“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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“Students, eh? Love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t hit them with a shovel!” (Terry Pratchett, Making Money)

Despite being woefully slow in my blogging, I’ve managed a second post for Reading Ireland Month hosted by Cathy at 746 books and Niall at Raging Fluff. Sláinte!

ireland-month

I’ve picked two novels linked by undergraduate protagonists – one a classic of Irish literature which is on Cathy’s 100 Irish Novels list, the other a little-known first novel by an author who has gone on to huge success.

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Ah, those heady student days…

Firstly, the classic At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien (1939). The unnamed narrator is in many ways a typical student:

“Whether in or out, I always kept the door of my bedroom locked. This made my movements a matter of some secrecy and enabled me to spend an inclement day in bed without disturbing my uncle’s assumption that I had gone to the College to attend to my studies.  A contemplative life has always been suitable to my disposition.”

His dissolution is perhaps a bit more extreme than most students however:

“It was in the New Year, in February, I think, that I discovered my person was verminous.”

Yuck. Gradually clues emerge that this student may be more literate than he first appears, such as how he describes his friend offering to buy him a drink:

“I rejoined that if his finances warranted such generosity, I would raise no objection, but that I (for my part) was no Rockefeller, thus utilising a figure of speech to convey the poverty of my circumstances.

Name of figure of speech: Synedoche (or Autonomasia)

The three of us walked slowly down to Grogan’s…”

The splintering of the narrative with the definition also hints at what is to come, as soon the story begins to be invaded by other stories the student is writing: about a devil Pooka and a fairy in his pocket; about Furriskey, born a fully grown man; a Western; versions of Irish folklore.  All the narratives start to reflect and echo each other, eventually they overlap and boundaries break down.  In other words, this is classic modernist brilliance, layering up myth and meta-narratives to create something astonishing. If you want to read Ulysses but you’re not sure you’re up to the task, At Swim-Two-Birds could be a good gateway novel 🙂 As Dylan Thomas said:

“This is just the book to give your sister if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.”

In other words, if she’s a student.

Secondly, Stir Fry by Emma Donoghue (1994), who would go on to have enormous success with Room sixteen years later. This is the sort of first novel that doesn’t seem to be published as much now – perfectly decent efforts of thinly disguised biography whereby an author gets to grip with their craft. I’ve no actual facts to back up my theory, but it seems that while more and more books are published, first novels now have to have a huge wow factor – not necessarily a bad thing, but there’s an awful lot of truly dreadful writing being published because it will make money, while these better written but modest efforts flounder. I hope potentially good novelists are not being put off: hang in there budding writers!

Anyway, back to Stir Fry. Maria is seventeen and leaves her rural home to start university in Dublin.

“Dirty blue clouds were scudding over slate roofs. A good cold smell in the air and the whiff of turf smoke as she turned the corner made her think of home. The dusk lasted much longer in the country; nothing to get in the way she supposed. In Dublin there was only half an hour of grey, then the street lamps blinked on and all the shoppers hustled home in the dark.”

She is remarkably naïve, even given her young age, and takes forever to realise that her two flatmates are in a same-sex relationship:

“Now suddenly here were two friends of hers kissing on the table she ate at every night. Rapt faces and library books and garlic, how bizarre.”

She considers moving out, which may seem ridiculous, but Maria’s world sees discussions like this occur in all earnestness:

“‘Look, they’re both very nice. And they wear skirts sometimes too.’

‘Oh, I know,’ said Yvonne wisely, ‘but they’d have to, wouldn’t they, as cover?’”

What follows is a sweet story of Maria coming to realise who she is and what she wants. The characters are all very believable and they and Dublin are drawn with real affection. Stir Fry is a quick read, a bildungsroman in which nothing and everything happens. It doesn’t contain the brilliance Donoghue displayed with Room, but it still made me think it’s a pity we don’t see these types of first novels much anymore.

