The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

Testing, testing.

I’m back in Jamaica at least for a year or two, maybe forever. If my family has its way I’ll be back in foreign this time tomorrow.

Jamaican men are radically different from every other kind. I forgot how much.

I still read. I finished Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses a month or so ago. It defies a plot description and easy summation. At present I can say nothing more than it bedazzled, impressed, confused, amused, bewildered, pummeled….Good God are his other novels anything like it? Rushdie comes across as such a staid literary statesman these days and the reactions to his latest works never gave me the impression that the novels were bonkers in the most delightful way possible. (Except James Wood…”hysterical realism” was it? Ha ha.) Anyway, it cries out for a reread.

My blogging muscles are not yet fit enough to do a sensible summary of recent readings so I shall only mention what is presently on my plate and to what I am anticipating.


Orlando by Virginia Woolf – At the beginning I vacillated between “charming” and “trivial”. Now I’m at “hilarious, more to think about than readily apparent”. Why isn’t Woolf’s humour more heralded or am I weird? I’d try so many more of these Woolfs and Rushdies if critics eased off stressing their importance and highlighted the funny bits.

Rashomon and Other Stories by Akutagawa Ryonusuke – I knew nothing of Akutagawa’s theme or writing style before this collection. His short stories, at least the earlier ones that created his reputation, are written like fables. Very engrossing, intricately structured, and often end inconclusively. The Japanese authors I’ve read so far always build their stories on characters facing particular moral problems. How they react, what they decide forces one to consider not only the society mores of the time but one’s own personal philosophy and what it means…to be human I guess.

Here I stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton – One of my mother’s. I tried to read this when I was very young, perhaps 11 or so. I was vaguely interested in the different Protestant movements after the nun at my catholic prep school told me that my church (Anglican) formed from a royal divorce.

My brain’s a bit better at handling the content now.

Michael Manley biography – The author’s name escapes me. Manley was a former Jamaican Prime Minister both revered and despised, largely depending on how you feel about socialism and the word “comrade”.

To Come

I am dying to get my hands on Sarah Hall’s latest. Gimme gimme gimme. Besides that I need to get to those new Coetzees. Also Kwame Dawes’ poetry and Bob Marley book.


I’m not a memoir person and only become so under special circumstances. The first memoir, *From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People, is written by Lorna Goodison one of my favourite poets who turns out to be a remarkable prose writer. That wouldn’t have been special enough without the added bonus of her mother’s life is the book’s main focus. Add the fact that one of my favourite Goodison poems is dedicated to and about that woman, then I’m sold.

The second memoir, Drumblair: Memories of a Jamaican Childhood by Rachel Manley, benefited from the goodwill gained by the first. Here was another notable Jamaican woman writing not only or even primarily about herself but about life with her grandparents: his Right Excellent Norman Washington Manley, one of the nation’s founders and a National Hero, and Edna Manley, one of our most acclaimed artists. (I attended summer programmes and took piano lessons at the school named after her.) She also deals to a lesser extent with her so so relationship with her father, Michael Manley, a former Jamaica prime minister.

Goodison’s memoir provides the unexpected pleasure of revealing much about Jamaica’s history and lifestyle of which I had not an inkling: what brought certain Europeans like the Irish and Scottish settlers; specific details on the Maroons; and simply how every day life was for ordinary Jamaicans, how they kept house, earned a living, their cultural mores, how much had changed and stayed the same. It complemented details I picked up in Andrew Salkey’s A Quality of Violence and Banana Bottom by Claude McKay on how every and anything obviously connected to our African ancestry was rejected. An attitude that seems so alien to me now when I recall donning Nigerian dress for prep school events or how church ladies wore extravagant outfits to impress the congregation on Sundays. I understand the old attitude and yet I don’t.

