BERNAT IVANCSICS ’14
The Allan K. Smith Writing Center hosted its most recent talk with author Mira Bartok on Thursday, October 2,. The reading, held in the Smith House Reese Room, featured Bartok’s latest book, ‘The Memory’ Palace, a New York Times bestselling title and winner of the National Book Critics Circle award, published in 2011.
Bartok’ describes ‘The Memory Palace’ as a literary memoir. It is not merely a journey through memories and time since the narrative contains a bulging force and effort to withdraw any image that can be redeemed from a disintegrating gallery of memories. Bartok is in the process of building a gallery, an idea based on a 16th-century Jesuit monk’s concept to tie flashes of memories to images and images to rooms in an elaborate edifice. In a sense, time and space are combined in a way that they are able to complement each other. The past is seemingly leashed to forever-present snapshots, which can now be arranged on a mental map for recollection. But Bartok’s prose is aware of the essential flaw entailed by the idea of the solidification time. She gives the title “Order of Things” to the first part of her novel, referencing 20th century French philosopher and social scientist Michel Foucault’s groundbreaking book of essays with the same title. Similar to Foucault’s model of human perception, which he employs on a global scale in his book, Bartok’s model applied to private remembrance playfully reconstructs the shifting “filters” with which memory treats a specific section of time. Memory’s focus shifts overtime, and memories overlap. Bartok is aware that although a potential gallery can be constructed on a vast sample of memory images, this gallery will most probably resemble a haunted palace with its invisibly shifting walls and corridors.
Can memories be collected then? And who is remembering these memories? As opposed to traditional memoirs, Bartok’s protagonist is not herself or herself a literary persona, but her schizophrenic mother, a constantly receding and eventually, reemerging figure. It is Bartok’s persona, who recounts her mother’s story, but in many cases her role in administering the mentally ill women seems marginal. It is her mother who frames much of the memory-images contained within the Memory Palace. Her underlying presence is showcased even in the very first sentences of the novel: “Even now, when the phone rings late at night, I think it’s her. I stumble out of bed, ready for the worst.” Bartok’s struggle to come to terms with her mother and her deteriorating relationship with her husband intertwines with Bartok’s very own battle against partial amnesia. In a comment during her reading, she recounts how following a car accident and while writing “The Memory Palace” she organized her thoughts and memories by building shelves and slots for her drafts. In a way Bartok had already enacted the Memory Palace before her own Memory Palace was written.
Many of the scenes in “The Memory Palace” take place in northern Norway, a region only a couple of degrees below the North Pole where during the summer the sun rests for a mere 3-4 hours and during the winter rises for the same short interval. Although Bartok and her husband eventually leave Norway and head back to Cleveland, Bartok’s fascination with the North Pole and early 20th century exploration narratives, such as Amundsen’s, dates back to her childhood. At this point in her reading, Bartok introduces a recurrent project of hers, which consists of short stories that rewrite famous or historical figures’ life or legacy from an alternative perspective. Sticking to the theme of polar explorations, Bartok reads the tale of an early explorer, Sir John Franklin, and his British crew that set out to find the North Pole but arrived seriously unprepared. In her comical sketch, Bartok enumerates the ridiculous gadgets, such as silver teaspoons, that the explorers carried along while not having proper coats or boots. Eventually the crew was lost, and at this point the focus of the narrative shifts to the mourning wives, who were left at home. Losing their burden of gender roles, the wives finally gain freedom.
Addressing her last major interest, astronautics, Bartok presents another sketch of a famous historical character. However, this time it is not a person, but a dog, the space dog Laika, who was one of the first animals in space on a Sputnik 2, and who died on November 3, 1957, while in geocentric orbit. Bartok’s tale introduces another Laika, bbased on the previous Laika who returns to Earth a hundred years later. In a small town she stands beside the road but does not respond to visitors. One day, a young man approaches her, humbly and lovingly, and Laika emits her first bark in a century. This iconic instance of barking refers to the dog’s own name, which in Russian means “barker”. Laika was muted by various globally scaled enterprises: the space race, Soviet political negotiations and so forth. Bartok’s short story conveys the alternative ending of an otherwise tragic story, in which a simple mongrel dog was encapsulated in humanity’s memory without letting her give a voice to her presence there.
The Allan K. Smith reading series will continue next month on November 6 with guest lecturer Andre Dubus III.