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Authors: Allen Kurzweil

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A case of curiosities

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THE CASE OF curiosities came into my possession at a Paris auction in the spring of 1983. It is always amusing to hear the impression people outside the salesroom have about people inside. The uninformed presume dinner jackets, numbered wooden paddles, and phone lines from Tokyo and Geneva. They imagine electronic tote boards flashing seven-figure sums in six currencies, the tap of an ivory mallet, and polite applause as some philistine acquires a "priceless" painting he will use as collateral in his next leveraged buyout. The true spirit of the auction house is a lot grittier, and that, frankly, is what I love about it.

At the Salle Drouot you can see pawnbrokers in white loafers and shrewish dowagers in Celine pumps (bought during the crush of the semiannual sales) stomping and kicking for a piece of beauty at a good price. But mostly it's a fight for the denial of someone else's desire. If you look at the display cases of the auction house, you will find that they are scratched to opacity by the diamond rings of greedy women and men.

I happily explore this disreputable environment nearly every week, not to pursue the pleasure of profit—though I must admit I won't turn down a bargain — but to round out my understanding of mechanics, painting, and the more unpredictable incarnations of history. That is how I picked up the trail of the case.

I arrived early in the day, as one must, and leafed through the catalogues chained to the front desk. The salesroom was a terrible jumble. It brought together lots of brown furniture, racks of fur coats, some bronzes, a "nineteenth-century" Dogon mask probably no more than ten years old, walls of unimportant canvas and oil, even a half-dozen electric typewriters. Also in the mess, however, was a terrestrial globe. The catalogue gave no details. I suspected the piece to be Empire. It was supported by black-and-gold caryatids, which in turn had those brass paws so common to the period. It was really quite beautiful.

I left the salesroom and went around the corner to talk to Boudin, a dealer in scientific instruments with whom I had had business over the years. He allowed me to consult his library since my own was too far away. I determined that the globe was indeed Napoleonic. I left the shop in the silent glow of nearby conquest.

That was a mistake. I should never have gone to Boudin before buying the piece. When I returned from a quick lunch, well ahead of the sale, I found the bastard inspecting the day's offerings. It didn't take him long to discover that my casual consultation had served a less than casual purpose. The situation deteriorated. Boudin's appearance sparked the interest of another dealer, and he, in turn, brought along a friend who was a well-known globiste. By the time the auctioneer had sold off the contents of a London barrister's Paris office (the source of the mass of typewriters and, I might add, a rather charming wig) and brought the globe to the block, I was sharing the room with four or five avaricious dealers who knew exactly what was up for sale.

The bidding started with near indifference, a terrible sign. Three thousand francs, three-two, three-three, and then Boudin shouted out six thousand francs. He had shown his hand, and the other competitors chimed in with dizzying speed. I joined the battle briefly, but my limit was quickly passed. By the time it was over, a runt of a man who's not terribly respected in the community triumphed at his own expense. The auctioneer turned to sillier bibelots, and the professionals all left. I was about to follow them when I saw . . . it.

In a corner of the room, behind a rack of furs, rested an object the catalogue had, as might be expected, inadequately described: "Lot 67, Box of Curiosities. 45 cm. X 63 cm. Origins unknown. 19th Cent."

My initial reaction was that the date, though vague, had to be incorrect. The front of the box, with its bubbled glass, suggested something earlier. Because it was sealed, I could not inspect the interior, which was moth-eaten and filled with dust. As for the back of the box, it had markings of the kind used by small provincial museums. These could not be scrutinized discreetly, and given the fiasco of the terrestrial globe, the last thing I wished to do was signal my interest. I could believe the object or the description of the object. The choice was clear.

Competition for the box was minimal. A single tap of the mallet declared the union of object and collector. In less than a minute, I had become the owner of a bizarre little piece of history.

It didn't take very long for me to recognize the importance of my purchase. No sooner had I paid the two thousand plus sixteen percent commission than a short, heavyset gentleman came into the room. Observing what I held in my hands, he cursed with a flourish, invoking the names of at least four saints. The gentleman was Italian.

