Of that which is remembered: Memory Theater by Simon Critchley

Philosopher Simon Critchley’s curious fictional debut, a detour down a pathway that blurs the lines between essay, fiction, and what might  almost be considered speculative memoir; opens with one miserable protagonist pursued by a relentless insomnia and an abiding fear of death. Our narrator, who shares both name and profession with his progenitor, has been been possessed by terror and sleeplessness for three years by this point and is, quite frankly, “exhausted with exhaustion”. And rightly so, he has put himself through quite the ordeal. In the tale that follows in the brief novel, Memory Theater, he invites the reader to join him on a journey that combines a reflective review of the history of the philosophical fascination with memory and a strange discovery that fuels his own descent into madness.


The story begins with the protagonist’s decision to relocate to New York from the UK in search of a more accommodating academic environment. However, first he must clear out his office at the University of Essex, and in the process of sorting through his books and papers, he comes across a stack of five boxes tucked away, half hidden. Upon investigation he discovers that they contain the unpublished papers and notes of his friend and former teacher, Michel Haar, who had passed away the previous year. In keeping with his friend’s predilection for astrology, the boxes are labeled with zodiac signs, from Capricorn to Gemini. For some reason Taurus is either missing or absent.

In the boxes he finds letters, manuscripts, maps. He is especially entranced by a treatise entitled “Le théâtre de mémoire selon G. W. F. Hegel”, an original reinterpretation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, informed by the notion of the memory theatre as explored in the writings of historian Frances Yates in her classic book, The Art of Memory – a reading of Occidental history as a quest to develop mnemonic systems to capture, contain, and retrieve knowledge.

“Artificial memory machines litter history. Human beings seem to be persistently seduced by the idea that a theater, a palace, or a machine might be constructed that would hold the sum of knowledge in a way that would permit total recall. All that we would need to do in order to obtain absolute knowledge would be to enter the theater or machine and commit to memory everything therein.”

At this point, Critchely’s hero sets off on an overview of the philosophical attempts to realize this ambition, starting with the ancient Greek poet Simonides and moving forward through to the ambitious efforts of Guilo Delmino Camillo in the first half of the 1500’s to obtain the funds to construct a full size theater based on a model he reportedly built and described, culminating ultimately with speculation that the Globe Theatre may have been conceived with similar designs.

The notion of the memory theater enchants the protagonist, especially his friend’s reading via Hegel of memory, not as a static arrangement of information set out on the steps of an amphitheater and viewed from the stage, but as a series of moving images, a history of the Spirit coming into being… memory as process, to be viewed from any spot in the theater. Yet he is troubled by his own experience of memory loss as a result of an accident earlier in his life, recalling that: “My self felt like a theatre with no memory. All the seats were empty. Nothing was happening on stage.”

Overwhelmed by his findings, he retreats to rest for the night before opening the fifth and final box. That night he is visited by a fantastic dream in which he floats through a Gothic cathedral. Magical, vast and vivid in its imagery this dream sequence marks the transition of the novel from the drier, firmer ground of of the academic essay turned memoir, into a space where the impossible is possible. It also provides our first indication that our narrator is more unstable and neurotic than his philosophical lecturing may have suggested.

The following day, on his way back to the university the dream haunts him:

“I… thought about my dream of the Gothic cathedral as a vast memory theater. The medieval love of the figural, the dramatic, and the grotesque was not, then, evidence of either some tortured sexual repression or the liberation from such repression, as we moderns arrogantly assume, but is simply a powerful and vivid aid to recollection.”

But the metaphor quickly expands… a town, a city, the globe, the night sky. He comes to wonder if everyone is their own memory theater, tossing and playing with the idea until he arrives at the office and opens the Pisces box. Inside, at the bottom of the container, he finds a stack of circular charts reproduced on stiff cards. He takes them to be astrological charts but, at closer inspection, he realizes that they are, in truth, memory maps: circular diagrams working inward from biographical details, through an individual’s works to, at the very centre, the date, location and cause of death.

