Metatext: Memories in the Margins

  • Two weeks ago, on March 18, I saw The Sense of an Ending on the second day of its run at the Cameo Art House Theater in Fayetteville.
  • In 2011–specifically, “Thanksgiving 2011, Lake Mattamuskeet” according to my notation on the flyleaf–I read the novel by Julian Barnes that inspired the movie; it had been released in the United  States just the previous month.
  • On March 19, I reread that slim but densely packed novel in one sitting, including the marginalia–my notes, underscores, asterisks–the metatext by which I expressed my intimate connections with Barnes’s ineffectual and balding narrator.

These are facts; they can be corroborated and verified, at least insofar as eyewitness testimony, contemporaneous handwritten report, and printed publication information can be relied upon.

The morning of March 18, I also published “Letters from Margaret,” a meditation on two letters I received forty-plus years apart. Of the second one, I have both a partial photograph and the artifact itself–envelope, two Christmas stamps, seven sheets of yellow legal paper. Of the first, I have no record except the memory of my correspondent (“yes, it was 1976”), the record of a birth, and the faintly remembered scent of orange blossoms. Later, I received a text message from the eponymous Margaret: “I have to disabuse you of some notions about my bravery, etc.”

Besides coincidence, what these disparate experiences share is their inevitably and regrettably soft focus on the past. The first two words of Barnes’s novel are “I remember,” and its message is yet another reminder (do we need more?) of the fallibility of memory, especially of memory as a vehicle for making sense of the past, even the precisely detailed memories the narrator lists after those ominous words from the pen of the unreliable narrator (is there any other kind?). These intertwined reminders–letter, movie, book, marginalia–have sent me reeling through the past, seeking the corroboration found only in “incidents that have grown into anecdotes, . . . approximate memories which time has formed into certainty.”

I had underlined that passage on p. 4 of Barnes’s book and, for good measure, written “yes” in the margin.  Only two pages later, I quoted T. S. Eliot and mentioned Henry Adams in a protracted memory of my mentor, John V. Mering, and his last lecture in History 207b: Reconstruction. Page 13 reminded me again of Dr. Mering and his belief that the only real history is historiography. On p. 21–talk about metatext!–I mentioned another novel about the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, John Updike’s Memories of the Ford Administration. A passage on p. 25–underscored, asterisked, and re-asterisked in different ink–reaffirmed my contention that the 1960s were really a state of mind that never quite reached the backwater: “Wasn’t this the sixties? Yes, but only for some people, only in certain parts of the country.” And the narrator’s embarrassment about his youthful passion for Dvořák and Tchaikovsky (p. 67) mirrored a particularly memorable jab from my graduate-school crush Joe Herzenberg, who once told me loudly that those who listen to Rachmaninoff read Harlequin romances and drink Manischewitz wine. The narrator’s realization that “settl[ing] for the realities of life” equates to an abdication of “examining it” (p. 109) prompted me to remember the disagreement Emily and I had with her mother when we were reading Of Time and the River; she laughed at us for believing we would always be passionate and idealistic seekers like Eugene Gant. Of course, she was right.

And of course, any such fumbling around with the vagaries of memory always brings me back to Emily–the one with whom I have shared most of my story, the one who knows all the names in my address book, the one who listened to me on cool spring evenings as I played the piano and sang in my living room across the street. The one who thanked me for being the keeper of her own memories. On p. 104, I read, “The longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but–mainly–to ourselves.” In the margin, I wrote: “And Emily? Always Emily.”

In other margins, other letters, other tearful phone calls, I have frequently told Emily–and myself–that our fifty-year relationship is the one described by Jack Burden in All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (irony duly but belatedly noted):

The Friend of Your Youth is the only friend you will ever have, for he does not really see you. He sees in his mind a face that does not exist anymore, speaks a name – Spike, Bud, Snip, Red, Rusty, Jack, Dave – which belongs to that now nonexistent face but which by some inane doddering confusion of the universe is for the moment attached to a not happily met and boring stranger. But he humors the drooling doddering confusion of the universe and continues to address politely that dull stranger by the name which properly belongs to the boy face and to the time when the boy voice called thinly across the late afternoon water or murmured by a campfire at night or in the middle of a crowded street said, “Gee, listen to this–’On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble; His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves–’” The Friend of Your Youth is your friend because he does not see you anymore.

And perhaps he never saw you. What he saw was simply part of the furniture of the wonderful opening world. Friendship was something he suddenly discovered and had to give away as a recognition of and payment for the breathlessly opening world which momently divulged itself like a moonflower. It didn’t matter a damn to whom he gave it, for the fact of giving was what mattered, and if you happened to be handy you were automatically endowed with all the appropriate attributes of a friend and forever after your reality is irrelevant. The Friend of Your Youth is the only friend you will ever have, for he hasn’t the slightest concern with calculating his interest or your virtue. He doesn’t give a damn, for the moment, about Getting Ahead or Needs Must Admiring the Best, the two official criteria in adult friendships, and when the boring stranger appears, he puts out his hand and smiles (not really seeing your face) and speaks your name (which doesn’t really belong to your face), saying, “Well, Jack, damned glad you came, come on in, boy!”

I have emailed Trish and used the names Charlene and Mary and Triss without superfluous surnames.  I will respond to Margaret’s letter–on paper; I will lick the flap and the stamps and put the envelope in the mailbox. My long-ex-husband, Ray, is one of my Facebook friends, and he even asked me for my recipe for chili, heavy on the cumin and the garlic. He was also a student of Dr. Mering, whose daughter is another of my Facebook friends. I still see Donald W. Rose, DDS, even though he is not on the list of preferred providers, because I have known him longer than anyone else I see on a regular (well, semiannual) basis. And I’m heading to the attic to haul down my journals, as much corroboration as I can possibly hope for.

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