One afternoon in Paris in 1948, when Truman Capote was young, he accompanied his friend Jean Cocteau to visit Colette, the grande dame of French literature, at her apartment in the Rue de Beaujolais. On entering, they found the lady herself, “that ink fountain”, sitting up in bed, aged nearly 80, surrounded by her paperweights. “There were perhaps a hundred of them covering two tables,” Capote later wrote. “Crystal spheres imprisoning green lizards, salamanders, millefiori bouquets… shimmering like fireworks.” Colette took to Capote without a moment’s hesitation, and she leaned over, handing him a white rose enclosed in glass, by Baccarat. “What images occur to you?” she asked him.
“Young girls in their communion dresses,” he said.
“Very charming. Very apt. Now I can see what Jean told me is true.” She gifted him the bauble, the first of his own collection.
When I was a child, I was given a paperweight with a small anchor inside it. Personally, I wanted to live under glass, but my brothers used it to crack open conkers, or to squash beetles, which, like most official family business round our way in the 1970s, served to keep my sensitivity in check. As I grew up, and began to have favourite writers, the paperweights came to seem symbolic, or downright corny, in a nice way, like the snow globe in Citizen Kane that brings the mogul back to his childhood. Innocence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but I’m now willing to pay good money to get back to it.
I have dozens of them now. There’s a whole table of them by my bed. Colette called hers “my snowflakes”, and that’s the essence of them: each contains a world. If you’re a dreamy person – and what is a writer, if not that? – then you can easily be carried into their little, discrete universes of colour and event and timelessness. It’s a quiet obsession, not like loving obscure malt whiskies or Japanese motorbikes – which depend on various kinds of revving up – although the attempt to collect more paperweights can be just as silly, and just as costly. My daughter, when she feels I’m being unfair in not buying her 25 new bronzers or 500 additions to her collection of “tops”, will tell me how weird it is that I spend my waking hours searching for “random dods of glass”, or broken typewriters. “Shush,” I say. “They’re very necessary to my sense of inner calm and poetic truth.”
For my innumerable sins, I once sat in the well-appointed Paris sitting room of Karl Lagerfeld. He had a few dods himself, though, unlike my collection, which are mainly late-night eBay purchases or ones liberated from Scottish jumble sales, his were all by the great French 19th-century makers of paperweights, Saint Louis, Clichy, Pantin and Baccarat. Note: an early lesson in life, if one wishes to survive, is Don’t Compete with the Likes of Karl Lagerfeld. But I consoled myself that day with the fact that he possessed far fewer than your average, self-respecting obsessive-compulsive. This question of cost is tricky, though. My wife recently objected to the idea that we might sell the car in order to buy one from a dealer in Chicago, a rare antique St Louis latticinio paperweight, white pompom on tomato red, priced at $9,000. She thinks that walking back from Morrisons in the rain won’t be worth it. Some people have no imagination. If only I could find our marriage contract – paper is forever blowing away, despite all the paperweights – I’m sure we’d find she made a promise to support my ludicrous pretensions no matter what the cost.
Life is quite busy at the moment, but never so busy that I can’t find time to engage in a spot of man-to-man-to-woman-to-gender-non-specific combat with people all round the world, bad people who wish to deprive me of my latest find. An unkind person might say I’m just wasting time, but everything, when you’re a writer, is work. That includes spending hours at a time staring into a glass ball. “Shush! I’m busy! Please knock the door before rushing into my study!” I say, ogling a thistle trapped in resin. I mention time, and I feel it is the central issue when discussing my obsession: things rush on, worlds fall apart, but the joy of the paperweight is that life is completely still there, all motion is stopped. To me, each one has something of the quality of Mona Lisa’s smile – just there, forever.
Yet even Capote could imagine other uses for them. In his story Shut a Final Door, the hero takes aim, with one of his paperweights, at an errant pigeon frolicking on the ledge of an open window. “That’s more like it,” my daughter might say, before sliding my credit card into her pocket and heading off to the shops. There’s always dresses, you see, communion or otherwise, and she prefers a different kind of life under glass, the light and motion to be found in the avenues of Westfield.
Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan is published by Faber & Faber at £14.99
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