation that, ‘For that entire time, I lost interest in my body. As an object of observation, I mean. Other priorities had taken over. Staying alive, for example,’ seems too contrived, a narrative device concocted to get away with ignoring the essential. Surely, the body would be the fundamental priority in war, in staying alive, and would be felt, with the shadow of mortality looming everywhere, more keenly than ever. Nonetheless, it is not to be.

Not only does the diarist survive the Second World War but his body comes out of it unscathed. He is, it seems, one of the lucky ones. In fact, across his whole lifetime, his body remains remarkably unscathed. Of course, there are the odd maladies and afflictions, but in truth, not much goes wrong. There is, after all, so much that can, and does, go wrong with the body, literally countless syndromes and diseases, over two hundred bones that can be broken. And yet, the narrator sails almost uninterruptedly through his eighty-six years without major incident or illness. Crucially, even when the narrator is in ill health, prior to his death, this isn’t given the vivid or intense scrutiny one may expect from a narrative focused on the body. Indeed, this would seem to be one of the very fundamentals of a narrative of this kind, it is something of an expectation that the body in the throes of illness and breakdown will be explored in detail, but alas it is not so. And again it seems somewhat surprising, that in the narrative of a body, the selected body is in such rude health. Of course, some people are fortunate to have such virility, and our diarist it seems is one of them. Naturally, had the author gone the other way and given us a man constantly beleaguered by bruises, breakages and ailments, it is likely to have raised a few eyebrows, but a finer balance could have been struck and would have felt, perhaps, both more plausible and more compelling to the narrative.

Graphic detail

Whilst pathology may be somewhat underplayed, there is one particular aspect of the body’s mechanisms that gets the full treatment from the diarist: the reproductive system. In these episodes, which are numerous, the writing takes on the sort of graphic detail and close scrutiny that is lacking in the exploration of other elements of the body. And yet, this is perhaps the most examined and observed part of the body’s story in literature. Of course, it is a significant, perhaps the principal, feature of the body, and warrants the attention the diarist pays to it and, to some extent, its primacy. However, again it is a question of balance, and without the less pleasurable experiences of the body with which to offset these episodes, the body’s troughs to contrast with its peaks, the narrative risks its originality and edges into the clichéd.

One can’t however question the novel’s inventive vision. The foresight to reinvent the diaristic mode and its subject. Although The Diary of a Body may show up the weaknesses as well as the strengths of this process, Pennac’s experiment leads one to ask what else can be diarized, how else can the diary be used. The possibilities for literature – and good literature too, when done right – seem rife. Of course, one of the most obvious evolvements, as the diarist himself muses, would be that of the female body. It is certainly refreshing for the male body to get the attention this time round, but it seems to cry out for its parallel. Whether Daniel Pellac would have the inclination or insight to attempt this I’m not sure.

But despite the various fictional accounts that we do already have of women’s bodies, it would be interesting to see what this introspective, purely corporeal diary would look like for one woman across the span of her lifetime, either in Pennac’s hands or another’s. As too would different bodies – of different eras, different circumstances, different afflictions. Indeed, how would the diary of a body in Victorian times read, or that of a body on the front line, or the body of a person with a degenerative disease? Whilst this novel doesn’t answer these questions, it does get you thinking. Pennac’s journeller is blessed with good health, many aren’t so lucky.

By Jade Craddock

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