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Lest We Forget


by Tom McCarthy
Vintage, 308 pp., $13.95 (paper)


by W.G. Sebald, translated from the German by Anthea Bell
Modern Library, 298 pp., $13.95 (paper)

The day came, finally. Then again, perhaps it didn’t.

—Tom McCarthy, Remainder


Like the future, amnesia has become a crowded literary terrain. Rare in life, amnesia abounds in contemporary literature and in the most stylish contemporary movies (see Christopher Nolan’s ingeniously contrived Memento, in which a man suffering from amnesia is forced to write notes to his “future” self to enable him to “remember”). The attraction of waking not to the usual flood of memories and associations like dirty dishwater but to a tabula rasa of infinite possibility is obvious, especially in a debased political/cultural era: amnesia is “a floating metaphor,” as Jonathan Lethem says in his introduction to The Vintage Book of Amnesia, “very much in the air.”

What might be called the amnesiac fantasy holds irresistible attractions for both writer and reader since it seems to replicate the mysterious and seductive adventure of the yet-unwritten/ yet-unread text. No living mind can be a true tabula rasa, but the yet-unknown text emulates that blankness, a promise that excites both anticipation and anxiety. The amnesiac hero frequently wakes up utterly baffled by who he is, where he is, why he has been brought to so purely existential a state:

About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know…. It’s a blank: a white slate, a black hole.

(Tom McCarthy, Remainder)

I had no idea who or where I was. This was no sudden revelation, no big shock. The thought…didn’t bring with it any big horror or fear…. It isn’t all coming back to me. I don’t know any of this at all.

(Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts)

The reader ideally identifies with the condition of not-knowing and must willingly suspend “disbelief” in the anticipation of what is to come. Out of catastrophic blankness, an entire world is to be constructed in which nothing will be out of place or unintended, and the initial mystery of who, where, why will be explained, or at least assigned a meaning, if only an affirmation of nothingness.

Unlike amnesiacs in life, whose fugues of pathological forgetfulness are likely to be caused by strokes, brain tumors, alcoholism, malnutrition, severe trauma to the head, and degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, literary and cinematic amnesiacs have usually suffered psychological traumas, to be revealed in flashbacks; or, if they have suffered actual brain damage, like the private detective hero of Peter Abraham’s elaborately constructed mystery-suspense novel Oblivion (2005), who has “glioblastoma multiform” (a kind of brain cancer), these injuries are likely to be surmounted by an effort of will. Protagonists of amnesiac romances are not so much handicapped by their neurological defects as empowered by them to embark upon heroic quests of regaining identity, or, better yet, forging new identities.

As suffering the loss of one’s home and possessions in a fire may be romantically viewed, by those who have not had the experience, as symbolically “cleansing” and “restorative,” so too the amnesiac quest usually prefigures a radical rebirth. The amnesiac undertakes a spiritual voyage both in the world (where, like a detective investigating his own, former self, he discovers the “truth” about his family and background) and in the soul (where he discovers the truth of who he is). Through the strategies of art, what might be a grim neurological deficit becomes a perverse sort of visionary experience, and the amnesiac is a seer unencumbered by most of the minutiae of daily life that, more than censors, or hostile reviewers, is the artist’s arch enemy. This is the “nondescript cotton wool” of “non-being” noted by Virginia Woolf in “A Sketch of the Past”:

Every day includes much more non-being than being…. Although (yesterday) was a good day the goodness was embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool. This is always so. A great part of every day is not lived consciously…. As a child…my days, just as they do now, contained a large proportion of this cotton wool, this non-being. Week after week passed at St. Ives and nothing made any dint upon me. Then, for no reason that I know about, there was a sudden violent shock; something happened so violently that I have remembered it all my life.1

The amnesiac hero of such books as The Raw Shark Texts and Remainder has been jolted out of the cocoon of ordinary nonbeing to live, unlike the rest of us, in a radically foreshortened present tense in which the world must be anxiously scrutinized for clues; this world is no longer nondescript, or merely background, but holds the key to the amnesiac’s identity, which is the “meaning” of his life. The amnesiac’s quest resembles the artist’s quest for inspiration; the artist must be alert to “messages” beneath the seeming disorder of the world, leaving himself open to disponibilité—availability, or chance. For it is likely to be a “chance” image or encounter that will unleash a flood of memories, and allow the amnesiac to reclaim the narrative of his life.

