The standard advice to those thinking of becoming writers is to write what you know. The fact that this is clearly the most ridiculous and restrictive piece of advice imaginable does not seem to put people off from repeating it again and again. Edward Gregory Charles was determined to follow it to the letter: with the pragmatism typical of the late nineteenth century, he made it his mission to fill up his mind with experiences.
Every family has one, though it’s rare for a family to be so unfortunate as to find themselves with more than their fair share. Afflicted individuals tend to be remote, self-obsessed, and for the most part woefully unequipped to deal with the realities of modern life, and so it no surprise that in some Eastern European countries, women who want to place a curse on a hated enemy make a wish that their adversary’s children will grow up to be writers.
I did not learn that my family was one of the unlucky ones until it was already too late. I first heard about Mr. Charles when I was seven. We were visiting my grandparents, and that was the day that I said I wanted to be a writer. Previously I had hoped to be a dog when I grew up, then the world’s first pregnant man (I had not considered the logistics, but only thought that it would be fantastic fun to have a little best-friend living in my belly) and then, after a school trip to a local cathedral, a bishop, since I assumed they got to sleep each night camped out in the magical light of the stained glass. In response to my earnest announcement, my grandmother cleared her throat then said that our family had already had a writer, and that had not ended too well, and so it was probably best to think of something else.
He was my grandmother’s great-uncle, and according to family legend he was always restlessly searching for new and unique adventures that he might turn into stories. After attending university on a hard-won scholarship, he started upon a Grand Tour of Europe, commencing in Paris, where he lived for a time in a cramped flat in Montmartre, spending the evenings in cafes and salons in the fashionable footsteps of Degas, Renoir and Moreau.
How he afforded such jaunts is a question of some controversy, since my family was and remains far from wealthy; the most likely explanation I have heard is that he cultivated a habit of “befriending” those with more money than sense.
Following the obligatory excursions to Italy and Greece, he made a rash and somewhat baffling decision to follow in Darwin’s footsteps to the Galapagos Islands. After this, the chronology of his travels becomes somewhat muddled, though his correspondence from the time (as well as the accounts he wrote for various London newspapers and periodicals) show that he was in St. Petersburg when the revolutionaries threw the bomb beneath the royal carriage and killed Tzar Alexander II, and later was in Cairo during the short Anglo-Egyptian war and witnessed the beginnings of the subsequent occupation. It is said (though there is no proof) that his many lovers included a Russian countess, a Chinese pirate-queen, and the wife of the Viceroy and Governor-General of India.
Yet despite (or perhaps because of) spending his thirtieth birthday in the jungles of Borneo, and his thirty-third with the literati in New York, he was still no closer to actually publishing a book. Therefore, when his letters home stopped, his family did not worry themselves, for they assumed he had forgone all distractions so that he might finally produce his masterpiece. What they did not expect, five years later, was to find him turn up on the doorstep of the very terrace he had abandoned as a cocksure young man. By all accounts, he was disheveled and decidedly worse-for-wear. He asked his sister and her husband if he might rest a while in the spare attic-room at the top of the house. She readily agreed, and he never left that room for the rest of his life.
That is not to say he died that night. Far from it; he outlived all his siblings. My grandmother herself met him when she was five or six years old. By my reckoning that would have been towards the end of the 1930s, and therefore Mr. Charles would have been approaching eighty. She said she could recall with perfect clarity visiting that small terrace, and being led up the stairs to the room at the very top of the house. The sight of the faded brown paisley wallpaper, the stale reek of urine and dry rot and, propped up in the little brass bed and looking like some ancient, shrunken Mummy freshly unwrapped from its linen strips, Mr. Charles himself, smiling and offering to guess her exact age — ‘to the very day, young lady, to the very hour!’ — using only the evidence of her height and weight, made a haunting impression on her.
Do you really never leave that room, she had asked him, thinking that perhaps the grown-ups were playing a trick on her about the old man that lived like a spider up in the dark attic? No need, he had replied. My memory, he told her, is all but fit to burst. There is no space for anything more. If I were to see something new, I would almost certainly be forced to forget something of my past in order to make room — and that I could not bear. I have seen so much that the best I can hope for is to hold onto it for as long as I can.
How much of this is really true, I cannot tell. Aspects of this strange speech have likely been embellished over the years by my grandmother, and furthermore it is impossible to say how much of it was simply intended to amuse his naive great-niece. Yet that is the family legend as it has come to me: a man who witnessed so much that rather than attempt to better his youthful adventures he chose instead to relive them, clinging to the past as though trying to savor the hint of perfume long after an exotic guest is gone.
Quite why his sister, and later his niece, put up with humoring his lazy eccentricity, cooking and carrying up his meals, and emptying his chamberpot every day without complaint is beyond my understanding.
Not only did he never leave the room, but he never again put pen to paper. His boasted that he had destroyed all his notebooks, and to this day I have been unable to find more than half a dozen pages of his writing. Perhaps that is the real reason many writers tend to be such grumpy bastards: they have come to understand that the world fights against being written down.
Life was too much for Mr. Charles, and he began to think that he could not write about it all without making it lesser somehow, without turning the unique excitement of his experiences into something plain and ordinary. They would not be the same on the page — he would not be able to do them justice, and worse still they would no longer be his. And so the answer was not to sully them at all, not to water down his life with lesser variations on those same experiences, with parties or lovers or trips that were paler imitations of those that had first excited his imagination. He came to believe that the world exists beyond even the best description, that every sentence written is a belittling of real life. He therefore chose to keep his memories for himself instead of struggling on, like the rest of us, to try and communicate something just beyond the limits of speech.