Remembrance of Novels Past: Nicholson Baker’s “Memory Criticism”

Richard Elliott | 6 March 2017

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EARL SNYDER/NYT: JOHN UPDIKE

From the masterpieces of Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf to recent classics such as Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, the subject of memory has exercised some of the finest minds of modern literature. Indeed, think of the last novel you read and chances are that a good deal of the narrative was devoted to memory, whether in the form of childhood memories (as in Zadie Smith’s Swing Time), traumatic memories (Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians), or, more atypically, prenatal memories (Ian McEwan’s Nutshell).

The memories that figure in most works of fiction reflect the memories of the average person in that they are connected to relationships with people, places and objects. Yet authors and students of literature lead a distinctly non-average life in terms of the proportion of their time spent engaging not with people, places and objects, but with alphabetic characters placed in a certain sequence for a certain effect. As E.I. Lonoff, the fictional writer in Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, puts it: “I turn sentences around. That’s my life.” However, despite the emphasis placed by writers and students of literature on the particularity of the language used in works of fiction, relatively little attention is paid to the ways in which we remember – or misremember – the words and phrases that comprise fictional worlds.

One book that does explore how we remember what we have read is Nicholson Baker’s U & I (1991) a non-fictional account of Baker’s relationship with John Updike and his oeuvre. Realising the extent to which Updike was “a model and influence,” Baker decided to write an appreciation of him while he was still alive.

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What is unique about Baker’s appreciation is that, although a good part of the book is dedicated to a detailed consideration of the particular elements of Updike’s prose that (according to Baker) elevated him above his contemporaries, Baker forbade himself, until a draft of U & I was completed, from revisiting a single word written by Updike. The final version of the book therefore contains Baker’s (mis)quotations, followed by the original sentence or phrase in brackets. This approach yields amusing results, such as Baker’s appraisal of the Updike poem he remembers as:

The blue below

Is Aquamarine.

Sometimes the blue below

Is green.

Baker admires how the “comic movement of the stanza turns on the opposition between the line-filling latinity of ‘aquamarine’ humbled into the contradictory surprise of ‘green,’” which is a nice observation, except that the actual Updike poem, which runs:

That line is the horizon line.

The blue above it is divine.

The blue below it is marine.

Sometimes the blue below is green.

exhibits the singular infelicity of failing to contain the word ‘aquamarine’.

Apart from the entertainment afforded by the spectacle of Baker praising Updike for words and phrases that he (Updike) never actually wrote, what exactly is to be gained by this idiosyncratic method of criticism, variously named by Baker memory criticism, phrase filtration, closed book examination, or – my favourite – deprived recall analysis? According to its originator, who mischievously wonders if the approach “is merely a subset of the ‘reader response’ school (which I know nothing about),” the method “is a lot of fun, and it offers a nice pseudoscientific thrill as you begin to treat your haphazard book-memories as a fund of data on which to operate, and it costs nothing, takes no great reading, and forces a degree of honesty from the critic that might, for about five minutes, be beneficial.”

I can think of at least two genuine benefits of Baker’s method. First, an examination of our (often fallacious) memories of a book may reveal certain prejudices in our reading, even reveal how we wished the book had been written.  I once listened to a lecture by John Sutherland on Jane Eyre wherein he admitted to remembering Rochester as pushing Bertha Mason from the roof of the burning Thornfield Hall. A more bizarre recollection of this scene is found in Arnold Weinstein’s lecture on the novel, in which he asserts that Bertha Mason pushes Rochester off the roof. These opposing versions – both at odds with the account given in the text – testify to Elena Ferrante’s description of the “third book” that emerges upon a reading, “a book where beside the written sentences are those which we imagined writing, beside the sentences that readers read are the sentences they have imagined reading. This third book, elusive, changing, is nevertheless a real book. […] It’s the book that is created in the relationship between life, writing, and reading.”

A second benefit of Baker’s approach is that a comparison between our recollection of a scene and the scene as written by the novelist may prove a useful aid to close reading. In trying to dredge up the subtle prefigurations of despoilment that we encounter in Lolita when Humbert Humbert first meets the eponymous heroine lounging on the lawn, I came up with “a hairless tennis ball,” “a grass-stained sock,” and “a half-eaten apple.” The original items, it turns out, are “an old gray tennis ball,” “a white sock,” and “the brown core of an apple.” Naturally, Nabokov is too good a writer to restrict his inventory to ruined items, and the contrast afforded by his “white sock” renders it much more effective than the sock of my grass-stained memory. Moreover, Lolita is not lounging, but “kneeling, turning about on her knees,” a detail which evokes the earlier image of Humbert wickedly striking with his fist the knee of his first wife, Valeria, she of the “vulnerable legs.” These are details I would have overlooked had I not first tried to recreate the scene from memory.

Twenty-six years after the publication of U & I, Baker’s deprived recall analysis has yet to be embraced by the academy. But perhaps in this new era of “alternative facts” in which we find ourselves its moment has finally arrived.

About Richard

Richard is writing his PhD on British and American fiction written across cultural boundaries, from the 1960s to the present day. He was once the reserve member of a winning Eggheads team and shamelessly accepted an equal share of the prize-money, which he is still living off today.

Article edited by Ruby Katz and Bridget Moynihan.

Works Cited

Baker, Nicholson. U & I: A True Story. London: Granta Books, 1998. Print.

Ferrante, Elena, and Ann Goldstein. Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey. New York, N.Y.: Europa Editions, 2016. Print.

Nabokov, Vladimir, and Martin Amis. Lolita. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. Print.

Roth Philip, The Ghost Writer, New York: Vintage books, 1995. Print

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