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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Shadow of Memory

Bernard Comment

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To purchase The Shadow of Memory

Title: The Shadow of Memory
Author: Bernard Comment
Genre: Novel
Written: 1990 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 205 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Shadow of Memory - US
The Shadow of Memory - UK
The Shadow of Memory - Canada
L'ombre de mémoire - Canada
The Shadow of Memory - India
L'ombre de mémoire - France
  • French title: L'ombre de mémoire
  • Translated by Betsy Wing

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Our Assessment:

B : reasonably well done novel of obsessions and memory

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 10/9/2012 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Frustratingly, the nature of the narrator’s dilemma -- namely the absurdity of it -- is apparent long before he catches on, and despite Comment’s spry prose, the trip to the inevitable tragic end slows to a crawl before finally arriving." - Publishers Weekly

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:

       "So much reading, in vain" is the cri de cœur with which the narrator of The Shadow of Memory opens the story. He is a young man who is obsessed with the written word and record, and frustrated by his inability to retain what he thinks is the essence of what he reads, desperate in his: "desire for the past, a past no longer eluding me". Then he meets Robert, an old man who seems to offer everything he is missing. Eventually, Robert offers him an opportunity he can't pass up:

A job as secretary, or better: factotum, to revise his memory, his knowledge, and see to its upkeep.
       More than that, he is entranced by the possibility that Robert will: "transmit his memory to me".
       The narrator is involved with a woman, Mattilda, but Robert pulls him away from her. These two figures in his life, each vying for his undivided attention and unwilling and unable to accommodate the other (Mattilda refers to Robert as his: "nutty old man"), represent the two directions the narrator is pulled in. Robert holds the promise of a store of the entire past, while with Mattilda: "You had the impression with her that she only lived in the future". The narrator, meanwhile, acknowledges that all he has is the present, "the perfectly ordinary present; only in the present was I able to speak, find ideas, words."
       He doesn't have enough imagination to see any future -- and even though he likes Mattilda's invented stories of possible futures he finds they are beyond him, in part because: "I was already so far behind with the past".
       Robert has his own issues and tics, many of which bother the narrator, but which he isn't strong enough to do much about. However, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow -- those treasured memories that might be all his after Robert (who is not in great health anyway) dies -- keeps him focused on the tasks at hand.
       Among Robert's obsessions is classification, as he tries to organize his library, and among the novel's best passages are his fanciful descriptions of how he has tried to and how he wants to organize his library. Among the ideas he has is for: "a system that took into account the pleasure or irritation felt in successive readings". And as to the most special books, his treasures, Robert explains that he wants:
All of these in the most ordinary, cheap editions, paperback if possible, so that no additional gratifying elements could dilute the intensity of the sensations experience. All those tremulous, ecstatic moments marking my existence ...
       Classification proves to be difficult, as does the narrator's pursuit of memory. Not surprisingly, things don't work out quite as the narrator hopes or plans, and even Robert proves not to be the fount of memory he had originally believed him to be.
       The novel switches from straightforward account to a journal that the narrator tries to keep, documenting the slow spiral out of control. No matter what he tries, the narrator remains frustrated: "My thought drags behind in confusion". Robert and Mattilda continue to tug him in different directions. It does not end well.
       The Shadow of Memory has some wonderful passages on memory and books, a theoretical framework on which Comment has structured his fiction. The story is fine, but only intermittently gripping; the book's best moments are those of single-minded pursuit and obsession, the brief digressions on classification and memory, and it's difficult for Comment to sustain the tension for the length of the novel. Still, these are intriguing ideas that Comment (and his ultimately hapless narrator) explore, and the whole premise is intriguing, too.
       A philosophical book-lover's book that doesn't entirely succeed.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 October 2012

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The Shadow of Memory: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Bernard Comment was born in Switzerland in 1960. He is the director of Fiction & Cie

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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