What Novels Can Tell Us About Memory

By amanda.ainsworth@harpercollins.com (Charles Fernyhough)

In Gustave Flaubert’s great novel, Madame Bovary, the tragic heroine Emma is waiting at a grand house for a ball to begin when she is overwhelmed by a memory of childhood:

She saw the farm again, the muddy pond, her father in a blouse under the apple trees, and she saw herself again as formerly, skimming with her finger the cream off the milk-pans in the dairy.

There’s nothing unusual about someone being surprised by a childhood memory; it would be an odd fictional character who wasn’t sometimes ambushed by her own past. When you take a creative writing class, you are exhorted to bring your fictional creations alive by giving them believable internal worlds. As well as giving your characters motivations, secrets, fears, and ambitions, you need to give them memories.

This is something the great writers do instinctively. Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed novel Wolf Hall is distinctive for giving vivid memories to its protagonist, Thomas Cromwell. A scene in which Cromwell has an erotic encouter in a sixteenth-century Cyprus gambling den is an event that the novelist herself could not literally have experienced. Again, no big surprise: writers invent, and they invent memories just like they invent other stuff.

It’s impossible to say how much either writer based these imaginative reconstructions on their own experiences. It’s likely that Flaubert will have had the experience of dipping a finger into a milk-pan, but he must also have rebuilt the memory from Emma’s perspective, and made it true to her predicament. A novel is a device for enabling you to become characters you could never be, inhabiting places you could never possibly inhabit–for the author as well as the reader. And the creation of imaginary memories has, I think, something important to say about the science of memory.

I’m not here to tell you that reading fiction expands your brain; we already know that novels make the world a bigger, richer place, and it says something interesting about us when we seem to need neuroscience to confirm that fact. Instead, I want to persuade you that observing how an expert novelist constructs fictional memories tells us something about how memory works in all of us.

Some definitions first. We are in the territory of autobiographical memory, defined as our memory for the events of our own lives. The science of autobiographical memory is built on examining the errors we make when we recall events, and using that information to build up a picture of the complex machinery of remembering.

In the first stage of memory, encoding, we take in information through our perceptual systems and convert it into a form that can be laid down. The second stage, storage, preserves associations between those bits of information over days, months, and decades. Finally, at retrieval, we reconstruct the episode in question from its constituent parts. Crucially, we don’t record events like a video camera for later playback; we reconstruct them at the moment we need to remember, from lots …read more

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