That Goodison is a poet and not averse to fictionalizing and streamlining accounts helped her book enormously. She played with words by mixing the Queen’s English with a readable Jamaican patois which changed the rhythm and tone to capture a particularly Jamaican, specifically Hanoverian — different parts of the island have their own variations in dialect — moment or sentiment. As life then was more heavily influenced by Victorian England the two different speeches in juxtaposition reflected that. It is clear that Goodison loves words. At one point she lists the names of local produce for the pleasure of sound as well as more practical reasons, reminding me of one of her well-known poems, To Us, All Flowers are Roses. In her love for words she continues to showcases the islanders’ creativity, our spirit and ingenuity to ourselves as well as others.

She has a judicious sense of what readers would find interesting. I cannot stress enough how vital a skill this is for someone writing on things that personally concern her. The writer may find every minute detail and throwaway incident riveting while the outsider is left to fan herself, dream about mocha frappuccinos and wonder why she tolerates such minutiae from anyone not related by blood or marriage. Goodison is up front about embellishing parts of her mother’s life, adjusting timelines. One is not perturbed not only because the seamless narrative pulls one in from start to finish or because one gets a good idea of what is fictionalised from the whimsical way she depicts certain scenes, but because, for a reader like me and a book like this a strict adherance to facts is not necessary for Goodison to record her mother’s life as she perceives it. It’s one of the best books I’ve read so far this year — I’ve already leant my copy out (I never do this) and have been singing its praises to any willing ear. (For an example of everything I’ve mention read this excerpt.)

It is too bad that this book came out long after Drumblair — Manley could have learned a lot from how Goodison wrote her tale. I have no idea whether any part of Drumblair is intentionally fictionalized. On certain subjects like Bustamante‘s character and his political style she readily admits her family’s bias since her grandfather was his political rival — they both led the two rival political parties that still dominate Jamaica politics. Since she is dealing with such historically important political and cultural personages she has more responsibility to factual truth than a Jamaican poetess indulging in family memorabilia, maybe. (Although she writes, “This is not history. This is memory.”) In the end, I’m glad I read it.

But I’m surprised that it managed to win Canada’s Governor General award. If It weren’t for the Geoffrey Philp mention and the Manley name I don’t know how long I would have lasted. Rachel Manley has a tendency to give too much detail about memories that I, without the benefit of familiar relations, can only yawn and blink at. Cute episodes with housing staff which I know must be included to establish what living in the mighty Drumblair house was like became a bit tedious. At other times it’s the intricate political maneuvering that made my eyes glaze. When content becomes a morass I cannot reach for style because her prose is serviceable but not very light and nimble. Her voice comes through loud and clear but there’s not poetry, no grace, nothing that sets her a part as a Writer, yet she is a well-regarded poet. (Her editor probably deserves some free drinks, at least.) In my limited estimation Goodison is the better at writing in the different genres.

Still, the book isn’t all bad. I appreciate how she presents her family members in their full complexity, the good and the less so. They are loved but not idolized. Her grandparent’s married life, like all long lasting ones I imagine, is one of love, yes, but also of tolerance, accommodation of tiptoeing or strategic obliviousness to faults, of intimate knowledge coupled with incomprehensibility, right up to the end, of the other’s choices and habits. Theoretically we know this but it is not often portrayed in the media I absorb.

Much of the Manleys’ political life is marked by as many defeats as triumphs — Rachel describes it as a life “haunted by shadows” — with the most searing one that of Norman never winning an election after the country gained independence despite being a, clearly the family as presented her believing he was the, driving force behind the movement. A “Father of the Nation”. As a lawyer he took up the part of many of the lower classes and even helped to gain Bustamante’s freedom when he bucked up against the colonial authorities. But Bustamante’s charisma and earthy personality eclipses his rival’s contemplative, intellectual demeanor, and so one gains most of the spotlight while the other quietly goes on.

What was aching [Michael’s] heart was the small margin of his father’s defeat, and the irony that his country would be led into independence by anyone but Norman Manley. He knew of no other colonial territory of that time where the man who led the fight for independence was not the acknowledged leader of the emerging nation, the runaway victor of its first election; Ghana’s Nkrumah, Nigeria’s Azikiwi, India’s Nehru– the names would hammer in his head.

