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Memory in Literature


Mnemosyne was not only the goddess of memory; she was also the mother of the Muses, the goddesses of the various arts.  Thus, there is a link between memory and literature (including history, whose Muse was Clio) and the other arts.  Three particularly good sources on the relationship between memory and literature, and the literature of memory beyond psychology and the other cognitive sciences, are:

The Anatomy of Memory: An Anthology, edited by James McConkey (Oxford University Press, 1996).  Originally conceived as the "Oxford Companion to Memory", part of the famous Oxford series, this anthology is "an engrossing treasury of commentaries on memory as the necessary condition of individual and cultural identity, and as the provider of the materials and themes of our philosophies, religions, and literary creations" (M.H. Abrams, from the book jacket).  

I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory, by Patricia Hampl (Norton, 1999).  A shorter book that "looks so deeply into the relation between memory and imagination as to become a guide, for both writers and readers, to what Virginia Woolf called 'life writing'" (Mark Doty, from the book jacket).

Click here for a webcast of Patricia Hampl reading from her book, as well as a question-and-answer session with students, both presented under the auspices of the "Living Writers" course taught by Prof. Frederick Busch at Colgate University

On the "Living Writers Wired" webpage

scroll down to September 20, 2001.

Webcast Require Windows Media Player.

The literature of memory encompasses as literature of forgetting as well as a literature of remembering.  For examples of the former, see:

The Vintage Book of Amnesia: An Anthology of Writing on the Subject of Memory Loss, edited by Jonathan Lethem (Vintage Books, 2000).  Part of the 'Black Lizard" crime series, this book does "nothing less than define a new genre of literature -- the amnesia story" (from the book description on www.amazon.com). As Lethem noted (in an interview with Kevin Canfield of the Hartford Courant, 2001), amnesia "isolates the basic question people are asking all the time -- even if they're not aware they're asking it -- which is, 'Who am I?' and 'Where do I come from?'  The function of amnesia is that it helps make that question super-literal, super-explicit."



Memory and Amnesia in Literature

Here is an ongoing list of books, classic and recent, good and bad, in which memory or amnesia play a prominent role in the plot.

Amnesia, by Andrew Niederman.  In an interview with Kevin Canfield of the Hartford Courant (2001), Niederman (who also writes under the pen name V.C. Andrews), notes that "Anybody who suffers from amnesia is in a very vulnerable state.  They have to accept on faith what they're being told about themselves and their past and their history.  That sort of situation will lend itself to so many different plot lines and character problems that it's an interesting condition for a writer to exploit."

Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson (2011).  Inspired by the case of H.M., this psychological thriller centers on Christine, a woman who wakes up in bed next to a stranger, looks in the bathroom mirror, and discovers that she's aged 20 years.  She's suffered brain damage in an accident, and while she's asleep at night she forgets everything that happened to her during the day before.  Christine then tries to recover her memory and her identity -- and to find out what her husband is up to. 

The Bone Diaries by Frances Itani (2008).  A woman has an accident on the way to Queen Elizabeth's birthday lunch.  Reviewing her grandfather's edition of Gray's Anatomy, each of her broken bones serves as a cue for the retrieval of an important autobiographical memory.  The result is chronicle of her life.  It's the Crovitz-Galton technique turned into literature.

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum (1980).  First of a series of thrillers about a CIA black-operations agent who has been rendered amnesic for his jobs (sort of an American Manchurian Candidate).  Made into a TV movie starring Richard Chamberlain.  Followed by The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, which chronicle the agent's attempts to recover his past and take revenge on those who deprived him of his identity.  The original three novels were made into films starring Matt Damon.  After Ludlum's death, the series continued with Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Betrayal, by Eric Van Lustbader.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015).  Querig, a dragon, creates a mist which envelops Arthurian Britain, causing people to lose their memories.   Only if the dragon is killed will memory be restored.  Meanwhile, an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, search for their lost son without being able to remember very much about him -- or anyone else, or anything else, or even each other.  Reviewing the book in the New Yorker ("The Uses of Oblivion", 03/23/2015), James Wood wrote:

