[Primo Levi: Shema]
[Marcel Proust (1900)]
3rd-4th March: If This is a Man by Primo Levi and Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way – First Impressions
During my earliest reading of If This is a Man I was struck (as I always am by stories that emerge from the tragic events of the Holocaust) by how severely the victims suffered, not to mention the callous brutality of the perpetrators. Levi suggests the need for a new language; one that can adequately express what the prisoners in Auschwitz felt. For example, the difference between my, “I’m cold” that prompts me to reach for a sweater, versus the bitter cold that Levi must have felt in the snow and wind of the concentration camp. I found his theory concerning the limitations of language to carry with it profound merit. It demonstrates the role that individual perception plays in distorting how we relate to the stories of others and shows that our own world view or bias can re-shape them.
This, I feel, is a major limitation of life writing or, for that matter, writing and communication in general. Certainly such painful memories cannot be fully understood by someone like me who can barely attempt to imagine such suffering. However these limitations do not take away my ability to feel empathy or appreciate the lessons offered.
Swann’s Way by Proust seems by contrast to concern itself with far more trivial matters. In class today this reading received what was, in my opinion, a rather unwarranted negative review. I just found it to be so beautiful that I was compelled to put up my hand in defence of poor old Marcel.
His story had value, not because of its deep compelling stimulus, but because it was so sublimely simple. The image of a paper flower that reveals itself in a bowl of water is a powerful metaphor for how memory can bloom with even the smallest provocation. Essentially the story hinges on a single moment, on a mouthful of tea and cake. Proust’s memory of Combray is reawakened in this moment, “the whole of Combray and its surrounding, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea” (51). I enjoy how Proust describes the moment of bliss and, “exquisite pleasure” that occurs prior to the unveiling of memory. I hope to continue following this line of enquiry. What is it about savouring the present moment that is so important to preserving memory?
[Virginia Woolf (1937)]
10th-11th March: A Sketch of the past by Virginia Woolf – First Impressions
First and foremost, Woolf demonstrates her understanding that time and memories are inextricably linked. She cites the “unhappy case” of Lady Strachey who put off writing her memoirs until she was too old to remember them and the recollections of her long life were ironically short.
Like Proust, Woolf acknowledges the role that moments of rapture and ecstasy have in preserving memory. The highly sensual memories of her childhood are heightened in colour and sound and according to her these memories can be more real and vibrant than the present, which is so often lived unconsciously in what she refers to as ‘non-being’. The exceptional, whether these are life changing events, or simple moments of rapture, are what find their way into life writing. These memories are etched so vividly in our minds that remembering them is like living them over again and again.
The down side is of course realising later how much we add to these memories over time, often unable to tell the memory apart from the embellishments we have added. I love how Woolf colours her memories; “semi-transparent…showing the light through, but not giving a clear outline” (74). She recognises that memories are only an impression of the actual event. Perhaps what matters more is what we have been able to learn from them; both about ourselves and others.
The most powerful thing that I have learnt from reading this extract is the healing quality that life writing has in providing catharsis. Woolf does not conceal that, “many of these moments [bring] with them a peculiar horror and physical collapse” (81) and she openly shares her own painful memories of shame and sexual abuse. Putting pen to paper helps to make sense of past hurts and can take away the pain of memory. I am reminded of Primo Levi; there has to be an outlet for that kind of suffering, that abundance of grief, some way to purge the poison of it. Life Writing facilitates this process and edifies others at the same time.
17 March 2013 – General Musings
What makes a story great is the way it is able to capture and remake the raw material that life offers and its ability to connect to genuine feeling. No matter how far one ventures into fiction, into fantasy, there are visible real world connections to be made. No author can escape it; the world we inhabit and the influences that shape us will find a way of weaving into the fabric of our stories. Life writing merely cuts out the middle man and discourages the takeover of artistic license and imaginative flourish. Not to say that works of fiction are necessarily devoid of truth, they will often find it by a different road. It seems to me that life writing has the harder road, being confined by challenges unique to its form:
Memory can be altered, eroded by time, blurred
People’s lives can be painful; they may not want to remember
People lie about their lives sometimes unintentionally
Historical documents can appear impersonal and even contradict the memories of those involved.
[Anne Sexton (1928-1974)]
2nd April: Anne Sexton’s poem For My Lover Returning to His Wife
Today I read two very different accounts of this poem from an anonymous online source. One approach resembled my own and its analysis of the poem focuses on the roles of husband, wife and mistress. The narrative voice of the poem is from the perspective of the mistress and compares the reliable and solid figure of the wife with the fleeting and temporary presence of the mistress, “As for me, I am a watercolour. I wash off.” In this approach the Author Anne Sexton has a measure of distance from her writing. Rather than concern myself with how much is in fact autobiographical, I allow the characters to remain characters and understand the themes of the poem via that proxy.
The other approach is vastly different and draws on Sexton’s personal life to inform the meaning of the poem. In their opinion the poem is heavily influenced by Sexton’s own battle with depression, her relationship with her psychiatrist and her feminist sentiments. The writer insists that like the mistress in the poem Anne believes herself to be as insubstantial as a watercolour. In my opinion this is a bit of a stretch. But the opposing point of view certainly raises an interesting question; when fact and fiction collide how much should we allow the authors personal background to influence our reading of the text?
During his visit I discovered that the writer CK Stead had a fascinating way of dealing with this issue. He informed his audience that the poem would come in three parts. A third would be events from his real life; a third would be completely fictional and a third would come from the life of the poet Catullus, who functions also as a kind of alter ego for Stead. Ultimately the audience can never really be certain about what’s true and this offers the author a measure of protection. Not only does this distance allow the author some privacy but it also permits the reader to bring their own unique outlook and derive their own meaning alongside that which is expressed by the author.
8th -14th March: Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way and Virginia Woolf’s A Sketch of the past – Final Thoughts
Today I went for a walk along the beach with my aunt and mother and there was a moment amid the catching up and general conversation that I looked out at the ocean and the sun bleeding through the heavens as it departed for the day with its spectacular display and froze. Like Virginia Woolf I was startled by the sudden shock of the moment. It was as though for a moment in time I became one with what I was seeing; I could peek out into the vastness of the universe and found myself staring back. It will be that beauty and that feeling that I will remember and even now I am at a loss as to what it was we were talking about at the time.
Both Woolf and Proust use life writing as a mirror through which they can see themselves more clearly and during the short amount of time I have been writing for the workshops I too can bear witness to its effectiveness in this role. I adore Proust’s observation, “that the truth I am seeking lies not in the cup but in myself” (48) and Woolf declares beautifully, “we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself” (81).
Levi, Primo. If This is a Man and The Truce. Trans. Stuart Woolf. London: Abacus, 1971. 126-36
Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way. 1913. Trans. C. K. Scott-Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983. 48-51.
Sexton Anne. The Complete Poems. London: Faber, 1981. 188-89.
Woolf, Virginia. ‘A Sketch of the Past.’ Moments of Being. Ed Jeanne Schulkind. London: Grafton Books / Harper Collins, 1989. 72-83.