• Stephanie Green

‘To renew the old world—that is the collector’s deepest desire’ (Walter Benjamin)


Years ago I asked Michael if he’d ever made a list of the hundreds of collectable items that he keeps in his apartment. He opened his eyes in semi-mock horror, the large brown irises suddenly surrounded by white. ‘Are you kidding, that would be horrific,’ he said. ‘If I did that, I’d have to face the reality!’ He poured me a martini and I did not ask again. Reality was never something that should be faced, he had once explained to me. You had to creep up on it very quietly to get a close look at it, and then be ready to run.

Michael’s apartment overlooks the beach from top of the hill.  He used to say that the view was what kept him there so many years. From the front window he could see the sky changing, the yellow suits of the lifesavers against the blue of ocean, the cars coming or going away. If it hadn’t been for the view, he would have moved, found another job or bought a house. Except that he didn’t really want to live in a house on a block of land in a low suburban street. The thought of it made him feel lonely.

In any case, I could never imagine Michael moving all the things he owns. Not just the usual kinds of things a person keeps at home, like furniture or crockery. Not disagreeable things, like plastic bags filled with old clothes or dozens of packets of toilet rolls. Michael’s apartment is full of special things that you’d be unlikely to find anywhere else, like the green-striped ceramic cow, the dress made by island women from thousands of seeds and shells, or the seventeenth-century anatomical drawing of a leopard that hangs above his desk.

Michael came here from America years ago. It was then the furthest he had ever been from home. At the time, he imagined he would stay just a few years. So long as he could have a view of the sea he wouldn’t mind. ‘You wouldn’t believe I had nothing but two suitcases and an umbrella when I first arrived here’, he once remarked as we sat out on his balcony on a rainy night with glasses of champagne. The wind surged around us, bowing the overgrown conifers that grew on the ridge to the east.

The apartment has two bedrooms but there is no room for a bed in either of them. Michael’s kingsize bed is in the living room, beneath a painting that I’ve stared at dozens of times. If I tell you that this painting is filled with rows of slightly uneven small grey squares, you might not be interested. But if I tell you that it was like the sound of waves at night just after a storm, or listening under a high window to a lone musician, or a train journey among the peaks of a Pacific mountain range, you might understand why it appealed so much to me. It’s one of only three paintings in Michael’s main living room and almost as wide as the kingsize bed, which is usually covered in a pale grey counterpane.

The bed itself occupies a strange zone in that apartment, as if it too were some kind of object of art. Perhaps that’s to do with its vast paleness, or its unconventional presence, or with Michael’s absent object of desire, an interesting woman who resides on the other side of the continent. I, certainly, have never sat or reclined upon it. Once, when Michael was in the kitchen making coffee, I took off my green linen jacket and draped it over the foot of the bed, but it looked so out of place on that vast pale surface that I immediately put it back on again. Only Michael’s sleek Russian Blue cat Yuri looked as if he belonged there, with his slender outstretched paws and his viridian eyes shimmering in the afternoon light.

One of the bedrooms Michael uses for a study, with the western wall covered floor to ceiling with books, a high-back leather chair and a large black desk that is remarkably uncluttered for the workstation of a philosopher. Perhaps that’s because I’ve always imagined that philosophers have messy thoughts out of which they produce sudden bursts of clarity—but maybe the clarity has to come first, I don’t know.

In the other bedroom is a sophisticated storage cabinet that juts out into the room. Michael had the cabinet built by a master carpenter where he keeps all the things he doesn’t have room to display. Its blonde wooden door is inlaid with black walnut. Inside are the wooden drawers and high, deep shelves he has filled with rolled drawings and prints and canvases, oriental carpets, rare fabrics and dozens of small odd objects gathered from his travels around the world. I had known Michael for two years before he opened the door of the cabinet and showed me what was inside. Having been curious for so long, I found I could hardly bear to look. The cabinet seemed at once so personal and so remarkable, a counting house of magical tokens with which a common mortal should have no truck.

There isn’t really any one object that I like best in Michael’s apartment. It’s the whole collection that’s impressive, an assembly of things that are old, unique or remarkable, like a kind of antidote for modern life. Seeing his assembly of curious objects gradually becoming a tiny personal museum always gave me a vicarious satisfaction. Wonder and intrigue without commitment. Every time I visit, I notice something different.

The first time I went there I was taken with another of the paintings he owns – a smaller one hanging on the wall behind the soft black leather sofa. I don’t know now if it was the subtle warmth of the tones, or the gentle overlap of the pigment or the one line of carefully dripped paint high up on the right hand side. I said something about how much I liked it, I can’t remember now what words I used.

