Silence, Memory


In Nabokov’s “Speak Memory,” remembrance becomes a narrator, and narrators are not to be confused with authors, even (perhaps especially) non-fiction narrators, and often not to be trusted, as memory is often impeachable. Narrators are often unreliable. To remember is to be mindful, to call to mind. The writer must silence memory, then speak.

Mindful of what? Who calls to mind? “Remember the time…,” someone asks. “Yes, the Angelus bells had just finished ringing. It must have been noon. I remember the dying echo of the bells. Not dying, falling, as if the bells were still with us, but silent, as indeed they were, and they would ring again, and that would recall dinner.” Is memory an angel come to incarnate? Memory made flesh. Well, made story, anyway. Memory is not words, has no language. Look Homeword, Angel.

Memory is partial. Fragmentary. Unfinished. Abandoned for the present. And memory is partial in the sense of being one-sided. Memory favors. What happened to the trees as the bells passed through their leaves? How did they taste, the thick iron rings? Did your ears ring through the afternoon? Could you feel the bells in your bowels? Something else called to mind. Did you touch the bells?

Memory is revisionist, as in historical revisionism. Memory is a time machine that can move in only one direction. If we were not mindful at the time, of the time, how can our later memory be accurate at all? So we put memory in the third person, and we recall instructions, how things were made and can be made again, how to ride a surfboard or a bicycle, how to write.

“At the time in question, he simply was not very mindful of what was going on around him. Still, he insisted on certain memories.” These would be memories he needed now to continue.

On The New Yorker On Twitter; or, Drink, Memory

This week, The New Yorker, on Twitter, is sponsoring a tweet-fest, calling on followers to tweet their all-time favorite New Yorker piece. My first response was a tongue-in-cheek, “The Cartoons”!

I’ve been reading the New Yorker, a weekly, for over 40 years, but these days when I intone the magic words, “Speak, Memory,” I often receive in reply a feeble tweet, even falling short of the 140 character limit. Anyway, it takes more than a tweet to recall a full piece, at least for this twitterer. I do recall one of my favorite all time cartoons, from the mid-80’s. I taped it to my at-work monitor, until my boss at the time told me he didn’t get the joke. I brought it home and taped it to the icebox. Just so, most of the articles I remember are those I tried to encourage others to read, too. I remember the William Finnegan piece on surfing off San Francisco (August 24, 1992); I mailed it to an old surfing buddy.

Ian Frazier, in “Hungry Minds: Tales from a Chelsea Soup Kitchen” (May 26, 2008), wrote what has become one of my all time favorites. In “Hungry Minds,” Frazier explores at least three kinds of hunger: physical (the soup kitchen), intellectual (the writers’ workshop), and spiritual (the church). Must every hunger be fed? One might hunger for anything (war or peace; duty or love; work or play; music or silence; risk or safety; celebrity or privacy; memory or amnesia; nirvana or grace), and the human appetite seems insatiable. Then there are the thirsts, which Frazier’s article also touches on (to belong; for community; for recognition; to tell one’s tale; and a thirst to feed the hungry). Human thirst seems unquenchable. What else can explain Twitter?

How Literary Critics Think

Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why (2000), James Wood’s How Fiction Works (2008), Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature (1980), which he proposed to subtitle “How to be a Good Reader,” are all books about how critics think. Oxford University Press has announced John Sutherland’s “How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts,” due out in March, 2011. We’ve put our order in, never tiring of the How books; in fact, we’re thinking of writing our own: How Literary Critics Think. Of course, slim chance, for as Laura Miller discusses in a Salon interview with Louis Bayard (“Who Killed the Literary Critic,” May 22, 2008), “at a certain point there’s nothing left to dismantle.” Bayard observes “So the only critics left to evaluate most contemporary fiction are journalists, ranging in seriousness from someone like Wood to your average newspaper freelancer who mostly delivers plot summary. There are no critical movements evident today.” Blogging certainly doesn’t count; in any case, Laura says, “I’m not really a reader of blogs.” Sure, and professional literary critics probably don’t watch television, either. Yet Barnard notes that he’s “learned things from Amazon reviews, from letters pages, from literary blogs, from all sorts of non-traditional outlets. The quality of writing is certainly variable, but then so is the quality of traditional journalism.”

Ah, but what about the How school of literary criticism? The how of something is the scientific part. Nabokov puts it this way: “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter…To the storyteller we turn for entertainment…to the teacher…for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts….” And to the enchanter we go “…to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.” This last part Nabokov calls “the intuition of science.” Can literature be taught as a science? Certainly it can, and it may be the only way to teach it. Northrop Frye, in his instructive and influential essay “The Archetypes of Literature,” said, “Art, like nature, is the subject of a systematic study, and has to be distinguished from the study itself, which is criticism. It is therefore impossible to ‘learn literature’: one learns about it in a certain way, but what one learns, transitively, is the criticism of literature. Similarly, the difficulty often felt in ‘teaching literature’ arises from the fact that it cannot be done: the criticism is all that can be directly taught.”

