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The Wretch Takes to Writing

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The biographer envies the physicist, who need only use numbers to observe and deduce the world from the smallest scraps and fragments. One may never fret over passing an equation on the tube platform, or catching a glimpse of a particle at the bookseller’s. It is not the biographer’s place to appear in the subject’s story. Certainly the two have a relationship, but it is separated, unidirectional, totally irrelevant to the one and wholly consuming to the other. The most successful biographer disappears behind her subject: it is the subject’s fame that must endure and grow by the light of the biographer’s desk lamp.

For the purpose of glorifying the biographer, this incident should never be made known; but for the fact that it happened to Orlando, and held some significance, however small, in Orlando’s life, it must be duly noted and patiently presented, whatever the biographer’s own objections.

This war came as close to home as Orlando had seen since she left Constantinople. The Mayfair house began to shake one night, while she was wrestling with her newest typewriter. She was determined to attempt a novel, though she found it infinitely more frustrating than poetry. How was it sustained? How was it shaped? How could she ensure the work was done, and perfect and proper? In a fury, she pounded upon the H key; at that moment, a house further down the street took several hundred pounds of explosives from above. Orlando cried out. It was only when she stepped outside to watch the airplanes razoring against the brown-gray sky that she saw the revelation was not a sensation born of the writer’s natural fevers.

She retreated to the country estate at once. Louise—it was Louise still, at that point—decried the three hundred and sixty-five empty rooms, and so Orlando, bending to the spirit of the age, which was democratic and patriotic both, began to accept the children who arrived at the train platform, labeled and bundled like hungry, spindly books. Though they were reviled by the groundskeepers and adored by the elkhounds, Orlando quickly realized how loud, and demanding, her many new charges were. She began to pine for the quiet of Hyde Park again, for she still longed to attempt and perfect a novel.

Orlando discovered the house on Curzon Street in pieces. All the books were ash, all the salon chairs that had supported so many luminaries char, all the fineries and comforts long since debris. The loss dismayed her: she had had no part in planning or anticipating it, though she had many times over walked away from things for which she had no more use. Knowing little what else to do, she took a suite of apartments in Knightsbridge, but bought almost nothing to fill them. (Rustrum el Sadi would scoff, of course, but she was not thinking of old Rustrum now. The men on the radio, perhaps, something were, for everything was rationed and limited now: no one could have all so that all might have some.)

But something must fill a space, and time. Orlando had always been partial to long walks, though in the past she had largely confined herself to the fashionable parts of town. Now she roamed farther and wider, into Southwark, Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, Eastcheap, Whitechapel. It was years since she’d been in the East End. She had worn a rapier, tumbled in treasure troves, explored with a Russian princess; they had watched a play in the streets, a lie, a pillow, a wailing Moor. Yet this was hardly the landscape she’d walked in Elizabeth’s time. London reminded her of Turkey now—ruins, columns, pillars, piles, weeds in the summer, snowdrifts in the winter.

The walks were not so aimless: she began to realize she was on a quest. “A novel!” she exclaimed to herself, observing a fire watch captain shoveling cinders in a rectory. “Sasha!” she cried at a Home Guard lieutenant smoking a cigarette. She began to lose track of which was which, and which meant what. The quest consumed her wholly: only a scrim of confetti over the streets and buildings alerted her that the war had left, or ended, or gone into hiding again. Sasha had been a novel in the time of poetry; Orlando understood that now. Any creature for whom the world is not ready is bound by her nature to break hearts.

It was the middle of the twentieth century. The winter was cold again, though not so cold that the birds fell out of the sky, or the sheep became stones, or the old bumboat woman could be seen at the bottom of the Thames. The rest of the city found little magic in such a horrid winter, and kept close to their coal fires, filling their furnaces with as much as they could afford. Evelyn Waugh said of London that it was “a city which was meant to be seen in a fog.” A fog indeed descended, thick, yellow-black and bilious. Orlando stopped—in front of a modest flat in Clapham, as it happened—when she realized she could no longer see five paces in front of her.

Orlando rang the bell. Her biographer opened the door and recognized her at once. Orlando apologized for intruding, but might she come in for a spot of tea until this pea souper blew through?

As the biographer led her inside, Orlando was perfectly docile, complimenting the flat’s cunning built-ins and unfashionable wallpaper. “Auden, Eliot, Pound,” she murmured (a continuous habit, changing but unbreakable). She ran her fingers along the spines set into one bookshelf. “But where are the novelists?”

The biographer was not much in the habit of reading novels, though she did keep a small selection of old favorites near the settee. Orlando took up the seat at once, crossing her ankles and peering at the titles. “I never played at King Pellinore as a boy,” she said, and was not questioned further, for King Pellinore and his obsession and courtesy are not much for a young person’s tastes. The biographer brought out the tea and sat on the edge of the nearest armchair. “I think I comprehend poetry,” Orlando said. “If I see it, and I feel it, then I may write about it, even if the words take years and years and years. I do not know what inspires a novel. I have been looking, but I am sure she is not in London.”

The biographer posited that poems, perhaps, were about emotions, and novels were about lives. Orlando asked what it was the biographer did, to which the biographer said that she studied lives, though she did not write novels. Orlando asked how the biographer chose what lives to study. The biographer demurred, and asked how Orlando chose what lives to live; it was, she added on reflection, a matter of what spoke to you, of who in all the world and of any time reflected what intrigued you about yourself.

“Yourself?” Orlando exclaimed. “What a mess!”

The biographer agreed, and lifted her teacup off the saucer, which was clattering in her hand. It is a mess, but it fills time, and a space. The task of recording and ordering such a thing may feel impossible, and it may take years, but that is no real deterrent; it may be accomplished, and ought to be.

Orlando made a noncommittal noise and turned to stare out the window, for all the good it would do her. The biographer stirred her tea. She considered Orlando’s words, and what they had drawn out from her. It was strange to sit with the subject, after the many years she had spent with Orlando. How dearly had she wished, during many long nights in dusty stacks and drafty archives, that Orlando would have recorded more of that life which had so enraptured its student? How often had she wished, as she pored over crumbling letters, to shake Orlando by the shoulders and steer the aimless soul some way that would spare all a little grief? How bluntly to be reminded so that Orlando was not made of traces and ink!

“You are very sure of yourself,” said Orlando suddenly. “Your home is so comfortable.”

The biographer thanked her.

“Have you written many biographies?”

The biographer said that she hoped to write more, though she had not yet found a new subject as engaging as the first.

Orlando did not sigh. She was very modern about her bearings. “I have desired inspiration,” she said, as though she was the only one in the room. “I have cultivated desire more than inspiration itself. No wonder she will not see me.”

The biographer balanced her saucer on her knee. “Perhaps,” she said, after weighing whether she should interfere to the greatest extent of all, “you must choose the next life you will lead.”

Orlando said that she thought the biographer was just speaking poetically. “But,” she said, and when she smiled, the biographer could see river-skating and wild geese and secret conversations in French, “some people are meant to be different things than poetry.”

The physicist should envy the biographer. What particle will come through war, through ages, through queens and kings and nomads and nobility, through the love of men and women and those who live as themselves, through sea voyages and wedding rings and coffee house wits, through wielding swords and ankles alike, through critics and cotton sheets and ships that steal away what is loved, through all the many hues and forms of its kind—what particle will show the observer how it will one day change, as it always has, and comprehend itself?