by Professor John Sutton, Deputy Director, Department of Cognitive Science, Macquarie University. His latest research includes studies on autobiographical and collective memory and shared memory among older couples, and he has published widely on memory and cognition in literature.
Ian Bedford’s wonderful novel The Last Candles of the Night is ‘the tale of a recall’. It creates an extraordinary, troubled ecology of memory. Alongside Hyderabad and the Nizam's Dominions in the late 1940s, it inhabits and breathes uneasy life into this house in Gibbes Street, Rockdale, with its oddly skewed floor plan and its dark internal room haunted only by pre-War cricket on the radio. As abrupt as some moments of crisis which Philip and his friends Anand and Ragini face in the upheavals of 1948 is a dire and furious obligatory scene on the Princes Highway in 2001 when Philip is dumped at the kerb and must wander, stunned, with his grandson Jim up to Kogarah Oval.
But Bedford's striking evocations of place are not mere juxtapositions of parallel but disconnected instants. For all the loss and selectivity – as scenes in memory are non-successive, no one thing leading to another –, for all the work of transformation, the uneasy fluidity of identity and character, the Philip who lived through those events then is the Philip who is remembering now. This is why, brewing coffee in the pan in Gibbes Street as he re-evaluates the significance of certain things that he said and felt back in Warangal, "the spillover from his despair" washes over him "in the kitchen in Rockdale with no depletion of its force". In this kind of mental time travel, emotion is the surest messenger.
As his memory work commences with a visitation or intrusion, Philip inhabits a kind of augmented reality. One room is overlaid or superimposed on another, then and now, now and then. Jim's interest in the exotic upheavals of 1947 India, as he comes to political awareness in the Australia of 2001, acts as a further intergenerational trigger, a key to the sociality of memory even in this far from usual family. Jim, an architecture student, is twenty-three, as Philip the appointed headmaster of the Nizam’s school in Warangal was twenty-three then. Even as Philip, in embarking on a project of remembering, tries to suppress the foreknowledge of what happened after Hyderabad, of all those years and events and disappointments and achievements which the characters know but we readers do not, he experiences the world as "enlaced, … haunted, with … lost dimensions". This is, too, the novelist’s achievement, as Bedford's skilful plotting withholds and releases, weighting and balancing and mixing these distinct temporal zones, historical and personal all at once.
Yet Philip still tries to resist these interanimations, these ways that time and place bleed through or mesh. He has until now more or less evaded the sensory, embodied, affective media of memory – for half a lifetime, he has thought of Ragini "in the abstract", without encountering that image or reliving that day, the event of that day. Specific episodes have been too dangerous to fish out of the depths, so Philip – something of a stranger to himself, a mere observer of his far from ordinary life – has dealt with the past only by chunking it as general events or extended periods, tiptoeing on stepping stones across the glimmering surface of the weed-green waters. And now that he is "remembering in earnest", now that he has "plunged, as swimmer, into Black Lagoon", as he seeks to learn more whether for prudence or in defiance of some power, he initially expects the past simply to emerge, to bend to his will, its waters to open up. But the urge to mastery, the power of voluntary recall is limited, and often the surface of the waters closes over.
In literary theory and psychology alike, we are familiar with the idea that memory is constructive, furiously inventive, an engine of creative interference. Where the data storage systems even of our increasingly autonomous computers and devices still for now hold information passively – if I saved that file last night, it'd better not have morphed or rewritten itself when I open it again today – human memory is more of a compost heap than an archive, its ingredients fusing and reanimating themselves at different timescales – overnight, or over fifty years. This is all well and good. But sometimes we can overdo this celebration of confusion, as if our relation to our past is all about narrative truth rather than historical truth, about coherence alone rather than correspondence to reality. As Bedford's characters know, to remember is to make a claim on the past, and to have one's memory challenged or overturned, or for social uptake of one's recall to be muted or absent, is not just disconcerting, but actively distressing. The Canadian philosopher Sue Campbell argued powerfully that we can't give up on truth in memory, that for example in order to bear witness to specific wrongs and injustices committed in the past we need to resist the pervasive equation of the point that remembering is malleable and plastic with the despairing conclusion that memory is always unreliable, distorted, false. Memories can be constructed and multiply influenced, and still be authentic, still be faithful to the past.
But, as these characters have also discovered, fidelity can take very different forms. Philip perhaps starts out with a thinner conception of truth in memory, worrying whether the truth that ambushes him now in his room in Rockdale is the same truth that had seized him on one occasion on the road at Warangal, that had prompted him to leap in the road, to punch the air. For him, you are either genuinely remembering, or you are projecting your present thoughts or dismay onto distant events. Yet this either/or conception of memory is also and simultaneously complicated – for Philip and for us – by the sheer profusion of sensory imagery which now unfurls. Remembering yet another procession in Hyderabad of which he did not and cannot make sense, Philip simply immerses himself in the recalled pageantry, colours, regalia, the unblinking procedures: he wonders "Why was a quarter of the population in triumphal dress? Was this the deceit of memory? How, if it was, could he correct a mistaken impression? And why should he care?". Philip’s mind and body can be at one, briefly, in one magnificent scene, only when he falls asleep in the dark against a smooth boulder at the old ruined fort of Warangal. Waking in the dew, he finds the boulder was a carved being, the beak or the appalling eye which had drilled his spine now surveying him until he runs his own hands over the extravagant object, and stumbles, streams back down into the maelstrom of the day, into the emotional debris of the day before, across this scrambled landscape of ancient crumbled plinths.
So there are subtler and thicker relations between past and present than the simple comparison of two isolated snapshot-like instants, then and now. We naturally smooth over the boundaries between moments, filling in or renegotiating the meaning of past events from where we stand now: there are better and worse ways of doing so, of course, but these are ethical and interpersonal assessments as much as metaphysical ones. To quote the philosopher Peter Goldie, "our memories are infused with what we now know, and with how we now feel about what happened in the light of what we now know. It is thus that we come to understand our past, and thereby to be able to make plans for the future".
Ian Bedford would, I suspect, insist on the limits of such an understanding of the past: but he does powerfully evoke a longer kind of memory, quite unlike the ragpicker’s booty which Philip wants to stupefy or defuse (p65). There is a richer form of memory which has become a part of the person, in which the past is enfolded and embodied in the present rather than compared or stared down. Perhaps this is closer to the kind of memory which Rilke identifies as grounding artistic creation. For Rilke, "it is not enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many": they do their real work, Rilke writes, only when "they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves" (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge). We need not always be spectators of our memories, in the position from which Philip begins his quest for the past. Describing another Hyderabad procession, the usual wild convulsion in the streets, the watching Philip notes that "All were participants. None were onlookers". Bedford's novel beautifully articulates the challenges of being yourself and also participating, of standing both outside and inside, in making sense both of recent Australian politics and of the deeply moving stories of Philip, Anand, and Ragini.