I went to see a film the other day, which opens with an image of happiness. The film was Chris Marker’s Sans soleil. I wish you were here to share this with me. Was it just the other day? It could have been a few weeks, maybe a couple of months, or last year… Had I known its effect on me all these days, months, years later, I wouldn’t have gone alone.
A woman’s voice is heard: ‘The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland in 1965.’ Then you see the three children on a road in Iceland in 1965. Sans soleil is presented to you in past tense, the kind where someone or something lives in the past, yet it is unclear whether that past has made its way into the present yet. Like water working its way through a hose. Like a memory. The woman you hear was someone special to him. Is she still?
The man she speaks of is a documentarian, one who has travelled the world, seen it, tried to capture it. Through his journeys he has arrived at the notion that happiness is a personal sensation and how, in a world so large, happiness can be misunderstood, forgotten, even overlooked.
The three children on a road in Iceland in 1965 are captured by his camera. The woman’s voice transfers them to us: ‘He said that for him it was the image of happiness and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked.’ Ever since Sergei Eisenstein developed the montage technique to illicit emotion, it has been used to an effective degree. Here the documentarian tries it but is perhaps overprotective of these three children he has adopted, overprotective of his image of happiness and whether anyone, the woman most of all, will understand it the way he does. You see the children, the screen goes black for a bit, as if the camera just blinked, and then you see a fighter jet being lowered onto a platform. He was right: it could never work. The screen stays black. The woman’s voice cascades over it: ‘He wrote me: one day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.’
Darkness is more difficult to overlook. One way to ensure that happiness doesn’t get overlooked is by flanking it by darkness on both sides. Then it has a greater chance of standing out. My memory of you functioned the same way. Happiness is most poignant when you are well aware of its expiration date. You were my Icelandic children, and I was my own black leader.
What good can I do other than tell you to watch the film? You will, or maybe you’ve seen it already. Either way, the film itself won’t tell you how I feel about it. I’ve already attempted to describe the first frames to you because I want you to understand why it meant so much to me. The way I feel about this film is the way I feel about you: achingly. And my explanation of the film will mirror our reality: not good enough.
Nabokov writes of his mother: ‘She cherished her own past with the same retrospective fervor that I now do her image and my past. Thus, in a way, I inherited an exquisite simulacrum—the beauty of intangible property, unreal estate—and this proved a splendid training for the endurance of later losses.’
If some part of me knew you’d be a later loss, would I still have pursued you? I ask myself this and I also ask you, just as you should ask yourself this and also ask me. Was time wasted, or is time ours to waste? And if time is worth saving, shouldn’t we be worth saving too?
The woman quotes the man, who quotes Samura Koichi and says: ‘Who said that time heals all wounds? It would be better to say that time heals everything except wounds. With time, the hurt of separation loses its real limits. With time, the desired body will soon disappear, and if the desiring body has already ceased to exist for the other, then what remains is a wound… disembodied.’
Last night I dreamt we were reunited. Some dreams feel more real than others, and I wonder what the criteria for that could possibly be. This dream felt only a little real, as opposed to ones I’ve had before that feel so real I cry when I wake up, or those that don’t feel real at all that the only consequence is waking up. This one fell somewhere in between, as most of my dreams do.
Nabokov again: ‘Nature expects a full-grown man to accept the two black voids, fore and aft, as stolidly as he accepts the extraordinary visions in between.’ Do our dreams count as part of those extraordinary visions, or do they exist on a separate plane? And what about our memories? Are those our extraordinary visions eroded by time, or should we regard them as something more sacred than that?
Film is like a memory, right? Or is it nothing like a memory? I think of the sights and sounds that a film captures, solidifies it all, and becomes a time capsule of its own existence. You may feel differently about a film after certain periods of time, but the film stays the same, stands on its own, and stops changing. Can the same be said of a memory? Does the memory stand still as you move further away from it, or is a memory part of you, changing as you change?
The woman in the film shares another letter: ‘He wrote me: I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.’
Memory, then, seems to be the only thing that has the ability to transcend time. The romance is passionate and turbulent. Time can get the upper hand on memory, as it does with most other things, but like the wound, memory when disembodied remains throughout time.
Yesterday at the shop a customer asked if we had a copy of Nabokov’s letters to Vera. She was getting married in two weeks and needed inspiration to write her vows. At first I thought: Is he not enough? But then I realised that this wasn’t much different from my searching for inspiration in books other people have written about life, rather than life itself. Throughout the day different young women buy Nabokov’s books. I ask each of them if they’ve read his letters to Vera. They haven’t. Meanwhile my friend asks me if you’ve called. You haven’t.
In Speak, Memory, Nabokov writes: ‘To fix correctly, in terms of time, some of my childhood recollections, I have to go by comets and eclipses, as historians do when they tackle the fragments of a saga. But in other cases there is no dearth of data. I see myself, for instance, clambering over wet black rocks at the seaside while Miss Norcott, a languid and melancholy governess, who thinks I am following her, strolls away along the curved beach with Sergey, my younger brother.’
The wet black rocks remind me of the black leader at the beginning of Marker’s film. Meanwhile, I cannot remember my earliest memory, so I wouldn’t be able to tell you if it also involved the colour black. When I was younger, though, I fell asleep most easily when the light from the hallway crept through the bottom of my bedroom door, and I could hear grown-ups still talking to each other downstairs. At that age, that was when I felt most safe; as long as the grown-ups were still alive, I would be.
Since we said goodbye I have revisited our favourite places. There’s the cafe, the restaurant, and the bar. There’s also the route from the cafe to the restaurant to the bar that I walk with my eyes down, staring at the cement. Can we choose what to take with us, or are memories more like barnacles on the back of a giant whale? Or maybe you wash your mind of some of them—the sad or bad ones—the way the city workers wash the pavement, hosing off the stains left from the piles of summer trash. But what if your mind feels scarred, always susceptible to remembering, like the block of cement just in front of the dumpsters that never stays clean, the one that smells of garbage even though the trash had already been picked up?
You and I have our memories in common. Could it be that Emily Dickinson and James Joyce were writing about the same river? That eternal river, the one with no name. And even though Joyce gives his river many names, he didn’t give it an ending. When he died it was because time also passed but the river flows eternal. His river is a part of my memory, as is Dickinson’s, as is yours, as is mine. You and I are like Joyce’s washerwomen, on opposite banks of the river, washing our dirty laundry clean, both finally unashamed of the things we hold closest to us.