Such a mixed life does not end on an upbeat, positive, everything nice note, either. Rachel describes herself as a troublemaker as a child, called “Miss Badness”, distant from her mother who lived in England, has an ambivalent relationship with her father, and a grandmother obsessed in making something of it (for the better, yes, but it was always a thing). At the book’s end circumstances are different but the main elements have not changed but are sustained by different issues. Rachel is a university student eager to join the Black Power radicals pushing for change except that her fair skin and connection to the establishment make her an outsider. Political rebellion is more complicated when your grandfather is tagged as one who is a new version of the old colonial style, that change cannot occur when one uses the master’s tools. “Patois should be taught in schools!” she cres defiantly. (It’s amusing and disheartening that such ideas are still being wrestled over. Even Nalo Hopkinson met up on it.) Edna declared

These young hot-heads were in their cradles when we were struggling for universal suffrage and workers rights’ and self-government! Who the hell do they think got the British out?

But images speak as loudly as words and Rachel noted that it was a woman who looked all but Caucasian with “flawless English” who says them.

As you can tell there’s a lot of historical information easily conveyed through Rachel’s life because her family looms large in events. I get a better idea of how our government gradually gained more and more power as opposed to the (understandably) simplified accounts I had before. There was even a predecessor to CARICOM – a failed West Indian federation built on ideals similar to the Pan Africanism movement — that I knew more about — in which Norman and Busta played leading roles, for a time. And I receive a much clearer picture of the People’s National Party’s (Norman’s group) socialist (some would say communist) background — a fact darkly hinted at, its lasting impact on Jamaica argued over in the Jamaica Observer’s opinion pages which I read in my teen years without true understanding. I even learnt the origins of a certain “fire and blood” speech given by Edward Seaga, a former Jamaican PM, which I remember hearing about as a child, again with no clue.

It is very strange to read about your country’s beginnings and have it feel so…recent. (My mother lived in pre-independence) To read about persons deliberately, actively, maybe even self-consciously trying to be Jamaican, to figure out what that even is. Some of the most tantalizing bits were Rachel’s brief, intermittent descriptions of the island’s nascent artistic movement, of Edna’s interactions with artists and writers, of her nurturing of new ones. Most, if not all of the poetry she and Norman quite is either by Browning, who had a Jamaican wife (didn’t know that), or Mike Smith and George Campbell, friends of theirs who were also involved in the project of being Jamaican by creating Jamaican art. Roger Mais gets name checked in Edna’s encounter a few rastas who temporarily squatted in her studio and had a fondness for her sculpture “Samson”, the blunter, roughter counterpart to the more delicate “Delilah” which was the crowd favourite. (It’s obviously an allusion to Brother Man but must be one to Black Lightning as well — too coincidental otherwise.) I’d have loved to read more about that.

Yes, Drumblair was definitely a fruitful, rewarding read. But it’s no Harvey River.

*What is up with weird, inexplicable title changes and ugly foreign covers? Poor British and Americans. 😛

The baby was plump and pretty as a ripe ox-heart tomato. Her mother, Margaret Wilson Harvey, gently squeezed the soft cheeks to open the tiny mouth and rubbed her little finger, which had been dipped in sugar, back and forth, over and under the small tongue to anoint the child with the gift of sweet speech. “Her name is Doris,” she said to her husband, David.

In later years, my mother preferred to spell her name Dorice, although in actual fact she was christened Doris. But she was registered under a different name altogether — Clarabelle. This came about because of a disagreement between her parents as to what they should call their seventh child. Her father, David, was a romantic and a dreamer, a man who loved music and books, and an avid reader of lesser known nineteenth-century authors. He had read a story in which the heroine was called Clarabelle, and he found it to be a lovely and fitting name. He told his wife, Margaret, that that was to be the baby girl’s name. Well, Margaret had her heart set on Doris, because it was the name of a school friend of hers, a real person, not some made-up somebody who lived in a book. Doris Louise, that was what the child would be called. They argued over it and after a while it became clear that Margaret was not going to let David best her this time. He had given their other children names like Cleodine, Albertha, Edmund, and Flavius. Lofty-sounding names which were rapidly hacked down to size by the blunt tongues of Hanover people. Cleo, Berta, Eddie, and Flavy. That was what remained of those names when Hanover people were finished with them. Margaret had managed to name her first-born son Howard, and her father had named Rose. Simple names for real people.

