Several years ago, I started taking a book to bed every night. It was only a matter of time before I couldn't go to sleep without one. But I discovered early on that not any old book will do.
Bad and boring books are out, obviously, as well as opinionated tomes with irritating attitudes. Why go to bed with a book you don't like? You can stick with your favorite authors, of course, but even there you must pick and choose. Charles Dickens is too dense for bedtime reading. John Updike is too demanding, and Raymond Carver too sad.
At first, I was shamelessly promiscuous, picking up a book here, a book there. But after a few one-night stands with Jay McInerney and David Foster Wallace, not to mention a brief fling with John Grisham, I began to yearn for stability and commitment. I wanted a book I could depend on, one that would last. I finally found it at home, just waiting to be discovered in a back-hall bookcase. It was the Journal of Arnold Bennett.
Exciting? Of course not. It's easy, episodic, entertaining, rich in detail; a book that can be picked up or put down at any point. Margaret Drabble, who wrote a biography of Bennett, described him as someone who would be an ideal friend, and reading his journal, you feel that. You like him, you enjoy his company. And the journal (1,030 pages in its abridged version) is always there, ready to oblige.
It begins in 1896 when Bennett was a young man in London, an assistant editor with literary ambitions, and ends in 1928, three years before his death, when he was one of the most successful authors of his time. Work is a theme that runs throughout. In 1896, he recorded a conversation with a man who wondered whether he or Bennett was the more energetic. "I get up at six, go out for a walk...." His program continued, alternating work and exercise, until 11 p.m. "Well," Bennett said, "that's very good indeed. How long have you been doing that?" "Oh!" the other man said. "I'm going to start in the morning!"
And this, in 1928. "Terrific day. The best I have done for years. Nearly 5000 words. I dined at the Savoy. The millionaire owner of a number of newspapers came up to me....He said he wanted some really good stuff for newspaper X. I said I had too much to do. He said he worked harder than I did. I said: 'You don't!' 'Don't?' said he. 'Don't,' said I....I gazed at him. His eye fell."
Bennett writes about travel, books, literary life, good times and bad, friends unknown and famous. He describes the fat woman he saw at a restaurant, who was the inspiration for his masterpiece, The Old Wives' Tale. He explains the inner workings of luxury hotels, ocean liners and play production. There is no shortage of wonderful little moments.
Like the one in 1917, when Bennett met, at a dinner party, "the ultra-blonde Danish dancer Karina and her husband Captain Janssen....Karina ran over Janssen in her auto and broke both his legs, and then married him. He looks after Karina so completely that he even cuts out leather for her shoes. She is very pretty and agreeable. I sat next to her and enjoyed it."
Bennett was himself a bedtime reader. An entry dated May 23, 1926, on Dreiser's An American Tragedy: "The mere writing is simply bloody — careless, clumsy, terrible. But there is power, and he holds you....The book quite woke me up last night, just as I was going off to sleep."
At the end of many a year he adds up his work. On December 31, 1907, for instance, the list included two cowritten novels, seven short stories and the "first part of The Old Wives' Tale. About 46 newspaper articles. And my journal. Also my play, Cupid and Common Sense, and scenario of a new humorous novel....Grand total: 375,000 words."
Just reading such a list produces a warm feeling of gentle weariness. Good night, Arnold.