This engaging little book about many aspects of the science and art of memory takes its name from the shape of the hippocampus in the brain, the area where memories are stored. From accounts of early disastrous brain surgeries completely obliterating memory, to tales of people cursed with extraordinarily complete memories, the writers also do their own experiments on planting false memories (surprisingly easy to do).
My favourite sections showed how writers used memories:
‘Apparently, Marcel Proust’s trip into memory did not start with him eating a madeleine – a disappointingly tasteless cookie; tasty but not distinct. Proust was eating toast, but along the way he replaced toast with a madeleine. A piece of art is more than just memories; it gives memories a form,’ says Linn Ullmann, who in her novel Unquiet explores her childhood memories and her relationship with her father, the world-renowned director Ingmar Bergman.
Ullmann is the only child of Liv Ullmann and one of many children of her father. She shows in her novel Unquiet how her in need to be acknowledged by him, she misread his intentions in their limited interactions.
…she describes how she celebrated Christmas the only time she ever spent it with her father. She is newly divorced, he is a recent widower. They walk through the snow from his small apartment to the Hedvig Eleonora Church in Stockholm. The snow whirls in front of their faces and around the church spire. She describes how, for a long time, she thought he needed her because he didn’t want to spend Christmas alone – in fact, he preferred it that way. It was she who needed him. The memory turns itself around and becomes another memory.
‘I can’t remember if the snow really fell that way. At the end of James Joyce’s The Dead he describes the kind of snowy weather I am talking about. I don’t know if it’s actually his snowy weather I wrote into my story. However, it doesn’t matter; things I have read and I have experienced have blended together; I am not writing a biographically true story…’
Ullmann did extensive research into her father’s archive of letters and documents and let all this percolate with readings of other authors and her own memories.
Anyone who has shared memories with other family members will know how tricky this can be. We all make up our own stories and memories, coloured by emotions and longings at the time.