Thursday, April 11, 2013

So I am with them, in London

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.


  1. wonderful post, Jo. I always find memory so curious - the way i can recollect things that happened much earlier than i should be able to remember, but that are probably just created from stories told by my parents, as well as from photographs.

    I bought The Death of the Heart and look forward to the weekend and reading it. The forgetting it enough that it's hazy and reading it again down the track...

    1. Ah, Kate, yr comment arrived in my inbox just as I was telling a friend in an email that I was reading 'Death of the Heart'. I had to wait till Underground Man read it, as he was the one who found it and is an Elizabeth Bowen FREAK. And he kept stopping reading and saying that he didn't want to rush through it too quickly as it was so good, so I had to wait some more...

      And it is so delicious that I am also savouring it slowly - and best not to rush books like this as there is so much in it.

      And then there's the re-read to come when I've forgotten it a little