CABINET OF CURIOSITY: Daniel Canty’s Wigrum

Daniel Canty Wigrum translated by Oana Avasilichioaei (Vancouver: Talon Books, 2013)

by Calum Gardner

The “cabinet of curiosity” was once a staple of the private home of the wealthy eccentric, containing unique and unusual objects from around the globe. When Elias Ashmole donated his collection – by that stage rather larger than a cabinet – to found the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, it contained a stuffed dodo, said to be the last to be seen in Europe. Thanks to the magnanimity of people like Ashmole, objects of private curiosity became those of public education as the modern museum evolved. However, a few in the old style remain – Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, which features a basement full of stone carvings taken from a range of ancient sites, and Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, the home of art collector Jim Ede, which like the Soane house is preserved as it was when its owners lived there. The constant streams of visitors cannot erase the sense of personality such places have, and this works in a very different way to the overwhelming structuration by history and chronology which we find in large public museums. But perhaps the institution which best preserves the spirit of the cabinet of curiosities is the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, whose miscellany contains dioramas depicting obsolete theories of magnetism, portraits of every dog sent into space by the Soviet Union, and a carving of a scene of a room with figure and furniture all inside the stone of a peach. The museum never admits its own absurdity and anachronism, its dim rooms behind a near-anonymous storefront maintaining the experience that visitors to a private cabinet would have had, that they were privy to a secret history of which the world outside was ignorant. To those who have visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the experience of reading Daniel Canty’s Wigrum will be strikingly familiar.

Wigrum, first published in French in 2010, is now made available in an English translation by Oana Avasilichioaei. The book begins with Sebastian Wigrum, a London collector of objects with curious histories, and takes the form of a fictitious catalogue of this eclectic set of items. Accompanied by small, understated line-drawings by Estela López Solís, it is elegantly designed, its wide margins often hosting notes explaining backstories and translating the utterances of its international parade of characters. The effect is given of an explanatory work, a scholarly companion, even though the “exhibition” itself does not exist. The book’s design is the result of a collaboration between Canty and designer Raphaël Daudelin, who have worked together on projects since 2005. Although Wigrum carries Canty’s name, the experience of the book is miscellaneous in so many ways that we feel we are not just reading the words of an author, but observing a collective enterprise; in fact, it has the sense of having been curated by designer, illustrator, and translator.

The subtitle claimed by Wigrum, “a novel”, situates it firmly within the realm of fiction, but inside the covers, the book introducing elements of doubt as to that status, casting itself as the one document of an almost-forgotten history. Canty is a character, his “Afterword” and “Postscript” both existing on the border of the novel’s world. He defends the existence of Wigrum and another mysterious scholar, Joseph Stepniac, including letters to and from them which he claims to have found, dangling the possibility that the events related might be “true” after all. There is little about the book’s formal operation which can be used to assess its success as a novel in response to the usual definitions of that category, and some things seem totally unnecessary like the fact that the book is said to have been compiled from multiple sources – the “Prague Collection” and the fictional ur-text “Excerpts from Patience.” There is little in the way of characters or a plot, or rather there is too much: every object has its own novel-sized story, like the tale of the golden-yolked egg laid by an alchemist’s chicken, or the doll dropped off the summit of Mount Everest which later appears on a hillside in Montreal. Yet so many of these stories go untold, only suggested; the book sets up stories which are fascinating but which receive only this sparse, suggestive treatment. The draw of this is that the glimpse of a story tantalises, so that perhaps our imaginations supply possible stories, or, even more compelling, they reach, only to find that the truth exceeds our grasp. The reason Wigrum collects these objects together is because he wants to hold some connection of the stories behind them, and in this the collection (like Wigrum itself) finds its parallel in the Library of Lost Time, a small publishing house featured in the description of the “Blank Page.” It produces small print runs of volumes, but only on their author’s death, and is run by one of the book’s many women named Clara, with whom Wigrum is infatuated and Wigrum is obsessed. Thus Wigrum is a book of books, structured around the organisation and cataloguing of potential stories.

Generically, Wigrum fits best the label of the “postmodern novel”, a frustratingly vague term which is more like a constellation than the close relation within other genres. As such, the closest points of comparison are still fairly far away, but once we stretch for them, there are plenty. The book’s cover copy suggests a few of its own, such as the works of Italo Calvino and Georges Perec, but while the metafictional nature of the novel, underlined through various false starts as the introductions and prefaces unfold themselves, recalls If on a winter’s night a traveller, and the organising principle of the catalogue or list irresistibly recalls Life A User’s Manual (itself mentioned in the entry on the “Polygraphist Knight”), there are other points of comparison. We might read it against Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the epic poem by the fictitious John Shade, where the real story unfolds in the commentary provided by the man gradually revealed to be Shade’s delusional stalker, Kinbote. As in Nabokov’s novel, there are hidden correspondences in the commentary waiting to be put together. Nothing about Wigrum is uninformed: the letters which float around on the white front page are like the details of Wigrum’s life, stranded and waiting to be read back into coherence.