‘Surely you don’t like it more than my cow’, he replied, nodding towards a green-and-white ceramic sculpture with perky, angular horns.

‘Yes, I like her too,’ I replied, smiling.

Later I learned to recognise this as a kind of tactic. Whenever I commented on something, he would distract me somehow, pointing to the Vietnamese lacquerware bowl, the pooping donkey cigarette dispenser, or the string of green and red Peruvian clay beads that he had draped over the Buddha’s outstretched hand. Maybe he did this partly to keep the conversation flowing; I don’t know. Maybe he wanted to spread the feeling of wonder at all the strange and interesting things in the world, not lock it down to any one item in particular. Maybe he didn’t want to show favouritism towards the objects, especially in front of someone who was a stranger to them. Or maybe he didn’t want to rely on any one object as a measure of worth.

That day, I commented on each of the items he pointed me to and examined them carefully. I was still a student after all. Then I went back to the painting, with its irregular planes of soft colour, and stared at it again. ‘This is my favourite though’, I told him. And then all of a sudden we were talking about something completely different—like where to buy the best smallgoods in town, or the cost of parking a car on campus. At the end of my first visit I couldn’t say that I felt I’d passed any kind of test, exactly. He didn’t think like that. He wasn’t a harsh judge of people, unless they’d wounded him in some way. But on some level it seemed I had chosen well, and that I would be invited back.

There was a kind of routine that occurred with each of my visits. He would invite me, often at short notice, to drinks or a meal. We would sit, almost invariably whatever the weather, on the narrow balcony that ran along the northern side of the building. The cat Yuri would join us, jumping up onto the railing, beating us lightly with his tail. There would be martinis with tiny cocktail onions, or if it was to be dinner he would set the table with a cloth and crumpled Irish linen napkins that felt sleek and rich under our hands. Occasionally we would have a late breakfast on the balcony, followed by a drive in his red Capri with the roof rolled back. There might be other friends of his, or there might not. In those days I tended to avoid people. I had suffered one of those banal but all too common losses from which I had not yet recovered, but Michael reminded me more than once that the company of likeminded people could be a kind of balm. If that were so, then Michael’s friends were exactly like his objects, interesting individuals gathered together as a thoughtful antidote for the strain of modern life.

Usually, I went to Michael’s place rather than inviting him to mine. He did come to my flat once or twice, but I had little to offer him as entertainment, other than conversation. Once I roasted a chicken, stuffed with whole lemons and oregano, smothered in olive oil with coarse salt, but that day the oven was hard to light and the chicken took longer to cook than I planned. While we were waiting he told me about the time he got sick in Belize. ‘I lost six kilos and brought back a two hundred year old handwoven mat, but I’ll never go back there again’, he said shaking his head.

‘Was the mat really two hundred years old?’ I asked him.

‘That’s what they said’, he told me. I guess, with these things, it’s a matter of what you believe.

The green-and-white striped ceramic cow sat on a high coffee table beside the window that overlooked the beach. He had found her in a village market in India – the kind of place he loved to visit. She was too big to carry in his luggage so she was posted to his apartment wrapped in alternating layers of newspaper and straw, tied with string. When he opened the package Yuri played with the broken strands of straw until Michael vacuumed them up from the crimson carpet in the centre of the room. The ceramic cow made the room more cheerful. She wore a slightly comical expression on her face. In her high position in front of the sofa, she was hard to miss. If you stared out of the window for a while she made a dark outline, one feisty horn and a square striped shoulder that hovered at the edge of your vision after you turned away.

Years ago I read something by Walter Benjamin: that the ‘most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle’. Michael’s apartment was, for more than one of us, a kind of magical circle, a cure for loneliness, age, despair. A place where rare things were important. Somewhere you could never be bored. Instead, everywhere you looked were objects to amaze, or please, or amuse. At worst you might be puzzled, but it would be a good kind of puzzlement, the kind that stopped you from taking the everyday things for granted, the kind that reminded you of what really matters.

Michael’s collection had many remarkable qualities, including its size, the numbers of things all crammed, with seeming deliberation, into that one small place. Twenty-five sets of Irish bed linen, never used, thirty-seven hand-woven oriental rugs and at least twelve antique Japanese Kimonos. These are just examples. There’s more, much more. Many items he bought in out of the way markets on his travels abroad, before online shopping became so popular. The internet made collecting even easier for him. Not long ago he bought two hundred and seventy hand-coloured botanical illustrations, some from the sixteenth century, most of which he keeps packed away out of the light so they won’t fade.