Making his way through the charts, he finds that Michel had drawn up a map for each of his favourite thinkers, and then, moving further along, for various colleagues and contemporaries. What might seem a fancy is rendered prophetic by the fact that a few of the charts assigned to individuals who themselves died after their creator’s death were chillingly accurate in their predictions of the exact details of the subject’s demise.

And then, the fictional Simon finds his own map. The central circle is inscribed: “le 13 juin, 2010, 1551h, Den Bosch, hémorragie cébébrale.” His reaction is cool, cerebral hemmorhage when he would have expected lung cancer. “But where the fuck is Den Bosch?”

Moving on to the United States armed with this knowledge, our protagonist seems to be relaxed and comforted by the certainty of a date and time for his own impending passing. He is productive, and as happy as any philosopher obsessed with dying is likely to be – that is, until the missing link, the box marked Taurus arrives.

Inside he finds a small wooden model of a memory theater, presumably after that which Camillo was purported to have created. And then things get very weird. He begins to experience extreme phantom pains, he starts to hallucinate, anxiety consumes him, he becomes isolated and ultimately ramps up into full blown mania. Tracking down Den Bosch, home of one Hieronymus – master of a memory theater worthy of the totality of heaven and hell if there ever was one – he relocates to the Netherlands and begins to construct a life sized memory theater of his own. A place to die and become god-like at once.

It is quite impossible for me to imagine what it would be like to come to this work without an interest in philosophy. There is a glossary that closes out the work that lists the key personages and concepts that appear in the preceding pages so detailed knowledge is by no means a prerequisite. But it would not hurt. I confess that I arrived with some background, including a degree in philosophy and my own yellowed copy of Frances Yates’ The Art of Memory.

I have also had a longstanding interest in the nature and limitations of memory. I spent a decade working with adult survivors of acquired brain injury; an opportunity to become well acquainted with the range of memory impairments afforded by accident or illness. Our clients included several individuals with severe anoxic injuries that left them with no ability to transfer episodic experience into short term, and ultimately, long term memory. Two had been professionals, one a young lawyer, the other a doctor, prior to injuries that had occurred decades earlier. Given a chance to expound facts from their respective areas of expertise, recall was impressive, if outdated. But leave the room and return a minute later and neither would know they had ever seen you before. With a ten second memory, a memory theatre is an absurd notion, it’s more like a room at the end of a long tunnel with blank walls. A tunnel that grows ever longer over time.

I imagine that this background is, in part, what drew my attention to this book when it was released in the UK by Fitzcarraldo last fall. At the time though, I could not know what would lie between my initial awareness of Memory Theater and my opportunity to read it. With respect to the obsession with death that entertains Critchley, fictional and, apparently, actual as well; I cannot say it ever was a source of particular concern for me. That is until a few minutes after midnight on the 27th of July this year – the anniversary of a marriage which is long over but never ceases to be the harbinger of strange occurrences for me. I had fallen asleep, still exhausted and fighting what I assumed to be prolonged jet lag after a long flight home from South Africa, when a pulmonary embolism nearly claimed my life. By an eerie set of coincidences, my adult son heard me struggling to breathe and was able to call for support and start chest compressions in time.

I was fortunate. No prosaic dance with death that one, no necronautical conceit. I had prepared for the fact that my plane could fall out of the sky or that I could be mugged on the streets of Cape Town (which I very nearly was), but to die in my sleep at that moment? No I was not ready to accept that fate. And apart from the days immediately before and after the event, I survived with my memory intact.

So of what worth the notion of a memory theater? We cannot look forward, we can only look back, and, if there is time, the theater I wish to construct is one that I write into being – for myself and for those I love.

Memory Theater is now available in North America through Other Press.

Seeking comfort in isolation: Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson

“My disappearance is like a crime without a motive, and they’re notoriously difficult to solve, aren’t they?”