The wraithlike figures who drift through W.G. Sebald’s enigmatic, elegiac novels (The Emigrants, 1996; The Rings of Saturn, 1999; Austerlitz, 2001) are embarked upon quests of far more than merely personal identity. The tension in Sebald’s elaborately formal, purposefully belabored prose between what is allowed to be “known” and what has been, in Austerlitz’s words, “obliterated” gives to Sebald’s slow-moving narratives an uncanny power, for Sebald isn’t employing Kafkaesque techniques of evasion in the service of metafictional storytelling, like Jorge Luis Borges, but in the service of dredging the collective buried memories of post-Holocaust Europe.

In the harrowing tour de force Austerlitz, in which thickets of grudgingly paragraphed prose have the effect of keeping the reader at more than arm’s length, it is acknowledged by the mysteriously wounded Austerlitz that “no one can explain exactly what happens with us when the doors behind which our childhood terrors lurk are thrown open.” Though Sebald was born in 1944, in Germany, and would die in an auto accident not long after the publication of Austerlitz in 2001, it is likely to be irresistible for most readers to assume that Austerlitz is Sebald, or Sebald Austerlitz: the adopted child of a glumly reticent Welsh minister and his wife who took him in as a German Jewish child-refugee in 1939, who has been told nothing of his tragic background. As an adult, as Austerlitz’s formidable intellectual defenses begin to fail, he is forced to confront the void at the core of his (invented) personality:

It was as if an illness that had been latent in me for a long time were now threatening to erupt, as if some soul-destroying and inexorable force had fastened upon me and would gradually paralyze my entire system. I already felt in my head the dreadful torpor that heralds the disintegration of the personality, I sensed that in truth I had neither memory nor the power of thought, nor even any existence, that all my life had been a constant process of obliteration, a turning away from myself and the world.

Yet it isn’t for another one hundred pages of Sebald’s elegantly obfuscatory prose that the horrific vision is granted to Austerlitz, as to the reader: a fleeting memory of the Kindertransport of 1939, a glimpse of “a twin brother” seated beside him in the compartment, staring out into the dark; an unnamed twin who did not survive the long journey but “died of consumption and was stowed in the baggage net with the rest of our belongings.” Following this revelation, an overwhelming flood of memories sweeps over the awakened amnesiac, conjoined with fanatically detailed descriptions of the Theresienstadt death camp. The effect of Sebald’s obsessive lyricism is akin to making one’s way stumblingly through the artifacts of European civilization—immense, gloomy old “state” buildings, museum archives, rubble—without end. For Sebald’s amnesiacs, waking from a trance of decades will not bring a superficial “closure” but a deeper and more profound melancholy in the vision of a “chasm into which no ray of light could penetrate.”

In W.G. Sebald the amnesiac quest has its great tragic poet, yet there have been, in recent decades, in this dubious subgenre—long the province of suspense-noir films2 and plot-driven commercial fiction—any number of works of originality and distinction by such writers as Paul Auster (The New York Trilogy, In the Country of Last Things), Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day, The Unconsoled, When We Were Orphans), Martin Amis (Other People: A Mystery Story), Haruki Murakami (The Elephant Vanishes, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), and more recently Steve Erickson (Amnesiascope), Thomas Palmer (Dream Science), Douglas Cooper (Amnesia), Jonathan Lethem (The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye, Amnesia Moon), Karen Joy Fowler (Sarah Canary), Alan Lightman (The Diagnosis), and Nicole Krauss (Man Walks into a Room), Jeff Walter (The Zero). An amnesiac sense of disorientation characterizes the fiction of J.G. Ballard, Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, and Denis Johnson.

