The Cracked Mirror of Memory

Jewish cemetery, Prague, Czech Republic, 2011

Jewish cemetery, Prague, Czech Republic, 2011

by cheri block

I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading on the subject of memory and memorials.

The thesis I am writing concerns the memories of two men, one Czech Jew and one German, both of whom entangle themselves in a story of the retrieval of unremembered memory.

Their stories, and those of other people within the 2001 book Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, intersect with one of the saddest memories of the 20th century–the Holocaust.

I am examining the narrative devices that Sebald uses in his story, one that digresses, philosophizes, and deeply troubles.

How accurate are our memories? When we recall a painful or sentimental or hilarious experience and retell it to our friends or family members or therapists, how embellished or exaggerated is it?

Some of us decorate our memories and retell them to others to get attention. Others of us are purging our memory banks to create more space in an already crammed vault. Then there are those who have been traumatized, stuffed the trauma, and find that denying the soul its reality causes psychic upset.

Whatever the reason, we cannot fully trust our memories.

We all use narrative devices to push forward our own personal narratives, ones that are rooted in memory.

In the case of the story I am analyzing,  the main character (and narrator at times), Jacques Austerlitz, tries to recall painful memory. His creator, author W.G. Sebald, surrounds him with photographs, diagrams, delay, imagery, and other narrators who periscopically interpret his thoughts.

In the end, the text serves up a Holocaust memorial that we can put in our pockets.

German bunker, Normandy, France 2011

German bunker, Normandy, France 2011

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About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in My Thesis, On fiction, Writing and Teaching and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The Cracked Mirror of Memory

  1. Dan O'Brien says:

    10 Stars…… Great and moving post.

    • Cheri says:

      Thank you Dan. I appreciate your support. This is a difficult topic for me on a number of levels, but after avoiding the topic for many years, I am now looking at it square in the eye.

      • dafna says:

        cheri do you have family that perished? apologies if this is intrusive – you know that my tree starts with my grandfather and his wife and her sister who fled to palestine. the rest perished.

        • Cheri says:

          hi dafna,
          Sorry for the delay in my response. I do remember your sharing your family tree somewhere along the line. I do not have any family that I know of who perished. My great grandfather got everyone out of Lithuania in the late 18th century and my mother’s father’s side left Germany at the same time. My grandmother was not Jewish. I have written about her before…from a small town in Texas who married two Jewish men over the course of her long life.

          The story of your family’s extermination breaks my heart.

  2. wkkortas says:

    I recently watched 42, which is the story of Jackie Robinson and his arrival in the big leagues, and one of the things I said to the guy I was returning the video to was “Really, how can you sum up the story in a couple of hours?” Your post asks us to consider a larger, even more disturbing (indeed, horrible) question–how do you try to evaluate, to encapsulate, something so overarchingly inhuman as to be almost beyond our considering it–the wholesale devaluation of a life, of so many tens and thousands of lives, day after day without any concept of it coming to an end. What can we do, save try to better men than those who taunted Robinson from the dugout in Philadelphia and denied him hotel rooms in St. Louis, than those men who carried the rifles and manned the towers at Dachau and Auschwitz?

    • Cheri says:

      I don’t know how to answer you, w.k. Your comment is a mini-post in itself and the comparison to 42 is apt.

      I have struggled throughout my life to even approach this horrible topic. Interesting how life unfolds. I thought that no one book could capture the “feeling” of the residue of the Holocaust until I read this Anglo-German author, Sebald. He has come as close to putting it “all” into one book as anyone could He refused to call his work “novels” but rather “prose narratives…”

      It’s a difficult meditative read but well worth the effort.

      Thanks for reminding me to rent the film 42. I know there is a connection.

    • dafna says:

      wow, mini-post indeed. beautifully worded “overarching inhuman… wholesale devaluation of life… with no concept of it coming to an end”. repeat.

      cheri, i could not bring myself to go the the holocaust museum in DC, hit too close to home. however, i think of the constant large scale devaluation of life than continues to day through mans inhumanity to man, perhaps not as “systematic’ but every bit as insidious.

  3. Christopher says:

    ”………How accurate are our memories?……..”

    A loaded question indeed!!

    Based on my own experiences and on all I’ve learned, I think our experiences of all that’s happened to us from the moment we’re born (and perhaps even from the moment we’re conceived) – no matter how trivial the experience – are stored as memory somewhere.

    So we can potentially access our memories of all of these experiences. But we get to access only a few, and those few we do get to access we access distortedly, because were we not to, it would be too painful, or it would destroy our carefully cultivated images of ourselves.

    As to where exactly our memories are stored, we don’t actually know, although we think we know. Which is to say, we believe our memories are stored in our brains. The trouble is, it’s not proven.

    However, there are good reasons to think our memories are stored outside somewhere.This notion better explains phenomena like telepathy, and the other phenomena quaintly called the “paranormal” – a field which our revered Men Of Science fear to tread.

    But, regardless where our memories are stored, they will always be the cracked mirrors which you so arrestingly talk of in your posting.

    • Cheri says:

      An intriguing comment, Christopher. Your theory may find some support in the writing of Carl Jung, right? His sense of the collective memory?

      Your observations in the first two paragraphs are true, I believe. That is to say that we are the sum total of our experiences but fortunately (and unfortunately), we do not have access to all.
      I am interested in the unconscious memory, as well, and its power to unsettle or thrill us.

      Austerlitz concerns Mr. Austerlitz’s deeply embedded memories of his first five years in Prague as a young Jewish child, memories that extinguished themselves when he was adopted by a Calvinist Welsh couple after being sent to England on the Kindertransport.

      Thank you for your very thoughtful comment. It has me thinking (which this 62-year-old mind needs a more-than-daily-dose of).

  4. Richard says:

    Having studied your observations and insights, I already feel the benefit of a fuller appreciation and understanding of Sebald’s absorbing work.

    I shall now re-read Austerlitz, better equipped.

  5. Cheri says:

    Hi Richard,
    You are one of my few friends who actually finished the book. I sent a copy to my siblings and friends and only two have read it, my cousin Lisa and my doctor, Vicki. It is rough sledding.

    The second read is much better than the first. I’ve spent hours doing a “close reading” of the Breendonk excursion the German narrator takes at the beginning of the story. My thesis will chronicle 4 excursions but boy am I running late…No more procrastinating! The task is at hand. I must sequester myself twice a week at the library.

    Thanks for your continued interest in my project.

  6. Brighid says:

    Memory is like a bouncing ball around here, sometimes hitting solid ground, sometimes off in space…

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