Writers incline to solipsism, and I’m no exception. To write is to presume that your words matter to others, and this places you at the center of the universe you’re describing, with its sun, its Earth—to say nothing of the small potatoes of associated planets—revolving around your person. Thus the Copernican in me ever wrestles the geocentric, and one of the ways in which this happens is through the medium of Google. An hour of looking oneself up on the internet every couple of months both furnishes damning evidence of one’s marginality and seductively reaffirms one’s centrality.
The method has something of a bonus attaching to it—namely, that all of a sudden the writer finds himself in medias res, in the ebb and flow of somebody else’s story, and watching his own presence cast a shadow over another, unfamiliar author’s narrative is a bit like seeing a character in one’s own novel come to life, stop its progenitor in the street, and ask for directions. And so I must apologize for the lengthy quotations that follow. Bear in mind that, to my eyes, these are scenes from a roman à clef of which I have neither beginning nor end, just the middle part courtesy of Google. All I can tell you is that its title is Air-Bird in the Water: The Life and Works of Pearl Craigie, that its author’s name is Mildred Harding, and that the book was published 20 years ago by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
On hearing my tale of Pearl Craigie over a euphoric lunch in London, Andrei Navrozov (poet, critic, former editor of Yale Literary Magazine, at that time London correspondent for Chronicles, an American magazine) urged, “Write that down and send it to me immediately!”—with the result that, a few weeks later, my plea for Craigie/Hobbes’s resurrection appeared in Chronicles.
To say that I remember nothing of this may well be the understatement of the decade. These events must have taken place—gosh, would anyone have bothered to invent them?—in the 1980’s, but I have no recollection of a woman named Harding; there’s no trace in my memory of that euphoric lunch; and I can’t recall pestering Tom Fleming to publish a plea for anybody’s resurrection. In fact, I can’t even say with confidence that I’ve heard of Pearl Craigie, who, as the publisher’s blurb informs me, was an American-born English author of the Victorian era writing novels and plays under the pen name of John Oliver Hobbes.
Alexandra Hardy, a dynamic literary agent in London, read that Chronicles article in typescript (shown to her by a friend of mine), saw in it the potential for a full-length biography, invited me to London to discuss possibilities, urged me, when I called on her there, to write and send to her within ten days a five-part document that she could show to publishers, and, when I did, was prevented from presenting it only by my having to leave Britain immediately—disappointed, yes, but invigorated by Xandra’s confidence in me and enthusiasm about my subject. Anne Watkin-Jones, my Welsh friend in Aberystwyth, typed both the Chronicles article and the long presentation document outside her working hours and under great pressure, and would accept no pay: “It’s for Pearl Craigie,” she said, “and for friendship.”
What to make of all that? Of all that dynamism, confidence, enthusiasm? It is as though I’m looking through a keyhole—the very one, perhaps, that the clef of this roman à clef was cut to fit—at some Lilliputian, distant, unfamiliar world that, without fear of consequences, I’d had a hand in creating. The characters are like so many ants—dynamic Alexandra Hardy, generous Anne Watkin-Jones, voluble Andrei Navrozov, stalwart Mildred Harding, even neglected Pearl Craigie herself—scurrying up and down the moonlike expanse of bituminous bark, and Heaven only knows what they’re all up to and why. So when Harding notes that her heroine
was well acquainted with and much admired by a host of authors, including The Yellow Book group (Henry Harland, Arthur Symonds, Max Beerbohm), Henry James, Mrs. Humphry Ward, Meredith, Hardy, and—in a long, turbulent relationship—George Moore,
the literary presences invoked by her—no less antlike than those that have come before them—do little more than communicate to me the futility of all human striving. Henry Harland, Henry James, George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, Alexandra Hardy, Mildred Harding, and the “It’s for Pearl Craigie” woman from Aberystwyth—yes, Heaven only knows what they were up to and why. Look at old Navrozov, with a euphoric lunch in London and that magisterial “Write that down and send it to me immediately!” of his, and now the confounded fool can’t remember the poor woman’s name—no, not even poor Miss Harding’s name, to say nothing of her subject’s.
As I write this, my wife is playing Rachmaninoff in the next room. The notes have no motives of their own, there’s no vanity to their upward striving, and this is why she has no trouble remembering them, I suppose, in all their sequent glittering swarms. How different from human beings, as Ecclesiastes was perhaps the first to observe.
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