Friday, March 11, 2016

The Trouble with Memories

I have several irons in the fire at the moment, but somehow all of them seem to be raising the same sort of questions--many of them having to do with what we remember and how trustworthy our memories can be.  Here are the three situations that are uppermost in my mind this morning.

1. Reviews for "Yankee Reconstructed" are just starting to trickle in, and the one that was posted yesterday raised the question of historical accuracy.  The reviewer had questioned some of the incidents that happened in the book and had gone back to the history books to check up on me. Most of the "questionable events," I gathered, had to do with white-on-black violence during the era of Reconstruction. The reader did not seem happy with the discovery that what I had described was historical fact. The phrase that jumped out at me from the review was "disturbingly accurate."  I'm happy that some fact-checking proved that the details in my novel are accurate. But why should that be disturbing? Do we privilege only those facts that are pleasant -- the things we want to remember? And should the reader's preference for a pretty picture of the past influence what a historical novelist includes in a book? That's a question I had not anticipated.

2. I'm still reading the journal entries written by the sister of one of the main characters in "The Road to Frogmore." An interesting feature of this journal is that the author wrote most of it in English (although with a few French idioms thrown in because of her European education). But some of the entries were written in an elaborate code which she apparently created to keep others (like a snooping mother) from reading her thoughts.  The present owner of the journal (the great-granddaughter of the author) provided me with a key to the code, but it's still taking me a very long time to translate the hidden entries.

My first reaction to the hidden messages was that they were probably more accurate than the entries written in plain English. But now I wonder. Might the truth not be the exact opposite? Many of the coded passages have to do with the author's romantic thoughts about the man upon whom she is developing a huge crush. Did she hide her fantasies because they were too true or because they were simply wishful thinking?

3. I'm also reading a memoir about World War II, and -- like the reader above -- I'm finding the book "disturbingly accurate," although in a different sense. The author of the book is a friend of the subject. He listened to the ex-soldier's war stories over a long period of time, a great many of which were shared when the man was on his deathbed. During the events described, the soldier was at most eighteen, and that is the voice the writer has captured. What the reader hears is a kid speaking -- disjointed at times, sentences left dangling, lots of slang from the 1940s, frequent potty jokes, a preoccupation with sex in all its manifestations, and with an inordinate emphasis on getting drunk and vomiting on somebody's shoes.

I do not doubt the accuracy of the stories, although some of them are obvious exaggeration and braggadocio. What disturbs me is the sheer tediousness of the teenaged language. After all, I already know how a teenaged boy thinks. I raised one and taught hundreds of others. And I prefer not to be inundated with the repetitions of a limited vocabulary. In a memoir, I want to know what happened, but I also expect some introspection as the adult mind looks back at the experiences of a green kid. I am disturbed when memory serves no purpose other than a dirty joke. At the same time, I am also aware that the memories of war may be so horrible, so painful, that they can only be accessed when they come cloaked in those same dirty jokes.

So what do we really remember? What is an author's responsibility when dealing with memories? And how far came we trust anyone's memory, including our own?

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