Nov. 11, 2014

Theory of Memory

by Louise Gluck

Long, long ago, before I was a tormented artist, afflicted with longing yet
incapable of forming durable attachments, long before this, I was a glorious
ruler uniting all of a divided country—so I was told by the fortune-teller
who examined my palm. Great things, she said, are ahead of you, or perhaps
behind you; it is difficult to be sure. And yet, she added, what is the difference?
Right now you are a child holding hands with a fortune-teller. All the
rest is hypothesis and dream.

"Theory of Memory" by Louise Glück, from Faithful and Virtuous Night. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Armistice Day, renamed Veterans Day in the United States, and Remembrance Day in Great Britain. The holiday was established to honor the date in 1918 when Germany and the Allies signed an armistice agreement to end hostilities in World War I. The armistice was signed at six a.m. on November 11, and the cease-fire took effect five hours later, at "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month."

It's the birthday of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (books by this author), born in Moscow (1821). He published his first novel — a short novel in letters called Poor Folk —in 1846, and was hailed as a great new voice of Russian literature. The most important Russian literary critic, Vissarion Belinsky, proclaimed that Dostoyevsky was the new Gogol. But Dostoyevsky's arrogance got the better of him — he wrote to his brother, "Everywhere I am the object of an unbelievable esteem, the interest in me is, quite simply, tremendous." Ivan Turgenev responded by published a satirical poem about Dostoyevsky, mocking him for being so arrogant that he wanted a special border printed around his work. His next novels got terrible reviews, and he fell out of the good graces of Belinsky and his circle. It was generally assumed that Dostoyevsky wouldn't live up to his promise.

In 1849, Dostoyevsky was arrested for his affiliation with a group of radical thinkers called the Petrashevsky Circle. He was sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to four years of hard labor in a maximum-security prison in Siberia. He wrote a letter describing his experience: "In summer, intolerable closeness; in winter, unendurable cold. All the floors were rotten. Filth on the floors an inch thick; one could slip and fall. The little windows were so covered with frost that it was almost impossible to read at any time of the day. An inch of ice on the panes. Drips from the ceiling, draughts everywhere. We were packed like herrings in a barrel. [...] There was no room to turn around. From dusk to dawn it was impossible not to behave like pigs." He wrote in another letter: "There were moments when I hated everybody I came across, innocent or guilty, and looked at them as thieves who were robbing me of my life with impunity. The most unbearable misfortune is when you yourself become unjust, malignant, vile; you realize it, you even reproach yourself — but you just can't help it."

After he was released from the prison camp, things were looking brighter for a while. Dostoyevsky married, served his time in the army, and was allowed to return to St. Petersburg. He joined his brother Mikhail in editing two literary journals. But in the year 1864, both his wife and his brother died. Already in debt, Dostoyevsky took on his brother's publishing debts and the financial burden of his brother's family. He thought gambling would help him manage his debt, but instead he became addicted to gambling and ended up losing more and more money. In July of 1865, he went abroad with the hope of getting some writing done and making back his money by gambling; it only took him five days to lose everything. He had to ask for a loan from Turgenev — he promised to repay it in a month, which of course he was unable to do. The future looked bleak.

Then, less than two months later, he wrote a letter to a publisher outlining his idea for a new story, or maybe novella — at this point he had no idea it would turn into a novel. He wrote: "It is the psychological report of a crime. The action is contemporary, set in the present year. A young man, expelled from the university, a petit-bourgeois in origin and living in the direst poverty, through light-mindedness and lack of steadiness in his convictions, falling under the influence of the strange, 'unfinished' ideas afloat in the atmosphere, decides to break out of his disgusting position at one stroke. He has made up his mind to kill an old woman, the wife of a titular counselor who lends money at interest. The old woman is stupid, stupid and ailing, greedy [...] Almost a month passes after this until the final catastrophe. No one suspects or can suspect him. Here is where the entire psychological process of the crime is unfolded. Insoluble problems confront the murderer, unsuspected and unexpected feelings torment his heart. Heavenly truth, earthly law take their toll and he finishes by being forced to denounce himself."

That book would become Crime and Punishment (1866).

It's the birthday of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (books by this author), born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1922). He joined the Army, and in December of 1944, he was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. He was imprisoned in a slaughterhouse in Dresden. On the night of February 13, 1945, British and American bombers attacked Dresden, igniting a firestorm that killed almost all the city's inhabitants in two hours. Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners only survived because they slept in a meat locker three stories below the ground. In 1967, he published Slaughterhouse-Five, about a man named Billy Pilgrim who experiences the bombing of Dresden and loses his mind, believing he has traveled to an alien planet where time does not exist. Vonnegut said: "[I knew] after I finished Slaughterhouse-Five that I didn't have to write at all anymore if I didn't want to [...] I suppose that flowers, when they're through blooming, have some sort of awareness of some purpose having been served."

Slaughterhouse-Five was published at the height of the Vietnam War, and the book made Vonnegut a hero among the war protesters. Vonnegut said it was an anti-war book. But he also said, "Anti-war books are as likely to stop war as anti-glacier books are to stop glaciers."

Kurt Vonnegut also wrote Cat's Cradle (1963), Breakfast of Champions (1973), and many other books. He once came up with a list of eight rules for writing a short story. Rule number one: "Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted." Other rules include "Start as close to the end as possible" and "Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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