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.