The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Sunday Salon: Trading in Memories

Posted on: November 25, 2007

8:51 PM: I get more and more excited as I read on, and it’s inevitably because of the literary references or my own associations. (I think it is the sort of book that may appeal to readers for different reasons. It’s that accommodating.) This time it was the Honoré de Balzac references that made my chest all warm. (I know that sounds weird but that was definitely the epicentre of my enthused feelings this time.) But first, to Brussels!

I had a somewhat keen interest in this chapter because of The Land of Spices by Kate O’Brien. I read it earlier this year and really like it. The protagonist is an English-born, Belgian-raised nun who runs an Irish, all-girls boarding school. The one thing I remember about the scenes set in Brussels is that the precariously designed streets are mentioned, or at least suggested. In Hodgson’s Brussel chapter, a 1910 city map, on a full page, reveals this in clearer detail. It’s a common thing for tourists to get lost, as Hodgson did before a trail of loose leaves led her “circuitously” to the Jeu de Balle flea market. She thought they were flea market escapees but they turned out to be the (probably) frustrated results of a school child’s.

One thing I’ve noticed about the book’s photos is that they are not blown up, pristine, “digitally enhanced” specimens at all. The recent photos often share the same slightly murky, shadowed look of the older photographs, and while I may feel a bit stymied and peer closer to examine a terrace or a store’s shadowed interior, I appreciate their mystery and the curiosity provoked. In “Brussels”, among the photo selections, is a clip of Hodgson’s photo negatives of flea market wares, two of which feature animals, a boar head and a deer. The latter looked so real that for a minute I second guessed myself on the wild boar before I recalled that its head was severed.

Now Paris! Hodgson sometimes writes of little moments that would not be out of place in her novels. The guiding path of loosed paper leaves was one, and in Paris we get another. Walking back to her hotel a man shouted for her attention because she had dropped something. It was one of her flea market purchases, a 1949 Casablanca newspaper printed in French. The man hesitated on unfolding the newspaper because of the date, and for a moment Hodgson, and therefore the reader, imagines that both persons had somehow slipped out of the present and were standing in the mid-20th century.

Apparently, Paris is the place —

With its nine established markets and numerous occasional or impromptu ones, its bookstalls along the Seine, the extraordinary cabinet of curiosities known as Deyrolles on rue de Bac, and the phenomenal auction house Drouot, Paris is one of the greatest cities in the world for collectors. Those who sell precious or curious objects — and their numbers are legion — have…an inheritance of knowing what it truly means to trade in memories.

— and Honoré de Balzac is the novelist for any collector. She gives a quote from Cousin Pons in which Paris is described as a magnet for curios and for The Wild Ass’s Skin goes into a bit more detail. The novel’s main character, Raphael de Valentin, is distracted from his decision to commit suicide by a pivotal trip to a junk shop. With echoes of Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Valentin finds a magical ass’s skin that allows him “to thrive on immoral thoughts and wanton behavior”. (Why does this book have American spelling if it’s published by a Canadian company?) The junk shop scene is also important because de Balzac adds some foreboding elements.

…it is in the packed corners of the curio shop that we have a foretaste of his cruel fate. For Valentin’s imagination takes flight at the sight of “crocodiles, apes and stuffed boas”; wax effigies of medical horrors from the cabinet of Frederik Ruysch, the famous anatomist; mystical altars and tabernacles that hint at profane ceremonies; murderous-looking tomahawks; and enigmatic sarcophagi, no doubt still exuding the stench of their rotten contents.

*shudder* Sounds quite wonderfully awful.

My favourite images from this reading were both from the “Brussels” chapter: a Le Nain jaune containing some of her Jeu de Balle finds, and a 1965 x-ray of a Monsieur Valentine’s hands. Rather creepy. For more on The Wild Ass’s Skin read litlove’s Classic Authors: Balzac.

