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Florence in Words

Memory, Take Seven: Georges Perec, W, or The Memory of Childhood

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. Read More 
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Memory, Take Six: Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

Umberto Eco’s bulky, unwieldy novel, part history, part comedy, supported by illustrations in color of the covers of books or the interiors of comics and magazines of the thirties and forties, provides another encyclopaedic resource on memory. Yes, it’s a bit overwhelming, perhaps especially to someone who was not a participant. (I never had comics and I saw no magazines. My mother’s interest in such radio programs as “The Shadow” are what I recall of that wartime period, though I do remember something of Superman and Batman.)

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. Read More 
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Memory Take Five: Rashomon

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. Read More 
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Memory #4: Proust’s Swann’s Way

As I sat in this, the fourth class I was auditing in an ordinary classroom on the fourth floor of the West Building at Hunter College, I wondered whether I would leave tonight with the same feelings of joy I had last week. I wondered also how anyone could talk about Proust’s seven volumes, or even the 200-pages we had just read, in the space of two and a half hours. Professor White calmly began by saying that he hadn’t finished what he had meant to say last week, and he proceeded to name some twenty kinds of memory, illuminating some of them with reference to Proust, before talking about the author himself.

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. Read More 
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Memory #3:Back to the Greeks and Romans

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.  Read More 
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Memory #2: A Small Irony

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. Read More 
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Summer Reading - Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
If anyone had asked me about reading a huge biography of Alexander Hamilton, I would have declined, saying I read fiction. But seeing “Hamilton” on the stage in March changed my mind, and when Don Thomas recently offered the book he had just finished, I grabbed it. I am about three-quarters through, and it’s still thrilling. The author, Ron Chernow, knows how to pace his chapters so that the narrative moves along, attempting to match the remarkable energy of its hero.

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.) Read More 
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Mindless Politics?

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.  Read More 
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New Series on Memory: Take One

As I wrote in my blog on Yoya, I couldn’t remember whether I’d written a blog about her before. And of course the keeper of my website, dear Jen, reminded me that indeed I had, not once but twice. And so I went to look, and of course then I remembered. So what does it mean? After all, I am 86, and my mother was by this age so deep into Alzheimer’s that she knew no one by name, though she knew I came to visit her regularly, and she sometimes was at the elevator waiting for me (or someone, since people came and went from there).

I can’t answer the question, not the one about me or the one about my mother. But I am preparing to learn more about the question. I’m auditing a course at Hunter College called “Memory across the Disciplines,” taught by Professor Robert J. White, of the Classical and Oriental Studies department. The first class meets on August 31, a Monday night, and I am looking forward to it more than I can say. The reading list opens with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, a book that was the subject of a thesis I wrote in the mid-1960s. The thesis was rejected for not being 500 pages and 12 chapters, and for being written on an “unimportant writer.” Perhaps I will read that 100-page essay to check whether I touch on “memory.” Clearly, I don’t remember, which is entirely appropriate for the moment.

So, if you are interested in memory, tune in a bit later on. I’m a bit over-whelmed right now: I traded a fat novel I had enjoyed for a fatter biography. I don’t usually read nonfiction. But I’ve been captured by Hamilton and I’m ploughing through it. Much of the history is entirely new to me, since whatever history I studied was British, alas. But that means that the book is as interesting as a novel whose plot you don’t know in advance. Who knew that New York’s upstate power was greater than the New York City’s and that the Governor would be an enemy not only of Alexander Hamilton but of the colonies becoming a country, a nation? Yes, I’ve a lot to learn in that area.

And so Hamilton has knocked me off course for the moment. Without knowing what the course on memory would include, I had been planning to begin to reread Virginia Woolf’s novels from the very first one forward. And indeed, I began with the draft that Louise DeSalvo rescued from oblivion: Melymbrosia, the first draft of The Voyage Out, not an easy read. And, speaking of memory, I thought it much different from the published novel I had first read more than 50 years ago. And yes, I’m reading The Voyage Out right now—in the evening, before bed. Hamilton gets my best morning hours!! Read More 
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A Brief Weekend with Yoya

Yoya
Perhaps I’ve never written about her, but that’s hard to believe. Still, I want to write about her now: how she brightened my weekend, though I had her only for two nights and two days and a morning. She is a Maltese named Yoya, who belongs to Don and Jorge, the two men I regard as among my closest friends, at whose wedding four years ago I was pleased to serve as witness. (Yes, it was on the very first day possible in New York.) Yoya knows me and my apartment as well as she knows them, since whenever they leave town, she’s left with me.

Outside of my apartment I use a cane, at least in part so that people made a wide circle around me. Even with Yoya, who has to be walked three times a day, I manage with the cane. And she manages, though she’s as averse to canes as I am. And so the cane resides in my right hand, while Yoya maintains her position to my left, or, if she must—for reason of grates or other conditions she objects to—she moves to the right, but well in advance of the cane. And so, until yesterday, we both managed to walk three times each day, usually two short walks and one long one with an errand or a purpose in mind.

To get to the bank to deposit checks, we walked through a parklike, shady block that was also interesting to a creature whose life is mainly lived through her nose. I could note (or at least sense) her ecstasy at certain revered spots outside of planted areas, and her stops were restful for me. She is also a delightful companion when I want to sit down for a few minutes, for she also sits down to observe the passing world, always on the lookout for other dogs.

She’s the kind of dog whose occupation is to guard me, which means she has to move when I move from one room to another. Even if she is fast asleep, my movement wakes her up and she moves uncomplainingly to find another spot near wherever I’ve located. And if someone out in the hall is coming or going, she offers me her protection in the form of a non-bark that can be described perhaps as “uh, eh, eh, uh.” The sound comes out a little like a rattle. No barking unless the person is headed to our apartment.










Yoya laying nearbyYoya on the couch
Yoya laying nearbyYoya on the couch


But of course she knows the sound of the man’s name who comes to fetch her. If the phone rings to announce him, all I have to say is “Don is coming,” and she’s at the door waiting. And yes, he gets the ecstatic welcome I get when I’ve left her even for an hour, all the wiggling and all the murmurs. And yes, I write this just one day later, missing her. Read More 
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