The Work of Memory
MacKenzie Warren reviews Jordi Llavina’s London Under Snow (trans. Douglas Suttle)
Partway through Jordi Llavina’s short story collection, London Under Snow (trans. Douglas Suttle), I was given pause by a reference to something called a “Memory Workshop”. “Memory work” is not an uncommon phrase in certain circles, but the context here invests it with unusual power. It appears in a story called ‘The Linden Tree’, about a middle-aged man who falls in love with a much older woman who is losing her memory. Her memory work, then, is her occasional practice of making a conscious effort to remember things she hasn’t thought about for some time, to reclaim her fading past, to give new strength to the neural pathways that lead back there. But this practice refracts through the other stories in the collection, all of which are concerned with various acts of remembering and remembrance, to raise a more general suggestion about how memory itself works, and how it can constitute work.
Llavina is the author of ten previous books of prose, though London Under Snow is the first to be translated into English from his native Catalan. Despite its humble form — it contains just six stories — it takes an ambitious approach to its subject matter, upending everyday notions of what memory is. For each of us, Llavina seems to suggest, memory is not some vast reservoir of past experiences that exists out there in the aether, so that we can dip in and out of it from time to time as we wish. Nor is it a world contained in a teacup, involuntarily accessed in the Proustian sense when one encounters a sensory reminder of days gone by. It’s amorphous, and every time we access our body of memories we force a new change upon the whole. When we remember one experience among many, the act itself gives the memory new prominence, new relevance to the present. When we do this again and again, we cut grooves into the terrain of our memories, shoring up some at the expense of others. In the course of remembering, then, we create what we remember, and what we can remember; and when we commit our remembrances to some form outside the mind — to a narrative periodically retold, or even rendered in prose — we become sculptors of our pasts and therefore of ourselves. The memory formations that emerge from the sculpting may well be works of art, but every work of art, no matter how grand, also contains its own losses: discarded materials and possibilities of alternative forms:
Memory doesn’t require much: the vestiges of some letters cut into a worn tombstone and gnawed away by erosion; the half-erased name and some illegible, neglected dates. Just as a tombstone marks someone’s whole life, regardless of how miserable it has been, so I had this: a simple, well-worn wallet of broken red plastic like the ones people used to keep their driving license in, fitting into the back pocket of your jeans like a glove. … No need for anything here, anyone unravelling the thread of memory will continue until the whole reel has come undone. … When we start to dig in our memories, above all when we bring back to the present remote passages from our lives, it means untangling different figures from the past. It’s like setting the nativity scene. We take some characters, the gestures and gaits — or perhaps the unabashed behaviour — of misrepresented people.
What are we to make of London Under Snow on the basis of these last words? The suggestion is, firstly, that to work memory into narrative is to begin with materials that are already misrepresented, and, secondly, that the work itself, even if it aims at clarification, cannot help but misrepresent them further. Narrative is simultaneously a raid on memory and a new distortion of it, an attempt to stabilise a landslide which can’t help but trigger another, and Llavina’s collection of stories enacts this contradiction.
However, that’s not quite the same as saying that Llavina’s stories enact it. Take the collection apart, read each story as a standalone work, and London Under Snow loses something integral to its effect. The whole is much stronger than some of its components, primarily because several stories develop channels of significance that they wouldn’t possess if they weren’t placed in proximity to others. ‘My Andalusian Cousin’ is a case in point. It begins with the words “My Andalusian cousin is dead” and consists entirely of a Proustian reverie on the past:
The death of Andrés, my Andalusian cousin, has awoken memories in my conscience that are more powerful than I thought. A cousin of mine has died who I hadn’t seen for thirty years. In truth, I had only met him twice: the first, over the days that I’ve just described, back when the two of us were just young boys of nine or ten; and, some years later, the second and last time, when we must have been around fifteen or sixteen…
Something similar is at work in stories like ‘We, Too, Are Expecting’ and ‘A Man Called Amat’, neither of which are particularly impressive in their own right. But the cornerstone of London Under Snow is the first story, ‘Hand & Racquet’, and it includes a breaking of the fourth wall that contributes new meaning to those that follow. The breaking occurs when the narrator of the story, apparently Llavina himself, has a discussion with an editor about the best form for an upcoming story collection. He asks about the possibility of including a photograph to illustrate one particular event. “Why just one photo?” the editor replies. “Why not a photo for each of the stories? One for ‘My Andalusian Cousin’, for example. Why not? It might be nice. A taste of the times. Or a portrait of Amat.” No, the author concedes at last: “I want the reader to form their own image of Amat, with the minimal description I provide. No, no images. Adding images would be like… like removing the soul from the literature.” So what are we reading here, exactly? A fictionalised discussion about the book of stories we are reading, describing a form it didn’t take but could have — and, in this way, preserving that unrealised form, incorporating it into itself. It is a discussion about allowing imprecision in a revisitation of the past — Amat, after all, is not to take a firm form in the reader’s mind — and it salvages imprecision from being concealed, which it would have been if London Under Snow had found publication without this scene.
And ‘Hand & Racquet’ operates on itself in the same way that it operates on the later stories, framing them as post hoc reconstructions and alterations of their subjects. “I first arrived in London on a February day in 2009”, the narrator says:
I was thirty years old. Among other personal effects, I had a black leather notebook like those that Le Corbusier once used to sketch out architectural ideas or to note down some of his theoretical or technical thoughts. On the second blank page, I wrote a title: ‘London Under Snow (and other reflections)’ in pencil.
Then, later, he looks upon the story he is writing, with an eye towards both the past incarnations that have since been altered and the possible future incarnations that exist now only in memory:
I almost called this particular short story ‘London Under Snow (and other reflections),’ deciding to forget the romantic idea of calling it ‘Hand & Racquet’… This despite the fact that it’s quite probable that the twelve or so people who will read this story will rather know it by the title ‘The Hat.’
So, in London, he began writing something called ‘London Under Snow’, and the story we are reading was almost that story, but is now a different story. Only the narrator remembers its original form, up to the point of writing; but, through his act of writing, the solo memory becomes part of a reality shared by readers. But there are other readers who will have a different memory of the same story — meaning that the very effort to remember, and to specify falsehoods of memory, ends up changing the form of what has been remembered. And later asides in later stories raise the spectre of memories revisited and reshaped, but not shared with the reader. Another narrator refers to having lost three years of his life to an error of judgment and suffering from “consequences that one day or another I’ll have to put to rest in a book. But that is, as they say, another story.” Likewise, he says that, in London, he recalls feeling “happier than I had probably ever felt in my life”, but he doesn’t specify why he felt that way, or why his memory might convince him that he did.
On the whole, Llavina’s explorations of the mechanics of memory are quiet, sensitive, intimate, lyrically worded, and unafraid of questions that lack easy answers. As above, there are moments of lag, usually when the shorter stories upset the momentum that develops in the longer ones — and indeed, London Under Snow might have been a stronger, more intense collection at two-thirds its already brief length. Still, those longer stories leave an impression, and two in particular manage to strike chords both emotional and intellectual. By chance, those two stories are the ones that open and close the collection.
The first is ‘Hand & Racquet’ — Llavina’s longest story, essentially a novella — which augments its metafictional elements with a beautiful evocation of the mysterious movements of memory. It begins in a humorous mode, with the narrator, Jordi, being oversold on the merits of a Cashmere Gill hat he receives from a friend named Nacho: “A marvel”, says Nacho. “The Queen of England herself wears hats made by the artisan hatmakers at Lock & Co.!” But the hat has a flaw that might affect its resale value: “It’s like a stain”, says Nacho. “Very slight, I’ll admit. Perhaps not a stain, more like a shadow. Or not even that: the suggestion of a shadow.” Jordi therefore travels to London on a quest to have the hat valued by an expert, and then, upon his arrival, the real story opens up. This is the story of his love for a childhood friend who herself travelled to London, briefly, only to return under duress as she suffered the worsening of the illness that would take her life. At one especially poignant moment, Jordi remembers — or remembers remembering — a letter he received from the girl, which is now lost but somehow survives, malformed, in his mind:
Not long before she left, she wrote me a long letter that I kept for a few days in a little brass box along with some other keepsakes from my school days that, were they to resurface (who knows where that piece of paper might be now), would hurt me a lot more now than the first time. The letter would now represent the exhumed script of a girl who had once loved me, of a person who, dead for the last twenty years, had been kept alive in my memory as a virginal, ever youthful, uncontaminated figure. … The letter said that she’d like to “try it” but didn’t say anything else. She told me about her imminent trip to London, but also mentioned that, on her return, she’d like to see me and — written again — “try it”. … Because I was, she continued, a “special person”.
