“Whenever I think of the past, it brings back so many memories.” (Steven Wright)

I’m a month into my new job and the main effect it’s having is that my memory is shot to pieces. Trying to cram #allthefacts about one particular health condition into my head means all other knowledge has dribbled out of my ears. In fairness, my short and long-term memory has always been appalling and I used to claim I operated in a constantly shifting 3 hour window. This is currently down to about 30 minutes. Plus I got lost at Bank the other day, when I’ve lived in London MY WHOLE LIFE. And there’s a bloomin’ great building at Bank (guess which one) to help you orient yourself.

Where am I again? Oh, yeah...

Where am I again? Oh, yeah…

So to console myself this week I’m looking at novels which explore memory. Its inherently unreliable nature means memory is a gift to novelists who want to consider how we construct reality and decide who we are. (At the moment I’m happy if I manage to construct a sentence, never mind reality and coherent sense of self).

Firstly, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2003, tr. Stephen Snyder 2008).I’m a huge admirer of Ogawa and her spare, stunning writing. In this short novel she details the relationship between a young housekeeper, her son, and the Professor she works for, who since a car accident in 1975 has a memory which lasts 80 minutes, though his memory from before the accident is intact.

“At the end of my first day, I noticed a new note on the cuff of his jacket. ‘The new housekeeper,’ it said. The words were written in tiny, delicate characters, and above them a sketch of a woman’s face. It looked like the work of a small child…but I knew instantly it was portrait of me. I imagined the Professor hurrying to draw this likeness before the memory had vanished. The note was proof of something, that he had interrupted his thinking for my sake.”

These notes cover the Professor’s suit and give him an eccentric experience which belies his brilliant mind. He is talented mathematician who sees numbers everywhere. His housekeeper became pregnant at 18 and needed to work to support her child; she is intelligent but not highly educated. Gradually though, he is able to convey the magic of numbers to her and her mind relishes the new challenge:

“With my finger I traced the trail of numbers from the ones the Professor had written to the ones I’d added, and they all seemed to flow together, as if we’d been connecting up the constellations in the night sky.”

Meanwhile Ogawa is able to convey the magic of numbers to the reader. There is no-one more resistant to mathematics than me – I won’t even play soduku. Yet the Housekeeper’s response to the discoveries the Professor opens up for her is so creative and joyful that I found myself carried along:

“I wondered why ordinary words seemed so exotic when they were used in relation to numbers. Amicable numbers or twin primes had a precise quality about them, and yet they sounded as though they’d been taken straight out of a poem. In my mind, the twins had matching outfits and stood holding hands as they waited in the number line.”

The titular characters and the Housekeeper’s son – nicknamed Root as his flat head reminds the Professor of the square root sign – form a tender alliance. The Professor cannot remember them from one day to the next, and yet he changes their lives forever, through his love of numbers and how he uses these to reach out to people.  The novel is a love story, but not a romance.  It is about the love of friends, of family, of vocation. It contains tragedy but also endurance beyond such, with Ogawa’s sparse style bringing the story a great delicacy. I adored it.

“I thought of the Professor whenever I saw a prime number – which, as it turned out, was almost everywhere I looked: price tags at the supermarket, house numbers above doors, on bus schedules or the expiration date on a package of ham, Root’s score on a test. On the face of it, these numbers faithfully played their official roles, but in secret they were primes and I knew that was what gave them their true meaning.”

Secondly, The Sea by John Banville, which won the Booker Prize in 2005. I’m still a bit conflicted about how I feel about this one, but it’s given me food for thought and is undoubtedly well-written, so I decided to add it to this blog where I only write about books I like. The Sea is narrated by Max Morden, coming to terms with the recent death of his wife. He returns to the holiday cottage which in his childhood was rented by a family, the Graces’, while Max and his family had a nearby chalet.

“I approached the Cedars circumspectly. How is it in childhood everything new that caught my interest had an aura of the uncanny, since according to all the authorities the uncanny is not some new thing but a thing known, returning in a different form, a revenant?”

The Sea is an effective exploration of memory as Max’s memories of the childhood holiday are jumbled alongside those of his marriage and especially his wife’s final illness. Chloe and Myles Grace are twins who never quite reveal themselves to Max, although he begins a tentative romance with Chloe.

“Her hands. Her eyes. Her bitten fingernails. All this I remember, intensely remember, yet it is all disparate, I cannot assemble it into a unity.”

As Max remembers the events of that summer he is forced to reflect on his wider choices and the man he is, particularly as he is now single again.

“Life, authentic life, is supposed to be all struggle, unflagging action and affirmation, the will butting its blunt head against the world’s wall, suchlike, but when I look back I see the greater part of my energies was always given over to the simple search for shelter, for comfort, for, yes, I admit, it, for cosiness.”

So… my reservations about this novel are weirdly some of its strengths. It is written in considered, careful prose, expertly structured overall to build to a conclusion that reconciles past and present. But for me it almost felt too considered, too artful. Then I wondered if Max, insecure about his social background, was supposed to be a slightly ponderous man out to prove his own cleverness? I’m not sure, I would have to read another of Banville’s novels to know. There are certainly moments of wry humour to lift the narrative at moments:

“these days I must take the world in small and carefully measured doses, it is a sort of homeopathic cure I am undergoing”

I’m undecided about Banville at present but I’ll certainly give him another try. If you’ve read him I’d really appreciate enlightenment as to his style and other novels that would be worth a read? The reason The Sea made it onto this determinedly positive blog was the final line of the novel, the final image. It was so powerful, such a perfect end, so moving and insightful: a moment of pure brilliance.

