Friday, January 28, 2011

Memory and literature

What's the relationship between literature and memory?  If I simply put those two words into the U of R Archer Library's search engine, I get 461 entries.  Or to put it another way, what percentage of the books you've read in the last six months have characters who spend a lot of their time remembering?

Johanna Skibsrud's Giller-prizewinning The Sentimentalists keeps the figure of submerged memory directly in the reader's mind through the image of the lake at the edge of the small Ontario town, Casablanca, that the narrator imagines still holds, as if in a glass snow dome, the house old Henry grew up in before the area was flooded.  The narrator and her father Napoleon, both startled by the directions their lives have taken, gather at Henry's house, waiting, in some ways, for Napoleon to die.  The narrator listens to her father's memories of Vietnam and compares them after his death to the official transcript of his testimony shortly after Owen's death, and to the summers at Casablanca that have grown out of his war experience.  She finds herself amidst puzzles.  If the actual version of Owen's death  in Vietnam (Owen is Henry's son) is what Napoleon told the military court, why has Napoleon found Henry, his close friend's father, and created the powerful tie with the old man that permeates his daughters' childhoods, even in his absence?  Moreover, in the context of the drug-induced haze and the chaos that is Vietnam, what is memory?

Out Stealing Horses, a novel I wrote about in my "On Convalescence" blog, is at least half memory, as Trond recalls the summer he came of age, trying to puzzle out his father's pleasantly curt abandonment of his family.  Here, the challenge Trond faces is that no matter how precise our own memory--and Trond's is sometimes startlingly precise--there are always holes in it made by the actions and decisions of others--holes that foil Trond's attempt to fully understand himself in the present moment.  It's as if his life at sixty-seven is impearled around an absence made when he was sixteen that he can never fill.

Jane Urquhart's Sanctuary Line--which, like The Sentimentalists I had to begin rereading the minute I got to the end of it--also keeps memory to the fore.  We realize early on that scientist Liz, who studies Monarch butterflies, is telling her story to someone--a "you" that remains unnamed for most of the novel.  That story records her girlhood summers at her Uncle Stanley's farm, growing up with her cousin Mandy who has recently been killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.  While Liz admits early on in her narrative that the sudden disappearance of her uncle and a young Mexican worker named Teo has profoundly shaped the world she now lives in, it's not until the novel's end that we learn....No spoiler alert here.  Read the novel.  At the same time, we learn that the novel's narratee is Mandy's Muslim lover Vahil; only then (and only by re-reading) do we realize that Liz is not telling the story that Vahil needs to know.  Mandy--Mandy's desires and dreams--is not at the centre of the story Liz tells him.  Liz is:  Liz, with her fond adolescent lust for Teo, with her discovery that Teo is her Uncle Stanley's child, with her reluctant conclusion that adults inhabit a world far less reliable and reasonable than the mirage they create for us when we are children, remains at the novel's centre.  So powerful is our need to narrate our memories, Urquhart suggests, that we do so at the slightest, vaguest invitation.  It's as if we think that if we tell them often enough we'll be able to finally find their meaning, their inner logic and order.

One of the things I wanted to accomplish in Blue Duets was to show how unreliable memory is as a guide to our present-day actions.  Lila realizes that, whether her memories are of her father or her early time with her husband Rob, they do not function like a hologram, making the past present so that she can watch it play out once more before her wiser, more experienced eyes that need memory's insights.  Much as she tries to allow memory to be an ethical touchstone, she must make her decisions based on her experience and perspective now.

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom....oh, no, no, no.  In spite of the fact that memory plays an important role at the novel's outset, you don't want another book report.  Having read my impressions of these books, you'd like some conclusions.  I'm not sure I have any.  I'd hazard a guess that our current-day fascination with memory begins with the modernist writers and of course with Freud.  The unconscious is memory's devil, putting it up to all kinds of unreliable things.  At the same time, my casual review of my own reading of late reveals a preoccupation with memory that doesn't seem the result of pure chance.  We could conclude that September 11th, and the recognition that all those lives enclosed  memories that are now lost, is behind our current memory-lust.  But what about the deaths of 850,000 people in Rwanda--a fifth of the country's population?  Or, of course, the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust?

I have read somewhere that in spite of the catastrophic conflicts of this century--conflicts mentioned in each of these novels on memory--throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first ideas about who deserves basic human rights became more inclusive.  This embrace of difference continues to increase first our tolerance and then our inclusion of the "other" in our social fabric.  Think of it:  women's rights, civil rights for black Americans and Canadians, gay rights.  Canada's hate speech laws are designed precisely not to allow us to fall back into the lazy thinking of intolerance where stereotypes and fear trump the recognition that each of us is human.