6:34 PM: My new Sunday read is Trading in Memories: Travels through a Scavenger’s Favourite Places by Barbara Hodgson. I discovered my first Hodgson book in a bargain’s sale at Chapters. It was Hippolyte’s Island. The photographic illustrations, the Greek reference in the title, and the promise of adventure near cold South pole seas was a combination I could not resist.

Trading in Memories is another kind of travel, this time via Hodgson herself and the many things she’s collected on her own explorations. (Her fictional characters and non-fictional subjects are always explorers of countries, histories, literatures, memories, and/or their own mental landscape.) I’ve always liked how Hodgson’s collages worked within her stories. They weren’t merely graphic accouterments that a reader could ignore and that the story could manage well without. It’s clear that Hodgson composes her story with images as much as with words. They tell their own complementary story, or even an adjacent one; and they are detailed enough to hold up to long or repeated perusals. Nick Bantock is another author known for a similar approach but I did not care for his Griffine & Sabine and did not try any of the sequels. Hodgson is enough for me.

Having written that, I wasn’t sure how it was going to go for me when I started. I’m not a travel book person and the introduction was very travel bookey — an anecdote about customs and then an account of the reasons people travel and descriptions of the various market odours around the world. I was sorta like, oh no, not the smells. Quick, look at the quirky photo of a portfolio in a Paris bookshop! (It really was quirky: it’s in black and white and all one can see among the files is photo of a man’s face peeking over the top of the file, with the rest of the body obscured. From the man’s hair style and photo edges you can tell it’s old one (mid to late 19th C would be my utterly uninformed guess).) I took heart from a full page, brightly coloured photo of two pages in Hodgson’s moleskin with notes she took on a visit to the London library — it included notes on Hippolyte!

It was a good sign. The first section is on London, split into two chapters: “Angels”, and “Angel”. The first “Angels” is about some of the London cemeteries. She provides a bit of historical background on the various cites, English expatriates’ tomb-building habits (for they often send their bodies back home to be buried), in addition to snatches of info about cemeteries in other parts of the world. The best part was her brief focus on the angel statues. She went through the entire celestial hierarchy, describing and explicating the positions and symbols that each usually had. It was wonderful for a Paradise Lost reader as I was given a more concrete idea of what Milton referred to when he mentioned the virtues, powers, and dominions.

“Angel” refers to a so-called station and intersection in Islington. The main tourist draw is the Camden passage which has a lot of antique stores (threatened by a growing number of restaurants) and owners sell at their store fronts. For some reason taxidermy and old luggages are popular items.

She includes enough pertinent information for the interested travel if she wishes to go on a similar jaunt, but it is the history, the local habits, the insight into other people’s lives and interests that I find most compelling. I’m really looking forward to what else I’ll find.

My favourite illustrations so far are both peeks into Hodgson’s moleskin. The second one was some shards of blue and white pottery and a pressed yellow weed she found at Kensal Green cemetery.

7 Responses to "Sunday Salon: Trading in Memories"

This writer is completely unknown to me – up until now! I love the idea of looking into someone else’s moleskin and I’ve added her to the list of writers to look out for in the local second-hand shops. Thank you.

You’re welcome, Ann! Sadly, she doesn’t seem to be a very popular author in general, even in Canada, which is a shame because I’m finding Trading in Memories more and more pleasurable as I read on. It’s really won me over.

Imani, brilliant review of the book. Thank you also for your perception regarding the photos. I hadn’t realized that the photos of many of the artifacts are actual size.

Have you read The Water Sellers yet? I feel like every time I pick up the book to look at a new story, I find another gem that gets stuck in my mind.

I could definitely see that some of those artifact photos were life size, especially the close up of the French game. Wouldn’t I like a poster of that.

I haven’t, actually, I just finished Istanbul! I cheated to reach there since I was planning to keep this book as a Sunday Salon read, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to hold off until then.

I got so excited by it that I ran to the indie book store in the rain (which turned to snow) before I made it to campus with the intention of buying any of her non-fiction that was there (if any). I came out with Italy Out of Hand: A Capricious Tour.🙂 I’m so pleased. I already noted a picture of Mary Shelley.

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