Remember the days when everything was still simple? Yeah, me neither. But that is memory for you. The minute you start seeing the world in another light, suddenly events from your past become a lot more complicated than you had initially experienced them. In fact, memory is a tricky thing, and one I have recently become fascinated with. And this not only because I am currently going through yet another exam period, and am spending large chunks of my day stuffing my head with *cough*useful *cough* knowledge. It is also because, since I have rounded off my first novel now (still looking for a publisher, though I have been offered a contract, be it from a publisher which proved a bit too shady for my tastes), I am looking forward to new projects. Partly, I’m planning to start a second novel this summer, with an idea I have had for a very long time. But recently I’ve also been struck by a new idea for a short story collection. The way I’m imagining it, it will not just be a hodgepodge of stories, though, but a structured complex stories which interconnect in many curious ways (much in the way as my literary hero does it in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters). And my central theme, I have decided, will be memory.
‘Redolent’ is a wonderful word meaning ‘strongly reminiscent or suggestive of,’ always accompanied by the prepositions ‘of’ or ‘with.’ It also has two other, less used meanings, the first of which is ‘literary,’ and defines ‘redolent’ as ‘strongly smelling of’; the second my dictionary calls ‘literary’ or ‘archaic,’ and interprets the word as ‘fragrant or sweet-smelling.’ In its earliest form, it is found in the Latin verb ‘redolere,’ a combination of the intensive prefix ‘red-’ and the verb ‘olere,’ meaning ‘giving off a smell.’ In its present participle, this became ‘redolens,’ which in turn became ‘redolentem’ in the accusative form. It was this form which was taken over in French as ‘redolent,’ which is how it ended up in English in around 1400. I cannot express how grateful I am that Febreze never got ahold of this word. It would be forever spoiled.
It seems an ambitious enterprise, writing about memory; I freely admit that it is. Which is why I’m reading up on this curious phenomenon, and I’ve come across various surprising and interesting facts which I think will serve as inspiration. ‘Redolent’ is in this context a particularly interesting word, because it reminds us that our memories are often triggered by sensory experiences. Think about the first sentence of Love in Times of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” What Dr Urbino’s particular association between the two is, the reader has to wait to find out, but immediately in that first sentence there is a sensory trigger attached to a particular memory. And isn’t that exactly how memory works?
Because I have already done some brainstorming about the matter, I have decided that, much like memory (and also much in the style of my literary hero), the way to tie these stories together is through association. And one of those associations I have made is with magic. Isn’t memory a mysterious thing? How you can remember some things, while other things disappear almost the moment you see them. How you can suddenly remember something you had forgotten for years, and how you can suddenly forget about something which occupied your mind for months. How memories often (always?) seem different when you look back at them later. Memory, I would argue, is like a stage magician: it forces you to focus on some things, and overlook other things. That is why things can sometimes take up entirely different meanings so many years after the facts, even though the facts haven’t changed. And all this happens because the brain, the seat of your memory, works by means of neural connections. If the connections change (and they do all the time), the memory changes. And at any moment, at any time, any type of memory might be triggered to your consciousness. To Dr Urbino, the scent of bitter almonds, redolent of unrequited love. To others, maybe a piece of music, as is so beautifully expressed in a song by Elbow, Bones of You: “When out of the doorway the tentacles stretch, of a song that I know and the world moves in slow-mo,” after which the singer is transported back into a memory, “And it’s you, and it’s me, and we’re sleeping through the day; and I’m five years ago, and three thousand miles away...”
At the same time, memory can be an escape. Who doesn’t like nostalgia? It has that appealing combination of fondness and melancholy. To address this side of memory, I’m reading up on Houdini, the great escape artist (and magician). The man who fascinated audiences worldwide with his incredible feats of escape, sometimes from seemingly unbreakable confinement, may well serve as a metaphor for memory, which allows us to retreat from the present, and escape into some kind of past. On the other hand, memories can also trap you, and then it is the memory you have to escape from. It is an intricate dynamic, and one which I am curious to discover. At any rate, I have identified my own sensory experience which is redolent of things past: chlorine. When my sister and I were small, we used to go swimming every Saturday with our dad. I liked swimming—I particularly loved diving, and keeping in my breath as long as possible—and because I now rarely visit a swimming pool anymore, any whiff of chlorine can transport me back to those halcyon days. How about you?