August 23, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
My daughter Maggie got me Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory one year for Christmas; it seems a fitting title for this post, which is the penultimate one for #AUTHORityAugust, in which I collect quotations from authors of varying degrees of fame on topics I happen to be mulling over. So far we have covered family, aging, and reading. The topic this time is memory. You’ll find a couple of my favorite writers on memoir, as well as more than the usual sprinkle of poets. Where poems are excerpted and available online, I have linked to the whole text.
How uncanny to go back in memory to a house from which time has stolen all the furniture, and to find the one remembered chair, and to write it so large, so deep, that it furnishes the entire vacant room. ― Patricia Hampl
I think a person permeates a spot, and a lost presence makes the environment timeless to me, keeps an area alive. It pulsates because of that.
― Andrew Wyeth
You remember only what you want to remember. You know only what your heart allows you to know. ― Amy Tan, Saving Fish from Drowning
Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real. ― Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
“Once,” she will say, as if she remembers,
and the memory will stick like a fishbone.
how easily she will comply when a man puts his hand
on the back of her neck and gently steers her.
She knows how long she will wait for rescue, how the world
will go on expanding outside.
She will see her mother’s photo
of Elvis shaking hands with Nixon, the terrifying conjunction.
A whole war with Asia will begin slowly,
in her lifetime, out of such irreconcilable urges.
― Fleda Brown, The Women Who Loved Elvis All Their Lives
Oh, everything is gorgeous once it’s gone.
― Gregory Maguire, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
Everyone has two memories. The one you can tell and the one that is stuck to the underside of that, the dark, tarry smear of what happened. ― Amy Bloom, Away
Your memory is a monster; you forget—it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you—and summons them to your recall with will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!
― John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
But maybe that’s what the dead do. They stay. They linger. Benign and sweet and painful. They don’t need us. They echo all by themselves.
― Sangu Mandanna, The Lost Girl
Each in the most hidden sack kept
the lost jewels of memory,
intense love, secret nights and permanent kisses,
the fragment of public or private happiness.
A few, the wolves, collected thighs,
other men loved the dawn scratching
mountain ranges or ice floes, locomotives, numbers.
For me happiness was to share singing,
praising, cursing, crying with a thousand eyes.
I ask forgiveness for my bad ways:
my life had no use on earth.
― Pablo Neruda, from Still Another Day
I have the most ill-regulated memory. It does those things which it ought not to do and leaves undone the things it ought to have done. But it has not yet gone on strike altogether. ― Dorothy L. Sayers
It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ says the White Queen to Alice. ― Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass
I used to think that once you really knew a thing, its truth would shine on forever. Now it’s pretty obvious to me that more often than not the batteries fade, and sometimes what you knew even goes out with a bang when you try and call on it, just like a light bulb cracking off when you throw the switch. ― Lucy Grealy
We all have an old knot in the heart we wish to untie. ― Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table
We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory
― Louise Glück
VLADIMIR: (after a moment of bewilderment). We’ll see when the time comes. (Pause.) I was saying that things have changed here since yesterday.
ESTRAGON: Everything oozes.
VLADIMIR: Look at the tree.
ESTRAGON: It’s never the same pus from one second to the next.
VLADIMIR: The tree, look at the tree. Estragon looks at the tree.
ESTRAGON: Was it not there yesterday?
VLADIMIR: Yes of course it was there. Do you not remember? We nearly hanged ourselves from it. But you wouldn’t. Do you not remember?
ESTRAGON: You dreamt it.
VLADIMIR: Is it possible you’ve forgotten already?
ESTRAGON: That’s the way I am. Either I forget immediately or I never forget.
― Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
Nothing stays put.
The world is a wheel.
All that we know, that we’re
made of, is motion.
― Amy Clampitt, Nothing stays put
A man of great memory without learning hath a rock and a spindle and no staff to spin.
― George Herbert
At times I feel as if I had lived all this before and that I have already written these very words, but I know it was not I: it was another woman, who kept her notebooks so that one day I could use them. I write, she wrote, that memory is fragile and the space of a single life is brief, passing so quickly that we never get a chance to see the relationship between events; we cannot gauge the consequences of our acts, and we believe in the fiction of past, present, and future, but it may also be true that everything happens simultaneously. … That’s why my Grandmother Clara wrote in her notebooks, in order to see things in their true dimension and to defy her own poor memory. ― Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits
He couldn’t tell that this was one of those occasions a man never forgets: a small cicatrice had been made on the memory, a wound that would ache whenever certain things combined – the taste of gin at mid-day, the smell of flowers under a balcony, the clang of corrugated iron, an ugly bird flopping from perch to perch.
― Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter
Memories are nice little possessions. As long as you don’t ignore the present when you take them out to play. ― Nora Roberts
Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next – and disappear. That’s why it’s so important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives. ― Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
There was a time before.
Remember when the tiny sightless hand
could not know, not say hand, but knew it
in its straying, knew it in the cool
condensation steaming the station wagon windows,
thrums of heat blowing a brand of idiot’s safety
over the brightly-wrapped package
that was then your body, well-loved?
This must have been you, looking out at that world
of flat, buttered fields and blackbirds ascending.
― Erin Belieu, All Distance
And since we don’t just forget things because they don’t matter but also forget things because they matter too much because each of us remembers and forgets in a pattern whose labyrinthine windings are an identification mark no less distinctive than a fingerprint’s, it’s no wonder that the shards of reality one person will cherish as a biography can seem to someone else who, say, happened to have eaten some ten thousand dinners at the very same kitchen table, to be a willful excursion into mythomania.
― Philip Roth, American Pastoral
Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.
― Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams
How we keep these dead souls in our hearts. Each one of us carries within himself his necropolis. ― Gustave Flaubert
She was afraid to suggest to him that to most people, nothing “happens.” That most people merely live from day to day until they die. That, after he had been dead a year, doubtless fewer than five people would think of him oftener than once a year. That there might even come a year when no one on earth would think of him at all.
― Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha
Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food.
― Austin O’Malley
A word of warning here. The events as you remember them will never be the same in your memory once you have turned them into a memoir. For years I have worried that if I turn all of my life into literature, I won’t have any real life left – just stories about it. And it is a realistic concern: it does happen like that. I am no longer sure I remember how it felt to be twenty and living in Spain after my parents died; my book about it stands now between me and my memories. When I try to think about that time, what comes to mind most readily is what I wrote.
― Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art
I think it is all a matter of love; the more you love a memory the stronger and stranger it becomes.
― Vladimir Nabokov
The point, I decided, wasn’t to have the autobiography or even the memories. The point was who I became when I wrote. ― Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, On The Threshold: Home, Hardwood, and Holiness
He is indebted to his memory for his jests and to his imagination for his facts.
― Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as collective memory–part of the same family of spurious notions as collective guilt. But there is collective instruction….What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds.
― Susan Sontag
Childhood isn’t just those years. It’s also the opinions you form about them afterward. That’s why our childhoods are so long. ― Kim Stanley Robinson, Green Mars
This is the tongue of the dead man: remember, remember.
How far he is now, his actions
Around him like living room furniture, like a décor.
As the pallors gather—-The pallors of hands and neighborly faces,
The elate pallors of flying iris.
They are flying off into nothing: remember us.
The empty benches of memory look over stones,
Marble facades with blue veins, and jelly-glassfuls of daffodils.
It is so beautiful up here: it is a stopping place.
― Sylvia Plath, Berck-Plage
Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before. ―Steven Wright
What we remember from childhood we remember forever — permanent ghosts, stamped, inked, imprinted, eternally seen.
― Cynthia Ozick
Every man’s memory is his private literature.
― Aldous Huxley
Memory is more indelible than ink. ― Anita Loos
The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant.
― Salvador Dalí
If you work hard enough at something that doesn’t matter, you can forget for a while about the things that do. ― Octavia E. Butler
Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility. ― James Thurber
Little girl, a memory without blot or contamination must be an exquisite treasure-an inexhaustible source of pure refreshment:is it not? ― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
The light of memory, or rather the light that memory lends to things, is the palest light of all. I am not quite sure whether I am dreaming or remembering, whether I have lived my life or dreamed it. Just as dreams do, memory makes me profoundly aware of the unreality, the evanescence of the world, a fleeting image in the moving water.
― Eugène Ionesco
There’s no such thing as yesterday, he thought dully. Memory is just today, happening over and over again, stamped indelibly with regret. ― Helen Maryles Shankman
The true art of memory is the art of attention.
― Samuel Johnson
The charm, one might say the genius of memory, is that it is choosy, chancy, and temperamental: it rejects the edifying cathedral and indelibly photographs the small boy outside, chewing a hunk of melon in the dust.
― Elizabeth Bowen
You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful, sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all. If a man carries many such memories into life with him, he is saved for the rest of his days. And even if only one good memory is left in our hearts, it may also be the instrument of our salvation one day.
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Memories do not change, and change is the law of existence. If our dead, the closest, the most beloved, were to return to us after a long absence and instead of the old, familiar trees were to find in our souls English gardens and stone walls — that is to say, other loves, other tastes, other interests, they would gaze upon us sadly and tenderly for a moment, wiping away their tears, and then return to their tombs to rest.
― Teresa de la Parra, Las memorias de Mamá Blanca
I have a memory like an elephant. In fact, elephants often consult me.
― Noël Coward