Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Memory Is Smoke in a Room (It Fills the Empty Crevices)

I guess I've been thinking a lot about the space someone holds inside you—people you haven't seen in years and likely will never see again. (See, um, twenty of my earlier posts.) And then I read this tonight: from this week's New Yorker "Winter Fiction Issue," an essay by Julian Barnes called "The Past Conditional: What Mother Would Have Wanted", and, well, I have nothing to say about it that reading it won't express. (No, not the Jewy part. We chosen people do not get to make such choices.) Here you go:

"I might, I suppose, if it had been possible to choose, have become Jewish. I went to a school where, out of about nine hundred boys, a hundred and fifty or so were Jewish. On the whole, they seemed cleverer, and both socially and sartorially more advanced; they had better shoes (one contemporary even had a pair of elastic-sided Chelsea boots) and they knew about girls. They also got extra holidays, which seemed an advantage. And it would have usefully shocked my parents, who had the low-level anti-Semitism of their time and class. (As the credits rolled at the end of a TV play and a name like Aaronson occurred, one or the other of my parents might comment wryly, “Another Welshman.”) Not that they behaved any differently to my Jewish friends, one of whom was named, rightly, it seemed to me, Alex Brilliant. He was reading Wittgenstein at sixteen, and writing poetry that rippled with ambiguities—double, triple, quadruple, like heart bypasses. He took a scholarship to Cambridge, after which I lost sight of him; but I would occasionally think of him down the years, assuming that he had forged ahead in one of the liberal professions. I was over fifty when I learned that for more than half my life I had been thinking of someone as alive who was in fact dead. Brilliant had killed himself in his twenties, for no reason my informant could determine."


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