What is the relationship of memory to remembered event? Whether in a real or fictional memoir, how does the act of remembering reshape the event being recalled? Does remembering cause a kind of wavelength shift, where everything remembered is seen in a slightly (or greatly) different light? Or does memory produce intermittent alterations, like a prism redefining a particular shaft of light while leaving surrounding others unchanged? And why does memory grab onto one event but not another, one person but not the next, one scent or sound or meal but leave the rest lost in the static of The Unrecalled?
You get the idea–memory is a slippery force in our lives. In literature, I believe the introduction of memory into a narrative is not so much a device as a kind of shadowy character. This character “Memory” weaves in and out of scenes, in and out of the narrative, one minute quite overt and insistent, the next minute lurking in the background. In Proust’s monolithic In Search of Lost Time (or, as it used to be translated, Remembrance of Things Past), Memory never leaves the page, never really fades into the background of the powerfully evoked sensory impressions. But in most other fictional memoirs, and in many non-fiction memoirs, the presence of Memory ebbs and flows, grows and fades. In Cather’s My Antonia there are many scenes that are so powerfully present that the reader forgets that the entire novel is the recollection of the narrator Jim. In Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which professes to be non-fiction, the style of the book and the style of the writer is so deliberately lean and terse as to make it impossible for the reader to know how much is accurate, how much reworked; and of that which is reworked, if such reworking were conscious or unconscious on the part of Hemingway. Here, Memory is not so much a character as a ghost, cleverly eluding all attempts at capture (a useful understanding to take along in reading any of Hemingway’s works).
So I’m not saying much definitive about memory in literature–except that Memory, where evoked, is definitive. The logic goes like this–if you leave the component of memory out of a narrative, then the reader does not have to wrestle with this insistent or evasive force; but if Memory enters the room, then the reader can never fully ignore its presence. Even if it pretends to slip away, it’s still there reshaping everything! Everything is passing through that lens; everything is redefined.
I’ve written a fictional memoir titled Becca’s Book, and Memory is a slippery rascal in this story for sure. You can never quite get your hands around him. But, I hope, the chase is a lot of fun–passionate and whimsical by turns. This story is being published for the first time in serial form on the website Reading and Recipes.