Each of these conflicts has left thousands dead.  That's thousands whose memories are wiped out:  for what are individuals besides their memories?  That's also thousands whom we grieve for and whom we attempt to keep human by remembering them.  But it's also thousands whose humanity we acknowledge by valuing their memories and by reading novels that emphasize the importance of memory and thus urge us to remember.

Do you see this flourishing of novels about memory?  What do you think caused it?  I'd love your comments.

The photographs here are Veronica Geminder's.  The first is taken in Boston Common on a Saturday afternoon in August.  The second is taken at Walden Pond a few days later.  The last is a photograph of Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" at Millennium Park in Chicago.  I love its echoes--which remind me of memory's echo chamber:  a photographer taking a photograph of a photographer taking a photograph of himself taking a photograph.  More photographs can be found on her flickr site:

Friday, January 21, 2011

Prairie Claustrophobia

The words "prairie" and "claustrophobia" probably seem oxymoronic.  What could be less claustrophobic than prairie skies that go right to the horizon?  Yet this winter, the endless snow and the white days that have no depth and make you feel like you're about to bump into an enormous stretch of white wall are claustrophobic.  Snow piles up besides the road, narrowing the streets and making it difficult to see oncoming traffic at intersections.  The snow that covers your car during every five-minute errand also piles up in ruts on the roads.  Everything seems harder than it should be:  you have to brush off your car before you can go anywhere, and probably brush it off every time you stop.  If you care about pedestrians, you shovel endlessly.

On the better days, the sun is little more than an idea, a slightly brighter haze somewhere off to the south.  On other days, you can't sense time passing:  you're caught in the eternal and cheerless present of unchanging light--creating another kind of claustrophobia, a temporal disorientation so profound that I sometimes feel in my office at the university, where my windows have been coated in gray film to keep my office cooler in summer and warmer in winter, that I work in continuous dusk.  My sense of natural time has disappeared because I can't simply look outside and know intuitively what time it is.

Saskatchewan folk have their sayings about weather--most of which are true:  ``It`s a dry cold.``  Or ``It isn`t the cold, it`s the wind.``  This uncharacteristic cloudy winter weather--an effect of climate change, perhaps, like the cool, wet springs and summers we`ve been having--is challenging our weather saws.  Now we huddle in corners and whisper together, trying to find the words that say we can cope with the cold, but are having an awful time with the cloudy days and the relentless snow.  Our spirits droop.

Then suddenly one morning we awake to the openness of cold.  It's minus 36, though there's no wind.  The nearly full moon in the west gleams over a clear sky.  As I drive just before sunrise to the university through Wascana Park to admire the growing light, the trees stretch inky blue-black against the transparent blue sky.

The next morning, the white walls are back.  There's only one thing to do:  wear my hot pink silk jacket and pretend I'm somewhere else.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Time and Being

While I was reading Heidegger's puzzling and illuminating work, Being and Time, I found myself thinking of my daughter Veronica, probably partly because I was working away at her copy and reading her notes while I made my own, but also because she's so good at being, while I am perhaps more inclined to be constantly doing. By what was probably sheer coincidence, I found us talking about being during the tea we share most Wednesday nights. As we talked, I realized that I do a better job of simply being when I'm with her. Perhaps that practice goes back to the days when she was small and it was difficult to find her shoes that were comfortable; I made the conscious decision that I could get impatient and frustrated or I could find a way to enjoy the process. The solution was to simply enjoy being until shoes were found. The habit is kept alive by the fact that we take one holiday together every year, a holiday that is one long glorious photo shoot, a holiday where I see the world very differently.

But the observation that startled me most was her assertion that she wasn't a list, but an organic whole, making me intensely jealous. Because I am definitely a list: teacher, scholar, creative writer, wife, mother, friend. The reason why my blog post mangles Heidegger's title is that time and its limitations seem constantly to be forcing me to choose which of those roles I need to play during the coming hours. Unfortunately, I suspect that during the academic year my drive to be a good teacher determines that choice, so that all the other things on the list of what I am get pushed to the side or ignored until I know I'm going to either melt or explode if I don't stop doing and start being: Then I need to take a long walk or have a meaningful conversation with Bill or Veronica over a cup of something warm and comforting, meditate with the cats, or sit and simply listen to Bruckner.

"Work/life balance" is an issue that we certainly talk about, but I think it can benefit from an admittedly simplified version of Heidegger's thoughts. For him, humanity is characterized by its reflective awareness of and curiousity about its very existence.  When we are lists of contradictory desires--I want to teach well, but I also need time to work on my next novel and there simply isn't time for me to do both of those things--how do we carve out the space to reflect on and simply delight in our being? Work/life balance isn't simply a logistical problem that we can solve by being more efficient and setting priorities, but a philosophical one. The demand that we be constantly doing and working dehumanizes us at some level.