I ignored her allusions and I don’t think I wrote to her once all the while she was away. … So, many years later, I still can’t remember her surname. Was it Alemany? Almirall? Albornà? Memory fails.
Jordi is explicit about the failures of his memory, and memory in general, in ways that call into question the supposed significance of the story he is writing: “I said that I fell in love with her when she was already dead”, he says, “[b]ut it’s more likely that I magnified what the girl had represented during a short period of my life.” But there’s no question of the story’s emotional power when, eventually, Jordi remembers the girl’s surname — or believes he does; he may still have it wrong — only to then face uncertainty about the years of her birth and death. Her life, he supposes, ran from “1968 to, perhaps, 1989” — and that “perhaps” is packed full of more pathos than any other aside I can think of. It’s not just the case that, despite all his best efforts, Jordi can’t come close to a Proustian reclamation of lost time. It’s the case that he can’t be sure that the things he reclaims are anything more than fiction — misremembrances that convince him of their spurious truth.
The second remarkable story is ‘The Linden Tree’, as above an exploration of the love between an elderly woman who is losing her memory and a much younger man. It, too, involves a breaking of the fourth wall, beginning with the narrator’s address to the reader who has arrived at the sixth and final story in London Under Snow:
Dear reader, now that the book you hold in your hands is coming to an end and a mere few pages separate you from the words ‘The End,’ I wanted not only to use them to indicate the end of the book, but also to represent the passing of the moment and, at the same time, the birth of a new period in what I hope will be your long and fertile life.
The twee tone is a ruse; the prose quickly shifts into a more plangent register, studded with the narrator’s meta-reflections on the fidelity of his words to his recalled experience. It’s plangent not only because the narrator’s love is essentially unrequited, but also because he is involved with the granddaughter of the woman whose memory starts to lapse. When he realises just how much he risks losing as the woman’s decline continues — not to mention the finality of the loss — he begins to record in prose the memories she has shared with him. For much of its length, ‘The Linden Tree’ holds over its readers the possibility that it is the story its narrator has written in order to shore up the loss of his love. As a result, that every word, and every observation, vibrates with his devotion to the older woman, his determination not to let her go. And those words in the opening paragraph, indicating that the story is intended “to represent the passing of the moment”, take on a more melancholy patina as they indirectly admit to the inevitable. But finally ‘The Linden Tree’, too, upends itself, when we learn that the story the narrator writes in the story is close to, but not quite the same as, the story we have just read. Once again, narrative both preserves and distorts memory, and in this case readers can’t be sure that what has been distorted hasn’t in fact been concealed for the narrator’s private savouring, to make it all the more precious.
Ultimately, London Under Snow is a competent collection of stories — polished, if a little pedestrian — bookended by two of much greater impact than the others. That’s no crime, and not unusual for a first collection in translation, but it does leave Llavina in something of a thematic quandary. When reading the work of a writer so deeply vested in questions of memory and the lasting traces left behind by narrative, one can only wish that more of the work itself was in fact memorable. In the act of remembering, I wrote earlier, we cut grooves into the terrain of our memories, shoring up some at the expense of others. The terrain of London Under Snow, in retrospect, looks rather like a valley plain, lorded over by mountains on either side. Leave the plain to itself; the mountains are where the magic dwells.