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Must Read Voraciously to Improve Style: The Secret Diary of Sophie Benbelaid, Aged 20 ⅗

Illustration by Loveday Pride

I’m sure the past two weeks have been filled with tears, both the proverbial and physical, for all of us. For you, my devoted readers, because – alas! – there was no Must Read Voraciously to grace your screens; for me because Moscow is set for a partial lockdown. Now is as good a time as any to locate one’s creature comforts and cling onto it as if your life depends upon it and for me, this takes the form of Sue Townsend’s masterpiece The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾.

Now I know what you’re thinking – hasn’t Sophie already written an article about her comfort book; wow, she must be running out of ideas… Wrong on both counts, comrades of mine, for Adrian Mole isn’t a comfort book, but rather a permanent fixture of my soul. If you haven’t read this book, quite frankly, you’ve never lived… never known true joy or utter childish glee. This book has accompanied me throughout all eras of my life: late primary school years, a friend’s 13th birthday party where I read instead of swimming, a suffocating summer of 40 degrees in a landlocked country. It has also rightfully weaselled its way into uni life: I will scream its praises to anyone who dares violate my personal space and forsake social distancing. And if that isn’t convincing proof of our soulmate-ness, please bear in mind that Adrian and I have the same star sign.

Adrian Mole is a collection of witty diary entries of an adolescent boy in the early 80s in Britain as he navigates puberty and, mistakenly believing himself to be an intellectual, boldly misinterprets events around him, be they social, political, literary, or simply what’s happening in his everyday life. I’ve never encountered a genius of Townsend’s calibre. To not only accurately portray the inner workings of a teenager’s mind in such a universal way that remains relevant decades later, without seeming cringe-y, is already demonstrative of ridiculous talent. But to be able to convincingly write as a 13-year-old boy as a middle-aged woman is something which continually leaves her dedicated readers in deserved awe.

Perhaps in a somewhat embarrassing admission, no matter my age, I always see myself in this pseudo-intellectual, prepubescent 13-year-old boy. And for that I am eternally grateful, because sometimes you need some of that levity, wit, and angst that is so self-centred it practically ignores what horrors are actually taking place in the world around you. Let’s embrace the Mole spirit some more, shall we, and look at some of the gems of Adrian’s mind.

The first is in the form of a rejection letter from a certain John Tydeman in response to the poems Adrian sent to be published at the BBC: ‘Since you wish to follow a literary career, I suggest you will need to develop a thick skin in order to accept many of the inevitable future rejections you may receive with good grace and the minimum of personal pain’. While other people’s daily affirmations include manifesting happiness or wealth, Tydeman’s astute observation about thick skin and good grace has been my mantra as the rejection emails for various internships in Paris roll in.

The second is when Adrian correctly comments: ‘Reasons for not living: You die anyway. Life is nothing but anguish. Reasons for living: Things might get better’. I can confirm that trying to communicate with agents from Student Finance England while in Moscow and constantly being disconnected was a three-hour source of anguish. Things did not, in fact, get better, but I had an article to write and a dramatic journalistic comeback to stage.

The third is the short and sweet: ‘Finished War and Peace. It was quite good.’ While my Russian tutors might consider this a gross oversimplification of a phenomenal work, after reading a whole fifth, I too can testify that it is simply quite good.

The fourth is the essential: ‘Why couldn’t I have been born Prince Edward and Prince Edward been born Adrian Mole? I am treated like a serf.’ Ignoring the royal remark, evidently Tolstoy’s discussion of serfdom left its mark on both Adrian and me. I too share the feeling of being treated like a serf every day as I brace the sub-zero temperatures to my freezing office with its broken heating system to be given an exorbitant number of pages to translate in a single week.

The fifth is the literarily profound ‘I am reading Madame Bovary by another frog writer’ which is exactly how I intend to open my essay on it when I’ll have to write a Flaubert special author paper in a year’s time.

And finally, the reverently humble statement ‘None of the teachers at school have noticed that I am an intellectual. They will be sorry when I am famous.’ This remains every bit as true now when fellow metro commuters don’t regard me with awe when I whip out my hardback Anna Karenina and read a sentence in Russian, as it was in primary school when I was not duly deified for dressing up as Cathy Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights on World Book Day in year 4. Look at me now! Things come up when you type my name into Google! Instagram followers who?

But all joshing aside, if you look beyond Adrian’s hilarious remarks, hormone-fuelled infatuation with Pandora, his classmate, and the engaging plotline, what Townsend leaves us with is essentially a tale of resilience. Persevering when your love isn’t at first requited. Preserving when your shallow poems are rejected by the BBC – because what do they know anyway? Persevering through school troubles, money troubles, family troubles. Persevering through social turmoil. And somehow ending up on the other end of it fairly unscathed and without losing any of the uniqueness of your character. So, lovely readers, never lose touch with the pseudo-intellectual, prepubescent 13-year-old boy inside all of us, because I can guarantee that Adrian Mole will see you through any and all hardship.