Late last month I asked Eprile what he was reading. His reply:
My reading tends to be eclectic and international in scope. While I’ll read the latest topics in American literature—such as Nathan Englander’s new collection of stories—I’m just as likely to pick up an Israeli, Japanese, or African novel or memoir.Learn more about Tony Eprile's collection Temporary Sojourner: South African Stories.
Right now, I’m reading Israeli author Meir Shalev’s Four Meals (1994), beautifully translated by Barbara Harshav. It’s the story of a boy whose mother had three lovers, each of whom has some claim on him as their son:From Moshe Rabinovitch, I inherited a farm and a cowshed and yellow hair.There is a great deal that’s out of the ordinary in each of these fathers, and the reader is quickly caught up in a world where the unusual happens without being remarked as strange. The boy is named Zayde—grandfather—which so disgusts and disturbs the Angel of Death, that the boy cannot die…even if he falls out of a high tree or is shot at during one of Israel’s conflicts. I love the easy magic of this novel, and particularly the lessons it imparts on observing the world around us. When Zayde asks his mother for a watch, she points out how many watches are all around him in the rural village where he lives.
From Jacob Sheinfeld I inherited a fine house, fine furnishings, empty canary cages, and drooping shoulders.
And from Globerman the cattle dealer, I inherited a knipele of money and my gigantic feet. (p.7)
She showed me the shadow of the eucalyptus that said nine in the morning with its size, its direction, and its chill, the little red leaves of the pomegranate that said mid-March, the tooth that wriggled in my mouth and said six years, and the small wrinkle in the corners of her eyes that capered and said forty.Shalev has constructed a whole world inside a small village in Israel, but he also teaches the reader what it means to see the world around us.
“You see, Zayde, this way you’re inside time. If they bought you a watch, you’d only be next to it.”
The basic—and often, boring—way writers construct a memoir is to begin at childhood and continue to the present, a straightforward chronological account. A number of South African writers have recently produced memoirs that follow their own idiosyncratic structure. One of my favorites, recently returned to, is Michael Cope’s Intricacy (subtitled: A Meditation on Memory). Cope is a jeweler—and the son of a well-known South African writer—and he has constructed his recollections the way one might construct a beautiful, intricate necklace. Each of the ten sections of the book is comprised of short meditations on such subjects as art, karate, childhood events, the author’s difficult and artistic mother (a Communist who was friends with a number of significant artists and political figures), and other seemingly random but intricately connected ideas. Cope might begin with a detail about a Van den Graaf generator (plus a picture of someone experimenting with one), then subtly segue to the day lightning struck a favorite tree next to his house, and finally to learning how his father’s twin brother was killed by lightning at age twenty. The book is not only about what memories the author holds, but also on the changing, intricate nature of memory itself. (For a sample of his writing, check out some selections from Intricacy).
Cope’s lovely book is a reminder that our memories seize on seemingly random details and then move outward by association, that our lives are made from small moments and slight apercus, just as much as from the larger events.
The Page 99 Test: The Persistence of Memory.