Sunday, July 13, 2014


Noted a couple of days ago in Little Wilson and Big God, by Anthony Burgess, the first volume of his autobiography:

There is something desperately wrong with our remembering mechanisms. The trivial, especially if it is in verse, sticks. Great thoughts and great expression of great thoughts vanish. I have repertory of about a thousand popular songs and only one line of Goethe. From one of the 'Little Tales' in Punch, I remember this: "He said I love you, and she said I love you too. Then they went in to tea and he made jokes about the jam sandwiches.' What the hell is wrong with us? The greatness of James Joyce lies partly in his recognition of the importance of the trivial, but it is not his responsibility to explain the importance. Flaubert's Felicite dies seeing a parrot flutter over her head. I shall die on the memory of the HP Sauce bottle from which I first learned French:  'Setty sauce, de premier choyks. . .'
(I think that I have the advantage of Burgess in the matter of Goethe: I can remember three or three and a half lines, probably somewhat mangled.)

I suspect that the sticking power of the trivial verse comes in part from the age at which it is encountered. The lyrics of John Lennon or John Denver are remembered because encountered in childhood or adolescence, ages of energy and hope.  And I think that the same process works for much better verse. The Athenians captured at Syracuse could recite Euripides at great length; Eugenia Ginsburg, on the train to Siberia, could recite Pushkin for half an hour by the watch; I'm sure that they learned the verse young.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. I used to know the first sentence, but somewhere along the line Robert Cohn moved up a weight class or two to light heavyweight, I find. (Come to think of it, I have put on about thirty pounds since I first read the novel.) When I think of pointless memorization, I think of the folks who learn thousands of digits of pi. Somebody strong-minded enough to resist the influence, could learn a great deal by memorizing the first few pages of A Farewell to Arms, I think. But yes, a whole novel seems an awful lot.

  2. Corrected Comment:
    We remember through repetition or by being overpowered emotionally. I remember the oddest, obscure lyrics from songs in the 50s and 60s, and the oddest, obscure events that either thrilled or devastated me in my life. Then, when I think I understand memory, I remember reading about someone who could recite all of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, and I remember that I wondered, "For God's sake, why?"