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I’m not quite sure how or when Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street ended up on my Kindle app, but when searching for something to read on my long commutes, it seemed the perfect thing. Despite being a Victorianist, I don’t read a huge amount of neo-Victorian fiction, as much of it feels flimsy to me. However, this is the best example of the genre that I’ve read since Jane Harris’ The Observations (which is excellent, and definitely worth a read!).
Increasingly, we all have an instinct about life-curation. On social media, in our CVs, in reading or listening to reports of how being mindful and authentic will improve our lives, relationships, and health, we all spend time thinking about how we are in the world, and how we wish to appear to be. A healthy approach to that is to look inwards and ask what brings us joy, rather than ask what we ‘need’ to keep up with the Joneses, or are supposed to own or enjoy.
Having done all of the clothes, however, I ran into a difficulty: my home is too small to have all the things out all of the time. I needed to put all the clothes back. Before doing that, I had to seize the opportunity move the furniture, clean the walls, empty the other parts of the bedroom too, so that I could put things where I’d eventually want them. By the end of day one, I had just about managed to put all the clothes away again (barring shoes and handbags), and get out all of the books (see top photo). Given the number of books I own, I was starting to feel worried about the ‘all in one go’ doctrine.
I had close to 600 books when I started the exercise. I recycled/donated about 150. But I kept both unread books, and those that I’d last read years ago. Because ‘sometime’ often does come for me, and I cannot be satisfied with her casual “even if you don’t remember”. The physical books are there to remind us. It is one of the reasons why e-books generally don’t work for me. A chance encounter with a book, a glance at its title or front cover, is about memory, and often sparks ideas for me.
More generally, ‘reliving’ memories is the way in which we construct them, bring them into a sense of order, draw them into the stream of our lives. Taking care over the things we keep, and arranging them so that we can encounter them time after time, is about establishing a space that is part of our lives, rather than just the location for them. This is what Kondo’s method brings to the fore: the care we should take in ordering the threads of our life and making them ready-at-hand for ourselves. To wit, a William Morris poster, long buried in a cardboard tube, revived as part of one of my many bookcases.
For those who want to be more mindful about the little things, there are worse places to start than with Konmari.
Borges’ short story ‘The Library of Babel’ was one of my favourite pieces from my sophomore lit-crit tutorial, so I’m weirdly excited by the fact that someone has now devised a website that can make it a “reality”. Programmer and author, Jonathan Basile was stirred by the resonance between Borges’ description and the capabilities of modern technology and surprised to find the code not already written, so he set out to produce a digital version of the library, which re-mediates Borges’ library. Once an imagined place whose literary content could only be inferred by an imaginative reader, it is transformed into an online on-demand production of literary content abstracted from the physical sense of a library.
On the home page, as soon as one hovers over a link, the ‘counter’ of letters begins to whirr, rendering the word one had chosen quickly gibberish, but also exactly the same (because the ‘About’ page will be the end result of a link, even when the link text itself has been transformed into ‘Abqkj’). The changing digital text oddly offers a more fixed link between the symbolic and the real than the printed text of a short story’s page might.
The LibraryofBabel.info ‘About’ page notes that the site does not, in fact, “contain” the full Library of Babel, but only a small proportion of it (all permutations of 3,200 characters, rather than 1,312,000 characters). The question becomes, however: If the necessary algorithms are already there (as in, they could be written), is the website, in fact, as complete as Borges’ textual library? The website might be said to “contain” the full Library, but render only part of it accessible, without compromising the Library’s integrity. Indeed, the website adopts this claim elsewhere, such as on the ‘Reference Hex’ page: “Borges has set the rule for the universe en abyme contained on our site” (emphasis mine).
I picked up Dorian as something narrative and entertaining that was tangentially PhD-related (and, thus, a guilt-free read). The novel was first published in 2002, and it offers a modern update to The Picture of Dorian Gray, resetting the action in the 1980s and ’90s with a familiar but creatively reimagined cast. Basil becomes a slightly pathetic, needy installation artist (nicknamed Baz); Henry a drug-addled fop; Dorian a homicidal sadist, using HIV as his preferred weapon; Baz’s paean to Dorian becomes a video installation comprising multiple tapes and screens; the wealthy, drug-driven gay scene replaces Wilde’s Victorian aesthetic circles.
In rewriting Wilde’s classic, Self offers allusive (and often self-referential) narrative layers that merit deeper thought than his pacy writing style would intimate. Spoilers below!
At times riotously funny, as the narrative ricochets across decades, Henry, Dorian and Baz all alternately repulse and beguile. The book’s subtitle is An Imitation, and Self recycles a surprising amount of Wilde’s original, taking not only plot, character and location, but phrases, epigrams, and dialogue directly from the source. This sense of repetition is intensified by a suite of circular images.
The new medium for Dorian’s portrait — the circular loop of the video tape, the numerous copies — draws attention to the theme of repetition and divergence, that there is nothing new on the planet. The text returns to various fixed points, such as the dualing of Dorian and the doomed Princess Diana, or the perpetually fecund garden surrounding Henry’s home. With each repetition, Self prompts the reader to construct a sense of circularity.
The metanarrative that Self layers atop Wilde’s tale calls attention to the written nature of the text, suggesting that Dorian’s story is the febrile, malicious scratchings of a dying Henry before ‘revealing’ that this metanarrative is itself a fiction conjured by Dorian in a panicked state as he is about to get his comeuppance. The conclusion suggests that the initial narrative (perhaps, or perhaps not, a fiction of Henry’s) was partially ‘true’, although the point of divergence remains elusive. Just as Wilde’s original was read as an indictment of its author, the space between the lines of The Picture of Dorian Gray scrutinised for revelatory power, the final twist of Self’s imitation invites the reader to spot the exaggeration, the slight twist or turn, that might be veiling the ‘real’ behind the fictional.