Tag Archives: London Review of Books

The past ain’t what it used to be

7 Mar

To Birmingham. On the train I read an article in the London Review of Books about memory and the ways in which we configure the past: our own past, in particular. This is a matter close to my heart, and Jenny Diski’s article is an excellent summary of current research in both neuroscience and our cultural understanding of how memory operates. She cites, for example, her own inability to recall the name of  Hollywood star . . .

whatshisname – oh you know the bloke who played uh . . . Rhett Butler . . . was married to whatshername . . . it feels to me that I am not who I used to be, not quite myself, or that I am continuing to leave ever further behind the someone I was. It isn’t the information that Carole Lombard was married to Clarke Gable that has gone, it’s the me who knew it who is disappearing. Those who are older than they are young make exaggeratedly impatient, self-deprecating jokes when they forget a name, a face, or why it was they walked into a room.

Isn’t this familiar to all of us who are ‘older than we are young’? I know it is true where I am concerned. But there is more:

Recent research at Notre Dame suggests that it may be passing through doorways which unframes the thought you had the second before – but I’ve just forgotten the end of this sentence and I haven’t moved, let alone left the room.

Perhaps what the researchers failed to specify was that the ‘passing through doorways’ may not be (only) a literal passage. Perhaps an equivalent ‘passing’ from one conceptual domain to the next simulates, in some bizarre way, the ‘unframing ‘ or reframing of a passage from room to room, and that this inhibits the thought’s expression in language . . . In any case, Diski moves on to a familiar scenario, one with which all of us will be familiar, to some degree:

That ubiquity of joking, nervous laughter as we confess to a memory lapse suggests we know very well that the increasing frequency of the loss of a recollection means much more than an irritating moment of blankness. It’s the ‘normal’ beginning of the loss of ourselves, and it is terrifying. Beneath the laughter, blind panic.

Here I cannot fail to remember my mother, who seemed to anticipate the onset of her own dementia – although I have no means of ascertaining whether she was aware of this herself – by a continuous bantering, beginning, I guess, in her fifties, that she was ‘going batty’. It was almost a family joke, or would have been, had there not been the uncomfortable knowledge that it was also, at the very least, a possibility. Sitting with her in her last years, when she had lost speech, and the ability to do most things for herself, I remembered the almost indulgent glee with which she would joke about ‘going batty’ (and she was not an essentially funny person) and the memory was not a good one. The joking was barbed: the future, then, seemed already curtailed by a prophecy.

Diski discusses two conflicting theories of memory, tracing one of them to the neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, whose experiments with patients in the 1950s led him to believe that past events were ‘infallibly impressed in the library of our brains’ – and even if we are not conscious of the memory, for instance a song we once heard, it can be tapped by exploring areas of the temporal cortex and by ‘triggering’ the memory with electrodes. This theory suggests that memories are objectified entities that lie intact somewhere in the structure of the brain. The contrary opinion, put forward by Frederic Bartlett at Cambridge, was that memory was a ‘schema, seeded by experience but fleshed out by a plethora of social, psychological and cultural circumstances.’ In other words, ‘we remake our memories each time we think them’, depending on what is required of us.

These ‘scientific’ positions, of course, reflect schools of thought that existed long before the named scientists did their work: put crudely – an objective, ‘real’ memory, as against a culturally or psychologically constructed memory that fits the occasion. But one thing remains certain: without obvious access to a bank of undiluted ‘factual memory’, all our ‘so-called memories are highly plastic and we are inclined to remember according to our own and others’ expectations.’

Something utterly fantastic – and new to me – emerges from this article (which is actually a review of Alison Winter’s book Memory: Fragments of a Modern History). This is that the emotions associated with an event are stored separately (in the amygdala) from the memory of the event itself (which is stored in the hippocampus). Would this explain why we are suddenly overcome (as, in the famous instance of Proust and his madeleine) by an emotion, a taste, a smell, without the accompanying information about the event with which the reactive emotion is associated?

All of this stuff throws up massive issues for the writer (especially the writer of memoir) and casts an interesting light on the notion of writers ‘making stuff up’ when they are purportedly writing about true events. How can we know what we are remembering when the I that is doing the remembering is no longer the me who lived through the event in the first place? None of this justifies random and misguided accusations of falsification – Diski reminds us of the terrible unleashing of ‘repressed memories’ when hundreds of parents found themselves accused of sexual and satanic abuse of their children – so we need to be careful, especially of the shadow side of things, or of our ‘repressive unconscious’, and of things that go bump in the night.

At Swim-Two-Birds and an absence of frantic sorrow

14 Jan


My favourite novel when I was nineteen years of age and had just moved to London was At-Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien and it was with some pleasure that I dipped into an article by Colm Tóibín in the London Review of Books last week entitled ‘Flann O’Brien’s lies’. The essay weaves a fascinating connecting thread between O’Brien’s Dublin, Borges’s Buenos Aires and Pessoa’s Lisbon, and considers these three writers as sharing a fundamental sense of marginality, living in these sea-facing cities, all three of them writing fictions in which ‘they invented further personae and indeed further worlds’ –  all three of them writing under alternative identities.

‘An oasis will not appear in a fertile plain. It is impossible to write fiction filled with choices and chances and continuities in a society where these things are thinly spread. In a society where there is no body of readers, it is not easy to write with a reader in mind, a reader who wants a story in which time is represented in a straight line and in which characters are filled with feelings and longings, and in which plot satisfies some large set of rules which insist on completion, and in which words represent what the dictionary states they represent, and in which language is natural and part of a shared culture. It is much easier to make a story or a novel in which the reader is already built-in and which wrong-foots or even usurps the idea of reading. While novelists who wrote in formed, settled and multi-layered societies held a mirror up to those societies in all their variety or to the vicissitudes of the human heart, Borges and O’Brien and Pessoa held instead a mirage up to an oasis, the strange place they came from which gave them their first taste of thirst.’