Producing an exhaustive catalogue of these correspondences would doubtless be an enjoyable task, but it is outwith the scope of this review; however, a few of the important ones bear dwelling on. There are multiple references, especially in connection with books, to the number 451, a famous literary number thanks to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 claiming it to be the temperature at which paper burns. There are 451 titles in the catalogue of the Library of Lost Time, and 451 copies printed of Wigrum’s book On the Souvenir as Art Object. This places literary expression, the story, under continuous threat, and indeed most of the objects have only survived to be collected by some happenstance that stops them being destroyed – the kamikaze pilot’s pen, or the single “Blank Page” that survives from the “Library of Lost Time,” a casualty of the London Blitz.

Another striking thematic pattern is the number of children who vanish, temporarily or otherwise in the course of the book. There is Samuel Mudde, a myopic Quebecois orphan adopted by the scientists at CERN who leaves his “Acceleration Glasses” behind when he vanishes into a particle accelerator; a “heroic canary” named Zazie who was used to detect gas leaks in the Paris metro until she was freed when the “Red String”  used to track her (now in Wigrum’s collection) was cut by an anonymous little girl who is implied to be the model for one of the most famous runaway children in literature, Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le métro (Queneau is said to have been one of the onlookers when the bird vanished into a tunnel); and Clara Zeno, a “measuring prodigy” who could tell the size of an object with a single glance and who when she vanished in 1944 left behind a birthday present, the “October Tape” later acquired by Wigrum. At times like these, Wigrum might be thought to fall down somewhat in its repetitiousness – after the nth copy of a life story, we risk feeling bored, or annoyed that the secret is being dangled in front of our faces. In general, however, the novel manages our expectations, making us think that the next piece of the puzzle is just beyond our grasp. Women and girls named Clara or Klara appear again and again, although in historical circumstances and sequences that mean they are not the same Clara who Wigrum knew and admired from afar. There is also Wigrum’s friend, rival, and correspondent, Stepniac, who “authors” the novel’s foreword (which appears after Chapter One). In this way Stepniac, as fictional character and as alter ego of Canty, becomes one of the book’s curators and authors. His name reappears as that of the STEPNIAC 3000, an “artificial brain” from the Second World War, “invented […] by a group of cyberneticists of the Polish resistance.” The computer, like Stepniac, is an author, in its case of “a modernist work, written entirely in code,” about a man identified only by the initial W. We are treated to an excerpt from the text describing this character: “a man who would not be a man but an island, an island who would not be an island.” That the only way this work is described is as “modernist” (it is not even called a “novel”), is telling – it might be meant as a term of derision, or a warning about the text’s incomprehensibility. The idea that computers might be modernists on one level makes perfect sense, but they also don’t have an older tradition against which to react. That being said, one of Wigrum’s enthusiasms is the history of computing – perhaps STEPNIAC 3000 reacts against its origins in humanity, the story of Babbage and Ada Lovelace that unfolds in the description of the “Binary Keys” to their early computer, the “difference engine.” That story features a copy of the machine being secretly constructed in the jungle on the fictional South American island of “Unuguay,” and the dictator who rules the island, and eventually comes into possession of the keys – and on whose order, it is implied, the plans were stolen in the first place – claims, “I am, I was, I will be Unuguay.” Like “W” he is not a man but an island, and for him too, that island is not an island, since the little “bamboo dictatorship” of Unuguay does not exist. Perhaps the STEPNIAC 3000’s “modernist work” is a response to the early identity crisis in the computer’s history, the tale of the construction and destruction of its first two selves, original and copy.

The computer’s work has other characters, each of whom “transforms into ‘a woman who responds to the man she has been.’” This is a fair summary of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, another “modernist” work that involves a man changing into a woman whose existence is forced to be a kind of “response” to the man she was – Orlando will lose her home and possessions unless she marries, which she only does when she finds her double in Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, an adventurer like her former self and, who it is implied, also once changed genders. That theme of changing lives is also reflected in the story of the “Ambidextrous Keys” exchanged by two men, Stephen Wallner and Jeremiah Salterton, when they swapped lives. This bizarre and apparently effortless operation is described in painstaking detail, making one of the book’s most compelling stories, and one that has least to do with the object; the “Binary Keys” which are laid out in the same way in their illustration as the “Ambidextrous Keys” in theirs, are intimately involved in the lengthy alternate history of the birth of the computer. The housekeys of Wallner and Salterton are almost incidental to the story, however, and an item such as their monogrammed handkerchiefs would have been as interesting for Wigrum to own, perhaps more so, since they share their initials with Sebastian Wigrum and Joseph Stepniac. Overall, the stories of these two sets of keys tie together to create a story about subjectivity, individuality, and selfhood that might expand to fill a whole novel of its own. Wigrum contains dozens of such possibilities: when we read them, study them – the form of the museum catalogue does make reading and cross-referencing these descriptions feel like “study,” with the re-reading and non-linearity that entails – they expand.

