How the ghosts of memory lie

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A place that resembles a place where once I lived: Google Street View of 3 rue de la Fointaine au Roi, Paris

I have almost forgotten my neighbour already.
Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge, 171.

Some years before he died, my friend Elisabeth’s father began to lose his memory. He became concerned to organize his memorabilia, and so he set about filling binders with photographs of and details about voyages he recalled. Where he did not possess photos or postcards of his own, he clipped images from magazines and added them to his files. He captioned these images, and developed an increasingly complex system of cross-references to other binders and notebooks, so that the true and full versions of his memories could be told. The trouble is that any number of these memories, supplemented by material excerpted from travel magazines, were not of places or events where he had ever been. Increasingly, his voyages were imagined versions of trips to places where his daughters, both inveterate travelers who also lived abroad for extended periods, had gone. When they came to visit, or so Elisabeth tells me, he would proudly show them one or another of his notebooks, and begin to recount his exploits. But Papa, they would protest, you’ve never been there! You’ve just made that up!  And if they looked in his notebooks, or tried to follow out his meticulously cross-referenced lists,  his “memories” petered out into dusty webs of broken links and absent binders.  In frustration, and overcome by the quantities of stuff to be disposed of in his house in the outskirts of Paris, the sisters tossed out all those notebooks and files when their father died. This saddens me: I like to imagine them as the ghost architecture of a strange and wonderful novel that, had I imagination enough (the imagination of Monsieur Poirault?) I might write.

But perhaps that novel already exists, in various guises. Georges Perec might have authored it, or else Andre Breton or Gertrude Stein or Carole Maso or Jorge Luis Borges or Sophie Calle or Valeria Luiselli or Julio Cortazar or Madeleine Thien, to name just a handful of among the hosts of semi-autobiographical fabulists whose stories thematize complicated relationships between memory, imagination and displacement. Sometimes deliberate falsification isn’t necessary; movement along the lines of faulty memory alone will suffice to open the door to a fiction that doesn’t quite seem like one.

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3ème arrondissement, Plan de Paris

For example, in assembling images to accompany this text, I got out my old Plan de Paris and peered at the map of the 3ème arrondissement, where my first apartment in the city had been: a cold water one room walk-up at the top of the building with a single hotplate and a hole in the wall. Many evenings, my boyfriend of those days, his brother and I fought for a seat closest to the heater, which was on the outside wall beneath the window, and right next to the hole in the wall, over which I had taped a postcard, in a useless effort to make the bitterest winter in Paris in 100 years somewhat warmer. We had lived not far from the République metro, near Boulevard du Temple, on a street with a long name that contained the word Temple…Or maybe Fontaine. Or maybe both names. As I squinted at the map–for I now require reading glasses in order to see such tiny print, there it was, strobing in and out of sight,  a long street name containing both the words Fontaine and Temple, just around from the Blvd du Temple: rue des Fountaines du Temple. Hurrah! I felt a surge of familiarity. If only I could remember the number…..It was a very low number I seemed to recall. Number 3 perhaps? Or 13? Or 17? I noodled around on Google Street View, wandering up and the down the virtual streets until I thought I could see the square visible from the apartment where a shivering woman sometimes sold roasted chestnuts; if I had enough francs, which wasn’t often, I’d race down the stairs and go buy a bag of steaming chestnuts from her and peel back the split skins, the first time in days my fingers would be warm.  There was the narrow street view the other way, the battered door we hustled in and out of. Yes, yes; that was it. I looked at the address: 3, rue de la Fontaine au roi. Was that right? I looked again. Had to be! I took a screenshot and posted it at the head of this story. Hurrah for the internet, which solves all problems.

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What you think you see isn’t what you always get: drawing on old map of Paris by Granjabiel

Trouble is, that wasn’t the right place, and the internet not only doesn’t solve all problems, sometimes it creates new ones.  Never mind that what you think is true, and what you think you remember are also often not very reliable guides to the past. Not only was my old Plan de Paris not really mine (my friend Elissa Marder’s name is inscribed on the flyleaf next to the faintly penciled price of 40 francs–sorry Elissa!), but in fact Tom and I never lived at 3 rue de la Fontaine au roi.  (Now I can say it: I knew something wasn’t right about that streetscape.) When I finally decided to consult the square ruled Glatigny notebook in which I kept my journal from those days (on papier scolaire surfin 80 g) I saw that we’d lived at 1, rue des Fontaines du Temple 75003 Paris. What Google Street View gave me when I entered that address did seem slightly more familiar, but to be honest, was it? The building where I once lived has been renovated, probably more than once; there certainly weren’t plants hanging out of window boxes when we lived there.

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1, rue des Fontaines du Temple is on the right

Weirder still is what I discover in the notebook I’ve consulted to find this address. I’d remembered writing repeatedly in it; I see certain rooms–the library at rue d’Ulm from the angle of the desk–for example, or remember the cold, as cramped and miserable and huddled on the bed, I wrote from beneath a blanket as darkness fell over the city. Now 32 years later, I’d imagined the journal full of entries about Paris, but what I find are oddly generalized internal monologues, then the plan of an early short story in which a few characters I’d seen at a distance in Paris enter; the whole concerned with memory (I was sure I would remember these things forever) and the pointlessness of writing things down if you were going to remember anyway…As I page through the ramblings of my 22 year old self, a shivering, anxious young person who desperately wanted to be a writer, yet who didn’t record anything worth writing about, I am annoyed. I talk back to her: All around you were details, and what did you record? Drivel about the pointlessness of writing anything down…..for hundreds of pages! How stupid could you be! What a missed opportunity!

