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Douglas Nordfors

To Bloomsbury and Back


“Two unfavorable reviews of Mrs. D (Western Mail and Scotsman); unintelligible, not art, etc., and a letter from a young man in Earl’s Court. ‘This time you have done it—you have caught life and put it in a book…’”

                                         Virginia Woolf, Diary, May 15, 1925


There was a knock on the door. He looked up from the piece of paper, the see-through window as blank as the blankness his eyes had left behind. His head bowed again, he told the unknown person to come in.

     No, not unknown, after all. Without looking at her, he could tell it was his landlady. An air of disapproval had wafted into his little world as if through a closed door, and the cause of it was, or had to be, all the books on the bookshelves and all the stacks of books at the feet of the bookshelves. She considered him too young to be overripe. He needed to have space on the bookshelves for a figurine or two, to have at least a little breathing space on the bookshelves for things that don’t breathe. Books were too alive. That had to be, or was, the essence of her disapproval.

     She was gone now, and he barely recalled the fact that she had suggested, almost demanded, that he pay someone to come in and clean. It wasn’t that he thought her perception of his home, of him, was wrong. He simply had no room in his head for anything except his determination to follow through on his promise to himself to bestow praise in humble words on a person he knew through her gutsy, spilling over, overbearing-to-fools words, a distant person who could nearly hear his thoughts worming their way, butterflying their way, through the nearly-touching bars of his ribcage and out through his skin as if through the rarefied, vertical surface of the earth.

     He almost started the letter by trying to get his not-so-humble thoughts down on paper in such a way that she wouldn’t long to see illustrations of a worm and a butterfly and a ribcage, not to mention the abstract, illogical surface of everyone’s home.

     Sensing failure, he wondered for a moment where the illustrations would go—somewhere in the side margins, or right above “Dear” and her first name and her animal-like last? And then he started the letter by simply saying a few things about his basically ordinary life—how he was working as a clerk on his way to becoming a solicitor, and how he was trying to adjust to life in London. He left out the fact that he had gone, like Jacob in “Jacob’s Room,” to Cambridge, because she hadn’t been able to go there, even though she had been able to write about what it was like to go there better than anyone, better even, in his opinion, than E.M. Forster in “The Longest Journey.”

     Because of what he had left out, he gave her some details about his life as a reader, after which he was able to transition smoothly into his impressions of her latest novel, “Mrs. Dalloway.” He covered that in a few sentences. He didn’t want to say too much, because he didn’t want to sound like he was struggling to communicate his impressions. He wasn’t writing, providing her with, a fairly long and beautifully struggling novel. He didn’t like the phrase, “This time you have done it,” since it implied that the predecessor to “Mrs. Dalloway,” “Jacob’s Room,” had failed in some way, which, in his opinion, wasn’t really true. It was just different than “Mrs. Dalloway,” still a little old-fashioned, Jacob sometimes being seen from above, rather than from within (author and character as one)—he wasn’t sure that he could describe it.

     After considering replacing the phrase with one that wouldn’t need qualification, he decided to leave it in, not only because crossing it out would mar the overall presentation, but also because it was nice to imagine her laughing at his brazenness, or just smiling, and not only smiling or laughing, but also believing that he had got the nature of her accomplishment exactly right. 

     By now, he just knew, her main concern was thinking ahead to the next time, the next germ of an idea, the next idea, the next life, the next book. He also didn’t like the word, “caught.” It sounded like “stopped.”

     The letter wasn’t done. He needed to express how much she meant to him beyond one book, how much her spirit had moved him and a small mass of others to go beyond great war, external blood, blood in the country and the world’s eyes, to go beyond the eyes and into the intellectually sensuous, altered, unmechanical brain.

     He looked up, saw the window, and felt as well as knew that he was on the ground floor, that he could fall from a non-lethal height and be out on the street and in the open air. No, he didn’t need to go. His unmechanical brain, his mind, could take him across London to where the Hogarth Press lived, as well as she and her husband, when they weren’t living in their house in Sussex (that he was able to know these things without having to form himself to a literary circle delighted him).  His head bowed again, he started to write again, and then stopped without feeling like he was stopping.




     He was out in the air and on the street, heading east, determined to walk all the way to Bloomsbury, his finished letter in an envelope in his hand. No, he wasn’t like a character in a novel. Rather, he was an anonymous being between the lines and streets and underground tunnels on a map that could fold itself and put itself away. It didn’t need his help. He was free, free even to imagine both Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith shell-shocked into contemplating the end, but not the end of a novel that he wasn’t a character in, both Septimus Warren Smith and Mrs. Dalloway drawn toward giving frivolous parties, but parties that create all-important connections between people. 

     He was far enough away now from Earl’s Court that if he drifted north he would go toward Albert Hall, and Albert Hall would become a detail in his narrative. His perception would pry it open as if it were a shell, and this metaphor, this illusory link between two objects, would make him believe that it wasn’t immaterial to him whether anything existed or not.

     He drifted north, his iris becoming larger than his eye, and larger than the tallest flower in a bunch in a florist’s window next door to a butcher shop. 

     His clothes, undefined except for a general air of shabbiness, blended with all the others, all the waves of people parting slightly to let him through. The faces didn’t look quite real. Both his eyes, both the burning coals of his eyes, mined for them as their surfaces made the collective decision to close. No, nothing was decided, and it was all right, it really was all right.

