How do writers use the idea of memory to help tell stories?
Are there any novels or films that don’t rely on the premise of ‘I remember’? The idea of memory is more embedded in art than I think we credit. The fact that a story needs to be told is central as to why the reader – or viewer is being offered in the first place. We have all heard stories that began with the winsome phrase ‘Once upon a time’ when we were children. The narrator’s memory is always being engaged to pass on a story from one to another. As readers (or childlike listeners) we suspend disbelief and give the narrator the room to tell us what they want to say. But memory is the method that allows them to recall it. I think different authors use the idea of memory in different ways to highlight its aspects, and I think it’s worth giving some thought to.
I think all human beings want to make sense of the world and what’s happened to them. It is all part of us achieving a coherent sense of who we are. Central to all storytelling is the idea that by offering a narrative we’ll make sense of something. Something that happened to us, or something significant that happened in the world. I recently watched the brilliant Stand By Me – the chilling and haunting film based on a Stephen King novel. It concerns a narrator’s memory of a chilling childhood event – when he and a few other variously damaged friends run away from home in search of a dead body in a nearby valley. The kind of jaunt I am sure few of us have gone on! I realised that even though King portrays childhood as a savage and brutal terrain in which the young are powerless, King also sees the formative years as a time of purity, worthy of being recovered in memory. He portrays childhood as a time when people already have within them the qualities that will make their life meaningful – it’s the cruel world, or the cruel people within it – that present obstacles for this intent. The childhood version of King in the story is an awkward, intense boy who loves telling stories – even though his father hates him for it. At the end of the film we see the boy ‘all grown up’ – a successful author complete with loving children and a beautifully wood panelled study. For King, memory is an act of recall of who we truly are – a way of explaining who we’ve become.
I think the playwright Harold Pinter uses memory to highlight other aspects of people. In his most famous work, The Caretaker, a rather vagrant old man called Davies exploits the generosity of a young man called Aston and stays with him. Davies spends the whole play pretending that he will leave his house any day now, ‘as soon as the weather breaks’, and go down to Sidcup to get ‘his papers’. This mythical (but actually pretty dour!) Sidcup becomes a place in which Davies’ true identity will be proven, allowing him to become a legitimate member of society again. As the play progresses Davies spins more and more lies about his past, picking up on the preferences of whoever is in the room with him to talk up various aspects of his past to his advantage. His time in the armed forces, or even his experience as a decorator if the thinks that’ll help! Davies’ selective memory hides who he really is and allows him to adapt to the present. It makes him a slippery eel of a man who can never be pinned down, and by his elusiveness he guarantees his survival for another day. For Pinter, a characters memory is tied up with how easily he can be defined, and therefore controlled.
Other authors have also used the idea of memory to show a character within a story. For the Czech writer Milan Kundera, memory and forgetting are also key to how well defined a character is. In his famous collection The Book of Laughter and Forgetting he considers forgetting to be a political act. After a conflict, the victors ‘forget’ the narrative and ideology of those that were defeated and their new ideologies are all we know. So in order to find out who we really are, in terms of our citizenship, we have to remember the ‘erased’ identities that those in power have tried to eradicate. Kundera talks of the Communist invasion of the Czech Republic, and how for artists in particular the memory of an ideology before a country was invaded is a triumph of recall. The true identity of a person can be revealed by resisting the act of forgetting.
Other authors – such as Marcel Proust and Gustave Flaubert- actually depicted characters struggling with the clarity of their memories in the moment. They told stories focusing on the abstract, nebulous nature of memory to ask questions about who they are, and I’ll discuss this in part two. Are there any other authors you know who’ve used the idea of memory to help tell stories in a way you found interesting?