“The only duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.”
A writer is supposed to cling to memories. What else does s/he have to work with? How many novels and short stories, to say nothing of memoirs, depend on the accumulation of vivid details, trivial facts and conversations recalled by the author, perhaps many years later?
Marcel Proust is the doyen of all memory men. His vast autobiographical novel, Remembrance of Things Past, fills seven volumes and is almost ten million words long. It begins and ends with memory. Characteristically, the story begins on page fifty-one. In this famous passage he visits his old Aunt Léonie in Combray, when he is already a grown man. He drinks tea, and eats a little shell-shaped cake called a madeleine. The taste brings back every vivid detail of his past life and sets in motion the unstoppable narrative of the book. Here’s just a fragment from that episode, in the classic translation by Scott Montcrieff and Terence Kilmartin.
“When from a long distant past nothing remains, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised for a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”
That’s writing! Just count the subordinate clauses. Proust forgot nothing, and this quality brings his novel almost uncannily to life. The reader knows he is in the hands of a master craftsman with total recall.
Most people’s memory doesn’t work like that. My own memory is highly selective in a positive way. I find it easy to remember the good things in my past, and forget the bad and the boring. This doesn’t make for good fiction, but does makes for better sleep.
When I had to clean out an old storage closet two boxes of memories emerged. They contained all the things I couldn’t bring myself to throw away over the past twenty or thirty years. They might be scrapbooks in embryo, if I was in the habit of making scrapbooks.
Taking a deep breath, I plunged into the oldest and dustiest box. I hadn’t forgotten Pandora’s mistake, but I told myself that there would be great material there.
It seems that all my memories are made of paper – no floppy disks, no material mementos or souvenirs, not so much as a ring or a lock of hair. The boxes were filled with letters, photographs, old writings, posters and ads for events where I appeared: nothing but paper. A splash of barbecue lighting fluid and a match would wipe out all my memories at once.
Would I miss my paper memories? I think not. It is always best to delete the real past, and substitute our edited memories of it.
The photographs were the most disturbing. Old color photos don’t fade the way black and whites used to, becoming sepia and “historic” and therefore harmless. They stay bright and sharp, revealing people who should now be faded or dead in their Technicolor prime. It’s like The picture of Dorian Gray in reverse. Nobody was as beautiful as my memory paints them. Time has made them ordinary. I prefer not know that.
Old letters carry the same time bomb of disappointment. Re-reading them, I realized that none of us were as clever as we imagined. We were often dull, trite, pompous, and seriously sentimental. My own early writings were even worse. How flat and artificial they now seem. Just occasionally I found something really brilliant, and then I was crushed by the thought that I might have passed my peak as a writer decades ago. The box was full of things I couldn’t write today, because that particular passion has gone, that old freewheeling turn of phrase has been too much disciplined.
Some small things snapped my memory to attention, like Proust’s Madeleine: a card for my father’s funeral service; a wedding invitation from somebody I had intended to marry myself, but forgot; a restaurant menu that reminded me of a unique evening; a train ticket that recalled a memorable error of judgment on the way to Amsterdam. But a lot of things had slipped my mind, including names that should have been engraved on my memory forever. Have they forgotten my name too? That would be justice.
“Reader, what is etched in your consciousness? What collarbone, what little patch of textured skin, what dangling pendant? Think! Remember! Keep back the glacier of age by the sheer warmth, the sheer force of sexual recollections, wild imaginings! It can be done: it is worth the doing.” Fay Weldon: The Shrapnel Academy.
After going through one moldy old cardboard box of paper, I had uncovered enough memories for a Proustian epic. I wish I could hand the whole box on to some other writer and say:
“Here, you write this…write about my friend who was killed beside me in Cyprus and who left nothing but an ironic sketch of himself in uniform; write about the bridesmaid at my first wedding who broke all the rules; write about my first dog, my first motor cycle, my first love. You write it, because I prefer not to remember it.”
“Every man’s memory is his private library,” said Aldous Huxley. The great thing about a library is that you can choose what to read when you want to read it. The rest stays quietly on the shelves.
Amnesia is a great gift for a writer. Everything is new, every day. That’s why we must write against the sedimentation of life into moldy old boxes. We write to keep life alive. Memory has nothing to do with it.