In his introduction to The Vintage Book of Amnesia: An Anthology, Jonathan Lethem suggests that “literary amnesia has European grandfathers: Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett,” but surely such “sci-fi” visionaries as George Orwell, Stanislaw Lem, and Philip K. Dick, among others, would have been writing their characteristic work in any case. One can argue that Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and the centuries-old tradition of Gothic fiction have had an equal, perhaps a greater, influence over all than Kafka and Beckett. And there is, not to be discounted, the tradition of the medical case study from Sigmund Freud to Oliver Sacks and his contemporaries, converting psychopathology into literature.


Both Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder are high-concept novels that take their amnesiac narrators on fabulist quests of identity: in Hall’s buoyant fantasy, which reads as if it were concocted by a team of media-savvy undergraduates flinging together chunks of Alice in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark, Jaws, The Matrix, Memento, Harry Potter, Haruki Murakami, Paul Auster, and Stephen King, as well as Carl Jung, triumphant; in McCarthy’s mordant post-existential parable, less so. Both are first works of fiction by young British writers (Hall was born in 1975, McCarthy in 1969) with backgrounds in art: Hall studied art at Sheffield Hallum University and McCarthy has been associated with conceptual and performance art in London, having established the parody avant-garde International Necronautical Society3 as a sort of twenty-first century Collège de Pataphysique.

In The Raw Shark Texts, graphics and typography are an essential part of the text, which includes a thirty-eight-page flipbook of an approaching shark whose cartoon form is made up of tiny words (“memories and regrets and wishes and sadness and happiness and dreams”; see illustration on page 47). In McCarthy’s more cerebral, theory-driven Remainder, the unnamed amnesiac protagonist becomes fatally obsessed with staging “re-enactments”—a documentary trend in contemporary art (as in, for example, The Battle of Orgreave (2001), a performance piece in which Turner Prize–winning artist Jeremy Deller reprised a bloody battle between striking coal miners and police that took place in 1984 in South Yorkshire). The Raw Shark Texts ends not with a text but with a clichéd image: Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in a tender moment in Casablanca (1942), as if to suggest that, though memory-devouring sharks abound in the depths of human consciousness, the most superficial notions of “romantic love” will prevail. In the final scene of Remainder, the amnesiac protagonist has become a “re-enactor” of his own life and (imminent) death, a deranged mystic-artist for whom performances following “the same pattern,” an aesthetic gesture in the face of oblivion, are all that matters.

  1. 1

    See “A Sketch of the Past” from Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings, edited by Jeanne Schulkind (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976).

  2. 2

    Among classic “amnesiac” films are Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1954), John Frankenheimer’s The Manchu-rian Candidate (1962), Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964), and Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984). Among the plethora of more recent “amnesiac” films of sharply varying degrees of merit are: David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001), Aki Kaurismaki’s The Man Without a Past (2003), Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity (2002), Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), John Woo’s Paycheck (2003), based upon a novella by Philip K. Dick, and, among the most admired, Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000).

  3. 3

    In an interview McCarthy explains: “I became an artist by accident…. The art thing started when I got interested in the early twentieth century art manifesto as a literary form and wrote a close pastiche of Marinetti’s 1909 Manifesto of Futurism, but substituting his fetishisation of technology with a fetishisation of death. (I was reading a lot of Blanchot and Derrida and stuff like that at the time.)…I handed out my International Necronautical Society or INS manifestos, and pretty soon all these galleries were going: ‘This is conceptual art; have an exhibition.’ So I set up a huge bureaucracy, with INS committees and sub-committees of philosophers and writers and artists, and got them to present reports in public session, and we’d arraign other artists in front of INS hearings that very self-consciously reprised the format of Soviet show-trials or Un-American Activities Hearings…. What I was doing, in effect, was using art as an arena to play out the fictions of Kafka, Conrad, Burroughs….” See the interview with Mark Thwaite at www.readysteadybook.com, December 18, 2005.

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