Alas: Lily Koppel’s The Red Leather Diary goes far past the point of diminishing literary, intellectual and emotional returns. The book feels stretched, as though it doesn’t contain enough material for its size—which might appropriate, since its genesis is “Speak, Memory“, an article Koppel wrote for the New York Times two years ago.
The Red Leather Diary is structured in an unusual way: it has an introduction and conclusion written in Koppel’s voice, in which she describes finding the diary and then its writer, Florence Wolfson. The middle section is the longest, which contains the raw diary entries in italics, like this:
How my heart’s wagging! I have no right to complain—Four boys called last night and there wee many moments when I would have preferred solitude—but. I made three or four appointments next week.
Below, a section in the reportorial third person explains or elaborates on the passage, presumably with the help of today’s 90-year-old Wolfson. The companion for the diary entry above says:
The Wolfsons’ telephone, a heavy black Bakelite French model, had recently replaced the old candlestick kind with the receiver hanging from a hook. It was always ringing, its loud, clear bell announcing new admirers for Florence. […] Her father, who had his office in their apartment, answered calls at night in case it was a patient, but usually it was for that “boy crazy girl.”
This passage also illustrates some of the book’s problems: the long strings of adjectives piled on, the general statements that don’t add much to the narrative or mise en scène, and the tendency to give random detail, like the nature of the Wolfsons’ phone. I liked reading The Red Leather Diary but tended to skip parts like the one above in favor of the introspective or, to use an anachronism appropriate in the context of the late 1920s, “racy” parts. The dull and exciting could exist back to back; on page 62 we learn that Florence “enrolled in a life drawing class at the Art Students League on West Fifty-seventh Street […] There she drew for a few hours several days a week after school and on Saturday mornings.” Page 63 brings something beyond reportage: “The other students were older than Florence, serious about their art, but seemed defeated by life. They were weighed down by unhappy marriages and boring office jobs.”
The “defeated by life” cliché annoys, but the move toward commentary on the anonymous and, presumably, unsuccessful would-be artists reminds me of the precariousness of hope and talent. This juxtaposition of solid, understated writing and what induces yawns continues throughout. On 299, Koppel tells us “It was a sad day when [the Claremont Riding Academy] closed in 2007.” Sad? Why? And is “sad” all that can be said for it? From pages 312 – 314, however, Koppel evokes the passing of time well, thought it succumbs to The Wonderful Past:
“The people, the culture, the brains […] It’s terrible today. Does anybody think and write philosophy? I can’t imagine my grandchild or my great-grandchild or anyone writing this,” she said, tapping the diary.
Consider that in relation to a critic responding to a fake diary of 18th century Europe, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal: “No modern girl will ever write a diary like this. Cleone Knox breathes the very spirit of the witty, robust, patriotic, wicked, hard-drinking, hard-swearing 18th century.” This theme of past greatness is a persistent irritant in The Red Leather Diary. Apparently, in the 1920s, reporters were also recalling how it used to be, as Koppel quotes one who writes of actress Eva Le Gallienne, “‘She evokes another age, far removed from our restless today, a time when Leonardo lay for hours watching a tiny flower unfold, when living itself was a fine art.'”
Maybe so, but for most people in most places I suspect life has been hectic and filled with strife, whether physical or mental, even for the wealthy and privileged like Florence. Yet her life was rich and she was perceptive; one entry says, “Out with Pearl [one of Florence’s female lovers] and accidentally came upon a life that was real and beautiful and made me feel loathsome—a blind pianist who is happy—in a small cheap restaurant.” So it is with this book: the generic and the oddly touching juxtaposed, with too much of the former and too little of the latter.
The Red Leather Diary also has distracting statements that are bizarre and probably wrong, as when Koppel says, “Our colossal spires are no longer seen as great lighthouses for the triumph of the human spirit but as dusty old stage sets, the backdrop of chain stores.” She’s talking about skyscrapers, and “colossal spires” is an artistic reach that falls flat, and, furthermore, I’m not sure they were ever seen as “great lighthouses for the triumph of the human spirit,” and, if they were, why would that have changed? And who is doing the seeing and perceiving in this sentence? I could take some guesses, but reading thoughts like this one combined with the aforementioned one about drawing frustrated me. The original article was all substance, while The Red Leather Diary is considerably less than all substance, and even if the absolute amount of substance might be greater than “Speak, Memory,” trawling through the filler lessens its impact.