Memory’s stain appeared to you in the bath
Memory’s stain, body laundered, Soul it hath
I have a confession
in the form of a question:
How could you entertain
trading know-how for a stain?
— “Memory’s Stain,” Cass McCombs
“THERE IS, IT SEEMS, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth, or at least the veridical character, of our recollections,” Oliver Sacks writes in The New York Review of Books. “We have no direct access to historical truth, and what we feel or assert to be true […] depends as much on our imagination as our senses.”
It is simply cruel, then, that for most of us, our life story is at the mercy of other people’s memory. Crueler still that in many cases it is our children who are tasked to record and tell these stories. If we are lucky, they will take pity; if somehow we failed them, we’ll read all about it in a novel or memoir. If we’re delusional, we hope that in the process of invention, and in the softening through distance and time, a sort of biographical erasure might occur and create a clearing in which to grow new memories. We call this family history.
Memory as an act of invention is at the heart of Andrea Canobbio’s wonderful new novel, Three Light-Years (translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel), as the narrator examines his parents in this liminal space between memory, fantasy, and reality. We start three years before our narrator’s birth, at the beginning of a long, often painful love affair. This is where we first meet Claudio Viberti, a regimented and reserved doctor, already having married and divorced and a few years away from losing his chance to be a father. The clock has already started ticking:
Memory is an empty room. Gone are the bookshelves littered with journals, gone are the chairs and table, the paintings, the calendar, and the computer screen filled with words. My father is gone, too, effaced by thousands of identical moments, deleted by the same repetitive gestures day after day, as he sat there tapping the keys.
That’s how he would have remained, an empty man in an empty room, like a cipher, for who knows how long, if Cecilia hadn’t appeared and asked for his help.
Cecilia had placed her food-averse son, Mattia, “a sullen-looking little boy,” in the hospital, where in his room “full plates told the story.” Panicked and desperately seeking a doctor in the hallway, she finds Viberti. Who, to his own surprise, manages to coax the boy into eating his food by way of an indirect but charming conversation about cars and Bond villains; then he leaves, carrying the “trophy of empty plates” past the anxious Cecilia and toward the kitchen.
The first scene between our two lovers, quiet but enveloping, feels so emotionally lived in — details like the mother knitting in the corner and Viberti’s offhanded aside, “there were still women who knitted, then” — that for a moment, we’ve forgotten the alienated, depressive opening passage.
Along with introducing the novel’s primary focus on memory, the opening passage also unambiguously announces the narrator’s hegemony. And this important fact — this is our narrator’s story — will hang on the edges of each page like a storm cloud just out of view, undoubtedly known but easily forgotten.
Five pages later, our narrator questions the probability of this unlikely meeting — “What is my father doing in pediatrics?” — and answers his own question:
My father often spends time in the [pediatrics] department. It’s no accident that Cecilia finds him there. It’s no accident, nor is it fate, there’s no such thing as fate, you shouldn’t believe in destiny, in the existence of a soul mate, in eternal love, or in eternity either. Not because of metaphysical conviction, but out of simple reserve.
Anyway, nothing has happened in his life for ten years, and if something has happened he doesn’t remember it. No rite of initiation, no epiphany led him to that evening.
He, of course, is not wrong. Though Viberti returns to pediatrics the next day and chats with the young boy, he does not see Cecilia — so much for fate. A couple of weeks will have gone by before he bumps into her again — Cecilia is also a doctor in the hospital — this time in a café during lunch, where he is seated at an out-of-the-way table and where they will continue to meet and grow their friendship.
And while this tactic — the bored, knowing narrator — feels a bit heavy handed in the early pages, that soon peels away, supplanted by the emotional urgency of the two lovers’ story, which has already, without either knowing it, begun.
As the relationship slowly advances, first and for a while as friends, Canobbio skillfully employs a hovering, free indirect discourse to show us their private lives and the pasts that so often haunt them. Viberti’s everyday existence is tormented by the fact that he lives in the same building as his ex-wife, who is remarried with children, and his mother, whose failing memory teases him with moments of tormenting clarity. Cecilia’s thoughts are constantly returning to her two children, the dissolution of her marriage, and the disrepair of her family after her father’s death.
