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Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain
The Memory Artists

The Gazette, Montreal
September 4, 2004

A Writer To Remember

Jeffrey moore's ingenious new novel, the memory artists, is among other things, a romp through literary iconography

The Memory Artists
By Jeffrey Moore
Viking Canada, 321 pages, $35

Wayne Grady
Special To The Gazette


Jeffrey Moore is a professional writer-translator from Montreal. His first novel, Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain, was short-listed for a QSPELL award and won the 2000 Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book. Set in Montreal, it featured Jeremy Davenant, a questing polymath whose life seems to have been fore-doomed to take place on a single page torn from an encyclopedia While trying to figure out what that means, he's teaching at a Montreal university under false papers.

Charlatanism also crops up in Moore's second novel, The Memory Artists. Also set in Montreal, this time the intrigue weaves around the office of "world-famous neurologist" Émile Vorta.

Almost everyone in the novel is or was a patient of Vorta, including Noel Burun, who is a hypermnesiac–he remembers everything he sees, hears or reads. Everything. "He's go a million megabytes of memory," says his friend Norval Blaquière (note the same initials), "a million emotions and sensations and images and God knows what else to draw on."

Blaquière is also associated with Vorta, and is described as "my prince" and "a smug bastard" by Samira Darwish, to whom Blaquière offers a job teaching at a university using false papers. Blaquière has entered into a bet that he can bed 26 women in 26 weeks, each of whose first names begins with the appropriate letter of the alphabet. When we meet him, and he meets Samira, he is at the letter &S." Samira also becomes Vorta's patient. Vorta might be responsible for the death of Noel's father, and Noel's mother's name is Stella (note the initial), who has Alzheimer's disease (the opposite of hypermnesia). Such is the framework upon which this labyrinthine work of fictional pastiche is hung.

If his first novel was a satire of modern culture, his second–apart from a series of electric charges between the opposing poles of memory and forgetting-is a romp through literary iconography. It is told by "a professional writer-translator" hired by Vorta, and is annotated by Vorta himself in series of 60 notes at the end of the narrative.

Burun is thought to be a descendant of Byron, who was also supposedly a hypermnesiac, as was Vladimir Nabokov–and The Memory Artists is indeed reminiscent of Nabokov's brilliantly ironic Pale Fire (in which the annotator reveals more about himself in his notes than he realizes). It helps to recall that Nabokov's autobiography was titled Speak, Memory. Other writers who make casual appearances include Marcel Proust, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and William Blake, all of whom were supposedly hypermnesiacs. Burun, says Blaquière, is "Proust squared."

The Memory Artists moves along on a well-oiled track. In its intelligence and ingeniousness it recalls Thomas Wharton's Salamander, a kind of "trick novel" in which nothing much happens, but the relating of that aimlessness is mesmerizing. Reading it is like immersing oneself in a warm bath of words and ideas. There are many rich nuggets buried in the text. Iris Murdoch, who died of Alzheimer's disease, is invoked. Vorta makes an obscure reference to Richard Feynman, the Novel-winning physicist who is as eclectic as any of Moore's characters. He worked on the atomic bomb, is a genius at quantum electrodynamics and is also, by the way, a translator of Mayan hieroglyphs.

A minor quibble: someone has seen fit to set the various voices of the novel, passages told through diary entries and newspaper clippings, in different fonts–script for the diaries, Times Roman for the clippings, that sort of thing–which is generally distracting and suggests that Moore's writing needs typographical help. Which is unfortunate. While occasionally relying on lengthy descriptions of rooms and their contents, the writing in The Memory Artists is accomplished and, well, memorable.

© The Gazette, 2004