Yes, but that bit about nature: Nabokov says, “Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives…The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.” So the professional critic clues us in on which writers are the most deceitful?

The reader speaks, ignoring the sign “Silence in the Library,” and the amateur spirit in literary criticism is born. Why kill this amateur spirit? Because ( more agreement between Miller and Bayard) “talent is inequitably distributed in all art forms… great critics are even rarer than great novelists or poets, and I wonder if that’s because criticism itself is held in such low esteem…McDonald mentions that one of academia’s last havens for evaluative criticism has been the creative-writing class, and he suggests that universities should offer more in the way of ‘creative criticism’ classes, teaching the craft of interpreting other people’s works. All the same, I’m skeptical this would reverse the current state of affairs. People will only value literary criticism to the extent they value literature.”

Any true experience of reading literature is an experience that calls for a reflective response, and this response can be made without a conscious understanding of how figurative language and connotative meanings (and the often resulting ambiguity) inform how literature works. We might even argue that the less conscious one is of how these things work, the more primal the reading experience. Yet one can see the merging of the effects of literature on cultural, societal, and individual development (of course these effects might also be considered only a reflection of changes already occurring in culture, society, and the individual, changes that become, in turn, the subject of literature – note the latest effort to change Twain’s Huck Finn). In any case, literature as cultural value is key to the interest of adult readers, which is why if we want to read Langston Hughes in a book (since we can’t very well still read him in a newspaper), we will end up wanting to know something about the Harlem Renaissance.

Reading literature can be a perplexing experience. We want to understand the meaning of a story, poem, or play, and when we don’t “get it,” we feel disappointed. But the idea that a work of literature “means” something is part of the problem. Flannery O’Connor once put this problem this way: “…something has gone wrong in the process when, for so many students [readers], the story becomes simply a problem to be solved….” Rene Char put the problem this way: “No bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of questions.” Yet, we can learn to ask the right questions of literature, questions that don’t scare the bird off, and we can through the discussion of these questions discover how literature works. That’s what the general interest reader wants after the reflective response, the discovery of how literature works, for that discovery enables more enjoyable reading and helps us better understand the influence of literature on culture, society, and the individual.

A word of one’s own

faculty-photo-1976Comfortably ensconced in our reading lair, hidden behind the arras of the Dec. 8 New Yorker, perusing the cartoons, time passing easily, and find our Eric has been at work on his French, annotating the Mankoff cartoon caption “A la Recherche des Cheveux Perdus” (p. 68) with the translation “Remember Hair Lost.”

What is past is lost, but still we recall – writing is a lure; reading, a way of walking.

Menand, Jan. 5: “Feiffer’s strips are about borrowed ways of talking, about the lack of fit between people and words, about the way that clichés take over” (p. 43).

Blake: “No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Proverbs of Hell”).

Nabokov: “…minor readers like to recognize their own ideas in a pleasing disguise” (Lectures on Literature, “Good Writers and Good Readers,” p. 2).

In Nabokov’s teaching copies, his annotations include his own translations; in his copy of  “The Metamorphosis,” for example, he substitutes the Muirs’s “uneasy dreams” with “a troubled dream,” and “a gigantic insect” with “a monstrous insect” (p. 250). Monstrous means marvelous and strange, and Nabokov starts his students off with a different view of Gregor, beginning with Kafka’s first sentence.

Woody Allen: “Honey, there’s a spider in your bathroom the size of a Buick” (Annie Hall).

For Nabokov, reading meant rereading in excruciating detail, never straying from the text, bringing to exact light and color the watermarks of the text, like working a coloring book.

As for the uneasy, or troubled, dreams, Kafka reveals in the second paragraph that “It was no dream.”

But one’s own words? Where does one find them? Sometimes a word of one’s own seems no more possible than a room of one’s own. For some answers, we might turn again to E. B. White’s Elements of Style, where we are warned to “Write in a way that comes naturally”; “Avoid fancy words”; and “Avoid foreign languages” (Chapter V).

As for using words of one’s own to find lost time, Nabokov says: “…to recreate the past something other than the operation of memory must happen: there must be a combination of a present sensation (especially taste, smell, touch, sound) with a recollection, a remembrance, of the sensuous past” (p. 249). It took Proust 1.5 million words to illustrate that we are “…not free…to choose memories from the past for scrutiny” (Nabokov, p. 248).