The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks. Revised Edition (1966) by Robertson Davies

– II –

Sunday: An amateur astrologer told me last night that I am unduly critical, and should try to develop more benevolence toward mankind. Today, therefore, I went about beaming benevolently on everyone I met, and was greeted with scowls and rebuffs by most of them. The plain fact is that most Canadians dislike and mistrust any great show of cheerfulness. If a man were to sing in the street he would probably end up in jail; if he sang at his work the efficiency expert would ask him to come to his office for a frank talk. The way to impress your boss is to look glum all the time. He may mistake this for intelligence and give you a raise. The same thing holds true in politics: he who laughs is lost.

Monday: Was chatting with a man who has been suffering from bad dreams, which he erroneously describes as nightmares. As I understand the matter the only genuine nightmare is the sort of dream in which you suffer from increasing dread and shortness of breath, accompanied by pressure on the chest, until it seems that you must either throw off the weight or be smothered; it is at this point that you find yourself sitting bolt upright, screaming blue murder. If you don’t you are probably found in your bed in the morning, quite cold and stiff. I have only had nightmares once or twice in my life, and many people never have them at all. Bad dreams, however, are common with me, and I rather welcome them, as they break the monotony of the long hours of sluggish slumber. . . A psychologist once tried to attach significance to my bad dreams, but I did not play quite fair with him, for I withheld from him one relevant fact, i.e., that I never go to bed without having a bite to eat, and my digestion sometimes gives me bad dreams even when I am wide awake. Of course, my nightly snack may merely act as a porter who throws open the gates of my repulsive Unconscious, letting all the bugaboos and hobgoblins out for a frolic, but frankly I don’t care. Better a bad dream than no dream at all.

Tuesday: A child asked me to mend her doll today; it has broken up into a trunk, a head and four limbs, like a country with too many parties. I gave her the usual speech about my inability to mend anything, and then set to work. It was a gruesome experience, reminiscent of the scene in Mrs. Shelley’s romance where Frankenstein puts together his monster out of bits of slaughter-house waste. But more by good luck than good management I outfitted the doll with new entrails made of strong string, and tightened these by winding one leg around for twenty-three revolutions. Now the doll is better than new, for it kicks, twists and squirms like a real infant. . . This evening heard Carmen on the radio, and reflected how hard it was to vamp a man while singing at the top of one’s voice. That is the operatic problem; the singer must keep up a big head of steam while trying to appear secretive, or seductive, or consumptive. Some ingenious composer should write an opera about a group of people who were condemned by a cruel god to scream all the time; it would be an instantaneous success, and a triumph of verisimilitude.

Wednesday: As I want to get the remainder of my winter’s coal in tomorrow, I had to shovel my drive today; it has not been touched since the first snowfall, and this was no task for a child; it was no task for a hypochondriacal diarist, either, but I tackled it with the valour of ignorance. In ten minutes I was sweating freely, in spite of a cutting wind. After twenty minutes I could think of nothing except a recent warning by a coroner that shovelling heavy snow was a good way to bring on a stroke. After half an hour I had what I am certain was a slight stroke, and went inside for a dose of a special stroke-medicine which I keep. It did me a lot of good, and after that I took stroke-medicine every half hour regularly. As a result I finished my drive magnificently and did not have even a touch of stiffness from the unusual exercise. I know plenty of people who would have been as stiff as frozen mackerel if they had done what I did, the way I did it.

Thursday: My coal came today, and went into the bin with the usual amount of banging and thumping. A fine black dust settled on everything in the house, and when I looked in a mirror inadvertently, I was startled to see that I had been metamorphosed into a blackamoor. . . Then I went down into the cellar, and addressed my furnace in these words: “O Furnace (I always model my speeches to my furnace on Cicero’s orations). . . O Furnace, three winter months having now gone by and the Yuletide and New Year seasons having been completed I, Marcus Tullius Marchbanks, have purchased all the coal, wood, coke, charcoal and kindred combustibles that I intend (to purchase, understood). Look to it, Furnace, for I shall feed you justly, but not wastefully, and if it should so hap that when all these good things are gone the gods still send us inclement weather, I shall cram your maw with broken chairs and cardboard boxes, but not another morsel of coal will I buy. Witness, O ye gods of the household, and you, O Furnace, that M. Tullius Marchbanks will throw himself upon his poker and perish before he will spend another denarius on coal.”. . . The furnace was impressed and roared politely, but there was a faint contemptuous smell of coal gas when I went to bed.

Friday: Read too long and too much today, resulting in a severe attack of the Miseries. Reading is a form of indulgence, like eating and smoking. Some men smoke heavily and some drink heavily; I read heavily, and sometimes I have the most awful hangovers. Tobacco manufacturers, I understand, hire men to make continual tests of their product, and these poor wretches get shaky hands and tobacco hearts, and when they take a bath nicotine comes out of their skins into the water. It is the same with whisky-testers. Well, I am a book-tester and I have an occupational disease, which is called the Miseries. . . To make matters worse, I ate an apple and got hiccups, and was convulsed three times a minute for almost an hour. Hiccups are very funny to everyone but the man who has them. To have the Miseries and hiccups together is to drain a bitter cup. Bup!

Saturday: This afternoon climbed out on the roof of my verandah and shovelled snow down into the garden; it had piled up to the point where I could hardly get my bedroom window open, and although I am no fanatic for fresh air it is convenient to be able to hurl slops into the road, or lean out and shout “Who’s there?” at late callers. I become dizzy when standing on a soapbox; the roof of a verandah is as high as the Eiffel Tower to me. Consequently I did my shovelling with the utmost caution and paused now and then to cling to the wall with my eyes shut, recovering my balance. Knocked down several icicles and was interested to find how sharp they were. If ever I decide to murder somebody, I shall stab him with an icicle, which will melt, destroying my fingerprints and all traces of the weapon. The melted ice will mingle with the victim’s blood, and I shall go to his funeral in that state of profound satisfaction which we all feel when we have done something dangerous and illegal without being caught.

– III –

Sunday: Pursuing my policy of “See Your Home First” I investigated my heating system today, trying to find out why one room which I use a great deal never gets any heat. I took the face off the hot air register, lay on my stomach and groped; soon I fished up a large mass of shredded paper, pencil shavings, old bridge tallies, sawdust and other rubbish, which some former occupant had used to block off that room. This impressed me as a very subtle way of starting a fire, and I determined to search further, so I inserted as much of myself as I could into the bathroom register, and salvaged 32 used razor blades, a large piece of stick, and a thimble in good condition. I was now aroused; it was a forbear of mine, Gaston l’Immerdue Marchbanks, who mapped the sewers of Paris for Napoleon; therefore I investigated a cold-air pipe near the telephone, and recovered a great gross of pencil stubs. Next spring I must dismantle my whole heating system, to see what I can find.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson