When I lived in Montreal I would, after a long morning of writing, rise reluctantly from my desk, forced to leave the house on minor errands–the post office, the corner store–and on leaving, find myself in the midst of lives, dozens if not hundreds of others’ stories, novels on novels’ worth, but offered with more density and variety than in any actual novel, as though loose pages from each of their stories were stacked one on top of another to be ruffled by an inky finger or a passing wind.
Last week, spending in Montreal the waning days of a vacation full of such urban pleasures, an old friend, the bookseller Adrian King-Edwards, allowed me to handle a limited edition Hogarth Press–signed!–issue of Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting: A London Adventure. In it, VW leaves her house on a mission to buy a pencil. She dilates on the pleasures of walking in winter in the evening in a city. She pauses at a boot store, where a woman with dwarfism but full-size feet buys a pair of boots, and this encounter transforms how she sees everyone else for the next blocks. She muses on items in shop windows, a necklace, a rug, and imagines she has some other life, in some other time.
Long paragraphs are devoted (felicitiously, considering the avenue by which it was delivered into my trembling hands) to secondhand bookshops, where, as on the street, “…we make other such sudden capricious friendships with the unknown and the vanished whose only record is, for example, this little book of poems, so fairly printed, so finely engraved, too, with a portrait of the author. For he was a poet and drowned untimely, and his verse, mild as it is and formal and sententious, sends forth still a frail fluty sound like that of a piano organ played in some back street resignedly by an old Italian organ-grinder in a corduroy jacket. There are travellers, too, row upon row of them, still testifying…”
Ultimately, after a brief struggle between the freedom to wander and imperative to live with purpose, she enters the stationers. She witnesses the flickering end of a drama, she is told a story, she buys a pencil. And when she exits, the world outside is transformed again:
In these minutes in which a ghost has been sought for, a quarrel composed, and a pencil bought, the streets had become completely empty. Life had withdrawn to the top floor, and lamps were lit. The pavement was dry and hard; the road was of hammered silver. Walking home through the desolation one could tell oneself the story of the dwarf, of the blind men, of the party in the Mayfair mansion, of the quarrel in the stationer’s shop. Into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way, far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others. One could become a washerwoman, a publican, a street singer. And what greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?