There was nobody who could be as stubborn and heard-headed as Margaret when she set her mind to something. She was determined that her baby was not going to be called Clarabelle.  “Sound like a blasted cow name,” she said. David gave up arguing with his wife about the business of naming the pretty-faced, chubby little girl, especially after Margaret reminded him graphically of who exactly had endured the necessary hard and bloody labour to bring the child into the world. He dutifully accompanied her to church and christened the baby Doris, on the last Sunday in June 1910. Then the next day he rode into the town of Lucea and registered the child as Clarabelle Louise Harvey, and he never told anyone about this deed for fifteen years. As a matter of fact, he is not known to have ever told anyone about it, because the family only found this out when my mother tried to sit for her first Jamaica Local Exams, for which she needed her birth certificate. When she went to the Registrar of Births and Deaths, they told her that there was no Doris Louise Harvey on record, but that there was a Clarabelle Louise Harvey born to David and Margaret Harvey, née Wilson, of Harvey River, Hanover. She burst into tears when she heard what her legal name was. “Clarabelle go to hell” her brothers chanted when the terrible truth was revealed. Not one to take teasing lightly, she told them to go to hell their damn selves.

Eventually her name was converted by deed poll to Doris. Thereafter, she signed her name Dorice, as if to distance herself from the whole Clarabelle/Doris business. Besides, Dorice, pronounce “Do-reese,” conjured up images of a woman who was not ordinary; and to be ordinary, according to my mother’s older sister, Cleodine, was just about the worst thing that a member of the Harvey family could be.

From From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People by Lorna Goodison, published by Mclelland & Stewart, a book I started and finished in a day for I could not bear to part from it.

This is the first in a looooong time that a New York Review of Books article excited me, that directly addressed matters I thought about but aren’t pulled directly from some BBC headline. And I only bring it up for discussion among one or two friends because I’m concerned that I’ll be misinterpreted and perceived differently before the end of the first sentence.

In the latest TLS Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote a *gem of an article in which he pulled from various recently published books on Zionism to give an overview of its history and turn the spotlight on the movement’s influential figures who many may not know about. “Zionism” was a term I often saw used but never defined.

So when I saw the Tony Judt article one could say I was inclined to give it a chance when my typical reaction to anything that could even be theoretically linked to Jews and the Israeli-Palestine conflict is an eye glazed over in defensive inattention. (Also, I’m always good for an article that promises substantial engagement with any of Hannah Arendt’s writings…and I’ve read some of Judt’s stuff before and his name did not carry any negative connotations.)

For a second or two I rethought my decision when it seemed as if this was just going to be another rehash of the Holocaust…but was rewarded when Judt’s adapted essay addressed that very same reaction. Here’s an informed view that ought to get more play, especially the difference between Western and Eastern Europe’s attitude to WWII of which I had not been aware. (Or maybe everyone knew all ready and I’m the only dunce — it’s happened before.) It wasn’t as clear to me, either, that there was a period after WWII where everyone wasn’t undergoing painful introspection about the Holocaust — for as long as I can remember it was given due attention. I never covered WWII in my history classes but, somehow, I still managed to absorb basic information about what happened, with the Shoah at its centre.

…in recent years the relationship between Israel and the Holocaust has changed. Today, when Israel is exposed to international criticism for its mistreatment of Palestinians and its occupation of territory conquered in 1967, its defenders prefer to emphasize the memory of the Holocaust. If you criticize Israel too forcefully, they warn, you will awaken the demons of anti-Semitism; indeed, they suggest, robust criticism of Israel doesn’t just arouse anti-Semitism. It is anti-Semitism. And with anti-Semitism the route forward —or back—is open: to 1938, to Kristallnacht, and from there to Treblinka and Auschwitz. If you want to know where it leads, they say, you have only to visit Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, or any number of memorials and museums across Europe.

