Florence in Words
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.
September 9, 2015
The first class, on Monday evening, August 31, was an Introduction to the course as arranged by Professor Robert J. White, and a depiction of his rather unusual memory. I’ll begin with that opening episode, in which Professor White asked the twenty-six people in the room each to write their names on a piece of paper, and then their “year” at college. Then he asked that we answer two questions: what is it we like best? And what it is we like least?
He did collect these pieces of paper very slowly, beginning in the middle of the room, where I was sitting. And I did notice that he looked at me as he looked at my piece of paper. But I went on to look at the syllabus he had distributed and didn’t pay a lot of attention to him as he was collecting the other pieces of paper.
Once he had them, he went through them as he named the person and made eye contact. He moved around the room as he did this. And it took at least 30 minutes for him to name every person in the room, stumbling a bit only over some Asian names. And then he talked a bit about (his) memory, and noted that his knowing our names may not carry over to the next class, since it was two weeks away, with Labor Day coming in between.
He then went through the syllabus, describing some of the books and films we are to see. The course, described as “Memory across the Disciplines,” might have been called Across the World in Prose and Film. This Thursday, the make-up class, he will discuss Jonathan K. Foster’s Memory: A Very Short Introduction. And then we have ten days before we meet again to read Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, pp. 3-191.
And now I get to the small irony. The only book on the list which I have read, and indeed written about its formation as a novel, is Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. I can’t be present at that class, on October 5, because that is the evening The Feminist Press will celebrate its 45th birthday at its annual Gala. And I can’t be absent, can I?
What to do? Probably nothing. Again, there’s a break for two weeks, when Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana will be discussed. So be it, I have to say, though I have read Mrs. Dalloway many times since 1953 when I was a graduate student TA-ing for an Intro to Literature course in which it was on the reading list. Like the students, I was puzzled, but I found some solace in the company of working class and would-be writer, Septimus Smith and his hat-making Italian wife. Mostly the students complained that there were no chapters, and that nothing happened, ignoring the suicide, or not reading that far. And so I can tell myself to enjoy the irony, not fret about it, and remain silent this time.
August 20, 2015
And for the past two weeks, I have rearranged my life so that I can read the book mornings, after breakfast with the New York Times and the crossword, when doable. I read for at least two hours into the afternoon, sometimes a bit longer, and I am a rapid reader. Still I have at least another week before me. And though I know the plot, I don’t know the details, despite having seen the dramatic version once.
“Hamilton,” the musical play by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which I saw on March 12, was astonishing not only for its story line, not only for the fact that the founding fathers and mothers were enacted by men and women of color, and not only because the unusual music was a compound of Broadway, rap, and hip-hop, such as had never before been heard. And it all passed my particular test: I could understand every word. Indeed I and the people I went with—the Hunter College High School alumni association had bought out the Public Theatre as a benefit, since Lin-Manuel was one of our very own—were so enthusiastic that we are preparing to see it once more, on Broadway, next November, again as a benefit for the high school.
Reading the biography, I can see Lin-Manuel’s attraction to the abundant energy of Hamilton, his brilliance as a theorist and as a popular writer. And the story itself, of an immigrant born into the squalor of poverty and illegitimacy on an obscure Caribbean island, and rising to be the foremost intellectual founder of this nation, responsible especially for establishing clear monetary policy and the department of the treasury. And all the time, he was a flawed human being, drawn into a degrading sexual affair, and willing to risk its open knowledge in order to clear his name of charges of fiscal or any kind of governmental abuse. It’s impossible not to admire Hamilton, even when he is being most obtuse. (The rhyme appeared in homage to Lin-Manuel.)
August 7, 2015
I watched the Republican debate last night and was appalled or mystified by the crowd, and not only because of the comic central (who was placed in the center) who seemed to be saying that he was going to run separately if the Republicans didn’t choose him as their candidate. He really does have delusions: thinks he can beat Hillary as well as any (or all) of the Republicans. How does a person get to live in such a delusionary world? Is it an illness?
The others were somewhat in awe of him, if not seemingly frightened. He is, of course, a bully, and they all understand the power of money. He seemed to indicate that he has contributed funds to most if not all of them, and his tone towards them was generally scornful. I wonder how many people, ordinary people like me, see him as a bully, a delusionary bully. He does have money and in this culture money is power. He also seems devoid of normal kindness, even towards those with less or no power, less or no money. His normal demeanor is scornful. Those who have less are weak; they are fools.
And the audience? They seemed with him, but I am hoping that someone has listened even more carefully than I, and that someone had had access to faces in the audience after some of the ugly things were being said. I hope someone is analyzing this, and that that person will tell us about the crowd’s response to him. Rachel Madow: are you listening?
As for the others on stage, the two sanest seemed to me to be the former governor of Florida and the current governor of Ohio. Jeb Bush stuck to his views on immigration; and John Kasich offered a vignette about attending a same-sex wedding, saying that, apart from human kindness, such weddings had become the law of the land. They seemed to this 86-year old political junky to be the only ones able to joust with Hillary. They’ve not had her international experience, nor her eight years in the White House. But they can brag about their hands-on management of state bureaucracies.