Memories Lost, Reechoed, Acquired

This week I inadvertently went back to myself a ten years ago through film and book. To memories I have, to memories I learnt and to memories that left me. 


It’s been nearly a decide since I read Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises. When Hemingway came up in conversation during the week, and I defended The Old Man and the Sea, and look over at my bookshelf, and opened the only book of his there, Fiesta, I remembered nothing. Sure, there were delicate imprints of Paris and Pamplona, but anything past the most geographic of details was gone. Perhaps I had not grown out of the intense, time-condensed reading of literature at university, perhaps I had been shocked by its casual anti-Semitism, perhaps I hated those indolent self-indulgent Americans and English aristocrats. Or maybe it was the style: at the time, I was under the spell of one of my favourite writers and fellow Modernist, Thomas Mann, whose complex curated sentences are the closest I feel you can come to scuba-diving in prose—between each breath, it seems you’ve seen the whole world. Hemingway had prose more like coloured blasts of light and felt nothing like this. Today this non-causal itinerancy seemed subficial, not superficial, and the prose crackled within me in the image-upon-image descriptions of travel across Navarre, or the dialogue of Frances’s calculating takedown in Paris or the drunken conversations in Pamplona.

But no matter the crackle, no sentences ever echoed through my memory—whatever I read had been long forgotten. 


The echoes came later in the week, when I watched Oskar Roehler’s film from 2000, No Place to Go (its German name, Die Unberührbare, the untouchable, is far better). I must have last seen it at university. I loved it at the time—and love it still in the delicious hypocrisy of Hanna Flanders, a West German “communist” novelist, who shops at Dior, who has a minimalist apartment in Munich with stylishly place photos of Lenin writing, of Lenin in Red Square, whose artifice falls apart with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Who knows if they were quotations I’d learnt for an exam, but there were phrases that had an electric sting and a resonance, as though they’d found the shadow of their twin deep within me. There is a scene towards the end of the film, where Hanna sits motionless and looks out onto the moving pedestrians of Odeonsplatz in Munich, that made me gasp at the memory. There’s the expanse of Berlin sky at sunset called its own reimaginings of sunsets that—sitting in Cambridge and looking back on Berlin—I must have remembered from evening commutes on the U-Bahn.


Commuting and motion is one of the motifs of Walther Ruttman’s 1927 film, Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, a film I’d heard a lot about studying German film, but had not seen until this week. I imagine that it’s been called a meditation on the city; but to me, with its sometimes urgent music and doors opening, doors closing, trains arriving and leaving stations, bread coming out of an oven, a roller coaster on its tracks, washed dishes, actors being applauded, all without the safety blanket of narrative, it felt more like a visual workout. And the city I lived in appears both recognized and unrecognizable. Trains still string themselves through the city on elevated tracks, some buildings have the same blank façades, but they don’t swarm around the cathedral like that, the people don’t crush around the trams in the same way. The images made the memories emerge, but distorted as if through a fairground mirror, where I recognized the memory because I knew this was the same place on the map where they’d been created. But nearly 90 years on, is the city, or any city, the same? With just image and no context, might I have imagined them scenes in Hamburg or Vienna or Bucharest? Do cities just sit on the same geographies, while we rely on a collage of memories to make them our own?


2 Responses to Memories Lost, Reechoed, Acquired

  1. Ah, Rob, what a great trip down your memory lane! I love revisiting with books. I’m always so surprised by what I missed during the first reading. My relationships with characters change as well. I guess our needs dictate our focus. Hemingway. Over the summer, the day after a family member lost his battle with cancer, I spent time again with “The Old Man and the Sea.” The battle. The isolation. I had read it before but this was the first time I cried. I’m now thinking of the Anaïs Nin quote: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Something like that. Moving post! T.

    • Rob Packer says:

      Theodora, thanks for the comment and I’m sorry for your loss.
      It’s moving how books and films affect us differently, always. I can imagine how “The Old Man and the Sea” could do that. I had a similar experience with a family member at the end of last year, when Keats’ sonnet on Chapman’s Homer made me cry in a way I’d never imagine it could.
      I suppose–and I’m not sure how flippant this is–that this is why we ever get involved in literature to begin with.

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