I understand the emotions behind such claims. But the claims themselves are extraordinarily dangerous. When people chide me and others for criticizing Israel too forcefully, lest we rouse the ghosts of prejudice, I tell them that they have the problem exactly the wrong way around. It is just such a taboo that may itself stimulate anti-Semitism. For some years now I have visited colleges and high schools in the US and elsewhere, lecturing on postwar European history and the memory of the Shoah. I also teach these topics in my university. And I can report on my findings.

Students today do not need to be reminded of the genocide of the Jews, the historical consequences of anti-Semitism, or the problem of evil. They know all about these—in ways their parents never did. And that is as it should be. But I have been struck lately by the frequency with which new questions are surfacing: “Why do we focus so on the Holocaust?” “Why is it illegal [in certain countries] to deny the Holocaust but not other genocides?” “Is the threat of anti-Semitism not exaggerated?” And, increasingly, “Doesn’t Israel use the Holocaust as an excuse?” I do not recall hearing those questions in the past.

My fear is that two things have happened. By emphasizing the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust while at the same time invoking it constantly with reference to contemporary affairs, we have confused young people. And by shouting “anti-Semitism” every time someone attacks Israel or defends the Palestinians, we are breeding cynics.

You’ve gotta read the adapted speech from start to finish.

*Thank you, TLS, for offering me another opportunity to tear my hair out again. Why make the width of the article so narrow that I have to click through so many pages? It’s an annoyance because it’s a bloody book review but I have to click click click click to reach the end before I can find…the reviewed book titles! Yes, that make sense. But comments from random dudes who manage to drop by? Right there, up front and centre! Who the ^&#$#% designed your website? I’d like to…buy him a beer.

What is the cause of the sea storm? It is the anger of the god Poseidon. How wrong this is, but yet, how understandable! It is wrong as an answer to the question asked, and wrong in a radically uncorrectable way. We know this now. Animistic explanation of natural phenomena, the extension to nature at large of the kind of purposive causality man is familiar with in the case of his own actions, will not work. Yet it is an easily understood mode of explanation, for if one were a sea god and were angry one would create precisely this turbulence. The immediate intelligibility of the explanation counts for it, and makes it resistant to falsification. Nor need we wonder why the recognition of the inadequacy of the explanation was delayed. The action prompted by the explanation is some ceremony of propitiation: make sacrifice of appropriate animals or cast treasure into depths. This ceremony will not work but, given the kind of explanation, nonefficacy in particular cases can always be explained. The sacrifice was inadequate, the ritual was wrongly performed, the anger was too great, and, as a final resort, who can read the mind of a god? But there is more to it than this. The animistic view is appropriate to the human experience of undergoing a sea storm.

We can bring this about by changing the question from: What is the cause of the sea storm? to: What might the human experience of undergoing a sea storm be like? Now we speak mostly aptly when we say: “The sea is angry.” Anger, threat, menace are apprehended as phenomenally objecting, “out there” in the sea. The struggle of the mariner with the storm is experiences as combat. The force opposing him is felt as similar in kind to the force with which he battles it. The ship itself is now a live thing that leaps and shudders and labors in the waves. Now we feel the power of the god, and this is why Poseidon is still relevant even in an age of science.