One of the monks, Father Jonus... suggests that God is angry with his people, and that the time has come to "uncover what's been hidden and face the past".....  Father Jonus asks Beatrice if she is afraid of the return of her unhappy memories.  She is not, because she and Axl love each other, and as we are constituted by our memories, for good and for ill, so is her marriage.  In the same way, although the mist has maintained a frail truce between Britons and Saxons, it is clearly right, if not desirable, that historical memory should be restored, even if the cost is a return to old warfare.

Delirium by Laura Restrepo (2007).  This novel, set in Colombia, features both a woman with amnesia and a country that has forgotten its past -- or is trying to do so. 

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa.  Inspired by the story of H.M., this novel (also produced as a movie in Japan) concerns a housekeeper for a mathematician who, as a result of a car accident, can only retain new memories for 80 minutes (which was about 79.5 minutes longer than H.M.), it addresses the question of whether you can love someone you can't remember.  

Face of a Stranger, by Anne Perry.  First in a series of murder mysteries set in Victorian England featuring an a brilliant but amnesic detective, William Monk.  The series, covers more than a dozen books, and reaches a sort of climax in Death of a Stranger (2002), "in which William Monk breaks through the wall of amnesia and discovers at last who he once was" (from the book jacket).  Link to Anne Perry's website.

Legends: A Novel of Dissimulation (2005) by Robert Littell.  In this post-Cold War spy thriller, Martin Odum is a former CIA operative diagnosed with multiple personality disorder, with some memories still unconscious despite psychotherapy.  "Along with his well-remembered roles..., there are hints of a legend, an alter ego, beyond his memory's reach" (John Updike, reviewing the book in "The Great Game Gone", New Yorker, 06/13-20/05).  

The Living Unknown Soldier: A Story of Grief and the Great War (2004) by Jean-Yves Le Naour.  Nonfiction, rather than fiction.  "Put simply, the soldier in question was an amnesiac [known as Anthelme Mangin, because that's what he seemed to say when asked his name] repatriated to France along with 64 other mentally disturbed prisoners of war.  After his photograph was published, dozens of families claimed to recognize him as their missing relative.  And as the effort to identify him dragged on, he became a living symbol of France's wartime sacrifice" ("A Lost Soul Who Symbolized France's Trauma" by Alan Riding, New York Times, 08/23/04).  There is a little bit of implicit memory here: medical authorities came to believe that Mangin was actually Octave Monjoin, son of Joseph Monjoin, of St.-Maur-sur-Indre; when he was dropped off at the town's train station, Mangin walked unaided to Monjoin's house.  The story formed the basis for Jean Anouilh's play, Traveler Without Luggage (1937); there are also resemblances to Pirandello's Right You Ar3, The Return of Martin Guerre (both the book by Natalie Zemon Davis and the film, starring Gerard Depardieu), and the more recent movie, the Majestic, starring Jim Carrey.

Look Homeward, Angel (1929) and its sequels, Of Time and the River (1935), The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can't Go Home Again (1940), all by Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938), who has been called has been called "the most autobiographical of writers" ("A House Restored, an Author Revisited" by Ralph Blumenthal, New York Times, 06/05/03).  Blumenthal notes Wolfe's "stupendous powers of recall..., reimagining all he had ever seen and felt...".  The first two books, in particular, are based on Wolfe's reminiscences of his childhood and youth in Asheville, North Carolina.  Despite the title of Wolfe's last (posthumously published) book, he did in fact go home again, and wrote about the experience in "Return", an article originally commissioned by a local newspaper, the Asheville Citizen.  

Man Walks Into a Room, by Nicole Krauss (Doubleday, 2002).  Sampson Greene, an Ivy-League English professor is found wandering, disheveled, in the Nevada desert, after a brain tumor deprives him of his memory.  He remembers nothing after his first kiss, at age 12, and the amnesia covers his academic specialty knowledge as well as his personal identity.  

