Reviews — From the February 2014 issue

Memory’s Passages

The limits of autobiography

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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.

The earliest known references to memory aids appear in Cicero’s De oratore, Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria, and the slightly older, anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium, which translates approximately to “A text about rhetoric for Herennius.” I love that the author and recipient have faded almost completely from the missive, which contains the first known description of the method of loci, a mnemonic device. The method supposedly originated after Simonides of Ceos, a Greek poet of the fifth century b.c., left a party and remained outside during the time it took for the banquet hall to collapse, killing everyone inside. The poet remembered where the other guests had been sitting and was able to identify their disfigured bodies, thus granting them the possibility of a proper burial. This experience apparently led Simonides to invent what would come to be called the ars memorativa, whose practitioners memorize a detailed physical space, form mental images of the things they wish to remember, and store those images in the space “so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things.”

Simonides’ technique relies on visual association — but memory and olfaction are particularly closely linked. Andy Warhol wore a series of colognes for three-month increments before retiring them permanently, thereby building a controlled organizational scheme for his recollections. When he opened a bottle and sniffed, the scent triggered his memories of the months he wore it.

Then there is the effort simply to write everything down. Keeping a diary is a compulsion, but it also provides a particular form of relief: it’s a mind-emptying exercise. The Zeigarnik effect, named for the Soviet psychiatrist Bluma Zeigarnik, is the tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about uncompleted goals. (She first studied the phenomenon after a professor of hers noted that a waiter remembered open orders better than closed orders.) It’s this effect that gives rise to the need to record an experience completely — or even to believe in the possibility of recording it completely. The graphomaniac Robert Shields spent four hours a day recording his life in five-minute increments, including logs of his body temperature and blood pressure and descriptions of his junk mail. He slept in two-hour stretches in order to record his dreams. He eventually donated the diaries to Washington State University, on the condition that they could not be read or subjected to a word count until fifty years after his death, but their length is estimated at 38 million words.

When I was young I made a surprisingly effective mnemonic device — just a slip of paper, but it was a very old slip of white notepaper, faded to the color of weak tea long before I ever wrote on it. I’d found it in a book given to me by my grandfather. I used it to remember a forest scene of sun-dappled trees, wild ferns, and white violets, but instead of describing the scene in words — I didn’t trust myself to get it right — I wrote the date and time on the paper slip. I also wrote Light. Trees. The paper slip has gone missing in the ensuing decades, but I remember what it looked like, and the approximate date, early June 1982. From this memory I can recall the scene vividly. I know I was there. I know I saw it.

But as Fernyhough cheerfully acknowledges, “In the realms of memory, the fact that it is vivid doesn’t guarantee that it really happened.” For years I swore I remembered seeing a sidewalk art installation on Lower Manhattan’s Houston Street in 1997, but my diary claims I found it on Canal Street in 2001. And it isn’t just time; the very act of laying down a memory in the brain introduces a host of opportunities for corruption. It can occur during encoding, labeling, storage, or retrieval, each time a memory coalesces or crumbles. The more memories are handled, the more misshapen they become. The details of a memory must link to areas of the brain governing sensory perception, emotion, and consciousness, and it’s those associative links that we use in recollection. Each memory, Fernyhough explains, “must be stitched together by the sometimes effortful process of imaginative reconstruction.” While considering his own memories of his father, he realizes they are hardly less fictional than those false memories he yearns to implant, through stories, in his children. Even the dialogue that plays in his memory in his father’s voice, he admits, is “a kind of informed storytelling.”

Neither content with homespun inaccuracies nor adamant that we process all the science, Fernyhough conceives of himself as a translator bringing memory science to the general reader. One has to have read prose to write it; one has to understand both neuroanatomy and Proust in order to write about them persuasively. Fernyhough manages this; his prose, whether about Proust or neuroanatomy, is unmistakably his. He quotes liberally from novels and scientific papers and ends up not with a commonplace book held together by threads but a fluent blend of essay and quotation. Still, science loses quite a bit when translated into prose for the general reader. Not every molecular mechanism will find its way into a book that makes room for references to A. S. Byatt and Nabokov, Harry Potter and Avatar. At times the science seems canned or overdigested, as when Fernyhough observes his infant daughter turning her head to anticipate — supposedly “remembering” — on which side of the room a curtain hangs (she’s attracted by the flowers on the fabric). The relevant endnotes refer to only one source: a series of experiments whose results suggest that operant conditioning is possible in infants, but whose soundness is difficult for the reader to evaluate.

“I set out to write about some science,” Fernyhough concludes, “and I ended up by telling a lot of stories. In memory, more than in any other aspect of human experience, narrative seems to be the appropriate medium.” Or maybe it’s the tendency of a novelist to see narrative in every greenshank and grebe. In any case, Fernyhough omits the answer to the question that still pricks at me: What, in the end, did he tell his son about the fish?

Memories and stories are already one and the same for Rebecca Solnit at the opening of The Faraway Nearby, a wheeling, capacious collection of essays originating from the pain of witnessing her mother’s decline into Alzheimer’s disease. The book opens with a virtuosic meditation:

Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions.

And in fact the essays are a story; autobiographical memory, as Fernyhough points out, tends toward narrative coherence. First the apricots arrive:

Sometimes a story falls into your lap. Once about a hundred pounds of apricots fell into mine. . . . I had expected them to look like abundance itself and they looked instead like anxiety, because every time I came back there was another rotten one or two or three or dozen to cull, and so I fell to inspecting the pile every time I passed by instead of admiring it. The reasons why I came to have a heap of apricots on my bedroom floor are complicated. They came from my mother’s tree, from the home she no longer lived in, in the summer when a new round of trouble began.

