Sunday, June 14, 2015

In Search of Lost Boys

-- By Tom Phillips

Many years ago, as a graduate student in psychology, I took a course called Memory and Attention, from which I remember only one basic proposition:  memory is a function of attention.   We remember what we pay attention to. 

I thought of Memory and Attention recently as I read Volume Three of Karl-Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle,” the story of a middle-aged man remembering his experience as an adolescent boy.  And because Knausgaard is often compared to Marcel Proust, who wrote a hundred years ago, I went back and re-read the first part of “Swann’s Way,” the beginning of that earlier six-volume epic, drawn from Proust’s memories from the same time of life.   

What's striking in both is the quality of their attention, the amount of experience they can extract and retain from a moment – Proust watching the twin spires of the church shift their perspective in the waning sunlight, as he walks “Swann’s Way” in the little town where he apparently spent just a few weeks of his young life.  And of course the most famous extraction of them all – the taste of the madeleine dipped in tea, the subsequent descents into the subconscious, and finally the awakening of the whole remembered scene, the town and its environs, all the feelings that were bursting the heart of a proto-poet at a tender age. The past becomes present, memory and attention are one.

Marcel Proust --1887
Proust’s memories are those of a pampered, sickly boy growing up in the 1880s, in Paris and a summer home in the countryside  – a dreamer, a wanderer, and a voyeur, a mama’s boy who keeps company almost exclusively with adults – a linguistic prodigy, a painter with words who becomes intoxicated with shifting landscapes, changing light, elusive tastes and scents, and wonders at the more or less stable characters of his upper middle-class relatives, and what he sees as the predictable, fixed behaviors of servants, tradesmen and the peasantry.   

Knausgaard’s boy grows up in the 1970s on an island close to the Norwegian shore, where the forest is being torn away for middle-class housing developments and a garbage dump, and lives his life escaping from a mercurial, sadistic father.  He comes alive in comic books, soccer games, suicidal fantasies, outdoor arson, Beatle songs, biking, skiing through the woods, wolfing candy bars from the convenience store at the gas station, foraging in the dump.  He spends his time with his peers, who pick on him for being buck-toothed, pear-shaped, too smart in school.   But he doesn’t care, he says, except when he does, when his response is to cry.  

Both boys are weepers, attached to their mothers, of dubious masculinity in their adolescent years.  Both are obsessed with sex, and romance.  Both are turned on by smells -- Proust's boy by teas, soaps, flowers;  Knausgaard's by chlorine, gasoline, exhaust fumes.

As literary creations, both are authentic in a way that’s rare in traditional fiction or formal biography.   And the source of their authenticity is their origins in memory.  You can’t make this stuff up.