At the beating heart of Rupert Thomson’s new novel Katherine Carlyle, is one young woman’s unshakeable belief that the measure of her very existence rests in a haunting uncertainty that can only be resolved by physically retracing her origins. For the eponymous heroine of this moody and original tale, the journey is one that will lead her to the darkest coldest place she can find. She is convinced that the only way she can feel whole and find peace in the world is by locating a space that might replicate the atmosphere of the first eight years – not of her life – but of her very existence. For she was the product of IVF, back in the 1980s when the science was in its nascent stages. She is deeply troubled, resentful even, of that fact that she was left to endure many long years of cold storage in a suspended embryonic state before finally being implanted into her mother’s womb. It is this complicated obsession with her origins that drives her mission.

kitWe meet Katherine, or Kit as she is called, in Rome. Born in the UK, she moved to Italy with her parents when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. After putting up a valiant, at times ebullient fight against her illness, her mother eventually succumbed to the disease. Her father, a foreign correspondent, was on the road more than he was ever at home, so the loss of her mother was acute and left her to enter young adulthood with a false sense of maturity and an abiding loneliness that no amount of luxury or youthful glamour could assuage. As she begins to encounter random coincidences or “messages” that she interprets as signposts to a potential resolution of her deep-seated unease, she has no idea where these clues may lead. But one thing is certain, she has does not plan to make her way to Oxford where she is due to start University in the fall.

“It was spring when I first started noticing the messages. Back then, they were cryptic, teasing. While crossing the Piazza Farnese, I found a fifty-euro note that had been folded into a triangle. A few days later, at the foot of the Spanish Steps, I found a small gray plastic elephant with a piece of frayed string round its neck. I found any number of coins, keys, and playing cards. None of these objects had anything specific to communicate. They were just testing my alertness.”

With what seems like a willful complacency, Kit opens herself to all possibilities. She takes risks and discards every “lead” – many of which involve men who cross her path – the moment she decides that the clue, person or place is either misleading or has outlived its usefulness. A chance conversation overheard at the cinema about a man in Berlin sparks her curiosity and gives her a first solid lead, if seeking out a complete stranger with only a name and location can be interpreted as solid. Kit is not easily deterred. She disposes of her computer and her phone, clears out her inheritance from her savings account, and heads to Berlin, intent on erasing her tracks behind her. Once she arrives her beauty and her cool attitude serve her well but her openness to coincidence often borders on recklessness.

“That’s what life is like now. I hold myself in a constant state of readiness. Every occasion – every moment – trembles with a sense of opportunity. I have no idea where the next communication will come from, but I know that one will come – perhaps even from the unwholesome, insidious man who is still standing beside me.”

She does have an uncanny number of convenient encounters. In Berlin she manages to secure a Visa and Letter of Invitation to allow her to enter Russia. Her goal is to aim as far north as possible. Her journey is charmed. She does reach a distant and remote outport, but whether she can actually outrun the cold darkness that she holds inside herself remains to be seen.

There is a subdued fairytale quality here and if that was all this book offered it would be a lightweight offering. But there is more. As Kit narrates her journey, she looks back on her mother’s life and death. Even though a number of years have passed, the loss is still an open wound. She carries a sense of guilt, a belief that the pregnancy and birth that brought her into the world, freeing her from her frozen nearly-non-being, was the cause of her mother’s cancer. She has gone so far as to convince herself that her father also blames her. She hates him for that and wants to punish him by disappearing. Yet as she makes her way north she is continually unspooling a cinematic narrative in her head. Scripting her father’s reaction to her absence and the sketching of an increasingly elaborate imaginary pursuit seems to take a more prominent role in her mind as her own life becomes smaller and simpler.

The language is beautiful, the atmosphere is charged with energy (“The night feels brash, dramatic. Nickel plated.”) Thomson is especially adept at evoking a strong sense of place. The sounds, scents, and sights of the many cities, towns, and barren landscapes his heroine passes through are given colour, texture, and weight. A trail of vivid images is left in her wake. In Kit he has created a complicated character, a mix of wisdom and naïveté. At times I did find her voice a little jarring, as if it did not ring true to her age or gender, but as you come to see just how lost and confused she really is, it is difficult not to fall under the spell of Katherine Carlyle and the book that shares her name.

Other Press, October 2015, 304 pp                                                                               Review copy provided by publisher through NetGalley.

