Hearth and Home
Edward Hollis, The Memory Palace: A Book of Lost Interiors
Portobello, 368pp, £25.00, ISBN 9781846273254
reviewed by David Anderson
In any case, I slipped quite easily just then into describing a living environment that doesn't entirely exist, a kind of soft-fictionalisation that the idea of 'home' quite frequently undergoes. This thought reminded me of a book from my childhood, composed of strangely organised aphorisms and entitled Nectar in a Nutshell - I can't find it now, it might be in any one of a number of attics - and one of its little truisms was that 'a good home is a hearth and a horizon.' Edward Hollis's The Memory Palace seems, at first glance, more to this way of thinking than Adorno's or Nietzsche's, openly not
a book about modern interiors. In fact it is an argument that there can be no such thing, for modernity implies a rejection of the past, a commitment to the future, and a deliberate forgetfulness.
Later on Hollis, a tutor in interior design at Edinburgh University, illustrates his thoughts with a description of the residual importance of the hearth itself:
'Hearth and Home' we say ... Long after its utility has passed away, the location of the fireplace can still dictate the layout of a room.
The book's broader premise is that interiors are things fixed in time, as well as space. Excursions into the histories of various rooms and pieces of furniture serve to illustrate and embroider this principle, and while Hollis gets a little mystical with his hearth metaphor ('While it may flicker in the hearth, no fire is identical to its predecessor'), his evidence, such as the linguistic relation between furniture and buildings (meubles and immeubles) in the moveable feast that was the medieval French court, are frequently illuminating.
Taking his title from the Ciceronian rhetorical technique of memorising long speeches by means of an imaginary stroll through a series of grandiose palaces, and moving towards a depiction of the internet as a vast and ever-expanding memory palace, many of Hollis's potted histories establish a convincing relationship between the frailties of memory and the unavoidable solidity of material objects. Outstanding among these are the tumultuous tales of the Exchequer, and of King Arthur's round table at Winchester. The latter, in particular, put me in mind of a similar history to be found inscribed on a plaque in Surrey Street, W1, referring to the Roman baths encased within an adjacent wall-recess of King's College. The baths, now thought to be a replica, are surrounded by so much recorded opinion to the contrary that the uncertainty in itself has become a point of interest, validating their continued sustenance as a National Trust-sponsored tourist attraction (albeit a fairly abstruse one).
Hollis's interiors range from the Roman porphyry chamber to Louis XV's Cabinet de la Chaise, from the central European Wunderkammer to the Crystal Palace, with each chapter framed by a visit to his grandmother's house in suburban London, a 'doll's house' whose sitting room is home to 'more than 250 objects'. As her mobility has declined, so the interior of the house has become a world in miniature, and Hollis's thesis is that this environment acts as a correlative to a space that transcends modernity. Although 'there is always a beginning before the beginning, ' (in a turn of phrase pleasantly reminiscent of Ernst Gombrich's image of two mirrors facing one another), we are asked to halt this logic at 'the cave from which we all originate', before which there is, apparently, no beginning.
The concomitant technique of beginning almost every mini-essay from a defamiliarised perspective, before gradually unveiling its subject, can be wearisome, but is easily surmounted by turning it into a game: try to guess at the interior in question before it is explicitly named. And often Hollis's subjects are intellectually stimulating, notably the description of Henry Roberts's model workers' cottages, presented at the Crystal Palace, which includes Dickens's responses in Household Words, both under his own name and his alias, Bendigo Butler. Tales of Louis XV plotting in his secret water closet, or of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf sealing himself up in his Wunderkammer, 'a curiosity in his own cabinet,' are engaging enough to outweigh any criticisms of style. I was, however, interested to note that while Hollis refers more than once to Walter Benjamin's ideas of the collector, he studiously overlooks the comments in One Way Street (1928) relating detective fiction to the nineteenth century bourgeois interior, whose 'soulless luxuriance ... becomes true comfort only in the presence of a dead body.'
But perhaps we have started out from a slightly misleading position: all this historical exposition seems slightly counter to the fact that the elaboration of the interior is in fact a modern phenomenon. Hollis himself admits that 'It is only since the nineteenth century that people have been writing histories of them.' And in recent years, critics like Matthew Taunton have argued convincingly that all the academic emphasis on the exterior, with the street as the theatre of modern experience, has been deceptive. A parallel dilemma is the question of restoration. In his previous, and highly successful book, The Secret Lives of Buildings (Portobello, 2009), Hollis reported that
the term restoration and the thing itself are both modern ... To restore a building is not to preserve it, to repair it, or rebuild it; it is to reinstate it in a condition of completeness that could never have existed at any given time.
The Memory Palace might seem to be attempting to do just that, if in words rather than bricks and mortar. But Hollis is careful to point out that 'rather than trying to restore them, this book will narrate the moments and modes of their disappearance.' In negotiating its carefully laid out relation to modernity, the writing attempts a kind of restoration in motion, shifting between tenses in a manner that can sometimes be frustrating. It's an approach best analogised through the description of the afterlife of Scarlett O'Hara's dress from Gone with the Wind - 'complete restoration would require the transformation of the dress into a pair of curtains, and that would entail the loss of a wonderful story.'
A huge, telescopic operation, 'a story that takes us from the cave to the cloud', Hollis's conceit is, finally, strong enough for its purposes. Tiptoeing a path somewhere between restoration and ruination, through a present that is 'the ruin of the past, a room rearranged rather than invented,' The Memory Palace is a provocative and thoughtful piece of work.