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5 Great Novels on Memory

Updated on May 15, 2017

The topic of memory is massive. If you’d like to have a kind of a quick (412 pages) overview of what has been going on in culture on the subject of memory, from the classical era to the present day, from the literary to the neuroscientific, you can start your reading with Memory: An Anthology edited by Harriet Harvey Wood and AS Byatt (2009). The book consists of essays written by the experts on the subject as well as extracts from philosophy and literature written throughout the ages (Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Freud, Shakespeare, Proust, Borges, Woolf, Murakami, and others). Below I recommend a list of great novels that reflect on memory and its workings.

The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder by John Ironmonger (2012)

Maximilian Ponder is dead and his best friend, Adam, has the last task to do: to cut Max’s head off and preserve it for science. The head will accompany 1,600 books and folders that are Max’s great project: the Catalogue of a human brain. At the age of 21 he shuts himself away for 3 years to record and catalogue the entire contents of his brain, “the discrete atoms of human memory from the first twenty-one years of human life.” He tries not to interact with other people and the world too much so as not to have to write about the present, concentrating instead on the past.

But each account or list must prove highly inadequate – how can you write down all about “novels, or idioms, or animals” that you know with all the detail? And “how do you know what you know”? What methodology to assume “for total authenticity of recollection”? If you read, say, Lord of the Flies, the real challenge is “how much of it do I really remember? How much can I regurgitate, reconstitute, recreate from that fragile ephemera we call human memory” in such a way so that it wouldn’t become a review, rather than a recollection?

All the questions, doubts and reflections on memory and forgetting lead Max to continue his project for the next 30 years. The sections of Max’s Catalogue are interspersed in the novel with sections written by Adam telling the story of their friendship. What emerges is the story of an obsession, a quest to understand the mechanisms of human memory, mind, and how memories constitute a life.

The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey (2008)

The Wilderness is a map of the mind which suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. In the course of the book we learn about the most important events in the protagonist’s, Jake Jameson, life. Yet when we see that some events have multiple solutions, we realize that these accounts are actually Jake’s attempts to remember. He obsessively returns his thoughts to the same events and objects in an attempt to fix a reliable account of his past. His internal time becomes a stream of consciousness of disconnected images: “the motifs that repeat in his mind like subliminal messages, someone hypnotizing or doping him. Birds flying, the missing e. The little keychain; Star of David. Suddenly, now, the word plutonium from nowhere: plutonium; what a funny word to spring to mind, and an image (that surely doesn’t go with it?) of a blue peg with an elastic band wrapped around it. And now Joy’s yellow dress. Cherry blossom adrift and homeless across the air, almost invisible against grey sky.”

As a result of the repetitions and Jake’s immersion in the perpetual present, there is no progress in the narrative and it is the process of remembering itself that becomes the plot. Harvey brilliantly enacts the workings of Alzheimer’s mind also on the formal level as the reader witnesses Jake’s complete disorientation in time, the jumps between the past and the present, dream and reality, and the fluidity of overlapping memories, and motifs, patterns and themes re-emerging with shifted meanings. The crucial question the novel poses is whether it is possible to preserve a sense of the self in the case of the absence of language and memory.

Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)

On a hot summer day in 1934, 13-year-old Briony Tallis, an aspiring writer, misreads her sister’s Cecilia flirtation with Robbie Turner, the servant’s son, which leads to a crime that destroys several people’s lives. The first part of the novel is an account of that mistake, part two follows Robbie to Dunkirk, part three deals with Briony’s adulthood and an attempt at atonement, and the last part, the epilogue, takes place in 1999 London. The epilogue is written from the perspective of Briony, a successful novelist at the age of 77, dying of vascular dementia, an illness connected with memory. The novel engages two major twists that turn everything you have read upside down. In so doing, the book reflects on the processes governing memory, its constructed nature, unreliability and entwinement with truth.

However, it is not only the complex narration that makes this book a masterpiece but also its secure rooting in the traditions of 19th and 20th century literature. The novel uses the traditional forms in a self-conscious way, creating a sequence of pastiches that reflect a history of English literature.

The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes (2011)

The protagonist, Tony Webster, now in his 60s, looks back at his life, starting with his sixth form friendships. With his friends Alex, Colin and Adrian he listened to music, read books, learned and had philosophical disputes: “Yes, of course we were pretentious - what else is youth for? We used terms like ‘Weltanschauung’ and ‘Sturm und Drang’, enjoyed saying ‘That’s philosophically self-evident’, and assured one another that the imagination’s first duty was to be transgressive.” What follows is girls, odd jobs during his six-month stay in the U.S., then the stable job, marriage and divorce.

A solicitor's letter informing Tony that he has been left Adrian's diary in a will provokes him to reevaluate his past and the secret at the centre of it. Tony's reexamination of the past provokes new perspectives and with them a flood of new memories, exposing the unreliability of the narrator and his subjective memory and story-telling mind. Trying to make sense of the past, Tony meditates on “time’s malleability,” memory, youth and how we change over time.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco (2004)

The protagonist, Giambattista Bodoni, a sixty-year-old antiquarian book dealer from Milan suffers from the autobiographical memory block following a stroke. This means he can remember books he’s read but cannot remember facts from his his own life. In the hope of activating the process of remembering, he visits the family summer home where he browses a collection of memorabilia, from old magazines and books to cigarette boxes. This is an excuse for Eco to present texts and illustrations culturally significant for war-time Italy and suggest that identity is made up of a collage of literature, pop culture, art, fantasies and experience. The memorabilia summon feelings, the thrill of recognition, the titular mysterious flame, which the protagonist feels when he looks at the picture of a blonde woman, his first love.

Yet his trip to “the cavern of memory” ends up with innumerable speculations, doubts and guesses, “hypotheses made at the age of sixty as to what I might have thought at the age of ten,” which provokes reflection on the nature of memory and psychological time.


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