Finally, I come across an entry that is descriptive and precise; the way it talks about the how hard the winter, how painful not being able to speak the language fluently, how out of place I feel seems more or less true.  Suddenly, having utterly forgotten the moment of this writing, I can nevertheless see it all clearly again: The cold seeps into you like a kind of moisture. It settles, leaving everything uncomfortable, a little deadening, soggy. All over Paris the cold is like that. Even inside it clamps your head like a vise, hollows it out with dull thudding and pale grey light. Winter kills and so does the silence, words marching over my ears like hieroglyphics, and all sense or definition or sound sucked from my tongue. Some days it is as if everything passes in a veil of snow–but it never snows in Paris. Or if it does the snow doesn’t stick. Perhaps that’s some weak–or precipitous–consolation. 

A silly pun, but at last some interesting details follow that account of winter: In the inner courtyard of the old building at ENS [Ecole normale superieure], at the level of the second floor, a statue stands between each window. Together they form a square, twenty heads to a side, all of them great fathers of government, of law, of history, of philosophy; all of them white, in white stone, darkened by years of exposure, so that some of the faces are streaked like zebras.  Most of them are French. They stare solemnly. The faces of some of them have been dug into troughs by rocks thrown by vandals or acid rain, the backs of their heads to what is outside of the school.  They are its image: steadfast; pitted; stone dead. And cold, so cold, you’d never want to touch them.

This entry is dated 5 February 1986, WednesdayI feel suddenly foolishly joyful, outlandishly so, given the sadness of the record; I congratulate my miserable former self on the carefulness of her observations.  Finally, I say to her; now this, this is some usable stuff!

Other interesting fragments follow, describing how a crippled bird, lifted from the street by a woman, flops on the sidewalk and lodges itself under the wheel of a temporarily stationary truck; I note too the sound of an air raid siren; bomb scares in a bookstore, the books exploding into flame. I don’t think I actually saw the blast at the Gilbert Jeune bookstore on Place St Michel–I can’t remember if I did.  Newspaper accounts report that customers were in the store when the bomb went off.  I suppose I might have seen smoke from across the street or nearby–that feels almost like a memory, but is it? In any case, I certainly liked to stop at that bookstore, and although I could never afford to purchase much, I had bought the notebook in which I was making these observations there.

The notes continue, intimating proximity to catastrophe: a cadre of policemen passes by, gesturing with their white-gloved hands; a helicopter drops so low its propellers seem as if they will shatter the windows.  But then that youthful worldly place-less voice sighs out again: It’s strange, bombs blowing up all over Paris.  I doubt I communicated that detail to my mother, although now and then she did hear about what seemed like nearly daily scares on the news, and was worried. (In fact, if a wikipedia entry on the 1985-86 Paris bombings is accurate, the threats made by the Hezbollah-linked Committee for Solidarity With Arab and Middle Eastern Political Prisoners, a cell aimed at the French capital and apparently sponsored by Iran, Syria and Libya, were not daily, but numerous and always nearby. I seem to remember that we were evacuated from a museum once, and Tom’s brother, Alan, narrowly missed getting on a train that blew up in March.)

I turn the page in my fading journal and am surprised by a drawing of the single window in that tiny apartment:

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Beneath it I have written: I seem to be unable to get past the window, which doesn’t seem to be able to avoid, in its turn, collapsing back in on itself by some inversion of my poor attempt at perspective. If I could do it, I would tell you about the streaks, lights, darks and yellows that sketch the roof across the way.  And how the television antenna doesn’t jut into the sky as it seems to do from the ground, but falls away in a completely other plane, so that the sky seems to peel back before it.

Oh I am pleased by this sad girl who writes on Friday, February 14, 1986. Do I have a recollection of making that drawing? No, in truth I do not. And I definitely don’t remember writing the bit about the television antenna in its alternate plane.  But I do recall the greys of the buildings stitched across my view from that window; the red roofs; the strange angles of the walls and narrow streets. I looked out at that view for hours thinking here I am in Paris; why am I so sad?  In this, I am something like the restless despairing narrator of Rilke’s The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge who writes I am in Paris; those who learn this are glad, most of them envy me. They are right. It is a great city; great and full of strange temptations…. Rather like me in those days he doesn’t really enumerate these temptations, but arrives, as if by non sequitur, at one thing that cannot be gotten in Paris:

Would it not be possible for once to get a glimpse of the sea? (68)

*
Rilke’s only novel, a book that is something like a memoir of a foreigner’s sojourn in Paris, The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge, begins with a question:

People come here, then, to live?

He continues, I should rather have thought that they came here to die.

