Biography of X | Catherine Lacey | Granta

Biography of X

Catherine Lacey

The first winter she was dead it seemed every day for months on end was damp and bright – it had always just rained, but I could never remember the rain – and I took the train down to the city a few days a week, searching (it seemed) for a building I might enter and fall from, a task about which I could never quite determine my own sincerity, as it seemed to me the seriousness of anyone looking for such a thing could not be understood until a body needed to be scraped from the sidewalk. With all the recent attacks, of course, security had tightened everywhere, and you had to have permission or an invitation to enter any building, and I never had such things, as I was no one in particular who was needed nowhere in particular. One and a half people kill themselves in the city each day, and I looked for them – the one person or the half person – but I never saw the one and I never saw the half, no matter how much I looked and waited, patiently, so patiently, and after some time I wondered if I could not find them because I was one of them, either the one or the half.

One evening, still alive at Penn Station to catch an upstate train, I asked a serious-looking man if he had the time. He had the time, he said, but not the place, as he’d been exiled from Istanbul years earlier but never had the nerve to change his watch, and looking into this stranger’s face I saw my own eyes staring back at me, as I, too, could not un-locate myself from the site of my banishment. We parted immediately, but I have never forgotten him.

It wasn’t a will to live that kept me alive then, but rather a curiosity about who else might come forward with a story about my wife. Who else might call to tell me something almost unfathomable? And might I – despite how much I had deified and worshipped X and believed her to be pure genius – might I now accept the truth of her terrible, raw anger and boundless cruelty? It was the ongoing death of a story, dozens of second deaths, the death of all those delicate stories I lived in with her.

Or maybe what kept me alive was all the secretarial work I had to do, as I’d become X’s secretary by necessity – she kept firing the others. I sometimes found a strange energy to shuffle through her mail in the middle of the night – signing contracts I barely understood, reviewing the amendments made ‘in the event of the artist’s death’, filing away royalty statements in the manner that X had instructed, and shredding the aggravating amount of interview requests addressed to me, the widow. The Brennan Foundation had invited me to come receive the Lifetime Achievement Award on X’s behalf, not knowing that she’d planned to boycott the ceremony in resentment for how long it had taken them to recognize her. There was also an appeal from a museum that had been eagerly anticipating X’s contractual obligation to make one of her rare public appearances at the opening of her retrospective that spring; by overnighted letter, they asked whether I, as a representative of whatever was left of her, might fly over to London in her stead? I sent back my regrets – I am currently unable to explain how unable I am to undertake such a task.

Tom called, despite a thirty-year silence between us. He’d learned of my wife’s death in the papers and wanted to tell me that he had been thinking about me lately, about our strained and ugly childhood as siblings. His own wife, he said (it was news to me that he’d married), had been given another few months to live, maybe less. His daughter (also news to me) was fourteen now, and there was a part of him that wished she were younger, that believed she might be less damaged by grief if she were protected by the abstraction of early childhood. What an awful thing, he said, to wish my daughter could have known her mother for fewer years.

But I did not find this so awful. Grief has a warring logic; it always wants something impossible, something worse and something better.

When Tom was fourteen and I was seven we lived in a clapboard house on a dead end with our mother and assorted others, and that summer as we were eating spaghetti in the kitchen Tom stopped moving, and sat there with his mouth open and the noodles unraveling from his poised fork as he stared into nothing, everything gone from his eyes, and he kept staring, unblinking and frozen as our mother shouted, Tom! Stop it! Tom! His eyes kept draining, nothing and nothing, then even less than nothing as Mother shouted for him to stop, to stop this horrible prank, until she finally slapped him hard in the face, which still did not bring him back but freed his fork from his hand and sent it into my lap. That night, slowly, he did start to come back, and later a neurologist was excited to diagnose him with a rare kind of epilepsy, which was treated with a huge pink pill, daily, and for months after my wife died I’d often find myself in some abject, frozen state – sitting naked in a hallway or leaning against a doorframe or standing in the garage, staring at the truck, unsure of how long I’d been there – and I wished someone could have brought me such a pill, something to prevent me from pouring out of myself, at odds with everything.

Tom and I were living in different griefs now – his imminent, mine entrenched – but I wondered if the treatment might still be the same, and I asked him if there was any kind of pill for this, some pill like that pill they used to give him all those years ago, but Tom felt sure there wasn’t, or if there was he didn’t know about it, and anyway, it probably wouldn’t work.

After two years of ignoring his letters, I took a meeting with Theodore Smith, at X’s request, to put an end to his nonsense.

‘I can’t believe it’s really you,’ he said, ‘I can’t believe it. X’s wife – incredible.’1

Though it was 1992, I was unaccustomed to such fawning, as she and I avoided the places where such people lingered. The sole purpose of this meeting, which I recorded for legal purposes, was to inform Mr Smith that X would not cooperate with his supposed biography; she would not authorize it, would give no interviews, and would allow no access to her archives. As my wife’s messenger, I encouraged Mr Smith to abandon the project immediately, for he would suffer greatly trying to write a book that was ultimately impossible.

‘If you truly want to write a biography,’ I told him, ‘you must first select a subject who is willing to comply, advisably a ghost.’

