Forgotten what memories are made of?

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing. ~ Luis Buñuel (Spanish film-maker 1900-1983)

Is it that I’m getting older that makes me see references to memory in several of the books I’ve been reading lately?

Or is it that the books I choose have an historical element that makes it inevitable that memory figures prominently?

I remember (yes I still do!) once reading that fiction authors tend to stick to a similar theme or motif in their writing across the years, whatever the plot or title.

I’ve never tested that hypothesis, but I wonder if it holds also for readers?

In any case, I found myself reading three books that specifically focussed on memories, two novels and one non-fiction.

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The first was Sebastian Faulks’ Where my heart used to beat, which takes its title from the long poem, ‘In memoriam’, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and the relevant verse is quoted at the front of Faulks’ book:

Dark house, by which once more I stand

   Here in the long unlovely street,

   Doors, where my heart was used to beat

So quickly, waiting for a hand.

The focus of the book is the main protagonist’s memories of the past, particularly of his experiences as a British officer in World War II, some of which he explores reluctantly.

This character is a psychiatrist, and at one point even one of his patients asks him a question about memory: ‘If you forget something, surely it must be over and gone, Doctor. Isn’t there a time limit after which you can say, “Well, that just didn’t happen.”?  Can I be liable for things I just don’t remember?’

In relation to a ‘time limit’, all I can say is that when I was writing The Chalkies, about the experiences of conscripted Australian soldiers some 50 years ago, I was surprised at the range of memories they were able to dredge up.

Since I was one of those men, sometimes their memories triggered dormant memories of my own, and sometimes I had no recollection at all of incidents that seemed so clear to them.

In his book, The schooldays of Jesus, J. M Coetzee seems to challenge the clarity or even the reality of memory.

In response to a claim by the young boy in the story about remembering what life was like before, the chief adult male protagonist responds: ‘There are lots of people who say they can remember the life they had before they crossed the ocean. … The problem is that we have no way of telling whether what these people remember are true memories or made-up memories. … We just have no way of telling for sure whether a memory is true or false.’

Of course, sometimes we can cross-reference memories, ‘triangulate’ our sources, to try to verify claims, but one of the challenges for an historical non-fiction writer is when there is only one available source.

For example, when I was writing Hustling Hinkler, about a pioneer aviator, I could rely only on the pilot’s account about the times he was in the air solo on his record-breaking attempts.

Because of the dearth of information, there is still debate about the circumstances of Bert Hinkler’s death, alone, on a mountainside in Italy.

Which brings us to Simon Schama’s proposal in his book, Wordy, that ‘Memory without history is random recall; history without memory is just interrogation’.

He goes on to argue that it is the personal accounts of those who were there that brings the past to life. ‘History’s eloquence is inseparable from witness,’ he says.

The character in Coetzee’s novel would say: to what extent can we trust those witnesses to recall what really happened?, and the character in Faulks’ novel would say there are some things that are painful to remember.

Of course, there is a broader debate here about what are facts and what is truth, but that’s a bit much for an occasional blog, so I’ll conclude by telling you the titles of two books of memoir that got around the reliability and veracity question very nicely.

The author Clive James wrote a book he called Unreliable memoirs, and a friend of mind, the late Arch Nelson, former Professorial Fellow at the University of New England, called his memoir, My life. As I remember it.

It’s hard to quibble about accuracy with those titles.

Until next time

Darryl R Dymock

What writers say

Of course, when you correct the errors of others, do so with kindness, in the hope that later writers will be as kind when they correct yours. ~ Francis A Burkle-Young and Sandra Rose Maley, The art of the footnote.

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