Writing about the past and the trick of memory

I opened L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between to find an Introduction by the author that is really a wonderful little piece of literary criticism. The novel is based on the English summer of 1900 as Hartley experienced it, so the intro is, fittingly, a meditation on writing about one’s past.

Hartley seems to experience this impulse as a desperate homesickness, a desire to memorialize and even recreate lost emotions.

People who have this feeling about the past aren’t necessarily comparing it to the present, to the disadvantage of the present. It has nothing to do with that, or not much. It is a desire for certain kinds of emotions which can no longer be experienced by the writer: not necessarily pleasant emotions.

If one’s home is one’s past, then the urge to remember is really the urge to go home—but to a home that no longer exists. Therefore this fundamentally writerly impulse is necessarily painful, but it is not quite the pain of nostalgia; as Hartley says, “I didn’t want to go back to [the summer of 1900] but I wanted it to come back to me.” I think, rather, that the pain inheres in the writer’s knowledge that “home” is even literarily, symbolically, atmospherically out of reach—that what he creates will be an ugly distortion of that pure emotion which lives only within himself.

I say “fundamentally writerly” because I do believe writers write to learn about themselves and to make sense of their lives, and what better resource for this is there than the raw material of one’s past? And though I used the word, this process is not merely a recreation, but, as Hartley says of Proust, “a philosophy, almost a religion.”

I was particularly struck by Hartley’s initial description of his golden summer as “the first time the weather made a mark on my memory.” I thought: here is an author who understands that an era in one’s life can be defined by a temperature, or a color, or a smell—and when those things change, the mood and the era are lost. Then came to mind Brian Christian’s excellent essay on the seasonally-induced amnesia he experienced upon moving from New England, where there are four seasons, to Seattle, where there are two. Memory is highly associative, meaning it depends upon environmental pointers to call up past moments. Without his regular seasonal pointers (“the kind that seem to float in the air of a season like a fragrance”), Christan felt disoriented, numb, grayed-out.

This is what Richard Kenney means when he talks of “that trick of memory,” what Robert Creeley means when he says, “So does May’s mind remember all / it thought of once,” what Inger Christensen means when she says, “no one in / this gossamer summer, no one comprehends that / early fall exists.”

That trick of memory—a telling phrase. It tells us, namely, how little control we have over our memory, even though we depend on it in every way for emotional and physical survival. But then, the fluidity of memory probably helps us survive as well. At the least it helps us create art.

(Oh and, don’t spoil the book for me please—I’ve just started it.)