Although it is a matter of historical record that literary artists and lovers of literature have, from time to time, nourished and voiced resentment against natural science, seen as “the destroyer of rainbows,” yet it appears by now to be generally recognized that the scientific and the literary approach to natural phenomena cannot possibly be rivals. Rivals must go battle on common ground and there is here too little common ground for genuine contention. The poem that tells us that the moon is a goddess, or love-sick, or lunatic, is as intelligible and valid as it ever was. Natural science cannot be direct help or hindrance to the literary artist although, of course, the artist who happens to take an interest in it may derive from that interest the stimulus of new perspectives, above all, perhaps, material for metaphor. Lunar landscape, understood in terms of contemporary astronomical theory, may well provide the raw material out of which reanimated metaphor might be forced. The literary importance will, of course, reside in the reanimation, not in the fact that what has been used for this purpose is something more scientifically “up to date”. Any branch of natural science, biology, crystallography, or whatever, may stir the imagination of the literary artist, and anything that stirs his imagination is potential raw material for artistic exploitation. “Raw material” and “exploitation” are the operative words. If you wish to receive the best account to date of the structure and operation of natural phenomena, you must turn to the scientist. It is useless to expect that the literary artist will submit himself to the discipline necessary for science. As private person he might do this, but as literary artist he will not. As artist he has, of course, his own discipline, but this is something other than the discipline of science.

From Literature and Knowledge (1969) by Dorothy Walsh.

11:17 AM: The next two chapters get a bit more personal. “Aswan” focuses on Hodgson’s experience budget travelling in the 70s and her quest to find two water sellers in Marrakech 14 years later after her first Morocco trip in the 70s.

I was amazed that someone could travel on $5 a day, which is what Hodgson did when she was in Europe. However, the Egyptian government at the time required all foreign visitors to change $150 US into the local currency, so much of her month was spent trying to figure out ways to spend all the money. That wasn’t as easy as you would expect: the hostel she stayed at was 40 cents a night, bus fare from airport to busy city centre was 10, a “filling meal of pitas with vegetables and meat, along with rice pudding and tea, cost less than twenty cents”. Waaaaaaah? She ended up selling some of her pounds to tourists (in small amounts).

Not much about curios here unless you count the horrible, horrible skirt a local tailor made her. (There is a small picture of herself in one corner and the ugliness makes it through her distance from the lens and the shrunken photo size.) She did visit an Aswan market which, by description, was a lot “earthier” than previous examples and definitely not touristy. You can smell the dust, donkeys and camels by looking at the 1910 photograph which gets its own page. There’s also a photo of a pair of rubber flip flops she bought there, made in China, and still going steady after all these years. Hilariously, she bought them to “dress up” her outfit after a friend’s father asked her if the ugly attire was really necessary.

In a break from previous chapters a few of the photos are more obviously recent. “Marrakech” opens with a brightly coloured full-page photograph of the water sellers she took in the 70s. She does not think much of it, but I thought it was fantastic — in the book it’s a nice change from the (very very lovely!) sepia toned or black & white photographs and negatives. In this chapter it’s photography in the foreground as Hodgson shows how she met the family of one of the men (now deceased) in her photo.

After her more aimless travelling in that period (like Aswan) she decided that it had its points but, generally, it was better to have a goal, even if it was just to be a volunteer gardener at the Alhambra. Hence the idea of looking up the photographed water sellers 14 years later. Essentially, this is Hodgson’s curiosity leading her to learn more about the people in the lands she travels, this time not through old documents like identification letters, although there still was some distance between then and now. She only got to meet one of the men’s families but it’s a memorable moment. Hodgson notes that watersellers did not earn much, that the family must have even less now with the man dead, but their enthusiasm over the photograph showed that though it “could not materially improve their lives…I knew it would be treasured”.

In keeping with my idea that this book has something for everyone, “Aswan” read much like a backpacker story, while “Marrakech” had some detailed camera info that would appeal to photographers. The updated look of Hodgson’s selections really fit the stories. My favourites from them are the old Chinese made rubber flip flops bought in Aswan, and two in Marrakech: the water sellers and one of two girls at the end of a shadowy alley, half turned, caught in the sunlight.

9:04 AM: It’s a grey morning here. Quite a few inches of snow on the ground with the promise of more to come. I’ve just been walking with Barbara Hodgson through Damascus and Aleppo. I’m afraid I cheated a bit, dear reader, and travelled through Rochefort, Naples, Budapest and Istanbul on days that weren’t Sunday. I worried that I might end up finishing the whole thing, but the book’s pull on me receded on Tuesday when it had to compete with my studies. But it’s Sunday now and I have all the time in the world. 🙂

Hodgson’s novels, as I mentioned last week, all have something to do with travel, so it’s no surprise that some of her trips were for proper research. In “Budapest” she mentioned her novel The Sensualist and in “Damascus” she was there for The Lives of Shadow.

