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:

1 comment:

  1. Though I'd never thought about it until now, I do notice a focus on memories in my latest reading. Matthew Hooton's Deloume Road (highly recommended) has an entire narrative thread that reminisces on the fictive-present throughout the novel, making subtle connections between seemingly small moments and, as you say, trying to reconstruct the past through wiser eyes. Though this strand in the novel doesn't affect the outcome of the story, it's an important part of the structure and value of the central narrative.

    Another place I see memory playing an important role is in my current read, The Canterbury Trail by Angie Abdou. In the story there is tension between those who are visitors or short-term residents of the town of Coalton and those who have been there for generations. "You don't know Coalton," one of the characters says, as if his family's long term residency there makes him privy to a set of memories and understanding that a person who's only been there one generation cannot access. You'll have to read the book to see how this plays out.

    Perhaps most relevant of all, my own work is focused on memories. While collecting stories for Island Kids, I borrowed memories from journals, photographs, and most importantly, live interviews. My book is based on memories of childhood, but (mostly) collected from adult storytellers. I have often wondered how my stories would be different if I'd had a time-machine, if I could have gone back to interview my storytellers as children. But that's the trick with memories, isn't it? Memories are not stagnant records.

    Perhaps that has something to do with our current memory-lust? As a culture, we are trying to capture a photograph of our time through literature, because deep down we know, we won't remember it the way it truly was.