"Rather than putting her protagonist through a thrillerish wringer of recovered memory and a recomposed normal life..., Krauss... asks not how Samson can remember, but what would happen if he simply chose not to remember. If he embraced blankness as a new kind of free will, would we envy his sudden lack of obligation?  Or would we shy away from his irresponsibility?" (from "Memory -- Who Needs It?" by Jesse Berrett, San Francisco Chronicle, 06/16/02).  

"Even as he struggles to connect with his wife, Anna, he thinks that he might prefer the blankness of his new life.  Sampson's loss takes place against a backdrop of secret experiments on human memory and the social implications of atomic testing, but it is his shadow-filled scrutiny of intimacy -- as he wonders why he might have married this beautiful stranger, and whether he can love her -- that is the book's real strength" (from the "Briefly Noted" column, New Yorker, 08/05/02.

Mary Modern by Camille DeAngelis.  When a scientist clones her deceased grandmother, she expects to get a baby.  Instead, she gets a young woman, with a full-fledged set of memories.  

The Memory Artists by Jeffrey Moore (2006).  Draws on hypermnesia, synesthesia, and the memory disorder associated with Alzheimer's disease  to examine memory and identity (noted in "Fiction Chronicle" by Michael Agovino, New York Times Book Review, 05/14/06).

Memory's Last Breath by Gerda Saunders (2017).  A "memoir of amnesia", written by a professor of gender studies who gradually lost her memory due to microvascular disease.

My Life, Deleted by Scott Bolzan, Joan Bolzan, and Caitlin Rother (2010).  After a concussive blow to the head, Bolzan loses every memory of his past, and has to relearn the story of his life, marriage, and children.

Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell (written 1948; published 1949).  More about collective memory and amnesia than the individual case.  Winston Smith, a clerk in the Ministry of Truth, alters newspapers and other documents in accordance with the pronouncements of Big Brother and the Party, and destroys the old versions by dropping them down the "memory hole".  In Orwell's vision, political control is exercised through the control of information, including the control of memory: "Who controls the past, controls the future.  Who controls the present, controls the past."

The One Memory of Flora Banks (2017) by Emily Barr, a teenage girl, who suffers from anterograde amnesia following brain surgery at age 10, searches for the boy who might hold the key to her identity.

Out of Joint, by Philip K. Dick (1949).  See also Paycheck and Total Recall, both of which were made into films.  "dick's favorite idea... is that the lives we think we're living are illusions, based not on our actual histories but on made-to-order pasts cooked up by the powers that be and then force-fed to our brains.  (If Dick had had the foresight to patent this notion, he could have collected fat licensing fees from, among others, the makers of "The Truman Show" and the "Matrix" movies)" (Terrence Rafferty, "The Last Word in Alienation: I Just Don't Remember" (New York Times, 11/02/03).

The Perpetual Now: A Story of Amnesia, Memory, and Love (2017) by Michael Lemonick tells the true story of Lonni Sue Johnson, who suffered both retrograde and anterograde amnesia following an episode of encephalitis, but who retained her personality, attitudes, and interests even so.

The Raw Shark Texts (Canongate, 2007) by Steven Hall.

Recovered Memories (Xlibris, 2003) by Elaine Hatfield & Richard L. Rapson.  Hatfield is a distinguished social psychologist, an expert on interpersonal attraction; Rapson is a social historian.  

"Recovered Memories is the story of Reza Guerrero and Sam Chavez, a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, whose brief love affair is shattered by the ethnic, social, and class confusions of the 21st century.  When Reza's father is falsely accused of sexual molestation, the young couple's family relationships are shattered.  But unlike their predecessors from Verona, Reza and Sam find an ingenious, thoroughly modern way to salvage their romance.  This is a love affair that does not end in tragedy.  Recovered Memories is a story of romantic obsession, secrets, and of memory in all its self-deceptive, fragile elusiveness" (from the back cover).

