Florence in Words
January 19, 2016
I’ve been unusually slow about writing the last two blogs about the course that is now history in my life. And I’m glad I waited, for I can now see the course’s curve more clearly. The course moves from a focus on individual memory—from an individual’s unusually gifted memory to the total loss of a person’s memory, and various shades in between—to collective or communal memory, what we also call history. And I feel particular admiration for Professor White as he not only reminds the class of the international history of individual words, but as he also remembers the recent history of the Holocaust. Perhaps for that reason the final book was Philippe Grimbert’s Memory, and the final class was devoted to communal memory, including a film about Paris’ famous cemetery, and a host of images on a screen that many in the class could identify selectively.
I will begin with the book that I have read twice, in part because it is the kind of brief, easy read that a fast reader like me can skim and thereby lose details. And indeed, when I read the 154 pages for the second time, I saw that I had skipped over the sentences mentioning “President Laval,” at the end of the volume, the French collaborator with the Nazis, of whom Grimbert writes, “President Laval, who in his defense hearing said that he had encouraged the deportation of children under sixteen so as not to separate families.” Coincidentally, just a few weeks earlier I had seen a brilliant performance of Arthur Miller’s lesser-known play, “Incident at Vichy,” which documents in vivid drama the treatment of a dozen French Jews, ranging in age from youths to the elderly. Professor White outlined Laval’s nefarious history of collaboration with the Nazis, including the remark that “not one Jewish child will survive in France.” Laval was, in the end, brought to justice and executed in 1945.
In the novel, Grimbert, who is also a psychoanalyst, is writing part of his own family history. As an only child, he invented an older brother, not knowing that, indeed there had been one he was not to learn about until his own fifteenth year. I won’t spoil the novel for you by saying much more about its plot. But I will say again that I enjoyed the spare prose style of Polly McLean, the translator. And from Professor White I learned that Grimbert wrote the novel 20 years after the double suicide of his parents, in part to make sense of their lives. The result, Professor White insisted, is fiction, not memoir. He wrote the book, the professor said, “as an act of love for his parents and [his brother] Simon,” who died in the gas chamber at the age of eight, accompanied by his mother.
We had one more class meeting, and it was to be partly a party. As the students turned in their final papers, they picked up soda or water and some snacks, and eventually settled down to Professor White’s final gift to the class: two films. The first was a depiction of the famous cemetery outside of Paris that holds, among other treasures, the remains of Marcel Proust. We saw the Parisian women who come daily to water plants, arrange fresh flowers, and clean the marble, all in homage to the memories of the artists and other heroes of France. One section of the film depicted a taxi-driver who came often because of his love of music, and in the film, he sings movingly in his native Eastern European language. The second film was a string of photographs of famous men and women from history, film, sports, etc. And the class was called upon to identify the image. I wish I had kept track, for though I could identify all but one athlete, the majority of young people in the class could not. It was interesting to see which photos they could identify, and I regret not having the wit at the moment to take notes. It was just so much fun.
And I must end this saga with that sentence. Few experiences in my life, or perhaps any life, could be concluded with those six words. So I bless the powers that sent me into this course, and I will note that I do hope to have another such experience next fall.
January 16, 2016
On the occasion of his ninetieth birthday, the hero of this novella decides that, as a birthday present, he’d like to give himself a teenage virgin, and he proceeds to ask his favorite madam to find a choice specimen for him. Despicable? That’s only the start of it. His monologue fills over one hundred pages, and reveals him as not only unreliable but egotistical, amoral, and altogether as unpleasant a character that one is likely to meet in fiction. Why did the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, to mention only two of his novels, end his life with this one? I didn’t ask this question of Professor White, but I asked only what has this book to do with the theme of memory, the idea behind this course.
Professor White spent the first hour on Marquez’s biography, his literary achievement (including his admiration for William Faulkner), and his risk-taking left-wing politics, his love for film, and then his illness (cancer and dementia, among other things), and his death at 87. And then Professor White named other novels in this genre—Death in Venice and Lolita, for example. But of course this novella is different because the hero’s desire is, right to the end, unconsummated, despite the fact that he can remember 514 whores, he never touches this young girl who sleeps peacefully in the nude, and beside whom eventually he also sleeps.