To end, it had to be either this or Elaine Paige dressed as a giant feline. Ultimately I decided to have my memories misty-water-coloured rather than alone in the moonlight. Take it away, Babs:

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20 thoughts on ““Whenever I think of the past, it brings back so many memories.” (Steven Wright)

  1. The Housekeeper and the Professor sounds more delicate than some of Yoko Ogawa’s other fiction. I think it’s the only only of the Vintage editions I haven’t read yet. A good one to keep in mind for a future WIT Month.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ‘take the world in small and carefully measured doses’ – this is definitely my philosophy these days – if only to get by without losing my sanity.
    My memory is also appalling, perhaps that’s why I’m often drawn to those novels that approach it in depth. I’m currently enjoying W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, which winds its way across Europe and back and forwards in time and dreams, and seems to perfectly capture that strange ethereal quality of memory.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I read ‘The Sea’ about ten years ago, and the only thing I can remember is that I couldn’t stand it! It was, like you say, well-written, but over-stylised for my liking, and I’ve avoided reading anything by John Banville ever since.
    Well done on surviving the first month in your new job – it’ll be onwards and upwards from here on in! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s more frustrating to read a well-written novel that doesn’t work for you than just an outright terrible book, isn’t it? I always end up persevering and then wondering why I bothered! I’m getting more ruthless the older I get though 😉

      Thank you – first month survived, hopefully my memory will return to its usual useless level rather than being almost entirely absent as it is at the moment!

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  4. I’m really looking forward to The Housekeeper and the Professor – hopefully it will be sooner rather than later.
    I’ve been suffering in the memory department as well. I have to write everything down or it will be forgotten, and, even then, I can easily forget that I’ve written it down! Hopefully, as your new job settles, your memory will come back to you. In the meantime, a couple more good books about memory, off the top of my head: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and The Confabulist by Steven Galloway.

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    • I hope you enjoy it!

      I definitely need to follow your lead and start writing stuff down,it’s the only way to manage. Hopefully my memory will return to normal – terrible as it is – soon!

      I’ve read the Barnes which I really liked, but I’ve not heard of the Galloway, I will seek it out – thanks for the recommendation 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve only read one Banville too – The Blue Guitar – and I certainly wouldn’t describe the narrator in it as ponderous, so I’m guessing you’re right and it’s deliberate. I adored The Blue Guitar – it wasn’t the deepest or most profound book in the world but the prose was utterly dazzling with some stop to catch breath moments. The Sea is on my TBR, so I’m glad you enjoyed it enough for it to make your blog… 🙂

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    • Ponderous may have been a bit harsh! But there were times when it seemed strained, I think from what you’ve said it’s deliberate & its supposed to be someone who’s trying a bit too hard.

      It’s great to have another Banville recommendation – I remember your review. I’ll definitely add The Blue Guitar to the TBR. I hope you enjoy The Sea 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I always marvel at the fact that I can remember song lyrics and ad-jingles from the eighties yet everything I learnt in Year 12 Chemistry left my head as soon as I walked out of my final exam. How does that happen?

    I haven’t read either of the books you’ve reviewed this time (although greatly approve of your song choice – I love a bit of Babs. Related: if the play ‘Buyer and Cellar’ ever comes your way see it) but when I think about memory in books, I go immediately to stories like Elizabeth is Missing and Still Alice.

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    • I’m a perpetual student and always gutted by the fact that all the interesting stuff I cram into my head falls straight out the other side while total nonsense seems there to stay (such as all the lyrics to the theme tune of Monkey Magic).

      I didn’t see Buyer & Cellar when it was here last year – I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a revival…

      I’m planning a dementia themed post at some point, so both those novels could yet make an appearance!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Because dementia is an issue that is currently having an impact on my extended family (although they are in the denial phase, and have been for quite some time), I have been doing quite a lot of reading about it. Currently reading a non-fiction book called ‘A Brain for Life’, which focuses on the things we can do to delay dementia, the premise being that our lifespan now outlasts our brain-span. It’s very interesting reading and I will try to post a review at some stage.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That does sound fascinating. I’m sorry to hear about your family member. I lost a much-loved family member to dementia and it is so painful. What you say about life-span makes a lot of sense, we lost her long before her lifespan ended. I’ll look out for A Brain for Life & hope you have time to review too.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. The Housekeeper and the Professor is definitely going on the list! And I think it is unfair how much we are expected to remember these days. On top of work stress I wake up in a panic sometimes with a horrible feeling I’ve forgotten a niece or nephew’s birthday, or like today, that I’ve forgotten to pay my council tax. No wonder politicians leave their children in pubs, I’m fear the day I wander out the door with a towel still on my head and no trousers.

    And medical and social care’s obsession with changing door codes and computer system passwords is just asking too much! In conclusion, it’s not us, it’s them 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right! It *is* them – thanks! I have 6 different passwords at work that change every 30 days, and I start getting reminders to change them after 14 days – no wonder my brain is swiss cheese. The towel-no-trousers scenario is the only logical conclusion!

      Really hope you enjoy The Housekeeper and the Professor, it’s a gem 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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