He waddled over to ask me how much I had paid. Because I felt sorry for him, I replied. No, that's not quite true. I hoped he might reveal something about my purchase. News of the price prompted additional blasphemy. He then asked, implored really, that I sell him the case. Of course, I refused. For the next few minutes, he mentioned sums many times what I had just spent. I explained that I had not made the purchase for profit but would welcome any information as to the nature of his interest. Had he been an auction-house habitue, he would have graciously refused to assist me or tried to strike some deal. Happily, he lectured in art history and proved accommodating.

"Have you ever heard of the memento hominem?" he asked. He dropped his aitches, so that it sounded like "ava you ever eared of dee memento omeenem?"

"Memento hominem?" I said. I had a vague idea or thought I did. "Skulls and watch faces with no hands."

He corrected me. "You are confusing it with the more common memento mori, those records of death uncovered in the painting and cemetery architecture of Europe." He explained that a memento hominem, rather than proclaiming mortality, registers a life. Each object in the case indicates a decisive moment or relationship in the personal history of the compositor. The objects chosen are often commonplace; the reasons for their selection never are. He said it was a conceit popular in parts of Switzerland and France during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Excited in the way that only Italians can be, he revealed that my case of curiosities told a tale, and an extraordinary one at that.

This was a surprise. "You know whose history it registers?" I asked.

The Italian said, "57 e no" He told me how he had come upon an engaging, structurally odd biography written during the French Revolution, Claude Page: Chronicle of an Engineer. The book contained an etching that matched precisely the configuration of the objects in the case I had just purchased. Simply put, my case could be linked to one of the true mechanical geniuses of preindustrial France. "A brilliance," the Italian said, "mixed with martyrdom. A death as tragic as that of Marie Antoinette, and one that was much more bizarre." After he had promised to lend me his copy of the book, I said good-bye and thank you and walked home with Lot 67 under my arm.

I hadn't been inside more than three minutes before I trained two very powerful spotlights on the murky compartments. I turned the case around and around. I resisted removing the glass for a few hours. What was so potent about these protected objects? Was it that my world was kept out? Or that some imaginary world was kept in?

Finally, I decided to open the case front. When I did, two hundred years of dust and history hit my nostrils. It was like some strong brew of my Celtic ancestors. I think that was the instant I became caught in the spell.

I took the objects out of the case very slowly. The first piece I removed was a small wooden manikin, which I've since learned to call a lay figure. It had been sitting cross-legged in the top right compartment. I must have held it in my hands for more than an hour. Next came a simple button, the size of a one-franc coin, made from horn. Then a big shell, a jar, some dried and unidentifiable vegetable matter, and the rest of the objects. I lined them all up and stared at the emptied case, its wood eaten away by insects. It took very little time to see that the objects spoke to one another, and to me.

For the next six years I researched and restored, picking apart the mystery of Claude Page's life. I won't burden you with the path the research took. My investigations had me corresponding with experts at the Wellcome, at the Smithsonian, and, of course, at the French National Library. And yet all those documentary efforts were really quite insignificant compared to the hours I passed simply contemplating the objects in the case. I moved my attentions from compartment to compattment, connecting all I could.

As I bend over the microphone of a tape recorder, note cards at the ready, I am amazed that I spent so much time trying to decipher the relic. Why I did so cannot be adequately explained. I suppose it came down to this: I saw the case and wanted to understand it. That understanding became an obsession, and I must point out that I use the word "obsession" in the classical and satanic sense, meaning the antecedent of possession. Which brings me back to the beginning of this account. I did not take possession of the case; the case took possession of me. To some, these objects might have no meaning. To me, they have many. Why is a button or a shell or a jar worthy of so much attention? For the answer to that, one must have the patience to read on.

