How do writers use the idea of memory to help tell stories? Part two

Memory has a nebulous, abstract quality to it. Perhaps it is that mysterious element which makes authors often use it as a literary device. People – and therefore characters – can trick themselves into thinking they remember something that happened when it did not. The more we see a character tussle with a memory the more it reminds us that what is going on here is a struggle of identity. Which, in itself, is something we can all relate to. Therefore, authors use this device to tell a story a lot as it can draw many of us in.

Marcel Proust depicted narrators relying not only on what a person perceives but also what is suddenly remembered. His writing looked at the repeated, constant links between perception and memory. In the first of seven novels he wrote his protagonist recalled a series of memories that were set off by him eating a madeleine – a fancy kind of cake. The character was not expecting this sudden recollection, which brings to mind a happy and also deeply significant memory from his childhood.

Throughout Proust’s work other instances of involuntary memory, set off by the characters various senses, conjure important memories. Attention is drawn to an earlier episode of the novel through this, and Proust thereby offers us a meditation on memory and how it can work. This in turn reads as a meditation on who people think they are.

The madeleine episode reads:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin…What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself.

The writer Flaubert was also interested in the significance of memory. In part two of the novel Sentimental Education he depicts a man returning to the place where a woman lived who transfixed him, in the hope of making sense of the impact she had upon them. Again, an author is showing the nature of memory in a story to explore identity. This man is trying to find out who he is, through his search for his ideal woman.

Human brains try to overcome discrepancies – or ‘cognitive dissonances’ by creating continuous narratives. So in a sense, all novels are creating narrative to make sense of someone – or something. Events in the world that happen – seeing a beguiling person or eating a cake that evokes nostalgia – all help to make sense of an aspect of who we are.

Perhaps the most gripping exploration of a characters memory I have read is in Sebastian Faulks’ novel Engleby. A young and rather strange man, who self medicates with strong drugs, describes his obsession for a beguiling woman from his university, who vanishes. Faulks’ storytelling method ramps up the idea of memory being fragile – Engleby sometimes blacks out and admits that he can’t remember certain episodes of his life. As the novel progresses, memories emerge when he is under pressure, and he does not like what they reveal about him. The reader becomes complicit in Engleby’s quest to understand who he is. The cognitive dissonances and contradictions in his account bother us, make us want to read on and work out what’s happened. We follow Engleby’s attempt to understand who he is, too. He starts to wonder if he may know more about the vanished woman than he knew he did. Towards the end of the novel a Clinical Psychologist offers their view of Engleby. It is mentioned that for some people, it is so frightening to have their sense of self questioned that it is unbearable. Freud would have related this to the need for the ego to preserve itself, and the psychologist mentions this. Either way, this narrative makes for a gripping story. Just as Engleby is working out if he can live with the truth of who he is, so we are wondering if can live with being intimate with Engleby’s thoughts as we keep reading them!

These authors tell their stories by focusing upon how memory defines who we are. They also look at how we, as people, can get a sense of who we are by watching characters undertake this journey. If we can be clear about what has happened, almost like the psychologist bringing a repressed memory to the surface, it can help us to clarify who we are. As readers we enjoy observing characters in this journey, and accompanying them on it!

Does anyone know of any other authors who’ve used the idea of memory to help tell their story?

4 Comments

  1. John Umney 4 April 2017 at 11:36 am

    Grace McCleen’s “The Offering” is set in a mental institution called “Lethem Park Mental Infirmary” a direct reference to the River Lethe, which, according to Dante will, if drunk from, remove the memory from the drinker. Interestingly the main protagonist and narrator is Madeline!
    It is a story on the precarious nature of memory, its fallibility and questions, to some extent, why we would hold memory as a vital when in all likelihood it is just another fiction we develop and cling hold of.

    Reply
    1. Guy Mankowski 4 April 2017 at 3:41 pm

      Thanks John. Will check it out. Interesting that the author has prefaced, using symbolism, the idea that the piece is clearly about memory. Good point Anna- Primo Levi uses it to objectively convey what happened, if anything removing the emotion that usually makes memories even more subjective.

      Reply
  2. Liz Cashdan 7 April 2017 at 11:25 pm

    Israeli novelist David Grossman particularly with reference to the Holocaust and his recent novel, Falling out of Time.

    Reply

Leave a Reply