Reviews — From the February 2014 issue

Memory’s Passages

The limits of autobiography

Discussed in this essay:

Pieces of Light, by Charles Fernyhough. Harper. 320 pages. $26.99.

The Faraway Nearby, by Rebecca Solnit. Viking. 272 pages. $25.95.

I started keeping a daily diary twenty years ago, less out of vanity than out of a wish to understand what was actually happening to me. Only after I record the apparent facts can I stop ruminating on them. I don’t want to forget anything, but despite my daily practice I forget almost everything. It’s not that I can’t say it right; I can’t even remember it right, and what I do put into language perverts the memory further. Still, 800,000 words into the pursuit, I can’t stop recording the evidence that I lived a human life at a particular time and place and station.

“Pacific Ocean,” by Gloria Baker Feinstein

“Pacific Ocean,” by Gloria Baker Feinstein

My unreliable memory isn’t wholly a failure of my recording skills. It’s also an inevitability of my physical brain. No memories wait in a cranial file cabinet as people once imagined homunculi to wait, tiny and perfect, within spermatozoa. Instead they wait as shattered arrays of data languishing and decaying all around the organ in my skull.

How do we know for certain that something has happened to us? For twenty years I’ve been writing after a suitable answer. I’ve produced three book-length autobiographical essays but feel no closer to understanding the general problem. It’s a problem that the novelist and psychologist Charles Fernyhough confronts on the day his son asks him whether he can remember the first fish he ever caught. “It’s impossible to answer the question of whether I ‘had’ my first-catch memory (about a fish) before Isaac asked me about it,” Fernyhough writes. “I want to show that the question is impossible because it relies on a mistaken view of what memories are.” Memory is a lie, “vulnerable to a constant process of telling and retelling” — but it’s the closest thing we have to the truth, Fernyhough keeps having to admit to himself as he considers one memory impairment after another, from déjà vu to post-traumatic stress disorder. A personal narrative overlaid with research, Pieces of Light presents the various imperfections built into the system of human recollection.

In an effort to unseat the pervasive conception of autobiographical memory — what he calls the “possession” view, which holds that “moments of experience are distributed around the brain like books in a library” — Fernyhough devises an alternative metaphor. He compares autobiographical memory to a habitual construction of semblances, each one slightly different from all the others. After the components of a memory are retrieved from various locations in the brain, they again dissolve. A memory is vulnerable to contamination each time it’s remembered. No memory will perfectly reproduce an experience. And — one last failure — we can’t quantify the accuracy of what’s left after multiple disintegrations, multiple reconstructions. “Memory,” the author tells us, “is about the present as much as it is about the past.”

Fernyhough’s second impetus for writing Pieces of Light, after the fish, is another parenting conundrum: his desire that his children remember their paternal grandfather, who died too early for them to know as a living person, part of their experience. For many of us, the portion of our past that disappears when someone dies, and the degree to which we rely on a few people to record our lives, is almost unbearable. Even the memories that last are like exhaled smoke — twisting, fading, gone. In one of the book’s most vividly narrated passages, Fernyhough reconstructs a childhood memory of walking with his father in Goldhanger, a coastal village in Essex. He revisits the place hoping its familiar geography will help him remember their stroll. He sees light on the water, diving birds, a brown barge. He remembers the sandwiches of Marmite, onion, and cheese, sandwiches he made again for his father decades later, as he lay dying, “but this time cutting off the crusts.”

The remembered father is uncharacteristically silent during these walks in Goldhanger. Fernyhough recalls his old binoculars and his father’s more modern set; the taste of coffee in his mouth; identifying a greenshank, a redshank, a wagtail, a grebe, all recorded in the bird-watcher’s inventory he drew with felt-tip pens on the backs of his father’s old business letters and placed in a waterproof document wallet. “But there is no bird-spotter’s inventory,” Fernyhough admits. “There are no binoculars. I have forgotten everything, even the facts. I can taste the coffee, but its flavor is faint and unremarkable, and I have been drinking it all my life.” What Fernyhough kept as memory is made up of whole cloth, its details invented by the force in his brain that inclines toward coherence, correspondence, specificity — the components of narrative.

Fernyhough tries a similar gambit in a later chapter devoted to excavating early memories of his Nanna Martha, the book’s dedicatee, whose childhood tongue was Yiddish. The curious grandson, knowing that “remembering is in large part a fortuitous matching of the ambience of encoding with that of retrieval,” arranges for Nanna to be interviewed in Yiddish. She remembers one new autobiographical detail — Kovno, the town in Lithuania from which her mother emigrated — but the interview is otherwise unremarkable. Then, after Fernyhough publishes an account of the interview in a newspaper, one of Martha’s former grade-school classmates recognizes her and writes to the author. Martha is ninety-three and Sadie is ninety-four and they haven’t seen each other in nearly eighty years, but each cues the other to remember more. Martha remembers the name of one of the teachers in a school photo, and Sadie remembers an old class friend who fell ill — the first time, she says, she had “ever seen anybody dead.” A few weeks after the reunion, Martha suffers a fatal stroke. The chapter closes with Fernyhough brooding on his failure to extract the dead woman’s stories, regretting the questions he didn’t ask.

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’s new book, Ongoingness, is forthcoming from Graywolf. Her most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Motherhood,” appeared in the August 2013 issue.

More from Sarah Manguso:

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How to Be a Parent

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