Naming the unnamed: The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

“A man who’s drinking is always dreaming about a man who’ll listen,” advises Harun, the aged man sitting in a bar in Oran, Algeria, in the opening chapter of The Meursault Investigation. His companion, night after night, is a young student intent on sorting out the mystery behind the iconic text he carries in his briefcase. What unfolds over a series of encounters is the tale of the unnamed Arab murdered in the pivotal scene of  L’Etranger by Albert Camus. In presenting Harun as the fictional counterpoint to Camus’ Meursault, Algerian author Kamel Daoud sets up to name and flesh out a life not only for the victim of violence on that hot beach, but for his brother and mother as well. What follows is more than an homage; it is an active dialogue from the other side of the equation – ethnically, politically and historically.

kamelAn acquaintance with L’Etranger is not only assumed but a recommended prerequisite to The Meursault Investigation. Both are novellas so reading or reviewing the former in advance is not an arduous task. I last read Camus’ classic in late 2013 with The Guardian Reading Group so I had the advantage of being able to search the online archives for my own reflections and the discussions that ensued. I still found myself dipping back into my own copy as I started out with this book but as I fell into the story it no longer seemed necessary.

Our narrator this time around is immediately a more likable character than our old friend Meursault. He is not happy, but we have a context for our sympathies. He is seven years old when his beloved older brother Musa meets his senseless fate. Their father had disappeared before he had a chance to even form a memory of him so his brother was his hero and a surrogate father figure. His senseless death, unreported save for two obscure newspaper accounts his mother clings to, cannot be proved. No body is ever found. After all, in the novel in which he is killed he is neither named nor is the fate of his body mentioned.

His mother becomes obsessed with seeking answers. In the process Harun is reduced to a shadow of himself, he feels like an effigy of his brother. He follows his mother as she searches for clues. He is blamed for surviving and denied his own identity. He becomes a ghost in his own life. While Meursault’s relationship with his mother is, from that famous opening line – “Mother died today” – cold and flat, Harun and his mother share a complicated, emotional dynamic. “Mama’s still alive today” he reminds us repeatedly, but both are wounded and reduced, survivors of the unnamed Arab in an uncertain and shifting post-colonial Algeria.

Eventually he is led to avenge his brother’s death by taking the life of a Frenchman. It is, in itself, an act rooted in the story of Cain and Abel:

“I blame my mother, I lay the blame on her. The truth is, she committed that crime. She held my arm steady while Musa held hers and so on back to Abel or his brother. I’m philosophizing? Yes, yes I am. Your hero had a good understanding of that sort of thing; whether or not to commit murder is the only proper question for a philosopher, the only one he ought to ask.”

In an echo of L’Etranger, where Meursault is condemned to death not for killing an Arab, but for failing to cry at his mother’s funeral; Harun faces imprisonment not for an act of murder, but for killing his Frenchman one day after the Declaration of Independence rather than alongside his countrymen during the battle for freedom. Close on the heels of this new found Independence, some two decades after his brother’s death, our hero finally encounters the famous text which he instantly recognizes as explaining, complementing and mirroring his own. He is at once intrigued and dismayed.

The echoes with L’Etranger resound throughout this novel. Daoud answers the absurdity of Camus with his protagonist’s own absurd predicaments. He matches Meursault’s rejection of God with Harun’s dissolution with his faith. But his hero’s hopes and disappointments are his own, solidly grounded and charged with a power that, from the Algerian perspective 70 years out from the publication of the original inspiration, demands to be heard.

This is, of course, not the first time that fiction has been answered by fiction, untold stories have been re-imagined, or silenced characters have been granted voice. The Meursault Investigation has been met with international praise, a measure of skepticism and, in the author’s home country, calls that he be tried for blasphemy. Translated from the French by John Cullen and published by Other Press, this is a deceptively simple yet deeply important work. Time will tell how it holds up in the light of such a famous counterpoint, but, for my money, it has to be seen as a continuation of a conversation that will, because it is so deeply informed by L’Etranger, serve to draw Camus’ work forward into twenty-first century discourse while setting its own very important and timely literary agenda as we move forward.

Besides, Harun with his diversions and penchant for storytelling is much better company than poor miserable old Meursault.