Sunday Burgs book review
Reviewed by Paul Metz of Blacksburg. He recently retired after 33 years with the University Libraries at Virginia Tech.
My first memories of Richard Burton are not favorable – he seemed always to be “doing Richard Burton” in costume clichés. His diary reveals a man of self-reflection who felt the same way, with perhaps more scorn, about much of his later work.
A young man of obvious gifts, Richard Jenkins was mentored early on by Philip Burton, an English teacher and dramatist who all but adopted him. Burton grew up a lover of Shakespeare, “Monopoly”, and the movies. All his life he retained his Welsh coal-mining father’s love of European football and antipathy for the English upper crust.
Burton was not a life-long diarist. Almost all the book covers the mid 1960’s to the early 70’s. These are mainly the years of Liz, the on-stage and on-screen equal, pain in the arse, and “eternal one night stand” with whom he was utterly besotted. For both Burtons, always there was the struggle with alcohol. It is sad to read, after long periods in which he held the devil off, entries for six consecutive days in May 1975 consisting of the single word “Booze.”
Many actors and directors move through these pages. Contempt for Franco Zeffirelli and Lucille Ball is counter-balanced by generous praise for Lawrence Olivier, Dustin Hoffman, and others. Burton provides insight into the industry he avers he would have quit but for a life style that, in 1968, required a million dollars annually for “living and overheads, yacht and crew, plane and pilots, secretaries and staff chauffeurs.”
While Burton rejoiced in giving Liz extraordinary baubles, it is his favorites among the gifts he received that reveal the man. Being given the complete Everyman Library thrilled him, while Liz’s gift of three sets (one for each home, plus the yacht) of the just-released microprint Oxford English Dictionary made him dance like a boy getting his first bike. Apart from Liz herself, books were the great love of his life, and the diary is filled with his thoughtful appreciations of authors as diverse as Shakespeare, le Carre, and Waugh. Biographies were a particular passion.
As compared to a memoir, what a diary gains in terms of spontaneity must be offset by redundancy and a lack of craft. While it’s interesting to know that the Burtons enjoyed a good game of Yahtzee and titillating to read that Rex Harrison’s wife, Rachel, was an obnoxious full-time drunk, by the eighth or so reference one’s interest dwindles. As we might expect from Yale, the editor has provided enough background to contextualize the entries, explain gaps, and gloss topical references.
From his observations about literature, from some of his truly poetic descriptions of small moments in life such as sitting in an Italian trattoria listening to the voices of an unseen church choir drifting on the air “like an invisible mist,” from the honest insight that made him a severe judge of his own drinking, acting, and occasional cruelty to others, it is clear that he had a great memoir in him. Sober and healthy, could he have mustered the discipline to pen a masterpiece like Nabokov’s “Speak Memory,” or Mary Karr’s “The Liars’ Club?” His 1984 death at 58 deprives us of an answer.
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