(Penguin Press, 2010)
Into our collective memory, one in which historians are geeky anachronisms stuck on learning from the past (horrors!), enter two books that attempt to tackle just what it means to remember and why it might be important to do so.
Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall is a pure stunner. A collection of stories held together by the use of memory as a theme, Memory Wall enters four continents and cultures to engage its characters’ real and imagined recollections and physical connections to the past. Doerr’s prose is brilliant, yet accessible. The stories captivate and the language sparkles without being self-indulgent. Comprised of six stories in all, four are standouts. The collection’s narrative intensity and its effects linger—just like memory.
In the title work, Alma, an elderly South African widow with dementia, keeps a memory wall in her bedroom to help her make sense of a fragmenting world where memories harvested from brain cells’ “extracellular space” are bought and sold like black market drugs. “Memory Wall” considers not only Alma’s disorienting existence of living in the eternal now (with occasional dips into an otherworldly and blurry past), but the complicated relationships between social classes. “Village 113” spins the wet, verdant tale of a Japanese seed keeper. Her seeds cradle the memory of the plants that preceded them as well as the entire village’s culture, which could soon be history if her son, a government bureaucrat, is allowed to build a dam that would flood the community. “The River Nemunas” spurs a young orphaned American girl who has been relocated to Lithuania to be raised by her grandfather, to go fishing for answers as she mourns her lost mother and her lost country all while learning to accept her new circumstances. Finally, in “Afterworld,” we meet eighty-one-year-old Esther, a Holocaust survivor dying from a seizure disorder. Esther slips into dreamlike states as each seizure takes her back to her girlhood in Hitler’s Germany. Her college-age grandson tends to her as she falls in and out of consciousness while Esther tells him stories of her childhood friends who now summon her from a distant unknown place to join them. Not just another Holocaust tale, “Afterworld” asks us to inhabit Esther’s experience in a visceral, and altogether unforgettable way. In a time when the last survivors of the Nazi regime are reaching the end of their natural lifespans, “Afterworld” shines as the final tale in this extraordinary and luminous collection. It’s a tender and sensitive memorial to aging, a paean to the relationships between generations, and a meditation on who survives life’s random and often heartbreaking hardships, and why.
Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet is an altogether different book, a memoir, written after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Judt wrote the essays for his “own satisfaction” never intending to publish them, and used a Swiss chalet he visited as a boy as a mnemonic device and writing trigger. Visiting the chalet nightly before sleep became a way to quiet a restless mind in the grip of a relentless and degenerative disease that eventually took his life. Despite these realities, Judt’s essays stand as brilliantly-written tales that recount his experiences growing up in England and eventually moving to New York City. Judt devotes much of the memoir to travel, with essays about car rides with his father, solo bus journeys, ferries to France, and a near obsessive love of trains. One wonders if Judt would have penned memories of freely moving from place to place had he not been confined to a wheelchair and bed, living his Kafkaesque “cockroach-like existence.” Perhaps these would have been seminal memories regardless of his physical condition; they are, after all, memories of a quite typical middle-class boyhood. Widely published, Judt edited or wrote fourteen books prior to The Memory Chalet; he was the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of European Studies at New York University, with teaching stints at Cambridge, Oxford, and Berkeley as well. Judt believed in a disciplined mind rooted in tradition: “I teach textual legacy of long-dead Europeans; have little tolerance for ‘self-expression’ as a substitute for clarity; regard effort as a poor substitute for achievement.” Ever the historian, Judt successfully wrote his own history while he could, crafting an ode to the power of the past to enrich and sustain all of us in the present.