object memory

i read a book recently that is lingering.  THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES by Edmund De Waal is a family memoir that traces the secret lives of tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings, called netsuke through his family history. historically, it’s significant.  yet there’s something fascinating about De Waal’s obsession with the object that’s captured my thinking.  throughout, De Waal struggles with the responsibility of biography and it is his respect for the object that pulls him through.  it’s remarkable writing, energetic and emotional, a rare masterpiece.

And I have the slightly clammy feeling of biography, the sense of living on the edge of other people’s lives without their permission.  Let it go.  Let it lie.  Stop looking and stop picking things up, the voice says insistently.  Just go home and let these stories be.

But leaving be is hard.  I remember the hesitancies when talking to Iggie in old age; hesitancies that trembled into silences, silences that marked places of loss.  I remember Charles in his final illness, and the death of Swann and the opening of his heart like a vitrine, his taking out one memory after another.  ‘Even when one is no longer attached to things, it’s still something to have been attached to them; because it was always for reasons which other people didn’t grasp…’  There are the places in memory you do not wish go with others.  In the 1960s, my grandmother Elizabeth, so assiduous in her letter-writing, such an advocate for the letter (‘write again, write more fully’), burnt the hundreds of letters and notes she had received from  her poetic grandmother Evelina.

Not ‘Who would be interested?’ But ‘Don’t come near this.  This is private.’

In very old age she would not talk of her mother at all.  She would talk about politics and French poetry.  She did not mention Emmy until she was surprised by a photograph falling out of her prayer book.  My father picked it up and she, matter-of-factly, told him that it was one of her mother’s lovers and started to talk about the difficulty of those love-affairs, how compromised she felt by them.  And then silence again. (p. 346-47)

memory as object.  it fascinates me.  i do not write memoir but, in a sense, all fiction contains an element of the individual, including one’s family and social connection, at large.

and then there’s the object.  for me, it’s the word(s).  the book(s).  it’s what pulls me through, i think.

i don’t know what i’m trying to say.  do you?