Dear Diary

Dear Diary,

Someone told me that you resemble a series of unsent letters addressed to the idea of a possible book. 

Although you aren’t technically an epistle, you resembles the epistolary form in its relation to time, and the intimate nature of its address, as shown in Paul Auster’s writing that troubles the division between these two forms by blurring the idea of an interlocutor. Speaking of interlocutors, Lydia Davis’ novel, The End of the Story, is about a love affair with a writer 12 years younger than the speaker. Here is how Julie Tanner describes the book:

A short story that outgrew its bounds, the novel is about a relationship between a woman and a younger man, now broken up, framed via the narrator who is trying to write about the relationship. The narrator is at first obsessed with the relationship but becomes increasingly distracted, confounded, and stimulated by the challenge of narrating it. The title of the novel reflects this progression, where the referent for “end” is always in question; the relationship is already over at the outset but nonetheless spills into the present tense of writing, while the meta-novel has no end in sight and wobbles at every suggestion of its necessary conclusion. 

Davis even describes her own translations in progress while narrating this novel– it’s difficult to imagine the speaker isn’t Davis, herself. And maybe this is what the best fiction does, namely, convince us that the speaker could not be anyone else by seducing us into believing they are divulging a truth or a secret about the world, as they know it. 

The speaker of Davis’ novel gets a letter from the ex-lover, and the book begins with that letter. But the letter isn’t actually a letter. To quote the book:

“I wrote all this in the form of a story because that seemed as impersonal as his poem,” Davis writes. The reference to his “letter,” however, makes the entire novel very personal— we are plunged into the personal almost immediately. 

French novelist Annie Ernaux does something similar with Getting Lost, a book classified as “biography-memoir/literary fiction.” When journaling about her love affair with a married Soviet diplomat, Ernaux admits: “I’ve always talked about myself to someone, right from the start.” All her writing—whether notebook, novel, or novella—has been a dialogue with a certain version of self that existed in time. Getting Lost is, according to the author’s preface, simply the dated journal she kept during the love affair, a journal she typed and submitted to her publisher “without changing a word.” 

Diary, I don’t believe Ernaux didn’t change a word. Instead, I believe she wrote a novel in diary form, a modified epistolary from the self who was involved in a passionate love affair to the self who read it after the affair ended. 

Maybe, dear diary, you are something like a box of unsent letters with a spine. And there is something devastating about unsent letters—like an encounter that was prevented from happening—since existence has been deprived of that encounter, that event, that dialogue. Maybe I never got over Edwidge Danticat’s story, “Children of the Sea”, which moves forward through letters written by young Haitian dissidents fleeing the dictator in Haiti. Written in the middle of an ocean, penned in flight, these letters cannot be mailed. “They say behind the mountains are more mountains,” Danticat begins, and this symbol of mountains, of things hiding beneath things, is carried through the story as voices change and letters disappear. 

To review myself, the epistolary posits separation or distance as a central tension, as well as a mystery (i.e. why are the speakers apart?). The writer doesn’t have to stage the scene or build in transitions because time takes care of itself in the letter or diary—chronology is built into the motion and development, whether by the date at the top of the letter, the space between letters, and the decision to subvert the expectation of a date, as in Edwidge Danticat‘s work. In epistles, fragments are sturdy and reliable. In epistolaries, the most tragic letters are those which go unread, unsent, undelivered, unseen.