I’VE FORGOTTEN APPROXIMATELY 46 percent of the just-translated 1990 Bernard Comment novel The Shadow of Memory — things like dialect tics, how verdant that Parisian cityscape looks in late May, what phrase is written below Masaccio’s Trinity, or exactly when the sidelined female-interest character was pert or sad. This isn’t to say Comment writes nothing notable, but more that a novel’s limestone casings can’t consistently be Karenina train-laden; The Recognitions’s Anselm doesn’t castrate himself in a toilet stall on every page. There’s usually a lot of realist junk between the punctuations we actually remember. Georg Lukács had a thing about the novel being the art form of becoming, a flux of linear development across pages into a terminal wall. We forget a lot, not just the microscopy of whether a character exhales or inhales, but even the impressionistic stuff that doesn’t keep our attention after we turn the page. This reflects my memory of how Comment’s novel begins:
So much reading, in vain. Whole afternoons spent raging, crying, sweating, locked into chasing after some scrap of memory, and the next day, nothing. A few crumbs, too weak; the rhythm falls apart, meaning evaporates. Impossible to make so much as the briefest paragraph, the least sentence stick inside my skull.
When “the attention economy” sounds like an apt name for our era, it’s probably an unfortunate world-historical time for novels, with their high-attention demands and meager memorial payout. Coupled with this is that there’s been a lot of novels. Any undergraduate glance at a Western canon, whether from Harold Bloom, NYRB Classics, Verso, or a Time listicle, maps an Everest that excites some for scaling while dissuading many more. Some people, like me and the unnamed protagonist of The Shadow of Memory, have the hubris that if you’re in the novel business you should go all out — that first you inherit, then you digest, and only then can something you write be, yes, new.
There are many weak approaches to packaging the whole of literary memory. I myself have become a bad bureaucrat of letters: I type up passages, syntactic constructions, character names, physical descriptions (“long grape-green eyes” — only ID’d this as Bellow after a search), thematic binaries, decapitated similes, nice words. And, like most bureaucrats, I wonder how many like me are out there. Among public data collection is Goodreads, the social network that logs books read, reading, and to-read with starry rating scales; the site hit 10 million members last August. Then, if you forget something, Google will cough up the name or scene. Everyone approximates Samuel Pepys when they can download a quotidian .zip of their Facebook life. Whether publicly, privately, or in a weird amalgam of the two, we’ve been building a great pyramid of data for the future, from the invisible Wikipedia grunt to the Yahoo Answers respondent. One might think all this can and should be used.
Published in 1990 and only now translated into English from the original French, Comment’s The Shadow of Memory is a weirdly prophetic allegory that captures the anxiety of mass data attainability and collective transactive memory. His protagonist goes to the Bibliothèque Nationale to copy down into his laptop the entirety of Renaissance art, beginning at the letter A:
For two years now, soon three, I’ve made innumerable entries, opened countless files in order to learn how to see, how to sustain my gaze. I was not even trying to understand, weave a fabric, or attempt a synthesis. But, above all, was browsing assiduously, in order to accumulate my material. A massive amount of material.
Comment has been haunted by a poor memory since he was twelve years old, when a summer spent tripping on LSD literally burned holes in his brain. His unnamed protagonist, similarly, has a faulty memory, and thus requires a “reliable medium with guaranteed retention” that can contain a library of his curation for easy recall. In the library one day, typing down an obscure manuscript about the Mannerist painter Pontormo, he encounters a hotheaded old man who wants the same item. A tweedy library scuffle turns into a sprawling lecture from the old man, Robert, who speaks with breathless spontaneous recall of Pontormo’s presentation of cadavers, his role in ecclesiastical disputes, and the work habits of Renaissance painters. Clearly, Robert isn’t ctrl-F-ing through his memory, and the protagonist is struck by how he “refers to paintings in such unbelievable detail that you’d think he’d gone through museums with a magnifying glass, and done the same with texts.” A binary is invited: the memory artist becomes the envy of the data miner.
The data mining young man then begins to shadow Robert on pedantic field trips to soccer games and art museums, to the detriment of his relationship with his girlfriend Mattilda — the allegory now tacking from “vivacious life” to “wearying knowledge.” Robert curses Mattilda as a distraction from their shared pursuit of real knowledge, and the young man decides to become Robert’s “secretary, or better: factotum, to revise his memory, his knowledge, and to see to its upkeep.” Soon country trips with Mattilda are replaced with whole-day lectures by Robert. And Robert hypnotizes as a role model:
That’s the essential, critical thing: memory has to swim, it has to dance. Otherwise you’re nothing but an erudite scholar, a big, fat water bag in which everything just stagnates, you turn into a lifeless tub growing more and more putrid with age, only letting a few soft bubbles rise to the surface, plok plok.
It’s rare to spontaneously hear such balletic, cranky stuff from anyone born postwar, so the young man clings to Robert as a unique chance towards inheriting an oceanic memory-talent.
A casual apprenticeship lends itself to a dark turn once a master/slave dynamic is pronounced: “I would have to become his pupil entirely, his spiritual slave, his shadow, as I waited to take my place in the sun.” Robert asks the young man to move in with him, citing devotion, obedience, and his helpless old age. Once moving in and leaving Mattilda, the young man recedes into silence, stenography, and library science. By day he reorganizes Robert’s books and records to rotating classification methods like typeface or paper quality; by night he details the progress of his absurd thrall in a journal.
