Friday, 5 August 2011

Art of the Novella Challenge #2: A Read and A Forgetting. . .

William Dean Howells' A Sleep and A Forgetting, first published in 1907, was probably not the best choice for a commuter read. I'm often a bit sleepy on the bus to work and frequently tired and eye-strained on the way back; the constant references to naps taken by the heroine and the rather languid prose didn't help. This is the story of thirty-year old Dr. Lanfear, the nephew of a famous psychologist, who is also fascinated by the workings of the mind. He's on holiday in Italy and stopping in San Remo to do a favour for a friend, he encounters an elderly man whose beautiful daughter has been traumatized by witnessing her mother's death and subsequently has lost both her long and short term memory. She'll meet someone and completley forget the encounter the next day. Beguiled and intrigued by her beauty and personality, Lanfear agrees to help Nannie, and through a series of walks and conversations in the surrounding countryside, she slowly grasps fragments of her past - vague perceptions more than solid facts - until a trip to the ruins of a town devasted by an earthquake and a subsequent shock bring the story to its conclusion. There are some big ideas being explored here about time, memory and ontology, such as in this passage where Lanfear ponders on his patient's state of consciousness:

He had always said to himself that there could be no persistence of personality, of character, of identity, of consciousness, except through memory; yet here, to the last implication of temperment, they all persisted. The soul that was passing in its integrity through time without the helps, the crutches, of remembrance by which his own personality supported itself, why should not it pass so through eternity without that loss of identity which was equivalent to annihilation?

That passage also gives you a sense of the style which just wasn't suited to my reading mood on a crowded bus. I also found the ending rather weak and predictable. I think a second and closer reading would do this work more justice, but I think I'll keep moving on with the challenge.

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