I suspect that our children--this current generation of young adults--have learned from us that our struggle with work/life balance has often been frustrating, and have learned to do an end run around it. I wish I knew how. Certainly my work/life balance is influenced by the fact that at universities across Canada more needs to be done with less. So I can, as I promised in my New Year's Resolutions, rebel against some of the expectations that I believe are unreasonable or even fruitless, and carve out a little more time to be.

But it's also that I want so much, am simply hungry for so much. It may be too late for me to learn to want less. There are two novels I want to write and half a dozen quilts I want to make. Don't even ask me about the notes I've made for poems or my sock yarn stash. Perhaps what I need is a different attitude toward time. That it must be respected with a certain amount of careful being inside of it.

It's interesting that Veronica's and my chosen art forms have a different relationship to time. As a photographer, she captures a split second, though I think the power of her photographs comes from her ability to frame the right split second that resonates through time--both forward and backward. There's a history to the passionate conversation she's caught in the photograph above, taken outside one of the posh shopping malls in Boston on one of our vacations, and there's a future in the young man's daydreams. My medium is language and narrative, which can only unfold in time.

You can see more of Veronica's photographs of Boston on her Flickr site. She tells me her wonderful photographs of our trip to Chicago will be up soon.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

On the Road Revisited

The blustery snowy weather today reminded me that when nature is beautiful, it is often treacherous, and prompted me to revisit and revise a poem I began during the drive home from a reading at McNally Robinson in Saskatoon mid-November.  That day, the wind came from the east, and on the part of Highway 11 that runs parallel to the valley, snow seemed to rush up out of the earth and sweep onto the road.

The east wind can't quite muster
a white-out, but smudges rows of scrub,
fetches up in the clefts of coulees,
takes an eraser to the horizon,
wraps the sun and the measure of hours in white silk.

Fourteen thousands years ago, retreating glaciers cut
the sediment that ice and time
had already left behind,
engraving a scrawl of coulees down
the carved spine.  Today
the wind cuts along the valley's eastern edge,
the snow gets caught up in the cleft, pops the western ledge
like a snowboarder,
wipes out on the road.

You can't take in this landscape with your eye.  It wants
your hand to caress its crests and eddies, your hand
to fetch up against the sudden line of trees, to read
the braille of bole and branch, to name the grasses
in the whitened dark, to trace the ramification
of coulee, to finger the brush and scrub and grass.  You need to search
with frozen fingers along the shaft of vetch, down to tease
the beaded tracks of meadow vole and pocket mouse,
to find the tuft of fur
surrounding spring like a frozen shell.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Year's Resolutions

In a simplistic mood, it's easy to divide people into two groups.  There are the introverts and the extroverts.  There are what I call "yes" people and "no" people:  people who say yes to life's wayward invitations and people who politely decline.  There are also people who make resolutions--like me, and people who don't-- like my husband Bill and my daughter.  It's true that the New Year is an arbitrary marker for resolving to live differently.  My daughter, Veronica, sensibly says "If it's not broken, don't fix it.  If it's broken, don't wait until January first to fix it."  While this makes sense to me, I like the arbitrariness of it; in the midst of holiday busy-ness, the invitation to reflect is welcome. 

This year two of my resolutions are rebellions.  First, I'm going to rebel against a culture that's become obsessed with speed, perhaps because many of us begin our day wishing that our computer would boot up more quickly.  In a social context, I see this obsession most frequently on the roads and in public spaces like shopping malls where we really don't care whether we cut off the little old lady with the walker--after all, she's too slow for modern life anyway--because we've got to save thirty seconds.  I'm also going to be a cooperative driver, trying to make the roads a little more civil.  After all, why does moving through one's day need to become some kind of Darwinian test?

Along with my friend Jeanne Shami, I'm going to try to spend more time pursuing my own purposes--teaching and writing, nurturing my family and friends, knitting and quilting--rather than reacting to institutional and social pressures which often turn out to be false alarms.  I'm chosing this rebellion because I think society as a whole has become too reactive--answering voicemail, email, texts, rather than being driven by purposes that we've thought about and believe to be good.

I'm going to give up multi-tasking.  My friend and psychologist Katherine Arbuthnott says we don't multi-task very well as a species.  Research also suggests that the people who multi-task most do it the worst.  My version of multi-tasking usually involves doing one thing while worrying about not having time to do the next 5 things.  I'll think about my priorities (while my computer is booting up and installing updates), make myself a list and just get on with doing the first thing on that list.

This fall was a frantic, sleepless nightmare.  I need to return to living with joy and purpose.  In the winter term, I want my students to write better, to think more critically about the historical moment and its relationship to literature, culture and society.   What better, more joyful way to spend one's time?

My, my.  I do sound like an old fart, don't I?  Sometimes it's important, though, to embrace your inner old fart and resist a culture's unthinking reactions to circumstances, many of which are created by the available technology or someone else's priorities.

Then when my sabbatical begins this summer, I'll make a whole new set of resolutions.  Who needs to wait for January?