U.Va. German Professor's Book Looks at Childhood Memories in Modernist Literature

February 13, 2012

February 13, 2012 — In William Wordsworth's "Prelude," memories of childhood are central to the Romantic poet's autobiographical vision. Wordsworth, like other Romantics, idealized childhood. He remembered his own childhood vividly.

By contrast, some modernist writers writing in Europe between the 1890s and 1930s embraced childhood memories as elusive "precious finds." They celebrated the quest to retrieve and preserve such memories from oblivion, writes German professor Lorna Martens of the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences in her new book "The Promise of Memory: Childhood Recollection and its Objects in Literary Modernism."

In the book, published in September by Harvard University Press, Martens, a specialist in comparative literature of the 18th through 20th centuries, focuses on Marcel Proust, Rainer Maria Rilke and Walter Benjamin. For these writers, "Life was changing so radically, memory became more prized," she said.

These three writers interested Martens because they were working "just before, or in Benjamin's case just after, psychoanalysis changed the perception of childhood memory," she said. "They are arguably the most memory-obsessed writers of the early 20th century," she wrote in the book's introduction.

Proust, although he lived in Paris, spent his springs and summers in rural France, "connected to a simpler lifestyle," while Benjamin "grew up in a wealthy family in Berlin with total security and stability, which changed drastically when the Nazis came into power," Martens said. For them, memory was bound up in nostalgia.

On the other hand, Rilke's childhood was not happy. An only child, his family pressures were traumatic. In his late 20s, he suffered an episode of psychic instability that included flashbacks to these traumatic childhood memories. In his writing he "wants to exorcise them. He talks about wanting to accomplish these childhood memories – laying them to rest," Martens said.

"The three literary giants wrote extensively about childhood memory and were interested in memory theory," which had recently arisen in psychopathology, experimental psychology, philosophy and the child study movement, she said. They also shared a belief in the importance of objects and place in childhood memory.

Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" – first translated as "Remembrance of Things Past" – calls upon what he termed involuntary memory, or memory that is prompted by a chance encounter with a cue, such as a thing or place. Involuntary memory is the key to the book's protagonist becoming an artist, Martens said. When he bites into a madeleine cookie, "It is the taste of the cookie that brings back the past" and evokes the memory, she said.

The writers "remember through things or places," Martens said, adding that their works "straddle autobiography and fiction."

In Rilke's "Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge" – his only novel, and semi-autobiographical – the protagonist is also an artist who grapples with becoming a writer. In the quest, "the act of becoming one brings up childhood memories," Martens said.

For Benjamin, who was primarily a philosopher and literary critic, childhood memory played a pivotal role in his poetic memoir, "Berlin Childhood Around 1900," which he wrote and rewrote and was published posthumously. "He recalls memories and writes about them to inoculate himself against becoming homesick in his exile from Germany," Martens said.

"The early modernist writers, Proust and Rilke, were interested in what they could remember and presented it with absolute certainty," Martens said. "They wrote without a psychoanalytical script."

The advent of Freud's psychoanalytical theory "cast doubt on the authenticity of memories and systematically undermined childhood memories," Martens said. "For him, memories were not about childhood, but were a screen for repressed content that you would not want to acknowledge."

Benjamin, who knew psychoanalysis, held that we constantly rewrite our memories. But he retained a Proustian faith in involuntary memory and went on to develop his own complex theory of the illumination memory can bring.

Later 20th-century writers accepted Freud's theories and adopted his memory skepticism.

Through her research, Martens discovered that "women wrote about childhood memory differently than men." Further exploration of this finding is the topic of her next book, which will focus on women writers’ childhood autobiographies beginning with the feminist movement of the 1970s to the present.

— By Jane Ford

Media Contact

Jane Ford

Senior News Officer U.Va. Media Relations