30 January 2010

speak, memory!

I've been a little children's lit-avoidant lately. This is not a terribly good thing, but it's also (probably) not a permanent thing. I've read the 2009 Newbery and Printz winners in the last week and a half, so I'm not giving up entirely - not to mention the small fact that I am teaching a children's lit class this semester and thus must keep up with the reading.

Intsead, I've been reading "adult" books, a phrase which always makes me cringe a little. I caught myself, earlier this month, thinking of them as "real" books, and then wanted to crawl away and hide under a rock (making THAT false distinction essentially undoes the last 12 years of my academic life).

I've read some Nabokov - The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and Despair. I've read some Kazuo Ishiguro - Nocturnes, which made me want to write my own book of fiction, and Never Let Me Go, which made me cry. I read, oddly enough for the first time, The Aspern Papers. I say oddly enough because I have been a devotee of Henry James since I first met him, way, way back in my second year of college. But his shorter fiction has somehow evaded me, so I dug in.
And now - though I feel a little embarrassed to even be writing this, it feels so pompous - now I'm reading Proust. Even more pompously, I refuse to call the book by its English translations, because they do not sound lovely or melodious at all. But A la recherche du temps perdu - THAT sounds beautiful. "Rechercher" is one of my favorite French words (ack! pomposity overload!) - I love saying it, I love the look of it on a page.

I have never read Proust, somehow - again, probably because he's French, and essentially a modernist, he's escaped the sad limits of my specializations. There is also simply something daunting about the prospect of a multi-volume work, even to somehow who consumes books at the rate I do.

I consulted a colleague (oooh, pomposity again!) about which edition is best, and recommendation in hand, went off to the library. I found the edition I wanted - Moncrieff, with Enright's updates/revisions - tucked away in the wrong place in a shelf adjacent to the Proust fiction shelves. Materially speaking, it's a lovely edition - this wonderful fat little hardback with a pale cover. I am deriving enormous tactile satisfaction out of simply holding the book, carrying it from room to room.

At any rate, I dove right in and I'm dazzled thus far. I've been reading, for the dissertation, Bachelard's The Poetics of Space, and it's of a piece with the beginning of Swann's Way.  All that small, careful attention to rooms, to hallways, to spaces, to nooks and niches within the house. Even the description of the narrator's bed as a nest - it's all Bachelard (or rather, Bachelard is all Proust). 

And then, the madeleine and the tea. And memory - memory, speaking and dreaming.

It's not terribly original or interesting to be interested, literarily, in memory, but I find that I am. I also find that I'm reading a lot of memory-centric (mnemocentric?) books lately - look. Nabokov. Ishiguro. David Small's Stitches, which is a memoir. Despair, the narrator tells us, is written BY his memory, it's his memory telling the tale (but then being conveyed again by the Russian author to whom the narrator alludes). I am constantly, continually haunted by a book I don't own and can rarely find, Georges Perec's absolutely staggering W, or the Memory of Childhood.
It's all about memory.

It's made of memory.
Memory, drawn up and out of a cup of tea, and the crumbs of a cake.

Proust writes, briefly, of the voluntary memory, and - essentially - the boringness, the invalidity of it. The voluntary memory is not interesting or valuable. It is the involuntary memory that has meaning, that reveals meaning.

This distinction between voluntary and involuntary memory intrigues me. I find myself, some days, awash in involuntary memories. Yet when I try, consciously, to recall a face or place or time, I cannot always retrieve it from the deep files of my brain. And the voluntary memories may make one smile, or wince, slightly - but the involuntary memories make your heart stop, make your breath catch.

it can be a song, a smell, a word, a place, a color, a taste.
a cup of tea.
a crumb.

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