Speak, memory

Craig Raine has an interesting piece on memory in today’s Guardian. He writes about “the discrepancy between the original experience and that experience when it is hallowed by remembrance”.

The effect is something like cropping in photography. At the beginning of The Waves, Virginia Woolf gives us the childhood memories of Rhoda, Louis, Bernard, Susan and Neville as highlights, ordinary epiphanies: Mrs Constable pulling up her black stockings; a flash of birds like a handful of broadcast seed; bubbles forming a silver chain at the bottom of a saucepan; air warping over a chimney; light going blue in the morning window. These mnemonic pungencies are different from the bildungsroman of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as that novel gets into its stride. They resemble rather the unforgettable anthology of snapshots Joyce gives us at the novel’s beginning – a snatch of baby-talk; the sensation of wetting the bed; covering and uncovering your ears at refectory. Or Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, when Augie is a kind of ship-board unofficial counsellor, the recipient of emotional swarf: “Now this girl, who was a cripple in one leg, she worked in the paint lab of the stove factory”; “He was a Rumania-box type of swindler, where you put in a buck and it comes out a fiver”. Cropped for charisma.

He has interesting things to say about Proust, Joyce, Hemingway and Nabokov. As always with Raine, sex comes into it. But his central argument — that the pleasure we get from memories comes from the act of rememberance, not the actual memories themselves — seems spot-on to me. And it accords with my experience this morning, when Julia Langdon’s radio programme triggered memories that had long been buried in my subconscious.