She remembered every detail, the birth, the first days, the first months, and the memories were hers alone, no one would ever steal them from her. She was watching their heads close together, as they lay on their bellies in front of the TV, who knows what they were saying, they were giggling. She had seen those heads come out of her own belly (maybe she thought she’d seen them, maybe she had felt them so intensely that she was able to see them with every cell in her body, if not with her eyes) […]
It is not long before Viberti begins to have feelings for Cecilia. She is beuatiful, but the origins of his love are conversation-based — a sort of admiration for their similarities, their shared vision of the world. One day she comes to the table, after having “laid out a patient,” and asks if he’d keep her company on a walk. This small bit of progress in their relationship — a walk together where he clumsily tries to cheer her up — opens our inert internist:
He’d left out all that was noble, left out himself as a doctor; by leaving himself out of the picture, except as a victim of the relatives’ stupidity, he’d meant to leave out illness and death. Was this, too, something he’d done out of reserve? He sensed that with her he would learn to be less reserved.
Cautiously, Canobbio peels away our lover’s reservation. There’s “no initiation,” no “epiphany,” as our narrator warned us early on, but a slow sort of love, which beckons each character out from the wilderness of anxiety and rumination they traverse.
With this slow-growth love, Canobbio establishes the pace and preoccupation of this novel. It is slow-footed and deeply psychological, often encircling and returning to a few key moments through different viewpoints, almost palimpsestic.
The novel entertains two conversations at all times: one based on the memories that disturb our characters and dictate their decisions in real time, and the other based on the narrator’s memory. In both cases memory is not static, but a living, breathing thing, so alive and urgent that its very existence threatens to consume our attention. Are we foolish to focus solely on the memories of our two lovers, whose story appears before us in pressing, engulfing detail? Or should our attention be trained on the narrator, whose occasional flourishes grant us the distance and scope of time gone by? How in fact are we supposed to read this story? Despite holding the narrator’s presence somewhere in the back of our minds early on in the story, by the time we’ve lived with Viberti, learned his inner workings and cluttered consciousness, and transitioned to Cecilia, we are wholly enveloped by the rhythm of this love affair.
After a rash and embarrassing sexual encounter in Viberti’s Passat, Cecilia appears in the café the next day “all worked up” to “calmly” deliver a speech whose central thesis is: Can we still be friends?
Cecilia had thought and thought about what had happened, tossing and turning in bed, and had decided that it was all wrong. It was wrong because she couldn’t afford to, she was no longer mistress of her life, plus she wasn’t being honest with him, he was an important friend, but he would never be anything more.
Pained, but unwilling to abandon their relationship, Viberti obliges. We experience this painful procession of events two-fold. Where we hang on a precarious thread of anxious hope and confusion from Viberti’s perspective in the early pages, we are granted far less levity by the time we enter Cecilia’s vantage here. Instead of the relief or better understanding we desperately seek, we suffer with Cecilia, subjected to her vivid memories and sleepless nights of rumination as she battles her motherly anxieties while slowly and unknowingly revealing her true feelings for Viberti.
The next night she began thinking about the shy internist and for four nights her sleepless hours were filled by images of sisterly embraces, innocent walks hand in hand, films watched together on an imaginary couch, her head resting on his shoulder. So it was a great surprise to her when, arriving at the café on Monday and finding Viberti already sitting there waiting for her – his skin sunburned, his hair a little disheveled, his white shirtsleeves rolled up – she realized she was actually attracted to the man, wanted to put her arms around him and kiss him and probably make love to him.
We are consumed by the urgency of her emotions, the electricity of her anxiety, the entirety of her consciousness. And just as we become inured to the cadence of this character’s voice and vantage, just as we grow accustomed to the rhythm of this love affair, Canobbio pushes our narrator, whom we’ve foolishly allowed to slip from our attention, back to the fore. This simple act provides the distanced vantage we’ve seemingly abandoned. Only a few pages after Cecilia’s anxious realization that she might in fact love “the shy internist,” our narrator reminds us, by way of an extended parenthetical, from where all this information comes:
(It’s nice to imagine her every now and then sunk in a deep, dreamless sleep. To imagine her in a state of unconsciousness, oblivious to herself, relaxed. Before resuming the story I’ll lower the volume of the outside world to a minimum, shut everything out, draw the curtains. Because Cecilia is always lit up, and she dazzles me.)
