We castigate ourselves when we forget things. It must be some failing in us, or worse, a premonition of dementia.
But imagine if we were to remember every single thing in our lives. That way madness lies. We were meant to forget. Some things drop out of our minds to make room for others - even though sometimes we remember trivial things and forget stuff that seems more important.
Our memories are different from those of our friends. One of mine swears I went with him to THE big, famous, anti-aparteid demonstration at Coogee oval during the 1971 Springbok tour. But I don't think I was there, though I can't be sure. I've seen footage of it - and sometimes I think I remember it - but they may be false memories. But why would I block out such a big thing? - it looked violent and scary. Maybe I've blocked it out because of that. Maybe my friend is mistaken, and he was there with someone else ...
And so to books. I forget most of what I read. The only books I remember really well are ones I've read many times - such as Jack Kerouac, or the early novels of Margaret Drabble.
I even forget the books I've written. I'd be hard-pressed to name the minor characters in some. It all flows away.
What I do remember of what I read is a) whether I liked the book and b) why I liked it, in a broad sense - for the style, or the atmosphere, or a memorable character. Plots I'm hopeless at, either reading or writing 'em.
There's a book by Elizabeth Bowen I must have read about 20 years ago. I went through a real binge of reading her, and owned most of her novels at some time - still own most. But not this one, until now.
I read it as a library copy, and all I remember of it is a few sentences. What I thought might be it turned up as a second hand copy yesterday, and I wondered, Is this the one?
I looked at the back blurb:
... when sixteen-year-old Portia comes to live with her wealthy half-brother and his wife, Anna, in London during the thirties ...
This was the one!
I found the bit I remembered, a few pages in, just where I thought I'd find it.
Portia keeps a diary, and Anna has found it and read it. She talks to a friend, who is a writer, about it:
'Tell me, [he says] do you remember the first sentence of all?'
'Indeed I do,' Anna said. '"So I am with them, in London".'
'With a comma after the "them"? ... The comma is good; that's style ... I should have liked to have seen it, I must say.'
Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart
A sixteen-year-old girl with a diary. A girl who can write with style, who knows where to put a comma, for effect.
I am thankful for my forgetfulness. I am going to read this book all over again, with great enjoyment.