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Five relics

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It’s October, so we continue to talk about relics at Ark. Today, we asked five of our volunteers to pick one, and their choices are, well, varied. This is their picks and what they had to say about them.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote


The first book I can remember reading as some kind of conscious “adult” choice was In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. It is the story of the real-life tragic murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959 and the search for the killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. But more that this, the book portrays a community attempting to limp on following the sudden act of extraordinary violence, which shatter their pastoral dream. But most compelling of all, it folds this back into the examination of the biographies of the murders and, in doing so, shows how a lifetime of dreadful and particular circumstances can make terrible decisions almost inevitable.

I remember sitting on the bus to and from school, driving through the Yorkshire countryside, attempting to shut out the screams of far too many kids who seemed almost panicked at the prospect of their daily incarceration, and falling into this american gothic tragedy. I was fascinated by the detail and nuance that Capote brought to a case that so many others would simply write off as an example of the evil that men do, falsely believing retribution could be an ending to something that was the product of generations of abuse, infused with cosmic chaos. More engrossing still, was the way in which Capote’s narration became subtly unreliable as his affection for Smith shines through. Whereas the biographical details for Hickock seemed to me to take up only a few pages, the background on Smith is almost a novel in itself. To then hear of how this book was the end of Capote’s writing life gave it such gravity; its contents had to be expressed at any cost.

It has been many years since I read In Cold Blood. My copy sits on my parents book shelf, a relic of the course my imagination has pursued in the years hence. Despite my fondness in remembering it now, I am, however, reticent to pick it up again; human memory is a dreadful way to retain the relics of actuality.


Konsten by Horst Waldemar Janson


Funnily, one of my most beloved books is one that I don’t much enjoy reading. It’s an enormous, 70’s edition art history textbook my grandmother had used during her studies. The golden hard-cover is aptly titled ‘Konsten’ (‘Art’, or ‘The Art’, in Swedish), and is a translated copy of Russian-American professor H.W. Janson’s ‘History of Art’ first published in 1962. I never got to meet my grandmother as she passed away only shortly after I was born, but my mother often tells me how much we have in common, how she would have taken me to galleries and museums and loved to talk to me about arts and culture. As I bookmark chapters, contemplate the pictures or skim passages, I like to imagine my grandmother sitting at a kitchen table, maybe with a cup of coffee, poring over the pages in just the same way. Recently, however, my enjoyment of the book was disrupted when a google search revealed that not a single female artist is once featured in its thousand or so pages; a fact that’s so astounding it’s almost impressive, considering the book chronicles all the way back to prehistoric cave painting. Yet, my love for the book has nothing to do with its contents. The book is precious to me for the connection it gives me to my grandmother, as a tool for my imagination of her, as a relic imbued with magic. So, although ‘Konsten’ has yet to teach me very much about the history of art, it continues to serve me well as a different kind of lesson: a reminder that those who author history can erase it as well as write it, and that regardless of what they write, we should not overlook the readers. Janson may not have spared much thought for female artists, but in a delicious twist of sweet irony, his book is now a symbol for a creative woman in my past, and a relic of her history.


The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera


If there is any book on my shelf that could be called a relic, it is Milan Kundera’s arguably most famous novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. As Goodreads summarises the book—briefly, beautifully and strangely accurately—“The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a 1984 novel by Milan Kundera, about two women, two men, a dog and their lives in the 1968 Prague Spring period of Czechoslovak history.

I guess it would be easy to examine the rows of books in my room and overlook it: the edition I own (I do not really: I have borrowed it, eternally, from my parents) is a tiny, underground-press paperback, not really even a pocket-size, rather a half-one. I have read it, this very copy, some good six-seven times. Vintage: 1985, four years my senior. As the legend, the truth of which I cannot vouch for, goes, it was smuggled to Poland through the southern border. Translated by a by now renowned Polish director Agnieszka Holland (The Wire. House of Cards.) With a print so tiny it calls for a magnifying glass, and, in conjunction with the simplistic reproduction method used, a good example of what to be on the verge of legibility means.

It truly is an artefact, an object from a different era, so ungainly yet beautiful, especially standing among all those new shiny Penguins, Fitzcarraldos and Serpent’s Tales. The first couple of pages are already falling apart, which is both a shame and a good admonition to be careful whom one lends one’s books to (I once lent the book further). I do not, however, dare to use tape or glue on it; with too much respect for its time-honoured being, I’d rather keep it in pieces.


A battered paperback of John Irving’s Last Night in Twisted River


Back when I was a teenager and living at home, my mother’s bookshelves were always ripe for pillaging. Even as a kid I had been an avid reader, and as the hormones starting churning so did my interest in other, more adult fiction. I clearly remember reading Marian Keyes’ Sushi for Beginners and being utterly perplexed at the banal intrigue of the adult world. However, my first real step into adulthood came with my first John Irving novel. My mom had these lined up, all in Danish translation, in beautiful hardbacks with the most curious titles. Being better versed in English, I decided to borrow the original language versions at the local library, and I raided the catalogue until I had read them all.

I cannot remember which book I read first. John Irving’s oeuvre is known for being somewhat repetitive (New England, wrestling and prostitution, anyone?) All I recall is the deep impression the first book made on me. Irving’s stories opened up a whole new and fascinating world, much more perverted and somehow more true than the one I was faced with in my everyday life. It was a world of sorrow, comedy, loss and irony – lived by twisted existences that, in their oddity, mirrored so many contradictory areas of society.

Today, it’s been a while since I read anything by Irving, but I still have a very tattered paperback of Last Night in Twisted River standing on my shelf. It’s one of those paperbacks hastily put together by a publishing house to sell more copies; thin pages, ridiculous font size, and an uninspiring cover. Yet its presence is a relic of the last remnants of innocent childhood and that first tentative step into an adult consciousness – the worlds it opened up for me, and the worlds that literature in all shapes and sizes continues to open up.


Passagère du Silence by Fabienne Verdier


Since I can remember I have kept a journal. As a child, I dutifully scribbled in my diary every evening, recapping what happened at school, why my parents ‘totally don’t get me’ and who I am going to be and do in the future (when my parents stop being such a drag, obviously). The entries kept evolving as I have been growing up, becoming a collection of daily ponderings, a way to commemorate what was important to me in that precise moment in my life and sometimes a form of self-help. The deeply intimate character of my jottings made the physical notebooks close to sacred to me, but I never thought it would be another person’s memoir that would become my relic.

In 1983 twenty-year-old Fabienne Verdier left France to learn drawing and calligraphy in China. What she found upon her arrival was drastically different from her romantic imagination of Chinese reality, and anything that she had learned in the safe harbour of her homeland. Young Verdier experienced the hardships of living in China first-hand, just ten years after the Cultural Revolution – she went through a series of illnesses without help, felt real hunger for the first time in her life, and discovered what it meant to be the wrong person in the wrong place, constantly invigilated and under a threat of political prosecution. Despite it all, she stayed focused on her craft, kept on creating, and found an old calligraphy master who only reinforced her in the constant quest of perfecting her skill.

I stumbled upon Fabienne Verdier’s candid reflections in the right moment – just when I was debating my next move. Fabienne’s story of entering adulthood miles away from home, in times when the world felt so much bigger than nowadays, was tumbling in my head when I started packing my bags. When there was little to distract me from the loneliness of a new city, I remembered her grit, composure and close to naïve faith in gut feeling. Even though I do not have a zealot in me, my paperback copy of the memoir became a personal relic – an integral part of the decision I made and a tangible companion of my first solitary journey. Since then, to anyone at the crossroads, I recommend Passagère du Silence. And remind them to pack their passport.


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