Some 50 pages earlier, after Viberti has confessed his love to Cecilia and the two of them have comically failed at making love, our narrator had also quietly intruded:
One evening, toward the end of July, my father moves his armchair outside, prepared to let his gaze wander along the perimeters formed by the dividing walls between the courtyards. Imagining him in that position has a strange effect on me, given that later on I saw him many times, as an old man, observe the same courtyards with a serene expression on his face. I have to erase that serenity and replace it with anxiety and dejection.
“This sort of fiction has consciousness as its subject,” observes Francine Prose in The New York Review of Books, “and Canobbio’s ability to engage us in the consciousness of his characters is what keeps us enthralled by the advances and reverses of Viberti and Cecilia’s neurotic love affair.”
Prose is surely right, but with these little nudges, or slips, it is our narrator who starts to enthrall us and who provides some much-needed distance from the two principle characters. It is in his “advances and reverses” that we come to understand both the story being told to us and its origins. In him we can jump decades forward to imagine Cecilia and Viberti’s future folly, their many other idiosyncrasies, and possibly, the way they lived and died. By using Viberti’s son as chief storyteller and intermittently announcing his presence on the page, Canobbio hints that these characters come to us as a sort of composite narrative, informed by our narrator’s absorption and his preoccupations, filtered by the child’s memory. And as a result, despite the novel’s cocooning now-ness, this is a work comprised of stitched-together memories, of moments already dead.
With the arrival of Silvia, Cecilia’s younger sister and Canobbio’s last authorial trick, we start to truly heed the narrator’s interjections. Silvia’s addition at first feels ephemeral, a brief foil to our two central characters. Our instinct is to write her off and return our attention to the two lovers. But her inclusion shifts the relationship’s dynamic and reveals new, and often unexpected details about our two lovers. As a result, and as we get more of her and less of the two lovers, our understanding of this story and our narrator transforms once again.
When we meet Sylvia, she seems frantic, awkward, and lacking in the sort of self-awareness our two other characters appear mired in, but she quickly becomes our most extreme and crushing interior exploration, our most claustrophobic experience. Our two principal lovers are weighed down, closed off by their trauma and their tormented love affair, but Silvia seemingly absorbs everything: her sister’s failed marriage and worrisome children, her own failed relationships, her friends’ future lives, and her father’s death.
Despite her exhausting interiority, it is thanks to Silvia that we finally shed our narrative investment in the Viberti-Cecilia love affair and focus on the character whose shadow looms largest and yet whose presence we’ve often taken for granted: our narrator. Silvia, by complicating the love affair and disrupting the push and pull we’ve so readily welcomed as our central focus, provides the final interruption and affords the novel its conclusion.
This pivot reminds us that the hope that our lovers might break out of their frozen states — the carrot that’s dangled in front of us throughout the novel — was preordained, from the outset, by the fact that our narrator began writing the story. Our narrator is the physical proof, to some degree; the mystery was already solved.
Still, our narrator bristles at the notion of resolving these memories into something final and contained:
But that, almost always, is the disadvantage of writing — you write in the future, and you end up being unjust, or maybe just imprecise. You use the few surviving traces, you stitch together remnants of conversations, all the rest is fabricated; and when you fabricate, perfectly plausible, or even probable, variants are discarded for narrative expediency, to avoid causing too much pain, to conceal inopportune details and reveal harmless ones.
A conversation has been going on throughout the novel — one between our narrator and his own memories. While we’ve taken each morsel of information as fact, delighted and discomfited by our characters turns, he’s sweated every last detail. Just as we’ve lived in the time and rhythm of his memories and those of his parents, so has he. The state in which we find our narrator here could safely be identified as what acclaimed psychologist Daniel Kahneman termed “the remembering self,” in Thinking, Fast and Slow. “The remembering self is sometimes wrong,” writes Kahneman, “but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living, and it is the one that makes decisions […] this is the tyranny of the remembering self.”
This, too, is the tyranny that our narrator and, in fact, our lovers are always attempting to free themselves from.
His anxiety, then, shouldn’t surprise us. By telling his parents’ story, he’s told his own: a quiet sort of inverted bildungsroman has slowly unveiled itself with each drying word. How does one take things so alive and unwieldy as his memories and contain them in a book? The novel is one answer, but our narrator isn’t satisfied with it.
His reluctance is not with having told the story, but with watching the ink dry; those living memories, often fluid and open to debate, now threatened by a process of hardening into fact.