What’s potent here is the struggle of two models of memory: the spontaneous, humanist performance of a nostalgic grandpa, and the middling youth with a smartphone just looking something up real quick. This is an important clash on the frontlines of any contemporary debate on “attention capital,” and the crux of Comment’s allegory. Robert poses questions that the young man finds obtuse:
Had I had a chance to admire the Visitation, the Deposition? And that wonderful Annunciation, the incredible, casual turn of the angel’s head, the flawless, veiled expression of the Virgin. Had I spent the requisite amount of time admiring them? As if, my friend, I had time to go in person to museums, chapels!
There’s a lot of data out there — now called data — and since it’s available for easy acquisition, it seems a real waste to humor Robert’s vague values of a real-life memory. Why go through the tedious motions of experience — for an art museum: a commute, a queue, a purchase, a stance, a gaze — for the same set of pixels? Gallery-going and saving jpegs seem the same for the young man. This realization makes him feel that, as a creature of new tech, he’s lost something. He’s never had to justify his tastes, and seeing Robert do just that is sublime:
Being with him like this all the time and the rhythm of our new life full of pictures and words were beyond my ability to take in. I existed in a state of wild intoxication, incapable of following Robert’s frequently abstract explanations of things and even less capable of appreciating them on my own.
A memory buttressed by data collection seems sterilely mechanical beside Robert’s conversationalist recall, and the young man buys into the tenor of what a lot of media and culture critics caterwaul: the kids are scattered and wrong.
However, Comment positions Robert’s magniloquence in master/slave terms in order to raise a subtle light on what props him up. Throughout the novel, Robert is bilious towards anything public or readily accessible — libraries, transportation, knowledge. He says, “How could one organize a library without making it vulgarly accessible?” This attitude is congruent with his model of memory as an exclusive privilege of a well-toured aristocrat with time at hand. Leisure hours are the main fertilizer for this kind of slow, polished, lived-through memory. He could read Ulysses without reference and get most of the allusions intuitively. Immediate, sensuous recall belies a good tax bracket and free time.
In a backhanded way, Comment shows how dedicated data collection is working towards a real republic of allusions, a positive thing for some, but a source of class anxiety for others: all data can be shared in a single space and not reserved for the “cultured” to disclose or obscure by whim. (Any circular allusions I might make in this review are a copy-paste away from obscurity.) I think I’ve taken up being a bureaucrat of letters, trying to read by the quantity, because I don’t know when I’ll have the time again. The young man in The Shadow of Memory might not be able to read Ulysses like they used to, but he could look those references up quickly enough. This is a good, healthy bid for fragmentation that points to good, healthy possibilities for fiction, if done right.
What’s problematic for The Shadow of Memory is that the young man still envies Robert’s spontaneous recall. The young man increasingly services Robert in organizing Robert’s memory because he thinks he’ll inherit it after Robert dies. Grunts like the young man, the Wikipedia fact checker, the unpaid intern, or the unsung research assistant are the ones who have always furnished the world’s memory for someone else’s leisure. (Hegelian echoes are invited: a slave toils til the time is right and bounteous.) Once Robert’s memory begins to slip, the young man scrambles to find medication to hold off senility: “How can I slow this hemorrhaging down?” When the memory-letting doesn’t stop, the young man writes in his journal, “Better to kill him, right now […] The sight of my inevitable ruin is a constant torment. I had to be decisive, not put it off any longer.”
Murder feels appropriate for the memory artist manqué of a dark novel. Early in the book, Robert asks the young man: “Digestion — when will that take place?” Comment doesn’t authoritatively say where collection ends and creation begins. The young man explains this dead end:
Frankly, my machines, my computer programs, the relentless storage, constituted a scaffold that was out of proportion to my hoped-for goal; it was all dreadfully lacking in elegance. What was I going to do on the day when I’d remove the framework, the standards and transoms that held it up, because when you get right down to it, scaffolding is always intended to be removed sooner or later. When would I get to my keystone, and how? I’d never thought about that.
In his discussion of Pontormo, Robert stresses the immediate contemporary moment over the preoccupation with the scaffolding:
A painter of memory? Other ‘Mannerist’ painters perhaps — students, rivals, drawing their art from the combined successes of the past. But not Pontormo! Only the present, his present, absolute, unprecedented!
None of us want to be mere Mannerist draftsmen in 2012, but it’s still a stretch to feel the present so absolutely, so naively. In an unobtrusive didactic sense, The Shadow of Memory is, at heart, a helpful novel for a la carte prescriptions of literary behavior and neuroses. In this web of values, Comment’s novel is a treatise that details the gradations and clashes between total memory and immediate action. Take from this forum what suits you best; Comment’s novel is an Enlightenment roundtable out of Diderot, but now suited best for New Yorkers diagnosed with Blackberry neck. From data mining to Pontormo, The Shadow of Memory is the cardinal ideas-novel for navigating problems of attention balance and literary memory, those attention soaking problems best off resolved and then forgotten.