Thirst was certainly a passion of O’Brien’s, and it eventually killed him, though this, of course, is not what Tóibín means, strictly speaking.

I have always thought At Swim-Two-Birds was O’Brien’s best book. Although people generally go on about The Third Policeman, I was never such a fan. The Poor Mouth – his own translation of his Gaelic novel An Beal Bocht –  was hilarious, although I daresay I missed a lot of the nuances. The rest of his work, notably The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive are derivative or cannibalistic of his earlier stuff. The newspaper column in The Irish Times was fabulous. But with his first book, O’Brien achieved something he would never quite manage again.

‘The aim of At Swim-Two-Birds was to lose control, to take the pieces and refuse to reconcile them, to insist that it was too late for such trickery. O’Brien refused to believe that the writer recreates the world, but instead he set out to show that the world re-creates the writer, and that both the writer and the world are, or might be, a set of illusions, highly implausible, not even worth mistrusting, and that all we have fully to mistrust are pages and the words on them.’

The article also quotes an extract from Henry James, which indicates precisely the kind of novelist James despaired of, and precisely the kind of writer O’Brien was: one who had not the remotest interest in earnestly capturing a particular quality of truth that pretends or claims to be lodged in reality, and who thereby recognizes that ‘realism’ is itself only a particular, stylised mode of representation. For O’Brien, and others like him, the point of fiction lies elsewhere, and largely, though not exclusively, in the telling itself.

Finally, Tóibín cites an absolute gem from Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet:

‘Why should I care that no one reads what I write? I write to forget about life, and I publish because that is one of the rules of the game. If tomorrow all my writings were lost, I’d be sorry, but I doubt I’d be violently and frantically sorry.’




How to talk about books you haven’t read (and how to write like Kafka)

26 Jul



I wake up early, make tea, return to bed, and start reflecting on the many, many books that I have not read, that I will in all probability never read. In an attempt to console myself (not that I am really all that bothered), I recall Pierre Bayard’s highly entertaining How to talk about books you haven’t read, which I always recommend to students at the university. It was a significantly more rewarding read than the title might suggest. And as for the techniques of reading a huge amount at speed: why bother? Unless, of course you are judging some competition and are required to read ninety novels in a month, in which case I have heard it is a good idea to read the first two chapters and the last, and if they are promising, to read the bits in between. In fact that might be a good attitude to apply to all fiction reading: It is horrible being caught up in a novel that you don’t want to be reading – in fact there are a thousand things you would rather be doing – but you somehow feel obliged to finish. The last time I had that experience was with Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow, which I thought quite dreadful, but out of some obscure sense of obligation, perhaps for once having enjoyed Money – I plodded on like an earnest foot-soldier to the bitter end. And then I decided: no more. No longer will I make myself finish the long book that is boring me to tears. So Bayard’s advice is well heeded. If you want to find out more, read his book. Besides – returning to my original line of thought – no one has read everything, not even Borges. But that needn’t stop you talking as if you had, according to Bayard, at least.

That there are so many books in the world would indicate that there is a lot to write about, but this does not always seem to be the case for the aspiring writer. Undergraduate students at the university where I teach often complain of not having anything to write about, by which they mean that their resources are limited by age and experience (a bit like applying for your first job). One way around this is to heed the advice given by Kafka, that “you don’t sit in your room and set out to write a story; if you just wait for it to happen, it will”. This might have been the way it was for Kafka: it certainly doesn’t always work with my students. But hang on (I hear you say) – where and when did Kafka say this? I have just lifted it from my notebook, because on 18th June, following my appearance with the delightful and hilarious Sandi Toksvig on Excess Baggage, I pootled along to the British Museum, where the London Review of Books was hosting a series of talks on World Literature. I walked in on a session with the Galician novelist Manuel Rivas, and the scribble in my notebook can be attributed to him. What he was attempting to summarize, from Kafka’s notebooks, was this: “You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” Which is rather different, but probably still of not much help to my students, who would willingly beg, borrow, or steal their £9k a year fees to have anything rolling in ecstasy at their feet. What student writers regularly misunderstand is that they have to actually start writing before the ideas happen: they will arrive at the ideas through the practice of writing. Ideas don’t necessarily always ignite the writing: the writing can ignite the ideas. That’s why I always recommend them to just start writing, anything, freewriting or even nonsense, just to get into the swing of it, and then, with luck, the ideas will come.

Rivas came up with another quotation that I have no means of verifying, from Claude Lévi-Strauss, whom I last studied in any detail as a student at the LSE many years ago. According to Rivas, L-S said that in Greek times people and animals shared the same earth. Which I liked enough to jot down in my notebook also (they are the only two jottings from the Rivas talk). I love the idea of people and animals sharing the earth in respectful harmony, and for that reason have chosen a picture by Franz Marc to head this entry, Marc had a keen sensibility to the animal world, and was famous for going everywhere with his large white dog.

As a postscript, Mrs Blanco was a little concerned that I may have given the impression in my blog of 24th July that she did not think I was passionate. To set the record straight, this is neither the impression I meant to give, nor is it the opinion that she holds, and would add that a love of books is by no means incompatible with a passionate nature.

And finally, living proof that, as Goethe said, by simply making the effort to do something, the forces of providence will begin to move with you (or something like that) I find – while on my search for the correct wording of the one about sitting in your room and waiting, another quote from Kafka’s diaries for all aspiring bloggers (who are the diarists of our era), from February 25, 1912: “Hold fast to the diary from today on! Write regularly! Don’t surrender! Even if no salvation should come, I want to be worthy of it at every moment.” Huzzah!




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