It [Damascus] has been called the oldest continuously occupied city in the world, but its verdant gardens and elegantly ornamented buildings were even more renowned than its antiquity. At the peak of its beauty, it is said, Damascus was an oasis so heavenly that the prophet Mohammed turned away from it for fear of finding it better than God’s heaven.

In Syria, Hodgson’s aversion to the concrete, traffic-clogged, noisy urban milieu is made more obvious. That’s probably because so much of the old buildings are still there, making the contrast more obvious. I don’t think her nostalgia is naively romantic. She’s a qualified archaeologist and it comes through in her writings, over and over, how she is devoutly fascinated with how human artefacts are preserved and what they reveal about their personality, history and lifestyle. In a previous chapter she compared the “lifespan” of old receipts compared to the ones we use now on flimsy paper on computer ink that fades too quickly (it’s clear she’s speaking from experience). The implication is that close to a century from now it will be much hard for people of her inclination to walk through suqs to learn about our lives.

One interesting thing I learnt was that the dilapidated, crumbling exterior of houses that I’ve typically seen in that region are deceptive. Inside they are finely painted courtyards, comfortable cushions beneath high or low ceilings, intricate geometric designs on all sides, brightly coloured in “golds, deep reds, greens, and blues”. Bab Tuma, a Christian quarter, hides “elaborate grottoes dedicated to the Virgin…tucked away in back streets”. Predictably enough, Hodgson ambles with her guide through the myriad streets with a 1924 map of Damascus, a reprint of one from the 1200s. (How cool is that?) Surprisingly, the layout of the city is pretty much the same; only that most of the street names have changed, even the major ones, which provided an out-of-this-time experience similar to the encounter with the stranger and the 1940s Casablanca newspaper in Paris.

After staying too long in Damascus, Hodgson moved on to Aleppo still in search for old house deeds for the purposes of her book. The tattooed hand illustration at the opening of the chapter reminded me of another of her novels, The Tattooed Map (probably her strangest, which is saying something). In “Aleppo” you get a better sense that Syria is in Southwest Asia — at the suqs the touts speak German, as well as French and English, even a bit of Chinese and Swahili. Amusingly, the younger sellers are adept at appearing world travellers, armed with information of just about any city you could think of.

“Where are you from?” one of those omnipresent wizards asks. “North Vancouver,” you answer smugly, thinking no one knows anything about North Vancouver. “Ah,” he replies, “Is it still nice along Lonsdale Avenue?” You are positive he has never left Syria in his life, yet you quickly learn during your frequent encounters with him that no matter what town or city you name, whether Cape Town, Norfolk, or Guangzhou, he will talk about it as if he has lived there for several years.

The best part about “Aleppo” was Hodgson’s discovery of a house deed from the French Mandate which she found in a caravanserai that, in earlier days, housed the French, English and Dutch consuls. She happened to bend down to glance at strips of paper — she loves collecting all kinds of things, but documents, letters, paper materials of any kind seems to be what she prizes, whether bargained for in a shop, stripped off an alley wall, or picked up from the street — on which she could make out the French words for “residence” and “building”. She returned to the spot the next day and, with the help of some local sellers, searched through a garbage bin which ended up containing almost all of an “eight-page deed dating from 1937 to 1943”.

My favourite images came from both chapters. In “Damascus” there are two pages of photo negatives from a reel in which she took pictures of different houses in Damascus, featuring different architectural styles. I zoomed in on the one that was used as a book cover. In “Aleppo” it’s a small pile of photos and documents she bought at an antique shop in Jidideh. What I like best is the colourful paper underneath her finds — a bright blue print with a red border and partially seen yellow curves and lines, all covered in black Arabic script.

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.