‘Reading myself into a stupor’ – On the diaries of Richard Burton

war of the worlds cylinderLast month I unexpectedly caught the BBC Four drama ‘Burton and Taylor’, about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s ill-fated 1983 run in the play Private Lives. I don’t know how accurate it was, but as a piece of fiction I really enjoyed it. Burton has been a presence in my life for as long as I can remember – I blame my dad, who bought Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds album (which featured Burton as narrator) when it first came out. He would play it most Sunday mornings when I was a kid, and I still get the sweats when I listen to the part when the Martian spacecraft opens, and we first catch sight of the alien. It’s as if I’m right there, looking over Burton’s shoulder, looking towards ‘a huge, rounded bulk, larger than a bear – its skin glistening like wet leather.‘ Brrrrrrrr…

He did have the most magnificent voice, although as Dominic West (playing Burton) commented in the drama, ‘it’s the theatrical equivalent of having a big cock. Everyone loves it, but it doesn’t make you a great lover per se.’ Well, quite. But what also intrigued me about Burton were his literary interests, explored in a short film shown straight after ‘Burton and Taylor’, and which concerned his diaries which are now held (along with the rest of his personal archive) at the University of Swansea.

The diaries were published in their entirety last year, and I spent a very happy hour at my local library leafing through a copy (all page references below are from the hardback edition of The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams). What’s fascinating is how they highlight Burton’s voraciousness as a reader:  ‘Friday 1 October 1971. Have read myself into a stupor and practically a standstill. I tried all kinds of books last night and settled for thinking instead after throwing them all aside.’ (p. 479)

This was written during a trip to Sarajevo, where Burton was making ‘The Battle of Sutjeska’, a WW2 film in which – bizarrely – he played the Yugoslav dictator Marshal Tito (whom Burton met whilst staying in the country). Evidently, there was a lot of spare time between filming, and without Elizabeth Taylor to keep him company Burton spent a lot of that time reading.

Whilst there, he was fortunate to find an English language bookshop, ‘right near the University. There were many volumes… and to my delight two Rex Stouts which I don’t think I’ve read… Also two Ngaio Marsh and The Confidence Man by Herman Melville which I’ve never read.’ (p. 477). Burton is quick to start on the Stout novels – he describes the following day thus: ‘Ate many sweetmeats and drank much water and read Nero Wolfe. He writes so urbanely that after a diet of ordinary thriller writers he cuts the palate with a nice astringency, a neat pungency.’ (p. 477)

As the diaries show, Burton had an intriguing relationship with crime fiction – despite reading widely within and commenting sensitively upon it, he had a low opinion of the genre. ‘I don’t think I could write a thriller. I don’t think I want to even if I could. Such books are meant to be read, not written. Read fast and quickly forgotten and therefore readable again in a couple of years.‘ (p. 384) And especially if you’re drinking heavily, as Burton did throughout much of his life.

richard-burtonBut this outward cynicism didn’t stop Burton from devouring dozens of crime novels. He was particularly fond of John D. MacDonald (whose vivid titles also haunt my childhood), who he describes as ‘a very competent American writer… He is one of those prolific writers like Simenon and Erle Stanley Gardner and so on who seem to turn out a book a month. Macdonald is a cut above most however and tries to be unsentimentally tough about the decaying morality and mass-production-mania and advertising nightmare of the American way of life.(p.383)

Burton’s tastes also extended to non-fiction, and he describes Robin Moore’s The French Connection (source material for the subsequent Gene Hackman film) as ‘not very well written but informative, and though written with the co-operation of the NY Police Department showed the police up in an unattractive light. They seem to be so stupid… The only reason they were successful in this particular case was, it seems to me, because the criminals were equally stupid.’ (p.477)

Burton’s passion for books was well matched in Taylor, who the diaries show to be as keen a reader as he was. There’s also a competitive element visible here: ‘Monday 4 October 1971. E is a much cleverer reader than I am… I remember giving her The Murder of Roger Ackroyd of A. Christie and telling her that she would never guess the murderer. She got it at the end of the second or third chapter. I was amazed and furious.‘ (p. 481)

If, like me, you’re fascinated by what other people read, I’d recommend The Richard Burton Diaries for this reason alone – although there’s much more here to enjoy, for anyone with even a passing interest in the actor. His literary interests and ambitions shine through, and it’s poignant to speculate about what Burton might have written beyond his diaries, had he not died at the early age of 58 in 1984.

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