In the course of thinking about his life, the hero of this novel tells unflattering things about himself, including turning all women into whores. He claims he has never slept with anyone without paying her. All his tastes are organized for snobbery: theatre rather than film; European culture rather than Latin American, for example. He was unsuccessful as a teacher, possibly because he was a bully. Ultimately, as Professor White put it, “He squandered his talent and inheritance in the brothels.”
He names the young girl Delgadina, and falls in love with her. At first this feeling sends him into remembering other women he loved or nearly loved but abandoned. His only friend is his housekeeper, who has never married, but has kept his house for much of her life. She and the madam urge him not to lose the child he loves, for “There’s no greater misfortune than dying alone.” Near the end of the novella, the hero takes the family jewels to a pawn shop, only to discover that his mother had probably done the same thing, since the jewels were paste. Professor White: “the narrator is just as phony as his mother’s jewels.”
What about memory? As a prelude to the next class, Professor White opened with this question. One theory: “Is this a conversion narrative—about a man who squandered his life?” The time with Delgadina awakens his memory of other women and allows him to think about his life. Professor White asked, “Why did Marquez write this book?” In his opinion, “not on behalf of pedophiles.” Still, “morally, the book is disturbing—desire made to seem like a message from God. Or is this a satire, a joke? Whatever the answer, this is not my favorite book of the course.
December 16, 2015
He was attracted to cinema early, and broke into silent films by using his artistic talent to produce cards with words on them, attractive enough for him to be hired as director of that department. He worked his way up from assistant director to director, and made several films that have been lost. In 1926, his first picture, “The Lodger,” was said by the company he worked for as “too arty,” but the film “put him on the map.” And in 1929, he made his first English talkie, “Blackmail,” largely ignored. The films that drew attention to him in the nineteen-thirties were “34 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes.”
In 1939, he signed a contract with David O. Selznick, a control-freak who that year released “Gone with the Wind.” Hitchcock hated the control, circumvented what he could, and left at the end of seven years to go into business for himself. The fifties, as Professor Sgammato described it, “was his decade: 'North by Northwest,' 'Psycho,' 'The Birds,' and 'Frenzy.'"
Hitchcock, according to Professor Sgammato, had “whole pictures in his head and shot them so that he could not be edited—by Selznick or anyone else.” He learned his craft from Germans and Russians, apparently, “who used montage for propaganda purposes.” Hitch used montage to “juxtapose one scene with another, to move viewers.” He was also particularly inventive. For example he used a rare string instrument to provide the eerie sound that pervades “Spellbound.” About that film Hitchcock said what attracted him was “the implausible. Logic is dull. I’m not interested in logic.”
We were running out of time and Professor Sgammato described something of Hitch’s brilliant way of presenting opening credits—as in “Spellbound,” where spinning images created a vortex that was also threatening. With regard to “Vertigo,” Professor Sgammato said that Hitch was “constantly risking absurdity,” He got the story from the American poet Ferlinghetti. “And critics dismissed the film; years later, they had to look again.”
I found both films—“Vertigo” and “Spellbound”—thrilling to see especially after a few clues from our own professor about what to watch for. They are both a little unlikely as logical narratives, but they are transformed into hugely rich and compellingly interesting films. I am, as a result of the lecture and the films, ready to see more and to hear more.
November 24, 2015
Even before I had finished this novel, I knew I had to read it again. I knew I had “missed” something, since I felt confused about the narrator and the friend she had so willingly accepted, who seemed unreliable. But the question I couldn’t answer, even though I had read with my eyes open, focused on the narrator herself: how reliable was she, since every event in this novel hangs on memory, the memory of the narrator, Etsuko. And I want to say right from the start that I recommend the book: it’s memorable, as well as compelling. The setting is Nagasaki, and one of its suburbs, many years after the bomb. Ishiguro’s Japanese parents moved to Britain in 1960, when their son was about four. He went to college in England and usually talks of himself as someone who grew up in a Japanese household. I have not read his six other novels, but I am interested in doing so. His spare, clean prose in his first novel allowed me to read the book a second time with as much pleasure. And in this second reading I found what I was looking for: a clear “clue” to the unreliability of the narrator—on the penultimate page of the novel. I’m sure you will find it for yourselves.