     Albert Hall, when he got there, wasn’t a shell. It slept like a brain on the unconscious pillow of the grass under the trees in a square encircled by impenetrable offices and houses. Upon night’s arrival, perhaps, music would wake it, and a strong breeze would allow all the instruments, the branches of the trees, and even the shallow grass to move.

     Hyde Park was allowed to admit him. He drifted east inside it. Some of the clothes, though striking, flashing in the fire-covered sun, were still undefined. His immense eye came to rest on their brilliance, but was soon moving toward the poverty an empty bench implied, seeing the poverty before it could believe that it was being ignored, overlooked. 

     Parallel now to the bench, he stopped, got even closer to it, and sat down. Spring warmth was satiety. With just him on it, the bench was beyond capacity. One of the benches, not the only one, along the Serpentine beckoned. Water beckoned, its surface like a flat wave of people with no interest in barring him from reaching his destination. He would pass bench after bench along the Serpentine, his veins around his heart coiling without pressure around his soul’s purpose this morning. Blood and water beckoned.

     And then he was there, at the far end of the park, hearing omnibuses and motor cars vying for his ears’ attention as his eyes fell for a moment on a woman in a sealskin jacket. And then he heard an accordion player failing to snuff out the larger sounds, not failing to make his instrument move, to make it wheeze and wail, emit music without words.

     He was far enough away now from the park that if he drifted north he would go toward the little structures without princely names in Soho, on the steps of one of them, perhaps, an old man lying down, a coat over him, perhaps thrown over him by a stranger. So much uncertainty, but if he saw the old man, his nerves would no doubt be equally battered by the sight, and if a barrel organ had replaced an accordion, music without words would still have left him feeling half-alive. Perhaps another stranger had offered a sequined cloak the night before, and it lay under the thick skin that the coat wasn’t quite.

     Quiet theaters fairly far to the southeast occupied his thoughts, before giving way to memory after memory of being pretty far south of where he was, his life being variegated, free, it not always clearly because of free will, to not remain standing on the Embankment, in the shadow of Big Ben, looking down at the Thames, catching a word in passing uttered by a passer-by behind his back, and another uttered by another mouth, and another, on and on, until he had a feeling that he could fabricate out of them a long sentence, yes, he was always doing something, even when simply standing and looking, the breadth of the river as if right there between his eyes, the barges carrying loads of straw or some other substance, moving, yes, but not running out to sea like the tide, a future day of drifting, walking toward Soho, and then toward Bloomsbury, like perfect peace invading peace, denying the dead past.

     One more time, he thought back to the river, the water saturated with atoms, and remembered once looking up and glancing over, seeing one lover, and another, a pair of lovers, not far from him, standing and looking down at the rough and grey character the surface had that day, and laughing.

     The dry and hard pavement under his feet was nothing compared to the unlit lamps not mournfully waiting for falling night to supplant sunlight, the neutral lamps as if rising, as opposed to risen, above him. He fancied he heard a vehicle rattling below him. The passengers stared into space, or into open books, trusting the track not to deviate.

     Turning east and continuing to walk, he found himself in front of a second-hand bookshop, hoping, because he couldn’t exactly remember what he had written, that the letter in his hand would give her the unmistakable impression that he was a reader only, and not, like her, a reader and a writer. Yes, he wasn’t a writer, just as he couldn’t play the violin or the oboe or the accordion. And the woman he imagined owned the second-hand bookshop, the woman he imagined sitting by a coal fire, waiting patiently in the hardly empty space for the inevitable customer or two or more to enter, was she more than a reader? Being a reader was enough, was all he knew, and what he hoped the letter in his hand, moving past the shop along with him, conveyed.

     Bloomsbury arrived when he arrived in Bloomsbury. Gordon Square gave way to Tavistock Square. There was the house (he remembered being where he was once before, just to look). The metal gate along the ground floor, absent in front of the short flight of stairs leading to the door, felt, even at a distance, sharp along the top, but inviting.

     But the way the house touched the house beside it without forming one larger house made him stop. The bricks between windows, beginning with the second floor, and extending two more floors to the top, as well as the brick chimney, cemented his body together. The ground floor windows, and the others, revealed no one. 

     He turned around and…




     There wasn’t a knock on the door, though he swore he heard his landlady’s knuckles sliding softly across it, rousing him from his sleepless sleep, or whatever it was. Head bowed again, he saw that the letter was finished, and he didn’t exactly know how that had happened. He didn’t read it over. It was done, and essentially out of his hands.

     He opened the top drawer of the desk and got out an envelope. When it was addressed, sealed (with the letter inside it, of course) and stamped, he took it outside to the nearest post box. He was sure he would feel it disappear, but he discovered that the sound of it dropping remained with him, a feeling of newfound loss that would need leaps and flights of ordinary or superlative imagination to be explicable. 

     He turned around and realized that there was the rest of the day still to be lived, to be caught in, let loose into, a book. Could he see himself poring over it? He couldn’t see himself at all.

     But there he was, walking home, thinking about where the day so far had taken him, grateful for what the day so far had given him.

Jeffrey Alfier Matin_Bleu.jpeg
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