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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Memory Theatre

Simon Critchley

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To purchase Memory Theatre

Title: Memory Theatre
Author: Simon Critchley
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014
Length: 85 pages
Availability: Memory Theater - US
Memory Theatre - UK
Memory Theater - Canada
Memory Theatre - India
Le jour et l'heure - France

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Our Assessment:

B+ : playful, smart

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A 14/10/2014 Nicholas Lezard
Le Monde . 7/6/2015 Roger-Pol Droit
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/12/2015 Caleb Crain
Publishers Weekly A 6/7/2015 .
TLS . 16/1/2015 Nat Segnit
Wall St. Journal . 13/11/2015 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a remarkable debut: rich, profound and clever, but not oppressively so, and often very funny." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "Il ne reste donc que ces opérettes, charmantes et dérisoires, échafaudées pour tenter en vain d’y par­venir, qu’on nomme « philosophies ». Telle pourrait bien être, parmi d’autres possibles, la leçon de cette fiction. A chacun de conclure si elle inquiète ou rassure." - Roger-Pol Droit, Le Monde

  • "As a novel, the book doesn’t quite work. The narrator is the only character with substance, and he seems to be playacting rather than confessing -- hiding from the reader behind a show of formidable learning. (...) The prose is as studded with references to philosophy as a pomander with cloves (.....) The puzzles will be alluring for some readers, though, and the book does have intriguing ideas." - Caleb Crain, The New York Times Book Review

  • "These essayistic reveries hang together so beautifully with the unfolding mystery that the book becomes, in essence, a theater of its own. The novel is short enough to be absorbed in a single sitting, but the questions posed by author/character Simon regarding the full ramifications of the soul’s saturation in history will linger indefinitely." - Publishers Weekly

  • "One of the great pleasures of Memory Theatre is the negative capability enabled by the restricted narrative viewpoint. (...) What gives Memory Theatre a heft beyond its satirical element is the concurrent sense that Critchley (the author) is entirely in earnest: he is both kidding and telling it straight, or rather kidding about something to which he has devoted serious thought. In this respect the book is as much an essay as a novella, the fiction a vector for Critchley’s metaphysics." - Nat Segnit, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The spirit of mischief is everywhere in his debut novel (.....) It’s probably best to think of the book as a brilliant parable, a continuation of Mr. Critchley’s longstanding project by different means." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of Memory Theatre closely resembles Simon Critchley in biography and accomplishment -- though these diverge in the latter parts of the book (fortunately for the author, one might add).
       The book's opening paragraph is:

     I was dying. That much was certain. The rest is fiction.
       Of course, we're all always dying, in the sense that we're inexorably moving towards the moment of our death. This, too, is the sense in which the narrator means it -- even if he believes (or, in his mind, knows) himself to be more certain about the timing of that end-point ..... The rest may be fiction -- a novel lies ahead, after all -- yet exactly how he means that also only becomes clear in the book's conclusion; misleadingly (in a way), much of the novel is grounded in the factual, many of the names and works referred to all very real.
       From this brief look at what awaited him -- not yet death, but the certainty of impending death -- the narrator goes back in time to tell the story of how he got to that point. Having moved from England to New York in 2004 (as Critchley did), he returns to the University of Essex in the summer to clear out his office and finds some boxes that have been left to him -- "the unpublished papers, notes, and remains of a close friend and former philosophy teacher of mine in France, Michel Haar", who had died the year before. (Haar, too, is a real figure, just as described in the novel, who did actually pass away in 2003.)
       Among Haar's areas of interest was the idea of the 'memory theatre', as famously discussed by Frances Yates in her classic book, The Art of Memory, and much of the material in the boxes deals with that (culminating in: "Michel's simple but brilliant idea was to read Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit as a memory theatre, namely as continuation of Yates's tradition of the art of memory"). Among Haar's other areas of interest was ... astrology, including the drawing up of what amount to variations on horoscopes.
       Critchley carefully lays the groundwork of his novel in its first part, a theoretical basis that introduces the ideas he works with -- an accessible introduction to the 'memory theatre'-idea across the ages and various attempts to build (in one form or another) a physical version. A jolt comes when, nearly midway through, the narrator reveals why he might have a particular interest in this capturing and holding of memory, as he mentions a trauma from his younger days, a trauma that, in fact, he had little memory of. Even later:
I would get flashbacks, for sure, but they were often vague and they didn't necessarily feel like my memories. My self felt like a theater with no memory. All the seats were empty. Nothing was happening onstage.
       And then there are those 'memory maps' among Haar's papers, sort of like horoscopes but based only partially on astrological data and incorporating much else too. Haar drew these up for a variety of philosophers, some long dead, some contemporary. And there's one for the narrator, too -- presenting not only a clear picture of his life (including many: "events that Michel couldn't possibly have known about") that goes not just to the present but beyond. Including specifying a place and (not too distant) time of death.
       The narrator has little doubt about the accuracy of the chart. He takes his death -- at the appointed place and hour -- to be inevitable. And in preparing for it he too takes up -- in an ambitious, personal way -- the 'memory theatre'-concept.
       Critchley shows a nice touch in how and where he leads his fictional alter ego -- teaching him a lesson, as it were (and readers, too, albeit in a slightly different manner).
       Memory Theatre is a work of philosophical fiction -- a thought experiment, even -- but it wears its learning lightly. Critchley mentions many names, works of scholarship, and ideas -- and offers an appendix consisting of 'A partial glossary of potential obscurities' providing a bit more information about people (and places, etc.) referred to in the story -- but not in a way that fatally weighs down the narrative. It ultimately amounts to a personal journey of (what turns out to be somewhat painful) discovery, as well as a neat meditation on the nature of memory and experience. It's certainly a clever read -- with some enjoyable trickiness to it -- but it also convinces simply as a story.
       Good (and quite thoughtful) fun.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 July 2015

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Memory Theatre: Reviews: Simon Critchley: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the Index of Contemporary British fiction under review

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About the Author:

       Simon Critchley was born in 1960. He teaches philosophy at the New School in New York.

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© 2015 the complete review

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