The novel’s subject is the memory of a mother, Etsuko, who has lost a grown daughter to suicide, though we learn that only gradually, incidentally. The novel opens in the present, in a suburb of London, following the separate deaths of the narrator’s husband and the daughter, and focused on a visit from Etsuko’s second daughter, who lives in London, and has not attended either funeral. Then the novel moves back into the past, when the mother was pregnant (I assume) with the now dead daughter. In memory, she is in a suburb of Nagasaki, where she makes a friend who has a distinctly anti-social daughter. She grows attached to the daughter who does not go to school, and often disobeys her mother. She wanders freely, responds little to adults, and seems content only when she has a few kittens to care for. Her mother seems pleased to have the narrator as friend, and willingly accepts various favors, including a loan of money. In return, she lectures the pregnant woman about how important it is to care for one’s daughter, whose existence changes one’s life.
Eventually, since the novel moves between present and past, we learn that the narrator, Etsuko, has had two husbands, one Japanese, one British, and with each of them a daughter. As Professor White put it succinctly, this is a “novel about memory, dark memory, about pieces of life that can’t be restored.” He also described several of the academic debates about the meaning of the novel and especially about the relationship of the narrator to her friend. As the narrator states, “Memory, I realize can be an unreliable thing…colored by the circumstances.”
November 16, 2015
Getting to see the film was itself difficult, for Netflix seemingly could not fill my request, telling me for nearly two months that there was “a long wait.” In some wonderment, I went to Wikipedia where “Memento (film)” rated an entry I printed out at twelve pages, including 81 footnotes and other scholarly apparatus. Ultimately unsatisfied, on the day of class I went to the Honors Office (sponsors of the seminar) and watched the film on an old television set in a small room across from their office, along with another (young) student in the class.
First impression: Yes, it seemed endless, and almost pointless, for what I didn’t understand, even from reading the Wikipedia pages, was that, considering its subject matter, the film was and had to have been endless. I didn’t know what I am revealing now: the film runs backwards from the “end” to the “beginning.” And I have to put those words in quotation marks because they are, in one basic sense, meaningless here. One could argue that the film, in illuminating the central condition of its hero, horrifyingly illuminates T.S. Eliot’s claim that “the end is the beginning.”
I will take you out of the pain I was in for nearly two hours: the subject of the film is the affliction of its main character’s total loss of short term memory. He can retain what is happening while it is happening, but after something else happens, the prior event disappears from his mind. He doesn’t remember people or places; he doesn’t remember what he has done or what has been done to him, at least after the initiating event that created his condition. The initiating event: which we glimpse, but perhaps do not understand at first, is a violent attack on himself and his wife. The attacker rapes and then kills his wife and hits him in the head, causing his condition. He cannot remember anything post the vision of his wife being raped and killed. I’m not sure he remembers his own head being struck.
He spends the rest of his time—and the body of the film—searching for the man who has killed his wife, though he doesn’t remember that he has already killed him. He knows his affliction and tries to keep track of what is happening to him by using a polaroid camera to take pictures of people, mark them with names and with “clues” like “do not believe his lies.” Because he fears losing these, he has also had his body tattooed with some of this vital information. People around him, the manager of the motel, a supposed cop, a woman drug dealer, understand and take advantage of his affliction, cheating him by registering him in two different rooms, and manipulating his murder of one of their enemies by convincing him that the man is the one who killed his wife.
According to the Wikipedia entry, the film “was acclaimed by critics, who praised its nonlinear narrative structure and motifs of memory, perception, grief, and self-deception.” Professor White said in his closing remarks about the film, “Memory is an interpretation, not a record. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there.”
Postscript. Two days after seeing the film, I woke up thinking about a summer in Easthampton perhaps fifteen or twenty years ago, when a friend and I took long walks daily, talking about books, one of which, Memory Board by Jane Rule (and published by the ground-breaking lesbian-feminist Naiad Press in 1987). This novel tells the story of two lifetime companions, whose relationship is now marked by the loss of short-term memory for one of the pair. I recommend the novel, but for me there is also a live irony here, for the person with whom I spent many wonderful hours walking and talking about books has had the same kind of memory loss depicted in the book we read together and the film I just saw that vividly reminded me of such losses.
But there is a bit more. Each day that I live I also bear witness to my own diminishing short-term memory. I must write everything down. Of course, people say, we all have to write everything down. But then I used to be different: I never had to write anything down: I simply remembered. It’s hard today to believe that I could memorize a whole poem in German, “Der Erlkonig,” overnight, and recite it in class with no errors. And I can still recite a few of its opening lines. But could I remember all I must do next week?
