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Florence in Words

Memory Take 12: Philippe Grimbert’s Memory

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. Read More 
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Memory Number 11: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores

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.
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