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! The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed Robert Latham & William Matthews (1660-69, 11 Vols), HarperCollins £8.99 or £9.99.

Everyone fantasises about being a great diarist. It may be clearly delusive that we all have a novel in us, but surely there's a pretty good Journal Intime here, if only I could find the time to sit down and disgorge the fascinating details of my daily round. It's another delusion, of course. The diary talent is improvisatory and you've got to be born with it. The way Satchmo handled his trumpet and Picasso his pencil, so Pepys took to his diary.

Latham and Matthews's Pepys, the first unexpurgated edition, appeared between 1970 and 1983 and is now published for the first time in paperback. It shows the monumental and everlasting greatness of the work. Covering almost a decade in the life of the young Navy Office bureaucrat, who rose in the world from being worth just £25 at the age of 29 to having liquid savings of at least £7,000 (maybe £700,000 today) nine and a half years later, the Diary traces all conceivable aspects of Pepys's private and public life. These include his sexual fantasies, dreams, fears, in-fidelities; the food and drink that passed his lips; the fellowship and conversation he delighted in; the foolishness in others which affronted him; his egoism, tenderness, hypocrisy, rectitude, loyalty, scepticism, generosity, meanness - the entire rattlebag of human contradiction.

Pepys's Diary is famous for its comic navety, as well as for bawdy, so that our first reaction is likely to come close to our feelings about Tristram Shandy's Uncle Toby or one of Shakespeare's rude mechanicals. But as you get to know him better, your appreciation deepens and Pepys begins to take on the character of an Everyman. As his modern biographer Richard Ollard says, "like Ulysses he was a part of all that he had met". And like another Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, Pepys has an untutored curiosity about everything, a desire for self-improvement and an unselfconscious pleasure in human company. Indeed he resembles Bloom more than any other figure in literature, and it is tempting to think this is only because his colloquial, penny-plain English reads like Joyce's stream-of-consciousness technique, bumping randomly from perception to perception according to the chances of everyday.

The difference, you might think, is that while Joyce did this on purpose, Pepys produced it as the natural by-product of his daily entries. Latham and Matthews's long and excellent introduction to Volume 1 shows how wrong this is. The Diary, neatly entered in its Shelton's shorthand, is a self- conscious piece of writing, fair-copied from notes sometimes as much as a week after the events described. It was lovingly bound, preserved and bequeathed to his old college with his large library, where it lay undisturbed for more than a century - a piece of self-portraiture as minute, candid and particular as any that a writer has ever achieved. Later in life, Pepys awarded himself a Ciceronian motto - Mens cujusque est quisque, a man is as his mind is. The choice suggests that he well knew the importance of his Diary.

It has as many pages in print as The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but there the resemblance most firmly ends. Pepys may be long; he's anything but long-winded. In fact his prose is almost obsessively simple and presents surprisingly few problems (and a lot of delight) to the modern reader: "And so home and to bed, with some pain in making water, having taken cold this morning in staying too long bare-legged to pare my cornes." Or: "Prince Robert doth nothing but swear and laugh a little, with an oath or two, and that's all he doth." Or: "Up, finding our beds good but we lousy; which made us merry." Considering that Pepys was classically educated (St Paul's School and Magdalene College, Cambridge), and a Civil Servant at that, his unadorned mode of expression is surprising. In fact, he could if he wanted bring Memo-Mandarin to bear with the best of them. In one late broadside from the Admiralty, in his very eminent post-Diary years, he sounds like this: "the King has thought fit in this and numberless other particulars to limit us in the dispensing of his stores, and those limits grounded upon measures not left to us to contrevert..." They talk in much these terms down at the DSS today, but Pepys never uses the tone in his Diary.

To get an even better idea of the spriteliness of Pepys the diarist, compare the only possible local rival in these stakes, his friend John Evelyn. Considering the Great Fire of London, Evelyn piles up the syllables as his indignation mounts towards "... the late dreadful conflagration, added to the plague and war - the most dismal judgements that could be inflicted, but which indeed we deserved for our prodigious ingratitude, burning lusts, dissolute court, profane and abominable lives." Pepys, also just after the Fire, and no stranger to burning lusts himself, acknowledges the possibility of God's vengeance but protects himself with flippancy. "The church infinitely thronged with strangers since the fire came into our parish," he writes, "but not one handsome face in all of them, as if indeed there was a curse, as Bishop Fuller heretofore said, upon our parish."

Despite his manifest anxieties - political, social, medical, financial and sexual - Pepys can always enjoy himself and deflect unpleasantness. This leads to surprising juxtapositions, as when, during the worst days of the Plague Year, he goes "by water, at night late, to Sir G Carteret's. But, there being no oars to carry me, I was fain to call a sculler that had a gentleman already in it; and he proved a man of love to musique, and he and I sung together the way down with great pleasure ... Above 700 died of the plague this week."

Pepys's other attractive qualities are his shrewd judgement of others and his liberal mentality. Turning out in the crowd for the arrival of the Russian ambassadors and their retinue in 1662 - "in their habits and fur caps very handsome comely men" - he observes "but Lord, to see the absurd nature of Englishmen, that cannot forbear laughing and jeering at everything that looks strange." Not, one feels, a Eurosceptic cast of mind.

This is a remarkable edition. Nine volumes cover a calendar year apiece while volume 10, the Companion, is a cyclopaedia of 17th-century London, with biographies of people mentioned in the text and articles on money, music, art and other matters close to Pepys's heart. Volume 11 is a fine index. The paperbacks are produced to last, even printed on acid-free stock, and are very highly recommended.

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