November 3, 2015
Like the other books read for this course, this one is also memorable, but unlike the others, this one is built around the missing memory of childhood, and the creation of a dystopic society that functions as a nation valuing athletes. One young student said to me, as we were waiting for our room, that the depiction of women in Perec’s book, forced to run, nude, to escape the rape by also nude male athletes forced to compete for them, was almost more than she could bear to read. So, yes, while I recommend this book for the brilliance of its execution, you will need to bear the pain.
I was so intrigued by the strands of Perec’s plotting, and his insistence that the two “stories” are connected, that I read the book twice: once straight through; and a second time, reading every other chapter as if each made up its own book, which, of course, they do and do not. Every other chapter is printed in italics to distinguish it from the other: as Perec says, there is “history” and there is “story.” Perhaps this is one way to view the book: First, the bare-bones history of the man without a memory of childhood, having lost his father and mother very early, to death and to the holocaust. For some reason we do not understand, this child, now a man, bears the name of a deaf-and-dumb child lost either before or during the crash of a yacht the child’s family had been sailing. Then second, the story as told by the hero, who has lived and fought using the name of this child, and who, urged to go in search of him, finds the dystopia, “W,” the fascist state built on the model of the perfect athlete. I keep coming back to the brilliance of the structure, which, I probably have focused on because the pain of the portrait is, otherwise, so severe.
Professor White described memorably the effect of the author: “Perec is constantly telling us that memory is a house made of sand.” Towards the close of the two-and-a-half-hour class, Professor White showed a film of the opening of the Olympic Games in Germany made in 1938 by Leni Riefenstahl. It just occurred to me to search out the date this book was first published: 1975. Perec’s dates are 1936-1982: he lived for 46 years, escaping death because his parents sent him into what they hoped would be safety. He was two years old at the time of the 1938 Olympic Games. Yes, I want to know more about him.
November 2, 2015
Eco’s hero, Yambo, generously autobiographical, suffers at first from almost total memory loss after one stroke, then gains total recall after another, though he appears to his family as comatose. But readers enter his fully recalled childhood and youth, including fascists on the one hand and such heroes as Flash Gordon on the other. Most gripping are several sections on the war, and the way in which a profound tactile memory enables Yambo’s feet to lead a group, including eight partisans, across a dangerous Gorge.
In opening the class, Professor White asked—as a little quiz—what the ending signified, what meaning does the author intend to communicate with the sudden question that forms the last words of the novel, “Why is the sun turning black?” Death, of course, is the answer, though it’s hardly the point of this novel. For this course, like Proust, Eco provides a guide to the various kinds of memory humans can call on.
Finally, Professor White showed two bits of film: the first film made of the comic strip in which Flash Gordon is played by Buster Crabbe. Yes, this sophisticated twenty-first century class were left panting for “what happens next,” as the film ended. And then we watch the last eight minutes of Fellini’s “81/2,” as Professor White suggested that Eco was thinking of this film as he wrote his startling, sudden ending of The Mysterious Flame.
Yes, need I say it? I am enjoying the course immensely, both the reading and the class time. Some of the students sparkle and of course Professor White is in tireless motion throughout the hour.
October 6, 2015
As a person who enjoys film, but who has never “studied” film, I realized, even as this class began, that I have much to learn. Professor White opened with a question, “How does the film end?” He called on me and I said, “With a baby’s crying.” “Yes,” he said, "and did you like that?" “No,” I said, “I couldn’t see the point.” He seemed delighted: “We disagree,” he said.
And I learned that one must “read” more than the words on a page when one views film. I had not occurred to me that, to begin with, I should have read much more carefully the two short stories, “In a Grove” and “Rashomon,” by Ryunosake Akutagawa, which provided Akira Kurosawa with material for his film. Had I done this, I might have been able to focus on what it was that Kurosawa chose, and what he omitted. In short, the film was of his own making, and in making it, he could use whatever he wanted to, and he could add as well.
In addition, certain techniques were available to him that I have not learned to think about in a meaningful manner. I am referring here not only to adding something like the appearance of the swaddled baby crying, but also the lighting after the rain has stopped. Indeed, he could have and did stop the rain at the end of his film, and he did have the sun come out, and the baby stop crying. And he had the lying woodcutter say he would adopt the baby whose swaddling clothes he had previously stolen. Thus, the filmmaker was dropping a note of hope into the foregoing turmoil. (I might have noticed as well that the filmmaker chose to omit the misery of the old woman who was making wigs from the hair of dead women.)