Even the everyday things, though, Michael likes to have in multiples. One time, after a trip to the States, he came back with eighteen plain white tee shirts. ‘I hate running out of things I need,’ he explained.

‘I know what you mean. When I find a pair of shoes that I really like, I always regret that I didn’t buy two pairs’, I answered.

‘Well, I guess that’s almost starting to get the idea. Next time, buy two pairs! Hell, buy three’, he replied rolling his eyes at my terrible parsimony. I promised I would. I wanted to, but somehow I never did.

In the beginning, he didn’t think of his possessions as a proper collection. ‘They’re just a lot of stuff I find interesting or unusual. There’s no central organising principle. No theme.’

‘The most obvious organising principle is you’, I answered.

‘But there are so many more of them!’ he answered. ‘And anyway I don’t own them really. They own me.’

As long as I’ve known him, Michael has never abandoned the hope of finding new things to bring home. When I first met him he put this down to feeling miserable. These days he seems to have developed a chilly fury that sustains him through the worst, whatever the worst in his case might be. Fury and collecting, these are his recipes for survival.

He once told me how, on the eve of her heart operation, his mother called him close to her hospital bed. With a drip in her arm, struggling to speak through the oxygen tube, she said, ‘Michael, try not to shop so much. All anybody needs is their health.’

I can only remember one time that Michael really talked about the collecting as a kind of problem. He was feeling dejected about some shares that had crashed that week on the stock exchange.

‘I shouldn’t spend so much, or I’ll be poor when I’m old’, he sighed.

‘Will you stop?’ I asked.

‘Probably not, but maybe I could take it more gently’, he answered, looking even more miserable at the prospect.

I think that was when I told him about the passage in The Picture of Dorian Gray that describes the seemingly indestructible youth’s collection of marvelous and ancient things. I was finishing my PhD at the time and Wilde’s overwritten but strangely potent novella was much on my mind. At one point in this story, having become impervious to decay, Dorian Gray surrounds himself with strange and beautiful possessions, jewels, antique furniture, fabric art of great value and age. But these significant objects fail to sate his listless desire. Mere fetishes of history, like Dorian himself, they lack vital force.

‘I don’t remember that part’, Michael replied, after I described the passage to him. ‘All I know is, if I could find a way to stay young forever, I’d take it in a flash. There’s nothing wonderful about getting old.’

A few years ago, after I finished my PhD, I decided to move cities, closer to where I grew up. I didn’t have any definite job or place to live. My plan was to stay with family or friends until I knew what I’d be doing. I packed my books and papers in boxes, sold or gave away most of the furniture, and pared down my wardrobe to a few changes of clothes. ‘I like this feeling of lightness, as if I could go anywhere, as if anything is possible’, I explained to Michael. He looked darkly at me. I wondered later if he had misunderstood.

Now, after years of commuting across the continent, Michael’s absent object of desire has finally moved in with him. She found a job she likes and he seems much happier. The collection is still expanding though. When I last visited their apartment I discovered a pair of child’s wooden crutches against a corner, a painting he has to lean at an angle against the wall because the ceiling is too low and the new bathroom closet in which she keeps her things.

There isn’t much room, but Michael did clear one side of the walnut cabinet, so she’d have somewhere to hang her clothes. ‘I did it before she arrived and it’s the first time in twenty five years I’ve gotten rid of anything’, he admitted to me over the phone.

‘Did it feel good?’ I asked.

‘It was torture’, he replied.

‘I’m sure it was good for your soul’, I told him.

‘I’m thinking about renting a storage unit’, he confessed.

After all these years, Michael has finally been persuaded to make an inventory of everything, if only for his insurance. The list isn’t finished yet and he has already noted over two thousand items. It’s an annotated inventory. Each object has a short description. This is partly for practical purposes, so that the things can be easily identified. But I suspect that making the list, finding the words to capture each object, has given him almost as much pleasure as the original acquisition.

On my last visit, he invited me over for lunch with a friend of ours, Brenda, and we talked about the pointlessness of regret and the shape of oyster shells. Before I left that day he gave me one of the botanical drawings, a golden toadflax. Now it hangs on a wall in my campus office. Alongside the papers and books, a sketch by a friend and a small female hippopotamus figurine wearing lipstick and a shawl, it reminds me that not all things are lost.