2 The Jar

ORIGINS CAN BE difficult to trace. But if we ate fotced to uncovet the origins of Claude Page and his invention, and gtant those origins some fine and subtle meaning, we must begin by noting the attival of the Vengeful Widow on the tenth of Septembet, 1780. Though the Widow can be compared to the eastetly of Devon and the misttal of southern Ftance, that doesn't quite do justice to net bite. As winds go, she is dtiet and nastiet than net Ftench and English cousins. Patish tecotds indicate that when she hit in 1741, the Widow pulled the steeple off the Toumay church — a steeple that had been mounted and secured just two months earliet—and deposited it in the sty of a hetetical fatmet. The event ptovided Fathet Gamot, the local ptiest, with a chance fot some spitited sermonizing. Ten yeats latet the Widow struck again, this time thtusting the branch of a birch tree through the stomach of Philippe Rochat's piebald pony. Rochat was a devout Catholic, so on that occasion Father Gamot had to keep quiet. But the devastations of '41 and '51 were only preludes to the attack on the tenth of September, when the Widow grabbed the valley's inhabitants mercilessly and by surprise. She stripped tiles from roofs, needles from pines. She slipped through unlatched shutters, searching for exposed bits of flesh. Then she struck: cramping toes, deadening udders, waking dormant nipples.

On that night, the house of Claude Page was singularly secure from the Widow's invasion. Madame Page had noticed slight changes in her nailed-up twig of sapling fir and in the demeanor of the family milch cow. The agitation of the beast and movements in the homemade hygroscope foreshadowed the arrival of the unwelcome wind. Madame Page had ordered the family to prepare.

Claude and his younger sister, Evangeline, shuttered shutters and tied down what needed tying down. They repositioned the roof rocks before closing themselves inside the cottage, where an oak fire counteracted the Vengeful Widow. Fidelite, the eldest of the three Page children, headed a scouting party to cover over cracks in the cottage walls. She toured the periphery of the kitchen, moving her hand up and down. Occasionally she would shout, "A draft!" and dispatch Evangeline to daub the trouble spot with a blend of straw and mud, a recipe of her own mixing. Fidelite ordered her sister to push the gravel-filled snake across the threshold and to stuff a length of old lace in the ornate pump lock, thus conjoining two of the trades that made the valley famous—metal work and lacemaking—in novel fashion.

When the Dragon rug was draped over the window, Madame Page declared, "We're as cozy as a watch in a fat man's vest." She then turned her attention to the pinecones she was roasting for her children. It was a scene that catchpenny printers of the period would have titled, with perhaps a touch of irony, Domestic Peace.

Claude stretched out in the attic, peering occasionally through an unplugged knot. In his hands he held a crude copybook, a saint's day gift that was his most regular companion. The intended purpose of the copybook, as indicated by the solid and dotted lines that marched across the page, was the acquisition of proper handwriting. But Claude had adapted it and a pot of ink to his own purposes, namely drawing.

His nose rubbed against the unvarnished oak as he gazed through the knot and lined up the scene below. This peephole perspective was one of Claude's favorites, and he had filled the copybook with many such views, "as if through Father's telescope."

He found his target quickly: Fidelite. Though never terribly kind to his elder sister, Claude tried to maintain a peace of sorts. His unspoken frustrations, however, found quick and direct release in the copybook sketches. He discovered the reason for Fidelity's tyrannous patching expedition. She had decided to build a house of cards, a project vulnerable to drafts. Claude begrudged the pleasure she took in refusing to let Evangeline do anything but watch, wait, and admire the full scope of her talents.

Talents? Hardly. Claude was always more bold in his constructions, putting the face cards outward in raucous confrontation, at least insofar as the cards could confront each other back to back. Fidelite, on the other hand, lacked inspiration. Her cardhouses, tedious in design, ignored the conjunctions of the kings and knaves who kissed at an apex, or queens flanked by lesser members of the deck. Also, Fidelite cheated by lodging the card edges in the knife cuts of the table before bringing the tops together. This suited Claude's mocking illustration. He had the cardboard nobility emerge from its surface existence to do battle with the hapless architect. He allowed the King of Hearts to slice off one of Fidelite's ears, which looked like jug handles, and had the Queen of Cups spit in her ejhb Then he transformed an andiron into a little black dog nibbling at his sister's foot.

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