Monday, January 16, 2012


Memory plays strange tricks on us. There are not only (A) the losses of things we want to remember, but also (B) the things it annoyingly won’t let us forget. And further (C), things we puzzlingly don’t know why we remember. They neither bother nor delight us, only make us wonder why these rather than something else.

For reasons that elude me, I recently thought of the Swedish film and stage director, the late Johan Bergenstrahle, whose one superb film not even many Swedes have seen, but whose stage work at Stockholm’s City Theater is remembered and well thought of. One evening in a Stockholm cafĂ©, he voiced his gnawing concern to me. How to deal with the fact that his still young and beautiful girlfriend’s ass, hitherto firm and smooth, was starting to develop a kind of moirĂ© effect of unsightly ripples?

I don’t recall what sort of solace I could offer him, nor how he responded. But sometime later, I received an unexpected letter from him in his large, imposing handwriting, thanking me for what I had said, and telling me it had helped him. Now, however, I cannot for the life of me recall what it was; all I am sure of is that it wasn’t naming some miraculous ointment or other, but some psychological adjustment. Still, an A case.

But now for a B. The protagonist of a play by Jean Anouilh is tormented by memories of cruelties he inflicted as a youth on various animals. Alas, I too in my boyhood was given an air gun with which I shot poor innocent sparrows without even the excuse of food for myself or fodder for some pets. I still evince intermittent pangs of conscience, and, of course, there is no possible expiation.

Even unarmed, I must have offended some human beings, to whom a belated apology might be possible. Here, however, memory fails me. But I can recall and offer specimens of type C.

My father was fond of philosophy and when the respected philosopher Arthur Liebert, fleeing the Nazis, landed impecuniously in Belgrade, my parents would frequently have him over for dinner. I remember his philosophical head (bald on top and lots of snow-white fringe), but only one inconsequential thing he said. We took him to see “Broadway Melody of 1940,” whose much-touted star, Eleanor Powell, does not appear till the second or third reel. “Wann kommt die Povel?” inquired, stentorously mispronouncing, the impatient philosopher.

There are stranger Cs, however. My father was a wise as well as witty man, yet I remember clearly only one thing he said. My parents and I were in Paris, returning to our hotel after a show, when we saw a sign reading “Repas” (meals) over a closed restaurant door. Said my father in Hungarian, “Even this root vegetable man has shut shop by now.” Repas, with an acute accent on both vowels, would, if such a word existed, mean root vegetable dealer or man. Somehow, the preposterousness of that reading and pronunciation had all three of us burst out laughing. Why remember this of all things?

Of my mother, I recall only, as she was washing me in my childhood behind my ears, referring to “the little bench behind your ears.” Calling it a little bench is rather strange, but surely not memorable. One other remark of hers, to my wife, and relayed to me by her, was, “Who is that old woman looking at me from the mirror?” Seems very apt to me these late days.

The one utterance of my own I recall from my infancy is, walking in the park with my grandmother and seeing a nest of ants, “What a multitude of beetles!” To be sure, “Menge” in German was less resonant than the English “multitude.” Though entomologically incorrect, it made an impression on grandmotherly ears, and was duly reported as proof of my linguistic prowess.

Actions are more memorable than words, and I do remember a few from my boyhood. For instance, on a holiday at an Italian seaside watering place, there was a girl of maybe twelve, like me, who tried fishing in the bay with a butterfly net. It got away from her and was starting to float away to sea. My parents were away, and I, not yet a secure swimmer, chivalrously waded right in fully clothed, unconcerned with how deep and dangerous the water might be just there. Luckily, I retrieved the net. A friendly lady, horrified, carried me off to her room and gave me a rubdown and something dry to wear. I wonder now, is this memory a B or a C?

Oddly enough, an insignificant event from my ripe years often haunts me in B fashion. At a public spelling bee, Phoebe, a co-worker at New York magazine, wanted to join in, but only if I would too.  An early word was “cartilage.” I spelled it “cartilege.” This faux pas was actually written up in some British newspaper to my eternal shame.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could teach our memory to remember only pleasant things, and skip the indifferent or bad ones?  Of course, the latter may function as useful warnings against recidivism. But when would I ever again have to spell “cartilage” in public?