Pevsner kept diaries for over sixty years. For the first six of these years, between the ages of 12 and 18, before he had other and larger projects to catalogue, he not only wrote the diaries every day but kept minutely detailed indexes to what he had written, almost more revealing than the entries themselves.
‘Abhorrence of a vacuum’ is followed by ‘longing for a brown complexion’, ‘nailbiting’ and ‘the first drink’. ‘Pevsner the poseur’ is counterbalanced by ‘dealings with his conscience’. His views on ‘the coming rise of the proletariat’ sit side by side with thoughts on the relative merits of trousers and bare legs. He both confesses his fear of having no talent as a scholar and congratulates himself on his new-found self-assurance. This blog will aim, like the diaries, to provide insights into Pevsner’s character as well as angles on his work. But it won’t be indexed and the entries will come in no particular logical or chronological order.
The reading list
Some early clues to his interests. He thought it was worth the effort to make a list of what he had been reading: Thomas Mann above all, Goethe, Schiller, Schopenhauer, Strindberg, Dostoevsky — not many laughs here — but also Longfellow, Poe, Molière, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, George Bernard Shaw and Shelley. In contrast with the Buildings of England years, when he complained that he never read a novel at all, the young Pevsner seems to have tried to keep up with recent fiction as well, some of it racier than one might have expected.
Danish novelist Herman Bang was described by Monet as ‘the first impressionist author in the world’; his novel Families Without Hope (1880), centred on a young man’s love affair with an older woman, was banned. Peter Altenberg, Austrian poet and essayist, an influential member of the ‘Young Vienna’ movement, was a professional bohemian given to aphorisms very likely to appeal to a teenage diarist: There is only one thing indecent with nakedness, and that is to find nakedness indecent, Art is life, life is life, but to lead life artistically is the art of life, and so on.
The poet Richard Dehmel (author of the poem which Schoenberg set to music as ‘Verklärte Nacht’) was another author to cause a scandal through his championing of sex as the weapon with which to break the bonds of bourgeois morality. Arnold Zweig was an anti-war activist, Frank Wedekind a satirist and cabaret artist who had gone to prison at the turn of the century for lèse-majesté. Arthur Schnitzler had just written a play – Professor Bernhardi (1912) – attacking anti-semitism, and was one of the first writers in German (he was Austrian) to experiment with the stream-of-consciousness narrative.
Theodor Storm had been consumed by his love for a very young girl – an echo, perhaps, for the sixteen-year-old Pevsner of his love for the fourteen-year-old Lola. Storm believed in the therapeutic effect of reminiscences: hard to know if Pevsner found his diaries therapeutic, but they were a habit that he would find very hard to break.