Posts Tagged ‘Memory’

Grand Tour #2 – Spain. Living’s the Strange Thing / Carmen Martín Gaite

March 6, 2017

From Portugal to Spain (my route through Europe is largely contiguous). I must apologise for the delay in posting this. I had been going to read a novel by Esther Tusquets that we had in the library, but it looked so unpleasant that I couldn’t face it. After some digging around online I settled on Living’s the Strange Thing (Lo raro es vivir) by Carmen Martín Gaite, translated by Anne McLean. Only it got lost in the post, hence my lateness.

‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Magda, I’m more confused every day. I know other researchers concentrate on their theme, get to the point and that’s it, they can separate it out from the rest. But I can’t. For me everything’s important.’

‘From the rest? What do you mean?’

‘I don’t know, I mean a bit of everything, like when what happens to me at each moment gets mixed up in my head with what happened to me before, and with other people’s stories, living, dead, ghosts, scenes from movies, everything folded up together in a mess, so much so that I say to myself: It’s not worth separating things out from other things, what’s the point?’

This is the gist of the book, I suspect, the connectedness of human existence (and the absurdity of being here at all, hence the title, which recurs like a mantra). Águeda is a 35-year-old woman dealing with the fallout from her mother’s death a couple of months earlier. The book opens with Águeda visiting her grandfather’s nursing home, where its manager suggests to her that she impersonate her mother (also called Águeda) so that her grandfather might see his daughter one last time. Meanwhile, her research on the 18th-century adventurer Don Luis Vidal y Villalba is stagnating.

If the first chapter suggests intrigue, that’s not quite what follows, and I suspect the experience of reading the book is an infinitely less frustrating one if you abandon expectations and let yourself be led by Águeda’s thoughts. Though it has a large cast of people and places, the novel’s focus is largely inward- and backward-looking.

The nature of the book makes it a very hard thing to write about, and all I feel able to do here is to choose a few individual moments to illustrate Martín Gaite’s oblique approach to storytelling.

The idea that Águeda (or any of us) lives in multiple worlds – in the present, in the past, in dreams and fantasies, in the world of films, and perhaps elsewhere too – is a beautiful one to me. There are close affinities between Águeda’s several worlds. She contemplates Don Luis Vidal y Villalba and his loyal servant Juan de Edad imprisoned in separate cells and unable to communicate with one another, and draws a parallel with her own relationship with her mother.

In the shower one morning, Águeda has an epiphany: she realises that she imagines Rosario, the woman she perceives has usurped her in her mother’s affections, with the features of Anne Baxter, the usurping starlet in All About Eve. I love this depiction of illogical logic. I can’t think of examples, but I’m sure I have allowed people’s resemblances to others to colour the way I view them.

Águeda is visited by the ghost of a dead relationship when she encounters an ex-boyfriend, Roque, performing in the street as a human statue. She isn’t sure it’s him and tries to engage his attention, but, being a human statue, he doesn’t respond. This meeting prompts her to remember that she fell for him because he was the embodiment of a man she had dreamed of, her real life at the mercy of her dream life.

The delicacy of the tapestries woven by our minds is another theme. In one chapter, Águeda writes that her memory of Tangiers is of a stairwell where her mother had to rest during a visit to the city during Águeda’s infancy. This is bound up with the memory of a self-portrait painted by her mother, and of a cruel lie told by Águeda that was intended to prompt a rebuke from her mother but failed to. When we most want to connect with someone, we fall short.

It’s hard to accept how incidental we are, our inability to convey to each other anything more than travesties of vacillating souls; and to accept at the same time the gestures and babbling we stubbornly use to try to get close to those we’ve supposed form part of our stories.

A lot of threads are tied up at the end – an unexpected message from the grandfather, a coming full circle – which is satisfying to the reader who likes neatness, but it doesn’t quite ring true. Surely the other worlds continue; they can’t just dissolve.

It seems appropriate, given the novel’s preoccupation with the difficulty of communicating with people, that I’ve done such a poor job of expressing why I liked it so much. It is very much worth your time.


I remember 4

September 18, 2016

I remember being scared of going on downward escalators when I was about nine or ten, and being ashamed of it as I knew I’d been able to go on them when I was younger.


I remember light pink fluoride pills.


I remember hearing Chopin’s Funeral March on the radio when I was ill and thinking how beautiful it sounded but wondering if it might just be delirium.


I remember making a boiled egg for my father, perhaps because it was his birthday, and dropping it into the pan, under the impression that it would float, never having done it before, and the egg cracking on the bottom of the pan and the albumen emerging from beneath, and him being angry.


I remember a Year 5 Music lesson where I became aware I couldn’t see the board because I didn’t have my glasses and hoping desperately that I wouldn’t be asked by Dr T to read anything out because it would have meant admitting I couldn’t see.


I remember wrinkled fingertips.


I remember my little tin of blue Humbrol enamel paint that I bought to paint a model perhaps but ended up just opening every so often, prising the lid off with the end of a teaspoon to see the magical blue inside.


I remember visiting Hinkley Point and being given blue plastic earplugs which I kept for ages afterwards.


I remember eating and enjoying tongue, without acknowledging to myself what it was.


I remember assuming ‘several’ meant at least seven or so, and coming only slowly and stubbornly to the realisation that it might mean, say, three or four.


I remember praying for God to kill me.


I remember the big yellow metal train in Welshmill Park with the graffito on saying PENIS LOVERS MEET HERE FRIDAY 8PM, and wondering what went on at such meetings.


