November 5, 2014
The Art of the Novella Challenge 2: A Sleep and a Forgetting
by Jonathan Gibbs
Title: A Sleep and a Forgetting
Author: William Dean Howells
First published: In the collection Between the Dark and the Daylight: Romances, in 1907
Page count: 80
First line: Matthew Lanfear had stopped off, bewteen Genoa and Nice, at Seno Remo in the interest of a friend who had come over on the steamer with him, and who wished him to test the air there before settling there for the winter with an invalid wife.
As it happened, I was recently sent a new collection of three novellas by Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano to read and review, and so I thought I’d try to pick a Melville House novella to match or mirror the French writer’s preoccupations: the workings of memory and amnesia, and the trauma of the past.
And it was this one, by William Dean Howells, that fairly leapt out at me: the story of a psychiatrist (or ‘alienist’ – that great, lost term), Matthew Lanfear, who meets a sad and strange father-daughter duo while swanning around the Italian Riviera. It is the daughter – “young and beautiful”, naturally – that fascinates him. She is amnesiac: clear of mind, but absent of memory, to the extent of not knowing father and friends from day to day. The loss was caused, we learn, by the trauma of seeing her mother killed right in front of her, hit on a grade crossing (that’s ‘level crossing’ for British readers).
The father, the elderly Mr Gerald seizes on Lanfear’s expertise and persuades him to move in to their hotel, on a semi-professional basis, to watch the girl and treat her. Her prognosis is hardly certain, but then her father isn’t sure he wants her to get better, if getting better – getting back her memory – means remembering the loss of her mother.
And that really gets to the philosophical nub of the story, equally familiar from other, more recent books and films: is it better to live in blissful ignorance, or tragic knowledge?
(First, minor echo of the Modiano here: Patoche, the ‘narrator-as-child’ in ‘Suspended Sentences’ is nicknamed “blissful idiot” (“imbécile heureux”) by his quasi-adoptive mother. And indeed as a child he is blissfully unaware of the strange and criminal goings-on in the house he grows up in. It’s only later, as an adult, that he is able to look back and see that these exciting, adventuresome adults were really up to their ears in wartime black market dealings and collaboration with the Germans.)
Mr Gerald may see his daughter’s condition as a deficiency, but she herself, and her increasingly smitten alienist, sees things differently. For them, ignorance is a boon; paradoxically, it is memory that is the curse of humankind. As an intelligent, observant young woman, Miss Gerald is well aware that her connection to the world around her is direct and instinctive in a way the grown-ups’ aren’t. “How strange it is that you see things for what they are like,” she says to Lanfear at one point, “and not for what they are!”
Lanfear takes it step further, however: if Miss Gerald is able to retain a stable personality from day to day without any memory of who she was yesterday, then what does that say about identity? What can it be that sustains her as someone that he can know, though she doesn’t know herself, if not… the soul?
The religious and numinous remain a sort of rumour in the novella, rather than anything spelled out. Likewise, the suggestion that Miss Gerald’s naïve knowledge of the world extends to premonitions and second sight appears late in the narrative, very much as part of its psychological/melodramatic plot arc, and is in any case made irrelevant by the crisis and resolution that follow. (And the latter scenes of the novella, with Miss Gerald slowly and uncertainly emerging from the chrysalis of her forgetting, are quite beautifully handled.)
These are, of course, all interesting questions for students of epistemology – but are made that much more ‘interesting’ for Lanfear by the fact that they are made flesh in the person of this gorgeous young woman: “His consolation was the charm of the girl’s companionship, the delight of a nature knowing itself from moment to moment as if newly created.”
Now I’m no expert in Freudian criticism, but the coincidence in Miss Gerald of ‘case’ and ‘person’, of patient and love interest, is as striking as it is unremarked upon in the story itself. Lanfear sees off another suitor; it is his presence and ministrations that bring the girl out of herself; and, though the event that forces the issue of her amnesia is an accidental one, he is on the spot to pick up the pieces – and then indeed to marry her, with the blessing of the old man. While she had premonitions, he, in the end, has prescience—“of a happiness for her which the future did not belie”. Premonition: a warning from the future. Prescience: knowledge of the future. That much more solid, and dependable, and male.
There is narrative wish-fulfilment of a quite exquisite artlessness here. What it reminds me of – dimly and distantly: I saw the film once, aeons ago, but clearly it’s stuck with me—is the 1983 romantic comedy Lovesick, in which Dudley Moore’s psychologist falls in love with his patient, played by Elizabeth McGovern.
Now it’s easy to throw up your hands at this kind of thing and say, Violation of boundaries! Professional misconduct! But here it’s something more than that, and more subtle—the abuse of power (if you go that far) played out in Lanfear’s relationship to Miss Gerald is doubled up in the structure of the narrative itself. Lanfear loves, knows, treats, understands, wins, marries. Miss Gerald is loved, known, treated, understood, won, married. She is wrapped up, tied with a ribbon and dropped right in Lanfear’s lap.
I didn’t read the flap copy of the novella until after I’d finished reading it, until I sat down to write this in fact – so I was astounded to read that not long before he wrote the book Howells had “experienced the loss of a beloved adult daughter [from what appears to have been anorexia] and the institutionalisation of another for “emotional collapse”.
And yet here he is effecting the rescue of just such a girl from her own personal tragedy through the intervention of a heroic young avatar!
It’s not this is somehow bad or wrong that has me shaking my head, but that it is so much of its time. Compare to contemporary literature: Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk, Patrick Modiano – all of whom are hyperaware of the complicity involved in their work, and all quite ready to push the matter of their lives into their novels. It’s not that they blur the lines between fact and fiction, but that they open up that line, turn it from strict linear demarcation to demilitarised zone, extended in space. And in that zone it is the to-and-fro of life and writing, the clandestine laundering of lived experience into written narrative, that is the currency.
Finally, a word on Modiano, compared to Howells: while the two writers’ themes might have surface similarities, in fact they are going about things, and looking at things, in very different ways. While Howells gives his alienist a patient in whom to explore the effects of amnesia, in Modiano’s narratives it is the writer himself (and/or his narrator) who goes through the experience of remembering or uncovering lost events, either in his own life, or more generally in that blind spot of French history: the Occupation.
And in fact it is that trauma that the narrative is interested in, not the nature of the condition that cloaks it; it is the trauma that we are here to work towards (just as the Holocaust is the cause for the diversions and digressions in WG Sebald’s narratives, rather than being merely their justification).
Miss Gerald, you’d have to conclude, only loses her mother so she might suffer amnesia, and then be cured and won by Lanfear. She is both the puzzle and the prize.