I don’t think at the time I was writing my journal entries that I’d read The Notebook–but perhaps I had, and was self-consciously imitating its disjointed style. More likely, I was influenced by H.D. Or Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. I’d certainly read those things, and I wanted to find a way to write, dramatically and as if fictionally, about my [until then quite short] life. My mistake was to imagine that my tortured existential thoughts were more interesting than any of the things I had witnessed and could describe, or more necessary topics for writing.

Rilke’s autobiographical fiction, first published in 1910, also reads like a series of diary entries, 71 to be exact.  The narrator–the ostensible writer of those entries–is a young poet, the sole impoverished survivor of a once aristocratic Danish family.  He has put his earthly goods into storage and come to Paris to learn a new way of seeing: everything and everyone is astonishing; at the same time, nothing and no one is surprising. As soon as he arrives, the new world, like the old, is suffused with illness, fever, death and dying. What of his experiences emanate from observations, what bubble up as memories, and what emerge from fever dreams? The narrator struggles to separate these elements and cannot, for, as the old joke goes, wherever he is, he carries himself along, and so never really can see anew. As he puts it:

[O]ne travels about the world with a trunk and a case of books, and really without curiosity.  What sort of life is it really: without a house, without inherited possessions, without dogs? If only one had one’s memories! But who has them?

More than 75 years later, I traveled to Paris with considerably less tangible baggage: a few books, some clothing, very little money and no dogs–dogs had not yet come again into my life.  Perhaps I brought as many hopes, without knowing what I dared imagine might happen. A sprawling, dirty, noisy city opened at my feet; fishmongers shouted at me because my French was too poor, or I said stupid things, and going to and from the metro, men banged into me on the street and grabbed hold of my breasts, as if to steady themselves, but really to cop a feel. I felt cold and hungry often. Isolated. Lost. Whatever I thought I might feel, I didn’t quite think it would be like this. Dark. Alone. Sirens wailing everywhere.

–That, at least, is what I think I remember.

But of what matter are memories made–is it always and surely our own recollections? If photos or drawings or journal entries or letters (or Facebook, Wikipedia and Google Street View,) make us recall what we didn’t know, or help us to invent alternate realities, is that memory? If not, what is?

As you now know, thanks to my confessions of ineptitude, almost nothing of what I have written or visually reproduced here has been “remembered” clearly or simply by me.  It has had to be made up, researched and reinvented, quite a bit like the memories that populated Monsieur Poirault’s notebooks.  It might be more accurate to say that like him, I have here assembled not memories so much as sensations that feel like memory, ghosts of memory. Unlike M. Poirault, I have ways of both researching and publishing, which is to say proving or improving my memories–or is that “memories”? Does this capacity make them more “real”? More true? More long lasting? Less likely to be contested or rubbished? Perhaps not if I don’t live to his 99 years, or, as is also quite likely, the encoding of this blog entry becomes quite soon obsolete, which is to say, illegible; forgotten.

For whom am I making such gestures of preserving these fragments, these bits of inexact memory anyway? For myself? For others?  And why?

There’s a phrase that is current that I detest, although perhaps it is more honest than I’ve heretofore imagined. You often hear parents invoking it, as they’re planning or doing interesting voyages with their children; we’re making memories, they say as they pack the car or line the ducklings up and take a snapshot, turning to march away in a row of receding multi-coloured backpacks. As if making memories is work, something that must be done, not something that just happens. As if intention, and not just accident, are necessary to the right accomplishment of recollection-worthy impressions.

M. Poirault surely believed this: intention and inventiveness were critical aspects of his commemorative work. So too archiving, indexing, tabulating….In the end the system overtook his memories; the library became more important than the individual recollections….Thus in making memories, he was also, at some speed, unmaking them.

And why not? Don’t most of us build our memory palaces thus? We add our trillions of photographs, our letters and postings and journals and books.  But as time runs on and we turn our attention to new things, we forget whole rooms, wings and estates in these our stately domiciles; they moulder and tumble into ruin.

We think making memories might be about permanence, or at least perdurance, but perhaps it’s simply practice; exercise; a way of keeping moving, which is to say, staying alive. If this is true, then the question why do we remember becomes as important (and as wildly nonsensical) as the question why do we breathe. The answer to the latter is simple: to go on breathing. So too to the former: to go on remembering.

Does it matter if our memories lie? Probably not if we’re not in the witness box; indeed, if one takes psychoanalysis, Nietzsche or fiction seriously, what really matters is how our memories lie, not that they do so, for of course they do.

 

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Some things never change: white heads facing inward, Rue d’Ulm

 

Notes Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. John Linton, trans. (1930). London: The Hogarth Press, 1978: https://archive.org/stream/TheNotebooksOfMalteLauridsBrigge/TheNotebooksOfMalteLauridsBrigge_djvu.txt

On the Paris attacks of 1985-86:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1985%E2%80%9386_Paris_attacks and  http://www.nytimes.com/1986/02/05/world/blast-wounds-4-in-paris-bomb-at-tower-defused.html 

Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory. London: RKP, 1966.

Karin Cope, “Somebody’s watching you” http://visiblepoetry.blogspot.ca/2017/12/somebodys-watching-you.html

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