The Pull of the Past – Three books on memory from Maxwell, Capote and McClenahan

Back in November last year, I read so many books for Novellas in November that I didn’t get round to reviewing them all. Shamefully, it’s taken nearly six months for me to get round to talking about three of these, all of which I very much enjoyed and all of which explore the elusive nature of memory and the important moments that shape a life.

No 377: So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

This beautiful novella certainly deserves its own post, but it’s safe to say that is was one of my favourite reads of last year. Despite beginning with an extra-marital affair and a murder, So Long, See You Tomorrow is a quiet mediation on friendship, guilt and forgiveness.

“What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory – meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion – is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.”

The story is related by an elderly man, looking back on his family life following the death of his mother in the 1918 influenza epidemic, when he was a child. His father remarries, but the boy never quite comes to terms with his mother’s death. Weaved into this story is another, that of his playmate Cletus Smith, whose own childhood is blown apart when his mother begins an affair with her next door neighbour. This short, but intense book forms a kind of apology from the now-elderly narrator to Cletus, a belated attempt to offer his former friend the sympathy that, as a child, he had felt but had never been able to express.

Written in spare, beautiful prose, Maxwell examines the childhood traumas that shape the adults we become in this timeless masterpiece.

no 376: Crapalachia by scott mcclenahan

Crapalachia is a very different exploration of small-town life but strangely, it explores similar themes to Maxwell’s book.

“Stories can actually rearrange continents if they’re told long enough.”

Subtitled A Biography of Place, this slim book is a crafty mix of memoir and fiction exploring McClenahan’s childhood growing up in Appalachia. No sepia-tinged memories here though, as McClenahan presents his chaotic, messy, violent and often hilarious formative years in a series of vignettes and stories that bring his family and friends to vivid life.

Most of the book consists of stories from his teenage years living in West Virginia with his indefatigable grandmother Ruby and Uncle Nathan who has cerebral palsy. McClanahan has an astonishing gift for description — his depictions of family and friends are so lovingly observed and evocative that they come alive on the page. This short book is incredibly funny and surprisingly moving and when McClenahan eventually admits that quite a lot of it has been made up, you’ll have fallen for his writing and these characters so hard that you really won’t care.

no 375: Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

This is a book that I really wish I’d read when I was younger. If you get to my advanced age, Breakfast At Tiffany’s is laden down with the weight of expectation, having entered the social consciousness so completely – mainly thanks to the film adaptation. It’s a book that you think you already know, which makes it hard to read on its own terms.

“What I found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany’s. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there. ”

Capote’s 1958 novella is narrated by an unnamed author who looks back on the short time he spent living in the same block as nineteen-year-old Holly Golightly, a young flamboyant actress turned society girl who hosts parties in her small apartment while spending time with a raft of wealthy, middle-aged men. The more time the narrator spends with Holly, the more he comes to realise that the image she presents is just that, and the truth of her life is something much darker and when she finally leaves, he cannot shake her memory.

The plot is thin, but Capote’s writing sparkles like the gems in that Tiffany’s window. Holly herself remains an enigma, which is possibly what Capote wanted, as she becomes the personification of the countless young women who have flocked to big cities to burn brightly for even the shortest time.

The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

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