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Ruins of a Memory Palace

On Judith Schalansky’s imaginative archives

An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky, trans. Jackie Smith. New Directions, 224 pages.

In Thessaly, in the early fifth century BC, a banquet was unfolding at the home of a local nobleman when the building collapsed without warning. The poet Simonides of Ceos had momentarily stepped outside; he was the only survivor. Picking through the rubble, mourners and officials struggled to identify the mangled bodies. But Simonides was able to return in his mind’s eye to the interrupted feast and visualize where each guest was seated, allowing their families to claim their remains. The poet’s strategy—subsequently dubbed “the memory palace”—has lived on as a way to enhance recall through close attention to the specific details of an environment: the layout of rooms in a building, the arrangement of objects on a shelf, the order of landmarks on a journey. It’s also a remarkable philosophical tool: enabling what’s past to become present, what’s lost to be found, and transporting its architect across time and place through the power of image alone.

Judith Schalansky’s An Inventory of Losses forms a memory palace of its own. The book is a collection of twelve pieces, each sixteen pages long, which take as their theme something that has been irretrievably lost and survives only in legend, part, or echo. Schalansky’s gaze traverses a wide span of history, surveying subjects from the poetry of Sappho or the ruins of a once-splendid Roman villa to the dismantled debating chamber of an obsolete regime or the faded beauty of the aging Greta Garbo. In rich, evocative, precise prose—beautifully translated from the German by Jackie Smith—Schalansky recalls these lost things and meditates on their destruction, all the while interrogating the extent to which memory—or writing—can compensate for material loss. As her subjects move from the realm of the real to the imaginary, Schalansky by turns reanimates their inner lives through ekphrasis, fills in forgotten histories with research, views them aslant through the eyes of later observers, or takes them as jumping-off points for fragments of her own autobiography.

The book, she writes in a powerful preface,

springs from the desire to have something survive, to bring the past into the present, to call to mind the forgotten, to give voice to the silenced and to mourn the lost. Writing cannot bring anything back, but it can enable everything to be experienced. Hence this volume is as much about seeking as finding, as much about losing as gaining, and gives a sense that the difference between presence and absence is perhaps marginal, as long as there is memory.

For Schalansky, the project of imaginative recall is both personal and political. Born in 1980 in East Germany, she grew up unable to travel—only the Olympic team were allowed beyond the borders—and would sit in the Berlin National Library examining the globe, poring over atlases whose lines, names, and colors represented the world she could not visit, and filling them in with her mind. With the end of the German Democratic Republic in 1989, and the country’s reunification, the world opened up, but “the country [she] was born in disappeared from the map.” This strange experience of seeing her home erased, as if it had never existed, sensitized Schalansky to the ways in which the geographical record, like the historical one, is full of fertile ellipses. Maps go out of date, impose divisions, leave places out, and accord others undue size or status. They “cannot represent reality, merely one interpretation of it.”

This childhood hobby became the seed of Schalansky’s 2009 book, Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will. An enticing compilation of maps across different eras (complete with latitudes, population demographics, dates of “discovery”), each is accompanied by Schalansky’s lyrical evocation of the islands’ features and histories—an intriguing, often surreal combination of fact and myth. From the accumulation of whimsical tales of rare beasts, incongruous flora, and shipwrecked sailors emerges a darker portrait of isolation and the colonial impulse; time and again, island inhabitants are disturbed by voyagers eager to take possession of uncharted territory, bring back reports of arcane rites and customs, and remake the land in their own image. Islands, writes Schalansky, “will always be places we project onto.” She subtly shows how existing mythologies are overwritten by the stories of those who claimed to have “discovered” them, “as if their achievements related to an act of creation.”

The geographical record, like the historical one, is full of fertile ellipses.

The first piece in An Inventory of Losses picks up from Atlas. Schalansky’s unnamed narrator is a researcher “permanently on the lookout for new research subjects to shed light on some hidden source of my existence and lend some kind of meaning to my life.” Sitting in the map department of a library, he reads eyewitness reports of the first missionaries to Tuanaki, a paradisal island reputed to have no understanding of war. His fascination for the island’s history is matched by his desire to redress the tragedy of its loss: it sank in the nineteenth century following an underwater earthquake, and within half a century was—like the GDR —erased from all maps. The world, he remarks, “only grieves for what it knows, and has no inkling of what it lost with that tiny islet.”

His zeal for knowledge is shared by many of Schalansky’s narrators, who are often researchers, collectors, archivists. Outsiders, adrift in some way from their present, they seek to find their own place in the world by plugging lacunae in its stores of knowledge. As in the work of Sebald and Borges, this desire often seems to stem from a certain melancholy or restlessness, and their excursions into the past rarely result in straightforward enlightenment. In “Encyclopedia in the Wood,” we are introduced to the eccentric recluse Armand Schulthess, who in 1951 left his job and moved to a secluded plot of land in Valle Onsernone. There, he inscribed thousands of metal panels with esoteric information gathered from newspapers and books and hung them on trees in his forest, creating a hidden library of all human knowledge, encompassing geology, literature, physics, and psychoanalysis. At his death, his heirs incinerated a collection of homemade books on the subject of sexuality. In this piece—a first-person radio monologue—he brims with pride in his systems and eagerness to form connections; as he leads the addressee on a tour of his home, he simultaneously offers—intentionally or otherwise—a tour of his own mind, gradually revealing his urges, fantasies, and desires as we circle deeper into its recesses.

Schalansky is deeply sympathetic to her character’s yearnings, even when hinting that they are doomed to futility. The narrator of “Guericke’s Unicorn”—which takes its name from a fabled skeleton of a beast that, if it ever existed, survives only in its dead form—is writing a guide to monsters, aiming “not only to research but also to categorize their nature, their physical features, their ancestral habitats and individual behavior.” Finding the stories of mythical beasts too predictable, replete with the same old motifs, he ends up confronting his own internal demons, in particular his horror of being lost. As he wonders whether dragons might themselves be no more than “faded reflections of past experiences, vestiges of ancient times,” he contemplates the connection between “the often terrifying monsters born of human imagination” and memory itself. In taxonomizing these formidable creatures, he finds he is really charting the history of fear, dissecting the ways in which previous generations have projected and displaced their most private terrors.

The collection’s most overtly autobiographical pieces form a poignant distillation of the paradox inherent to the memory palace: that the past, once lost, can never be fully recovered; that the vestiges of it that do remain, in memory or material reality, are irrevocably altered, twisted willfully or otherwise beyond recognition. For “Port of Greifswald”—an extended observation of nature again recalling Sebald—Schalansky set out to walk the length of the river Ryck, which flows through Greifswald, the town where she was born. She retraces a childhood haunt through adult eyes, testing her own powers of recollection, observing the effects of years of change to the landscape, and thinking back to the ancient wilderness which this urban environment has replaced. As she walks, she notes down everything she sees, describing plants, animals, landmarks in concentrated, lyrical detail. Although she is following a map, she is really traversing a path back through her own life; as the unfamiliar landscape—grasses, ditches, fields of deer—suddenly cedes, and she finds she is walking past the hospital where she was born. In “Von Behr Palace,” which recalls the burned-out mansion on whose land Schalansky’s childhood home was built, her earliest memories come back to her as she conjures the sounds and textures of the places where she grew up.

In both stories, memory is set off by a tangible recollection of physical detail: the memory palace technique involves retraining our mind and eyes to pay close attention, not just to objects of unusual beauty, but to the ordinary and everyday. The layout of Schalansky’s house—its quirks and history, the shapes of the furniture and the nocturnal noises—gives way to deeper, psychological imprints: a memory of hiding in the cemetery, simultaneously desperate and afraid to be found; the abiding fear that she might not be her mother’s real child; her first confrontation with the idea of death. Drawing together past and present is the looming image of the destroyed mansion—a real memory palace—and the remnants of a bygone age that were lost with it, one defined by “magnificent chandeliers” and “massive portraits of serious-looking gentlemen on large horses.” Schalansky’s childhood, like the GDR itself, is a place that no longer exists, and she’s well aware that her memories are unstable, her attempts to recapture a past sensation fleeting and incomplete. As she measures the windows of her old home and paces the parameters of these well-known places, she experiences the heady, dislocating sensation expressed well by the protagonist of an earlier story: “virtually nothing was more formidable, probably, than the power of images, of the once seen.”

The political import of her work lies in her attention to the possibility of multiple narratives, fragmented by time yet cumulatively powerful.

Though rarely mentioned overtly, the GDR’s collapse casts a shadow over Schalansky’s work, infusing it with a sense of precarity, vulnerability, and provisionality. Her ironic and biting 2011 novel The Giraffes Neck follows a deliciously sinister biology teacher—and former Stasi informer—who relishes telling her students about endangered or extinct species; her school will soon be closed, due to an exodus from the area following reunification, and her firm belief in survival of the fittest is under threat. The urgent question of what is lost when land is seized and exploited, by the colonization of its peoples or of its landscape or the erasure of its history, also underpins the new collection. Throughout An Inventory of Losses, Schalansky insists on the significance of personal memories, unstable as they may be, over the official historiography promulgated by the state. The political import of her work lies in her attention to the possibility of multiple narratives, fragmented by time yet cumulatively powerful. Here, private losses are interspersed with stories of large-scale environmental or societal collapse; with sensitive attention to detail, Schalansky manages to combine the micro and macro without diminishing the significance of either.

“Caspian Tiger,” set amidst the bloodthirsty spectacle of a showdown in a Roman amphitheatre between a Caspian tiger and a Berber lion, foreshadows the extinction of both  animals and an entire civilization. Although the Roman Empire is thriving, and sightings of the tiger will continue until 1964, the piece is suffused with a sense of doom, as the animals—like the “barbarian” peoples subsumed into the Empire’s orbit—are enslaved, tamed, crammed into cages, loaded onto wagons and rolled into the city “like prisoners of war or condemned criminals,” before being forced to fight, hungry and fearful, to the death.

Schalansky revisits Rome several centuries later as a place of pilgrimage for curious artists, who come to sketch the ruins on a whim of romantic nostalgia. “Villa Sacchetti” follows Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose etchings of hollowed buildings provide “anatomical records of ancient life,” and his protege Hubert Robert, who makes a living from painting scenes of destruction: ruins, fires, volcanoes, revolutions, the demolition of churches and desecration of tombs. Both artists are driven by an impulse to complete a lost image, in their own minds and on the page: aware that “the present is merely the past of the future,” Robert ends up painting his own grave, as if to shore up his own mortality in the face of death.

In “Villa Sacchetti,” as in several other stories, art—specifically, a combination of writing and image, where language and representation collide—emerges as a meaningful counter to the instability of memory. Schalansky works as an editor and book designer in Berlin; she directs her books’ form as well as their content. In An Inventory of Losses, each chapter is preceded by a near-black-on-black image of the lost thing, eerily bringing the absence and presence close together. Like those sailors who, on approaching the distant shores of Tuanaki, take up paintbrushes, moved by an urge to record the sight “somewhere other than in unreliable memory,” Schalansky’s project seeks a form in which to restore the very losses it charts. As she explains, “we can only mourn what is absent or missing if some vestige of it, some whisper, perhaps little more than a rumour, a semi-obliterated trace, an echo of an echo has found its way to us.”

Yet she knows, too, that even the book itself is impermanent—that ideas can be lost or overtaken as easily as things, that stories must be told and retold afresh if they are to last. The third-century Iranian prophet Mani, whose teachings were once known in many languages, believed that the written word “will endure, will weigh as heavy as the material on which it is captured,” yet centuries later the papyri on which his teachings were inscribed are disintegrated, eaten by salt crystals. “An effective combination of sheer neglect and willful destruction” has left the love songs of Sappho a “pregnant void,” tantalizing remnants which “demand to be completed,” if not by discovery and decipherment then by the imagination. To Schalansky, Sappho’s life, for which “the sources are as sparse as the legends are manifold,” is now a “blank space that breeds conjecture.” In one especially remarkable piece, closer to essay than fiction, she connects Sappho with generations of women whose sexual identities and same-sex relationships have been erased, excluded, ignored, reminding us that often things are omitted from history simply because they were never given language to begin with.

In her introduction, Schalansky presents the new collection itself as an archive, a repository valuable precisely because it is selective. Her project is guided not by a desire to store everything indiscriminately—“a disorderly mass of useless information”—but in direct opposition to the Enlightenment ideal of order and progress: “by writing, as by reading, one can pick one’s own ancestors and establish a second, intellectual hereditary line to rival conventional biological heritage.” Schalansky’s sensibility situates her within a rich, and growing, lineage of nature writers and psychogeographic memoirists. Yet An Inventory of Losses is perhaps most rewardingly read alongside the work of philosophers, from Frances Yates’s magisterial 1966 The Art of Memory to Simon Critchley’s genre-bending 2014 Memory Theatre, whose work has explored the tensions between art and memory, fact and fiction, and celebrated the ways in which generations have attempted to confront human fallibility through the power of imagination alone. Schalansky’s triumph is finding a complete form in which to give language: not to rebuild the past, but to invent it anew.