on memoirs and memory

 Memory is to one what history is to another – an impossibility. – Chris Marker

Caption: Chris Marker, Sans Soleil, Film Still.

Last Christmas vacation I spent the week between Christmas and New Years reading the first volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I expected it to be just that, especially given the seasonal depression that sets in each December and January. It was not. Not even close. I loved it so much I spent the same week of this year reading the second volume. This isn’t actually an essay on Knausgaard so I won’t go into all of the reasons why it meant so much to me personally other than to say I can relate in ways I am not always proud of to Karl Ove’s malaise.

I want to talk about memory though. Memory as a method of memoir. Now I know that every memoir technically consists of memory; someone looking back upon his/her life and recounting events. I’m talking about a certain kind of memoir. One that doesn’t attempt to tie memories together into a tidy, chronological history. One that instead, spends as much time challenging our notion of history and meaning, as it does telling a story.

In an age in which we all seem to have internalized the notion that there are many different versions of time and in an age in which we’ve all too well realized, thanks to the ravages of colonialism, that history is anything but linear, authors seem to be experimenting with a myriad number of ways they can communicate the subjectivity inherent to their own life and experience, and, by extension, the subjectivity inherent to each of our experiences.

The overt exploration of memory itself in memoir began, in my estimation, with modernism. Nabokov wrote of the arrival of memory in his own autobiography, “I see the awakening of consciousness as a series of spaced flashes, with the intervals between them gradually diminishing until bright blocks of perception are formed…”

Nabokov in fact spent a great deal of time in Speak, Memory exploring memory itself, how it works, why it works the way it does, why one remembers this and not that, all of those questions we will never be able to answer and his autobiography was the first I read in which an autobiography was freed to flow in the way memory truly does flow; randomly and without reason. Full of asides.

Proust does the same, acknowledging the seemingly mundane elements that allow memories to resurface and, as Knausgaard would do a century later, attempting to capture the mundanity of memory. By doing so Proust conveyed to his readers as no “memoirist” had done before, that they should value those seemingly unimportant trifles, the minutiae of daily life; those trifles are after all the conduit to our memory. By imbuing it with meaning, Proust made the mundane beautiful.

Knausgaard doesn’t try to make it beautiful. He didn’t need to though: Proust already did that. Knausgaard does the opposite; chronicling the embarrassment, the ugliness, the misery in his life, the stuff even many of the most self-lacerating authors might leave out. And it’s not that he asks us to find beauty in the ugliness, but rather, he implicitly shows us through his storytelling that it’s the ugliness and the horribleness of life which makes us able to appreciate the beauty.

Where Proust found his mother in a cookie, Knausgaard finds his father in the weather, in the quiet. The story he paints will be familiar to anyone who has spent any of their own time contemplating why we remember this and not that. It’s not the event we remember. Not really. We remember the music, the snow, the fetid smell of yesterday’s alcohol, and only then do we remember the event.

I like Knausgaard because the writing is unpretentious. (Knausgaard on the other hand, is extremely pretentious, I mean, it will probably come as no surprise to hear this, but he hates that about himself.) Despite the reactions he achieves however, Knausgaard is not creating atmosphere, not intentionally, and he’s not manipulating his reader into feeling any certain way about him or his life or the process he’s engaged in; remembering and recording. By including everything, the good and the bad, the epic and the trivial, in a quasi-chronological but mostly random way, he is allowing his readers to fend for themselves, to draw their own conclusions, and it’s a testament to his ability that his readers are able to glean so much from seemingly so little attempt at inciting his readers to a certain end.

Contrast that with a “memoir” like Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous. Hilbig was a German author, born in 1941, deceased in 2007. Autobiographical elements are, I gather, prevalent in much of his work, but The Sleep of the Righteous is a memoir only thinly disguised as fiction.

Where Knausgaard lets memory work in the way that memory does, at random, Hilbig seems to be harnessing memory in the service of making a point. The Sleep of the Righteous consists of a series of evocative vignettes; highly stylized stories of a child at play, a worker in the East German coal mines, a writer who splits time between East and West Berlin before the fall of the wall.

It’s intentionally unclear that each “story” is telling the story of the same person. The unity is almost entirely in the style.  But by leaving anything concrete out, by forcing thereby his readers to experience his stories as allusion or analogy, Hilbig is manipulating his readers into having a certain response to his work, into “interpreting” it as opposed to simply experiencing it.

In that way it comes across as dishonest. It may very well be that Hilbig does not want his readers to experience his book as memoir, but instead of offering either a story or a memoir, his readers are given something in between; a book that is at the same time overtly personal and yet shies away from being experienced as such, resisting, in the process, reality.

Reality isn’t structured and our experience of it definitely isn’t. In an age in which we often begin from a position of distrust vis-a-vis the author or critic, its refreshing to recognize when an author isn’t driving us towards an end, and it’s refreshing to recognize beauty and style and all of those other things writers strive for and critics like to applaud, when it appears unplanned for.

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