To end, an Irish band that first came to prominence when I was student – this song was played at many a sticky-floored student club back in my day:

“Being Irish, I always had this love of words.” (Kenneth Branagh)

Happy St Patrick’s Day! To celebrate this day, and to participate in Reading Ireland Month hosted by Cathy at 746 books and Niall at Raging Fluff , I’ve picked one novel from my TBR mountain which was also on Cathy’s 100 Irish Novels list and a poem by one of my favourite contemporary Irish poets . This will also be one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

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Firstly, The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch which won the Booker in 1978. This was recommended to me by my sixth form English tutor, which means it’s been on my TBR for *cough* 20 years *cough*.  Oh dear. I got there eventually.  Charles Arrowby, theatre director, decides to retire to the coast:

“The sea is golden, speckled with white points of light, lapping with a sort of mechanical self-satisfaction under a pale green sky. How huge it is, how empty, this great space for which I have been longing all my life.”

Arrowby is vain, arrogant, solipsistic, self-aggrandizing… He views himself as some sort of Prospero figure:

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog

Image from here

But of course he isn’t a magician, he has no more power than anyone else.  The titular force of nature that surrounds him acts as a reminder of this, indifferent and formidable.

 “the sea was a glassy slightly heaving plain, moving slowly past me, and as if it were shrugging reflectively as it absent-mindedly supported its devotee”

It isn’t long before his self-induced exile starts to unravel. He starts to have hallucinations about sea monsters and within this unstable psychology is the constant background obsession with his teenage love, Hartley. By odd coincidence, she now lives in the same village with her husband, and all of Arrowby’s delusions become focused on her, as he is unable to conceive of anything that won’t fit in with his own needs:

 “I reviewed the evidence and I had very little doubt about what it pointed to. Hartley loved me and had long regretted losing me. How could she not?”

The Sea, The Sea is an extremely clever novel, carefully balancing Arrowby’s delusions on a precipice between comedy and terror:

“ ‘There’s an eternal bond between us, you know there is, it’s the clearest thing in the world, clearer than Jesus. I want you to be my wife at last, I want you to rest in me. I want to look out for you forever, until I drop dead.’

‘I wish I could drop dead.’

‘Oh shut up –‘ “

I was never sure which way it would go, how violently it would all unravel, or whether it would resolve in a subdued, sad way. Arrowby’s quiet, introspective (possible spy) cousin is the voice of reason, resolutely ignored:

“You’ve built a cage of needs and installed her in an empty space in the middle. The strong feelings are all around her – vanity, jealousy, revenge, your love for your youth – they aren’t focused on her, they don’t touch her. She seems to be their prisoner, but really you don’t harm her at all. You are using her image, a doll, a simulacrum, it’s an exorcism.”

The Sea, The Sea is a novel that tackles major themes: the nature of love, the meanings we attach to our lives, how we decide what is real when we can only view from our own perspective, how we recognise what really matters. Arrowby’s narcissism is contemptible, but the skill of Murdoch’s writing shows him as an everyman (despite his belief in his own extraordinariness) and places us in a position where to judge him harshly is to judge ourselves:

“Time, like the sea, unties all knots.  Judgements on people are never final, they emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need for reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning, whatever art may pretend in order to console us.”

Secondly, Why Brownlee Left by Paul Muldoon, the titular poem from his 1980 collection.  Muldoon’s poems can be difficult to comprehend and contain head-scratchingly obscure references, but he is also humorous and playful, and takes such clear joy in language that I think any new collection from him is cause for excitement. The poem I’ve chosen is one of his most accessible but still leaves plenty of space for the reader to decide on meaning; it contains Muldoon’s gentle humour, and it’s all tied together with expert use of rhythm and echoing half-rhyme – I hope you like it 🙂

Why Brownlee left, and where he went,

Is a mystery even now.

For if a man should have been content

It was him; two acres of barley,

One of potatoes, four bullocks,

A milker, a slated farmhouse.

He was last seen going out to plough

On a March morning, bright and early.

 

By noon Brownlee was famous;

They had found all abandoned, with

The last rig unbroken, his pair of black

Horses, like man and wife,

Shifting their weight from foot to

Foot, and gazing into the future.

Do join in with Reading Ireland month aka the Begorrathon, and if you’re not a Luddite like me you can also check out their Facebook page 🙂

To end, as I read a review of a new Phil Lynott biography over the weekend, here are Thin Lizzy singing their version of a traditional Irish song: