In a week which encompasses our wedding anniversary, Guy Fawkes’ Night and Remembrance Day, there is quite a focus in the NorthernReader stronghold on bringing things to mind. What do we remember, how and why? With the tissue paper of years blurring the details of our wedding day, we find we can recall the church, but not how we got there (literally, you understand, rather than metaphorically). Inevitably, our roll-call of the guests has become a recollection of the dead – all four parents, a range of aunts and uncles, a treasured godmother – and of the friends from whom somehow, somewhere, we have slipped our moorings and drifted away. And then there are the people, now and for many years dear to us, of whom it seems surprising that no, now we come to think of it, they were not there, because meeting them for the first time was still around the corner (it is quite comforting to know that we in turn feature in the phantom guest-list memories of these friends). Our recall of the events of the deeper past is of course even shakier, and each firework-and-poppy time brings up palimpsests of personal memories overlaying the public moments they commemorate. So for me, November 11th is a swirl of what we all know, or think we know, of the two World Wars – books, history lessons in school, photographs of relatives I never knew – mixed in with personal memories (watching the Cenotaph ceremony on television; my father, placing the wreath at the village ceremony in his last November). Our lived experience makes this a month of contrasting emotions, melancholy, joy and nostalgia as ever-present as the mists and fogs that have set in, it seems, for the duration. Books, please, to lighten our darkness, share our pleasures, and remind us of the fragile and elusive phenomenon of memory.
Oh, go on then, let’s start by having a crack at Mr Memory himself. Have you read À La Recherche du Temps Perdu? No, nor have I. Our loss, I suspect, and we should probably both start getting round to it now. If it’s the size of the task that daunts (seven volumes: it’s never going to be a popular book-club choice, is it?), we could make a start with Swann’s Way, comforting ourselves by remembering that Proust left the whole enterprise unfinished, as indeed he left much of his work, making him, at least to me, a much more sympathetic character than I was expecting. If something slimmer is more what you are looking for to get you through the long November evenings, try Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris. We talked about Bowen before, and, should you unaccountably not have done so, I want to urge you to read her. The House in Paris is a Modernist masterpiece, exploring the very Proustian concept that the present is shaped not just by the past but by our constantly shifting understanding and recollection of the past. And, unlike Proust, Bowen’s novels are short.
We are constantly at work on our memories, sifting and discarding, seeing them from new and unexpected angles as life changes us. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending delves into the unstable nature of our memories and the non-existence of any such thing as an objective recollection. I love this book and hope you will too. Barnes shows us that we are all masters of fiction when it comes to constructing our own pasts. Some do this consciously and usually for material gain, of course, but we are all constantly looking backwards through highly selective lenses that owe more to emotion than to actual events. This is precisely why autobiographies can make such satisfying reading: we turn to them, not for a dreary list of pin-downable dates – born then, did this then and then – but for an invitation to see the world through the writer’s eyes for a moment or two. Here are a couple of my favourites.
Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece is a joy and a delight. The grand-daughter of Charles Darwin, Raverat’s great achievement in this memoir of her Cambridge childhood is to re-inhabit her childhood self. She sees, and lets us see, the world from a child’s point of view, more successfully than almost any other writer I can think of. Do not let me put you off. I do not mean that the book is an arch stream-of-consciousness voiced as a seven-year old (now that really would be ‘Tonstant-Weader-fwowed-up’); the narrative voice of Period Piece is the adult self, but an adult who can recall the utterly different world of childhood. Nigel Slater’s Toast: the Story of a Boy’s Hunger pulls off the same trick. Do not, please, imagine that I am suggesting these two books have otherwise an awful lot in common: Slater’s memories of his childhood in twentieth-century suburbia edge into Misery Memoir territory (I have to confess to being taken by surprise in a chain ‘bookshop’ by a section proudly headed ‘True Misery’, and, no doubt revealingly, having to sit down because I was laughing so much). But, not really unexpectedly for those of us who read Appetite in bed, Slater writes so well, that he is able to steer his narrative past the perils of poor-me indulgence.
All writing is engaged with memory. Novelists, playwrights and poets scavenge their personal stores of lived experience and the tales they have heard to make anew. Historians time-travel to bring themselves and their current perspectives to bear upon a past they construct. And we, if we have any sense, take heed of John Donne’s words, remind ourselves that we are not islands of separate experience, and choose to be part of the collective acts of memorialisation. They are what makes us human.