Mr Smith sat there blinking as I explained, in slow detail, our total disapproval of this endeavor. The estate would not license any reproductions of any of X’s work, nor would he be allowed to use any of the portraits of X to which we held the copyright. We would not give permission for him to quote her lyrics, essays, scripts, or books, and of course X had no time to answer any of his questions, as she had no interest in his interest, nor any respect for anyone who intended to exploit her work in this way.

‘It is her explicit wish not to be captured in a biography, not now and not after she’s gone,’ I reminded him, my tone absolutely cordial, or at least judicial. ‘She asks that you respect this wish.’

But Mr Smith refused to believe that X would choose to be forgotten, to which I explained that X had no such intention and already had plans for what would happen to her archives in the event of her death; all I knew of those plans at the time was that access would require forfeiture of the right to biographical research.

‘Her life will not become a historical object,’ I explained, as X had explained again and again to me. ‘Only her work will remain.’

‘But she’s a public figure,’ Mr Smith said, smiling in a sad, absent way. (How odd to remember the face of someone I hate, when so much else is lost to the mess of memory.) He slipped a page in a plastic sleeve from his briefcase. I glanced down – it was unmistakably her handwriting, dated March 2, 1990, and addressed to My Darling, and though I should have been that darling, given the year, I had a way of overlooking certain details back then.

‘I have several others,’ he said. ‘The dealers always call me when they come across one, though they’re rare, of course, and quite expensive.’

‘A forgery,’ I said. ‘Someone has ripped you off.’

‘It’s been authenticated. They’ve all been authenticated,’ he said.

I thought I knew what he was doing – dangling false artifacts to entrap me and compel my cooperation – but I would not budge. The letters must have been (or so I wanted to believe) all fakes, and even if X had written such a letter to someone else, which she most likely had not, she would’ve never associated with anyone treacherous enough to sell her out. This pathetic boy – no biographer, not even a writer – was simply one of X’s deranged fans. I don’t know why she attracted so many mad people, but she did, all the time: stalkers, obsessives, people who fainted at the sight of her. A skilled plagiarist had merely recognized a good opportunity and taken it, as people besotted with such delusion hold their wallets loosely.

‘You must understand that my wife is extremely busy,’ I said as I stood to leave. ‘She has decades of work ahead of her and no time for your little project. I must insist you move on.’

‘She won’t always be alive, you know.’

I did not believe myself to be such a fool, but I was, of course, that most mundane fool who feels that though everyone on earth, without exception, will die, the woman she loves simply cannot, will never.

‘Whether she wants there to be a biography or not,’ Mr Smith went on, ‘there will be one, likely several, after she’s gone.’

I told Mr Smith, again, to cease all attempts to contact us, that we would file a restraining order if necessary, that I did not want to ever see or hear from him again; I was certain that would be the end of it.

Four years later, on November 11, 1996, X died.

I’d always thought of myself as a rational person, but the moment she was gone I ceased to be whomever I thought I was. For weeks all I could do was commit myself to completely and methodically reading every word of the daily newspaper, which was filled with articles about the Reunification of the Northern and Southern Territories, a story so vast that I felt then (and still feel now) that we might never reach the end of it. I gave my full focus to reports of the recently dismantled ST bureaucracies, the widespread distrust of the new electricity grids in the South, and all the sensational stories from inside the bordered territory – details of the mass suicides, beheadings, regular bombings – and even though my personal loss was nothing in comparison to the decades of tyrannical theocracy, I still identified intensely with this long and brutal story, as I, too, had been ripped apart and was having trouble coming back together.

Reading the paper gave a shape to my boneless days: each morning I walked the length of the gravel driveway, retrieved the paper, walked back, and read it section by section in search of something I’d never find – sense, reasons, life itself. Immersed in the news, I felt I was still in the world, still alive, while I remained somewhat protected from the resounding silence she’d left behind.

In early December of that year, I read something in the arts section that I could not, at first, comprehend. Theodore Smith had sold his biography of my wife to a publisher for an obscene advance.2 It was scheduled to be published in September of the coming year. For a few days I succeeded in putting it all out of mind. I thought, No – no, it is simply not possible, it will fail, they’ll realize the letters are frauds, that it is a work of obsession, not of fact, and when I, executor of X’s estate, deny them all the photo and excerpt rights, that will be the end of it. How could there be a biography without any primary sources?

As it happened, the editor who’d purchased the book was someone with whom I shared a close friend. She called me that winter – ‘a courtesy’, she said, as she was under no obligation to gain my approval. She insisted the research was impeccable. Scrupulous but respectful, she said, whatever that means. She assured me that Mr Smith truly revered and understood X as an artist, as a woman, and that he had so many wonderful insights about her work, but of course, some would find the book a little controversial, wouldn’t they?

Your wife never shied away from controversy, the editor said.

Is that so?

Catherine Lacey

Catherine Lacey is the author of four books: Nobody Is Ever Missing, The Answers, Certain American States and Pew. Her work has appeared in Harper's, Vogue, the New York Times and elsewhere. She is a Granta Best of Young American Novelist, a Guggenheim Fellow and the winner of the 2021 New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award. 'Biography of X' is an extract from her novel of the same title, forthcoming in 2023 from Granta Books in the UK and Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US.

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