Professor White introduced other kinds of questions having to do with the value of eye-witness testimony in a court reviewing a crime, and the curious question of why three people admit to committing the same crime? He reported on research which has claimed that stress may narrow memory, thus making certain eye-witnesses unreliable.
At the end of the class, returning to the film, Professor White said that Kurosawa had been inspired by silent films and with the use only of black and white. He added, at the end, perhaps thinking of his opening question and my response, that the Japanese have problems with the film’s ending.
October 3, 2015
I wondered how many in the class noted the large green and white paper bags on the Professor’s desk. But I turned my attention to taking notes, and almost an hour passed before Professor White began to talk about Proust’s life, suggesting that we think of him as a contemporary of Thomas Hardy, Andre Gide, George Sand, Arthur Schopenhauer, Gustav Mahler, and a host of other painters, composers, writers, philosophers. It was interesting to me, particularly that Gide, as publisher, offered the first volume of Swann’s Way, turned it down, and when it appeared, admitted that it had been the worst decision he had ever made.
Professor White’s comments on the novel emphasized Proust’s life as his great resource and his use especially of his intense ability to rouse various kinds of memory, kinetic, visual, tactile, olfactory…the whole gamut, which was why the two parts of today’s lecture served each other.
Just before the ten-minute break, Professor White began to unwrap the packages on his desk: he had bought more than two dozen (so there could be second helpings) madeleines and a quart of milk and cups. What a sweet surprise for all, and I led the way not to the goodies but to taking a photo of the Professor distributing them. Yes, it was a lovely, thoughtful gesture, and one reason he is among professors beloved.
What about the novel? Did I learn anything I valued especially? I liked the ways in which Professor White could separate the complicated—and not often admirable—life of the writer from the work he had produced, even as he noted that the one had emerged from the other’s strengths and weaknesses. He noted, for example, that Proust was a snob, and that he could write about snobbery with special vision, sometimes making it absurd.
And finally, did I come away as ecstatic as I had the week before? One must remember that, at 86, ecstasy is rare. But I came away calmly content with my life. And pleased to have been in class. And ready to read more Proust.
September 14, 2015
When I was a junior at Hunter College—in 1948—I took an elective Classics course with Professor Pearl Wilson. I read the Iliad and the Odyssey and a group of plays, including the Orestia. ( I don’t remember the Romans.) Professor Robert White opened this third class on Thursday night by reminding us that the Greeks and Romans were “his” professorial focus, and he was going to talk about the importance of memory for all of them.
First he noted that the transmission of the Iliad and the Odyssey had been oral, that at one point in history one person with a prodigious memory could recite all 12 books of the Iliad, all the books of the Bible, all of Canon Law, 200 speeches of Cicero, and more besides. Such ability, he countered, may clearly not be important in an age of computers. Still, memory had to be essential for the creators of the Iliad and the Odyssey, who probably could not read or write; their talents were oral. Later, the texts of these epics were written down by people who were retelling what they had heard. Would this result in a loss of that prodigious memory?
Then he went on to talk about Plato’s Dialogues, and the relationships between memory and the concepts of truth and beauty and honesty. From Plato’s point of view, one needed to recall what once one knew before birth. I liked especially the idea of memory as writing on a wax tablet inside the mind—is it clear, muddy, hard, soft? Can we hold on to it, or will it disappear?
Aristotle, on the other hand, was interested in memory’s retrieval, in enabling the recall of memory. He thought that the young and the old both have poor memories: As Professor White announced that he disagreed here, he moved quickly on to the Romans, who, like Aristotle, were interested in the kinds of memory that enhanced public speaking, law, oratory. In particular, lawyers needed to remember their opponents’ main points so as to oppose them.
The class was only half over by this point and the rest was as interesting, sometimes funnier, and always memorable. I left with a smile not only on my face but in my being. For whatever complex of reasons, I left feeling almost happy, certainly cheerier than I have been in years. And it was not only the wonderful anecdote about his college friend assumed dead one day, and the next a co-winner of the Nobel for work on the hippocampus (which I knew meant work on memory). It was not only more anecdotes about prodigious memories (I had one of those once). Perhaps it was all of that, and some other essence having to do with taking notes, and, yes, remembering.