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Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain

The Memory Artists


MRB Magazine Interview
(Fall, 2004)
By Andrew Steinmetz

1. After the attention you received for winning The Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2000, was it difficult to sit down and write a follow-up to Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain?

"Difficult" is too feeble a word—  "hellish" is more like it. Julian Barnes, to drop names, once told me that the worse thing that could happen to a first-time novelist was to win a major prize. Not only because of the increased pressure and expectations, but because critics would be sharpening their hatchets. But in my case, things were made worse by the theme I chose for the second novel: memory. Because it dragged me back into a painful period, the 1990s, when I was confronted with a heartbreaking spectacle: my parents' battles with memory loss. Battles they ended up losing.

2. Was that the initial spark that made you write The Memory Artists?

Writing about memory, or neurological meltdowns, was a way of dealing with the whole mess—the proverbial catharsis, I suppose. But things didn't really begin to cohere or crystallize until I learned about hypermnesia and the case of a Russian named Solomon Shereshevski who had this abnormally vivid visual memory, along with a high degree of synaesthesia, or coloured hearing (he described Sergei Eisenstein's voice as an "orange flame with protruding fibres"). So it was at that point that I got the idea for Noel, a synaesthete with a troublingly exact memory, as a foil to the other main character with a faltering memory (his mother Stella).

3. The novel is funny, sometimes caustic, other times poignant, but never one thing for any amount of time. Does this make it a tragicomedy?

It makes it a mishmash, a dog's breakfast—perhaps a transcranial image of my muddled brain. Now that I think of it, though, a lot of tragicomedies or dark comedies are wild hybrids, Shakespeare's problem plays among them, and I suppose it's a form that's always attracted me. Dark comedies can be marvellously complex and poignant—and poignancy within comedy can make a potent brew. Comedy becomes sharper when juxtaposed with tragedy; tragedy becomes unbearable when comedy precedes it. As in certain Woody Allen films, or in Four Weddings and a Funeral, when romantic farce and buffoonery precede that tearful eulogy, with those agonizingly beautiful lines from Auden.

4. Norval Xavier Blaquière is a wonderful creation who, literally, performs his part in the novel. Is Norval a tip of the hat to Richard E. Grant's portrayal of a down-and-out actor in Withnail and I (a film that gets mentioned in the novel)?

Speaking of dark and poignant comedies. A good observation—that film is one of my favourites, and Norval may well have been inspired by Withnail. (Not matched, unfortunately, but inspired by.) For he's a character who, as you say, performs his lines, in an aphoristic, Wildean way that sounds more like he's reciting a memorized text. Both characters are diabolically clever as well—and utterly disdainful of those who aren't up to their level. And yet despite being scoundrels, both are ultimately tragic figures, whom the audience will feel a certain amount of compassion for (at least I hope they will in Norval's case).

5. Dr Émile Vorta is a fictional student of Dr. Wilder Penfield. Is the reference born of the fact that Penfield worked in Montreal, where your novel is set, or was there anything specific about Penfield's research and/or persona that led to you making this allusion?

I used to live on Avenue Docteur-Penfield, but that's not the reason I refer to him. He was once called "the greatest living Canadian" (even though he was born and educated in the U.S.) but that's not the reason either. No, the reference stems from Penfield's groundbreaking memory experiments. He discovered—accidentally, I think—that by stimulating the temporal lobes he could trigger memories involving sound, movement and colour that were much more vivid than normal memory, and often about things unremembered under normal circumstances. In other words, he made his patients relive the past as if it were the present. "Proust on the operating table, an electrical recherche du temps perdu," is how it's described in the novel. Patients were shocked (pardon the pun) to re-experience long-forgotten conversations, nursery rhymes, a view from a childhood window... This is similar to what happens to my main character, Noel Burun, who has extraordinarily vivid and persistent recollections—linked to his synaesthesia—of childhood events, and childhood books in particular.

6. The quest for a "memory pill" leads Noel Burun and his friends to experiment with neuropharmacology, alchemy, herbal remedies, and complimentary medicine. Do you suppose that complimentary medicine is a kind of modern day alchemy, symbolic of the wish to combine the creative energies of both science and art into something that transcends the sum of the parts?

The alchemists were searching for something called the alkahest, a cure-all that would involve, as you suggest, a kind of marriage between art and science. This union is certainly something to be wished for, and it's one of the themes of The Memory Artists. Most of the world's great scientists, from Pythagoras to Einstein, would not have made their leaps without inveterately artistic, or imaginative, or heretical thought patterns. But as for today's complementary medicine, it can hardly be considered an exemplar of this art-science synergy. Big Pharma's bad, but the "wellness" industry is worse. Unregulated and dishonest, untested and unreliable. In most cases it's little more than a new religion, a new opiate for the masses.

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