Disciplining Memory

By Norbert Ruebsaat | September 4, 2007


George Bowering, who has
written almost as many books as Pierre Berton but uses fewer words in them,
published Errata (Red Deer College
Press) in 1988, and if you took it off the B section of your bookshelf from
among all the other George Bowering books, some of which you have read or
partly read, and a few of which you have even reviewed, and you looked at it
again you would (re)discover some good sentences: “The art in fiction, as in
poetry is that part of language that is not communication….The realist writers
always used to pretend that they were not manipulative; they used to say that
their ‘characters’ lived lives determined by environment and accumulative
incidents while their author only stayed around to observe….There has never
been anything wrong with Realism; only with what people thought it should try
to do….What is important in the fictive event is not the possibility that it
could happen in Chicago, but that the reader can imagine its happening in the
book….I will be someone who did not write books like Fifth Business. Bowering,
as a kid, experienced his last name, “the second word I learned to write,” as a
present participle and he has wanted since then to not read “first person
narration in which the ‘I’ is not writing.” He wants readers to “notice
thinking, not buy thought,” and claims that “memory condemns one to
sentimentality, which means attachment to things, and to realism, famous for
its detachment. Memory can do you no good if you want to make books instead of
just writing them down.” Writing stories in books, he concludes, “is female,
and suggests realism. Oral tale-telling is male, and suggests braggadocio or

contains one hundred page-long personal essays on reading and writing
(“Bowering”) by a Canadian Poet Laureate
and long-time practitioner of tapinosis, “the saying of very serious things in
off hand language, in vernacular, even in slang,” in a time when “we no longer
read the metanarratives of the gods nor even of their modernist substitution,
the authority of art,” and you will, should you do so, be glad you took this
book from the shelf beside the
metre-long Pierre Berton section and reread it in your summer holidays because
if on the first reading you found it quirky and a tad mannered you will discover
now to your surprise how the daily practice of good literary manners can be a
skill left to us in a postmodern time full of organized forgetting.


In “Ambros Adelwarth,” the
third story in The Emigrants (New
Directions), W. G. Sebald quotes long excerpts from the titular character’s
purported diary, and the latter’s diction and cadences duplicate Sebald’s so
exactly that one feels uneasy while reading because one imagines that one is hearing
two people speak in one voice. Sebald quotes long sections of his characters’
direct speech without quotation marks in all four stories in The Emigrants, and here, where such
speech is represented as a character’s written text, one suspects, against the
artifactual evidence (text-embedded photographs, facsimiles of train ticket
stubs, keys, dairy pages) that the diary is fiction. Sebald writes that
Adelwarth is his late Great Uncle, and if one believes this one accedes to the
fact (or fiction) that two men can write in a single voice; if one doesn’t, one
accedes to a literary conceit which gives an author the right to quote a text
by a formerly living (or an invented) person which this person did not in fact
write. The question of what is truth and what is fiction, which is a way of
asking what is life and what is death, is further complicated in “Ambros
Adelwarth” because Sebald himself died in
2001 in a traffic accident, and so when one reads him (and
his purported Great Uncle) one reads a dead man quoting (or misquoting) another
dead man; and when one adds to this unnerving experience (which one can get also while reading Dante)
the realization that Sebald’s subject, here as in other stories, is the
production of death–Holocaust, carpet bombing of German cities in WW II,
industrial destruction of the North England landscape–and language’s
complicity in such production, one feels downright endangered, which is in fact
a fine thing to feel while reading. In Errata,
George Bowering, who one thinks of as being alive, quotes the dead Roland
Bathes writing that memory is the beginning of writing, and writing is in its
turn the beginning of death, and a recent CBC Radio Ideas program revealed that
ventriloquists, whose art dates from preclassical Greece where oracles spoke,
don’t throw their voices, as is commonly believed, but, by speaking without
moving their lips, trick listeners into seeking (and finding with their eyes)
the voice’s source in locations other than the speaker’s face; ventriloquists
can also, as they age, experience their inner “dummy” voice (which they produce
in their throats while manipulating the dummy’s lips, to humorous
misdirectional effect in performance) as their “true” voice (which becomes, in
this incarnation, a malevolent spirit). The four stories in Sebald’s
collection, meanwhile, may be read like the poems that poet and classicist Anne
Carson is thinking of when she writes that written poetry began with tombstone

Disciplining Memory

In August last year, in a
former miner’s hall in Silverton B.C., near the mouth of Silverton Creek across
Slocan Lake from New Denver Glacier in the Valhalla Range, a group of us
listened to performer Bessie Wapp, whose one-woman show is named Hello, I must Be Going, recall to life
the voices of four Jewish women ancestors, two of whom lived through and
survived the Holocaust in Lithuania, one of
whom sailed from Lithuania to the United States on an immigrant ship in
1888 and one of whom is Bessie’s mother, who emigrated to the Slocan Valley
from the US in the 1970s, and was sitting with us in the audience. Hello, I Must Be Going’s text quoted the
women’s diaries and dramatized interviews conducted in Lithuania and North
America with their descendents, and it recounted events which, were they to be
cited by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, would be labeled The
Irreparable: events which mark the soul and from which the psyche does not
recover because the events cannot be accurately described. In the Q &A
after the performance, an audience member remarked that here, in a place as
close to paradise as one could think of being, it was almost impossible and
therefore excruciating to remember or imagine the kind of world in which the
play’s events occurred, in which the people depicted to have lived in such a
world survived, and in which the meaning of such survival acts and their
stories could make sense. A kind of shiver went through the audience then and
everyone huddled into their fleeces, and everything that happened in the room after
that was personal. Bessie’s mother Judy, who co-wrote as well as remembered
events depicted in the play, joined Bessie and director Nicola Harwood at the
front and we worked hard while speaking and listening to each other to remain
in the present while recalling a past. Nicola mentioned that she and the others
had heard exactly the same comment about paradise and pain after the show was
performed in Nelson, down the Slocan River and then up the Kootenay, and that
they expected to get this response again in upcoming performances in, among
other places, Kalso (over the pass through Sandon and Retallac, the ghost
mining towns) and then Vancouver and possibly Calgary. Disciplining memory, she
said, was what she had learned while making the play, just as Bessie had
learned—while performing, as Bessie cut in to point out—how the body remembers
what the mind possibly can’t: You act it out, Bessie said, and then it comes
back. When we went outside afterwards the burble of Silverton Creek rose over
our acoustic horizon and we looked up at New Denver Glacier reflecting
moonlight from across the lake and somebody noted that its ice had receded by
30 percent since the 1970s, and that Slocan Valley, the only major watershed in
the Kootenays that had not been altered beyond recall by hydroelectric dams,
was surrounded by valleys that had been.


  • Norbert Ruebsaat

    Norbert Ruebsaat teaches Media and Communication Studies at Columbia Collage and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver B.C. He publishes regularly in periodicals and newspapers, has produced documentaries for CBC Radio’s Ideas program, and has twice been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards in fiction and creative non-fiction.

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