In a letter (10/13/03), Hatfield adds: "This novel, inspired by a real-life incident, recounts the attempt of the family members to cope with this devastating "revelation" -- sadly reminiscent of the difficulties that all families face when confronted with such false accusations."

Also in 2003, Hatfield and Rapson published (again with Xlibris) a sequel of sorts, Darwin's Law, on themes of love, mate selection, and life as seen through the lenses of evolutionary psychology and feminism.

Remainder (Vintage Books, 2007) by Tom McCarthy. A man emerges from a coma with no memory, and with the fortune from the lawsuit goes about the process of reconstructing his identity -- and, in the process, to convince himself that he actually exists.  "I remember, therefore I am".  For a review, see Liesl Schillinger, "Play It Again", New York Times Book Review, 02/25/07.

The Reminders (2017), by Val Emmerich, features a child with "highly superior autobiographical memory".

The Return of the Soldier (Century, 1918), by Rebecca West.  Perhaps one of the earliest novels to use traumatic amnesia as a plot device.  During World War I, Chris Baldry, a British Officer, is discharged with a psychogenic amnesia covering the previous 15 years of his life.  He does not remember Kitty, but accepts that she is his wife and resumes his marriage; but at the same time he loves Margaret, the daughter of an innkeeper, and previously unknown to Kitty.  "For Chris, the sober reality of marriage... is an illusion, and the bright illusion of romance is a reality (Edward Mendelson, "Five Best" Wall Street Journal, 01/05-06/08).

Somebody, Please Tell Me Who I Am (Simon & Schuser, 2012) by Harry Mazer & Peter Lerangis.  In this novel intended for "young adults" a soldier wounded in Iraq by an IED loses his memory, and can't recognize fiance, family, or friends.

The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block (2008).  A novel of remembering and forgetting whose plot is built around a genetic mutation, EOA-23, which is a predisposition to early onset Alzheimer's disease (and thus, the loss of memory).  There's also a subplot, perhaps inspired by Kurt Vonnegut's mythical planet Trafalmadore, of Isidora, a parallel universe "where memory doesn't matter and therefore anything is possible" ("You Promised That You'd Forget Me Not, but You Forgot to Remember", book review by Janet Maslin, New York Times, 03/27/08).

Tokyo Doesn't Love Us Anymore (Grove Press, 2004) by Ray Loriga.  The protagonist sells a drug that erases bad memories.  

Unconscious Truths (Avon, 1998) by Janice Kiecolt-Glaser.  Kiecolt-Glaser is a distinguished clinical  psychologist, an expert on the relationship between stress and disease.  Part of a series of detective novels featuring Dr. Haley McAlister, a psychologist-detective who is an expert on memory and lie-detection, the plot turns on a conversation that a patient heard while under general anesthesia; now she's dead, and Dr. McAlister must solve the murder.

The Uses of Enchantment by Heidi Julavits (Doubleday, 2006).  With its title taken from Bruno Bettelheim's psychoanalytic treatise on the psychological importance of fairy tales (1976), and its multiple references to Freud's case of "Dora", this novel is apparently inspired by the recovered-memory movement.  Mary Veal, a high-school girl, disappears after field-hockey practice, and turns up six weeks later claiming not to remember what happened to her.  Fourteen years later, at age 30, Mary tries to reconstruct the event. 

Yesterday by Felicia Yap (2017) is thriller which imagines a world in which the classes are divided by memory: Monos, who can only remember what happened yesterday, and Duos, who can also remember the day before.  Both groups, however, are completely dependent on their iDiaries to retain any other knowledge of their past.  Claire, a Mono, discovers that the mistress of Mark, her Duo husband, has drowned, she sets out to find out who did it.  The novel is intended as the first part of a trilogy, whose other entries are tentatively entitled Today and Tomorrow (like the 1963 film by Vittorio de Sica) so stay tuned.


This page last revised 06/27/2017.