For those who, like this reviewer, enjoy detecting those patterns, Wigrum supplies an abundance of additional references to other literary works and historical motifs. Hemingway, Proust, and J.D. Salinger all appear, as does the Second World War (especially bombing, from the London Blitz to kamikaze pilots), nineteenth-century con artistry, and the early history of computing. When it comes to literature, Canty likes to blur the border between the work and reality as he has done with Wigrum, making Holden Caulfield a real-life gas-station attendant who possibly by mere coincidence informed The Catcher in the Rye and was even made an assistant professor on the back of it, and suggesting in the cryptic history of the “Hare Watch” that the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland lives, invisibly, somewhere far below the city of Oxford. Wigrum supplies as many referential rabbit-holes as we might care to go down, but cross-referencing them all is the kind of maddening task which seems at once impossible and enticing, as when first looking into other highly elusive works, Pale Fire chief among them.

Another pedantic theme, although this one in a formal dimension, is the internationalism. The notes make a point of translating every utterance into the original language in the margin, be it French, Czech, Japanese; even the Braille from the “Ticket for the Blind” is included. For the reader of the English version, this can only underline that our experience of the book is mediated, but in any language it looks, presented in white marginal space, like the notes accompanying an exhibition in a museum. The easiest rationale for this to imagine is that the originals are provided to allow us to make our own translations, in case we are unsatisfied with the apparently multilingual scholarship of the catalogue; its purpose as a device in a novel, then, is to add to the authenticity of the device, but also to lend multiplicity to a collage of experiences that would otherwise seem too authoritative, too single.

This concern to express neither too much nor too little authority is only one of several fine lines Wigrum walks in its expression, and preserving that is ably managed by the English translation. While Oana Avasilichioaei, in translating Canty’s French, does her best to hide her presence from the reader by producing a straightforward and clear translation, this also hides her skill in helping keep Wigrum affecting without being manipulative, and elliptical without being obtuse. The book presents itself as a museum catalogue, and the language is simple and factual, if at times slightly sentimental. The French may be even more so; in one entry, for a stub printed in Braille claiming to be from a “Cinema for the Blind”, it is described how when sighted people went to the purported site of the cinema, they found only “des murs nus, au fond de ruelles sans issue,” which Avasilichioaei renders as “the blank walls of dead-end alleys.” This slight contraction and grammatical re-arrangement is entirely within the rights of a translator of French into English, but were we to read instead “bare walls, at the end of alleys with no exits,” this would press harder on the sense of abandonment of its “disadvantaged and lonely” patrons that the section as a whole suggests. Avasilichioaei gives her English readers “disadvantaged” for Canty’s “pauvres” (“poor”), her prose’s characteristic blend of sensitivity and matter-of-factness preventing this passage from becoming a neo-Dickensian parable.

Nevertheless, it does have a moral lesson, spoken as a report, which it is said “captures the cinema’s mystery,” by one of the blind people who leads the unidentified sighted scholars investigating the cinema to the alleys: “You don’t wander into the Cinema of the Blind by closing your eyes. Being blind is something altogether different from keeping your eyes closed, and it’s not cinema.” The compiler of the catalogue has missed the point of what the blind man has told him. This is not a comment on the mythical Cinema but on a certain attitude, perhaps one which encompasses the study of the curio. People’s lives cannot be entered just by choosing to imagine how those people experience the world as a recreation or holiday from one’s own life. This is not, however, the ambition of Wigrum, or of Wigrum either. The collection is not composed of objects that let us assume the identities of other people; they are seldom clothes or costumes (with the possible exception of the hat with ear-flaps that belonged to the “real” Holden Caulfield), but tokens of their lives. They are not tickets but ticket-stubs, keeping a record of what has happened without admitting us into the audience in order to see it again.

The museum is the most difficult source of knowledge to cite. If I have learned something from an encyclopaedia or a scholarly treatise, I can give a page number, a quotation. But if I learned it from examining a prehistoric leaf or an unpoppable bubble, it is harder to give a better citation than to say “go, and see it for yourself.” The museum catalogue writer in doing this is tasked with only suggesting a more complete experience. There is a certain impulse towards honesty in writing a novel in that mode: the form that clings most closely to “reality” here demonstrates its commitment to that by applying itself with scholarly diligence to the construction of a system of traces. Its stories, always changing and questioning their own truth, work to model (like a museum diorama) the way that we all construct our own history and experience.