And so the story begins.

This book must be read twice: a searching essay about the sources of narrative, whose first sentence is its refrain “Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds,” runs along the bottom trim of each page, one line racing along the edge of the real information, the real story. Before I read this second text I saw most of the words without comprehending them; at the moment of attempted recall I remembered the way the words had hung there peripheral to the text, and the way the repeated sentence seemed to have haunted the rest of the book. Dramatizing the process of imperfect recall is a way of writing about memory without mentioning the word or drawing attention to the subject as such.

Solnit is a sui generis writer of non-fiction who has published excellent reportage, literary analysis, and autobiographical works. At her best, she isn’t an explainer but a stitcher of associations both unfamiliar and immediately reconcilable with the existing world. Her mastery of the elegant digression is at once this book’s strength and its weakness. When she drops a self-implicative thread to, say, examine the metaphors in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, my attention flags. The book doesn’t quite persuade me that Shelley does anything but adorn a moment in which Solnit looks away from herself. This type of writing seems effortless for Solnit, and that’s the trouble, once I’ve been treated to passages whose lessons seem harder won, as at the beginning of the second chapter, “Mirrors”:

That vast pile of apricots included underripe, ripening, and rotting fruit. The range of stories I can tell about my mother includes some of each too. If I had written about her earlier, the story would have had the aura of the courtroom, for I had been raised on the logic of argument and fact and being right, rather than the leap beyond that might be love.

Convincing personal involvement gives first-person narrative the unmistakable light of necessity, and the problem isn’t that Solnit on Shelley isn’t brilliant; it’s that Solnit on Solnit is so remarkably clear-eyed and unforgiving. I’m drawn to her self-examining self, the mind that cleaves itself open to judge its own judgments. Still, were it not for digression we would miss this passage:

My friend Malcolm told me a story about pronghorns recently, the North American creatures sometimes confused with antelopes. They can run at speeds of nearly sixty miles an hour, much, much faster than any of their existing predators. Some biologists think they’re still outrunning the dangerous species that went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene, specifically the cheetahs that existed on this continent. And then Malcolm asked what each of us is still outrunning and whether we can tell when our predator has been extinct for ten thousand years.

“Of course I had always been mortal, but not quite so emphatically so,” Solnit writes after abnormal cells are found during a routine mammogram — her first. She likens the resulting surgery to “being pared like an apricot with a bad spot.” Her writing on illness, especially on her mother’s Alzheimer’s, masterfully connects history, anecdote, and abstract reasoning. There are thirteen chapters but only eight titles; after running through the full list — “Apricots,” “Mirrors,” “Ice,” “Flight,” “Breath,” “Wound,” and “Knot” — Solnit spools the remaining chapters backward through the list, starting with “Unwound” and ending with “Apricots,” the book returning to its origin but having covered new ground, gone all the way around the world, one hemisphere after the other.

Over and over, the story begins again, re-formed approximately from its disintegrated bits.

Where does a story begin? The fiction is that they do, and end, rather than that the stuff of a story is just a cup of water scooped from the sea and poured back into it, but if I had to begin the story of my parents anywhere, it would be with my grandmothers, who were both motherless.

Solnit’s mother’s dementia progresses in all the usual ways, but the book stands for all mothers and all losses — lost youth, habits, people, and especially memories. In the last pages about her mother, Solnit finally comes to an acceptance resembling love:

Liberated from the burden of her past, things became incomparable, each slice of cake the most delicious cake ever, each flower the most beautiful flower. She took pleasure in a great many things in the life that she was leading as a resident in a dementia facility and was often almost giddy with enthusiasm. Sometimes she spoke of how terrible the disease of Alzheimer’s was, but mostly she didn’t bring it up and seemed unconcerned and unself-conscious about her condition and circumstance.

Solnit sources her book’s title in Georgia O’Keeffe’s habitual closing to her personal letters. Later she summarizes the plot that informs her poetics: “When the near capsized like a ship, the far swept me up.” Part of the book recounts her time as a resident of the Library of Water, an art installation by Roni Horn set on a small peninsula in western Iceland extending from a larger one. It is in some ways easier to inhabit — and to write about — an exotic land than to offer up a story everyone already knows: that once there was a mother.

We write down what happens to us — we create memoir from memory — in hopes of reconstructing the stories of ourselves. Solnit reminds me that I might find cues to that story everywhere outside of me — in the history of medicine, in cultures distant in space and time, and in the tears of a bird I read about in a book. The story of you, the facts of you, are out there in the world, Solnit seems to say, and the story and the facts of the world are inside you.

“Trace the lineage of any significant event,” she writes, “and coincidences and strangers appear from beyond the horizon of the calculable.” Yes, but writing it all down demands an informed judgment of how to arrange those coincidences and strangers. Of the messy bounty that begins the book, two pint jars of apricots remain at the conclusion. Solnit ends her tale as Fernyhough ended his — not when her story finds its neat ending but when she understands she cannot end it as neatly as she once hoped she might. In our memories, “the present rearranges the past. We never tell the story whole because a life isn’t a story; it’s a whole Milky Way of events and we are forever picking out constellations from it to fit who and where we are.”

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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.

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