I remember an awful assembly at St John’s in which I was part of a presentation on hair, explaining that people had straight hair because of flat follicles and curly hair because of round follicles, and not understanding why flat and why round, which I still don’t. And then saying of Charlotte M the line ‘Her perm won’t last long,’ not really knowing what a perm was or why anyone would want one, and dimly sensing, perhaps, the absurdity of parroting words I didn’t comprehend written by some teacher who had no idea what children were.


I remember Mr P saying it was always worth having a go during oral exams even if you didn’t know the word, as a pupil of his had once had his Brummie-inflected ‘a bee’ taken as ‘abeille’ and accepted.


I remember feigning that I’d expected Gianluca Vialli to be sacked as Chelsea manager, though I hadn’t and it upset me.


I remember Maths Circus.

Piano progress

July 23, 2016

Four weeks ago, as a refuge from despondency, I decided to learn some new piano music. I love the late Brahms piano pieces, but don’t play many of them. They always sound so forbidding, but although the music is complex the notes aren’t, always, and so I made a longlist of about ten that I thought were surmountable, starting with Op. 118 No. 2. This is how it’s sounding at the moment.

Simon at Stuck in a Book writes that ‘maintaining the good things in life in the face of evil is as much a defence as most of us can manage’ – more or less my attitude in turning to Brahms. On a possibly related note, I’ve been pleased recently to note that I’ve not lost my ability to fall in love with new things. So many of my favourite books, films, pieces of music are things I’ve known since childhood or adolescence, but within the past week I’ve started to explore for the first time the piano music of Billy Mayerl, which contains many jewels, and just last year I watched for the first time Carlos Saura’s spellbinding 1976 film Cría cuervos, which has already become important to me. In that film, Geraldine Chaplin plays for her daughter Ana Torrent this Mompou piece, which I learnt last weekend. (Only now does it occur to me that one of my childhood memories of my own mother, rather neatly, is of her playing the Brahms intermezzo, Op. 117 No. 2.)

Out of body

November 1, 2015

When I look back on photographs of myself as a boy, which I do far less often than I imagine, a feeling of dissociation comes over me. It’s me, indisputably, and yet it isn’t.

January 1986

As friends stared glassily at photographs of me and the strange little barnacle that in those days passed for my organ of generation I tried to explain that the child they were scrutinising was not me. This was the biological as well as the psychological truth. Every cell in my body had by that time been replaced. P.G. Wodehouse’s typewriter comes to mind as a model of this important phenomenon. He bought his Royal in the 1910s and used it right up to his death. But by then every part of it had been renewed: the chassis, the platen, the roller, the keys – everything. Was it still the same typewriter?

Stephen Fry, ‘Naked Children’ (originally published in The Listener, anthologised in Paperweight)

What do we feel when we contemplate our past selves? I started thinking about this a couple of nights ago when I reencountered Scripps, in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, remembering going up to university for interview:

I’ve never particularly liked myself but the boy I was, kneeling in that cold and empty chapel that winter morning, fills me now with longing and pity.

I don’t feel longing or pity when I look at the photo of myself above, grasping the mane of my rocking horse. My memories don’t go that far back (I was two and a half), so I can’t say how that boy felt, but I imagine he’s as happy and excited as he looks. I identify more with what Edmund White writes in his preface to A Boy’s Own Story, a novel he wrote about his teenage self at a remove of about 25 years:

If I’d hated myself as a boy and adolescent, I now felt an affection for the miserable kid I’d once been, a retrospective kindliness one might call ‘the pederasty of autobiography.’

Not that I was miserable often. I’ve been able to find only one photo in which I look genuinely wretched, pouting and red-eyed and sitting alone in a corner. Hints of blotchiness on my face and feet suggest eczema may have been the cause. It bedevilled my boyhood, though my abiding memory is not of the physical discomfort but of my mother’s anger at my grandfather’s repeated commandment, ‘Don’t scratch, press.’ He meant well, but didn’t know what it was like first-hand. She and I both knew it was hopeless.

In other photos I see chinks in my armour that might have been exploited by others. Hints of effeminacy, as I stand limp-wristed in the garden with my yellow plastic spade, or unwrap my Christmas presents with something that isn’t flamboyance exactly but certainly isn’t straight, that could have led to bullying but didn’t. A guilelessness also, a credulity in my expression, that I don’t remember ever having.

Anyway, I made it, I grew up without the assistance of my adult self to hold my hand; but now I feel an unusual desire to be a friend to that boy. I’d like to visit him from the future so I could reassure him that he’d be OK, that he wouldn’t have to go to war, that he’d pass his A-levels (something I think I had occasional anxieties about even as early as primary school, the result, I suspect, of overhearing conversations between my parents about my father’s sixth-form teaching).

I also think, wouldn’t it be cool to introduce him to the music he wouldn’t discover until later. I could have been listening to Weill and Oscar Peterson at a much younger age. As it was, I was happy enough with The Sound of Music, and didn’t feel I needed someone older and wiser telling me what to do.

July 1986

Dubious dress sense aside, he looks such a nice guy, doesn’t he. I’d like to have known him.

Now that I’ve reached the point at which I am envying my childhood acquaintances their friendship with me, some kind of protocol of decency has been breached. I hereby declare an indefinite moratorium on self-regarding blog posts like this, though I doubt it’ll last long. I’ll try to think of something else to write about for a while.