Look Back in Wonder: Literature and Memory

Craig Raine – The Guardian

Saturday January 5, 2008
Copyright The Guardian
In A la recherche du temps perdu, Proust says many acute things about memory – about physical memory in the body, for instance, in Du cote de chez Swann . One thinks of Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking”: “My instep arch not only keeps the ache, / It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.”
Proust is good, too, on memory’s inaccuracy and its arbitrariness. Think of Albertine’s wandering beauty spot in A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs or Marcel’s observation in Le temps retrouve that one forgets the duel one nearly fought but remembers the yellow gaiters one’s opponent wore as a child in the Champs-Elysees. A strikingly dramatic but implausible illustration, this, where sartorial details, revers and darts and flares, are given a Wodehousian precedence over world events. Less good, though, than Henry V’s prediction that soldiers at Agincourt will remember their part in the battle “with advantages”.
Why, for all of us, out of all we have heard, seen, felt, in a lifetime, do certain images recur, charged with emotion, rather than others? The song of one bird, the leap of one fish, at a particular place and time, the scent of one flower, an old woman on a German mountain path, six ruffians seen through an open window playing cards at night at a small French railway junction, where there was a water-mill: such memories may have symbolic value, but of what we cannot tell, for they come to represent the depths of feeling into which we cannot peer.
They are, then, these memories, super-charged with sensation. Can we describe this sensation – of significance, of occluded feeling? Can we say what it means?
Proust is interested in the particular sensation that accompanies remembering. The tea-soaked madeleine loses its force when it is repeatedly tasted. Tom Stoppard recorded something similar in the first issue of Talk magazine when he wrote “On Turning Out to be Jewish” (September 1999). He meets in Czechoslovakia a woman whose cut has been stitched decades before by Dr Straussler, the father he never knew: “Zaria holds out her hand, which still shows the mark. I touch it. In that moment I am surprised by grief, a small catching-up of all the grief I owe. I have nothing that came from my father, nothing he owned or touched, but here is his trace, a small scar.” A moving moment. But Stoppard has recorded unsentimentally that its power to move diminishes every time he tells the story.
Is the sensation simply nostalgia – like the nostalgic regret of Nicholas Bulstrode in Middlemarch for the time when he was an effective methodist preacher in Islington’s Upper Row with an ambition to be a missionary? Or is it something more profound – like Proust’s meditation, in A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, on his Aunt Leonie’s sofa in the brothel? On that same sofa, Marcel has first experienced love with a girl cousin. Proust gives us a stereoscopic irony as the seedy and the pre-sexual amalgamate. There seems to be a hidden message in the coincidence. Is the coincidence merely a coincidence? Or has the coincidence been arranged? Elements of this supernatural innuendo emerge repeatedly in Nabokov’s Speak, Memory . General Kuropatkin is showing the young Nabokov tricks with matches on a sofa, when he is summoned away: “the loose matches jumping up on the divan as his weight left it.” Fifteen years later, the disguised, fugitive general asks Nabokov’s father for a light … Nabokov says the true purpose of autobiography is “the following of such thematic designs through one’s life”.
In Book II of The Prelude, Wordsworth writes about significant yet insignificant memories as “spots of time”:
There are in our existence spots of time
Which with distinct pre-eminence retain
A vivifying Virtue, whence, depress’d
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repair’d …
This is not so much an explanation as a statement of intrigued bafflement: “the hiding places of my power / Seem open; I approach and then they close.” And the example that Wordsworth gives is interestingly drab. It has a few meagre components – a “naked Pool, / The Beacon on the lonely Eminence, / The Woman and her garments vex’d and toss’d” – and its power is largely retrospective. It is “in truth, / An ordinary sight”. Looked back on, though, the dreariness becomes a “visionary dreariness” that Wordsworth would need colours and words unknown to man to paint. The discrepancy here, in Eliot, and in Proust, is between the original experience and that experience when it is hallowed by remembrance.
The effect is something like cropping in photography. At the beginning of The Waves, Virginia Woolf gives us the childhood memories of Rhoda, Louis, Bernard, Susan and Neville as highlights, ordinary epiphanies: Mrs Constable pulling up her black stockings; a flash of birds like a handful of broadcast seed; bubbles forming a silver chain at the bottom of a saucepan; air warping over a chimney; light going blue in the morning window. These mnemonic pungencies are different from the bildungsroman of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as that novel gets into its stride. They resemble rather the unforgettable anthology of snapshots Joyce gives us at the novel’s beginning – a snatch of baby-talk; the sensation of wetting the bed; covering and uncovering your ears at refectory. Or Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, when Augie is a kind of ship-board unofficial counsellor, the recipient of emotional swarf: “Now this girl, who was a cripple in one leg, she worked in the paint lab of the stove factory”; “He was a Rumania-box type of swindler, where you put in a buck and it comes out a fiver”. Cropped for charisma.
Of course, memory itself is naturally cropped, as Stendhal records in Chapter 13 of Vie de Henry Brulard, where he notes that some memories are undated, vivid as fragmented frescoes, but surrounded by the blank brickwork of oblivion. Actually, anything fragmented, as the romantics knew from Percy’s Reliques, is granted a penumbra of suggestion that we mistake and read as vividness of outline.
Memories are more effective than memoirs. Isolation counts for more than continuity. The Paris of Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast (1964) is less vivid than the same material telescoped in the earlier “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1961).
This is A Moveable Feast:
All of the sadness of the city came suddenly with first cold rains of winter, and there were no more tops to the white houses as you walked but only the wet blackness of the street and the closed doors of the small shops, the herb sellers, the stationery and the newspaper shops, the midwife – second class – and the hotel where Verlaine had died, where I had a room on the top floor where I worked.
It isn’t just the clumsiness of the triple “where”. It’s the automatic, sentimental cliche that poisons A Moveable Feast – the flyblown yellowed poster, the unknown girl at the cafe “with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair was black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek”. Nostalgia, as Kundera redefines it in Ignorance, is “the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return”. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway fails to return to his past, he is exiled from his memories, because his prose is writing itself and he is having a hard time keeping up.
In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, on the other hand, the detail is seen and hand-picked:
There never was another part of Paris that he loved like that, the sprawling trees, the old white plastered houses painted brown below, the long green of the autobus in that round square, the purple flower dye upon the paving, the sudden drop down the hill of the rue Cardinal Lemoine to the River, and the other way the narrow crowded world of the rue Mouffetard. The street that ran up toward the Pantheon and the other that he always took with the bicycle, the only asphalted street in all that quarter, smooth under the tyres, with the high narrow houses and the cheap tall hotel where Paul Verlaine had died.
By 1964, Hemingway has forgotten the flower dye and the round square. His memory fails. So his memories fail.
Click to read more

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *