The Ability to Forget

by Norman Levine
208 pages,
ISBN: 0886194156

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Norman Levine is a master of the monosyllable, a painter of lambent brushstrokes, and a musician of minimalist dialogue and narration. These characteristics are naturally allied with the short story genre and its attendant epiphanies, rather than the longer novelistic format and its character development. Most of the stories in this collection have been previously published, but the final one, "The Ability to Forget", is new.
If Levine's title brings to mind Proust's remembrance of things past and Wordsworth's emotion recollected in tranquility, then we need to examine his critique of amnesia. The title story begins with a series of monosyllables and copula verbs, so characteristic of Levine's fiction: "I was in a small town." Levine's use of personal pronouns, co-ordinate conjunctions, and simple verbs contribute to his sense of absence, dislocation, and amnesia in which an anti-climactic epiphany may be achieved through a negative approach.
The staccato opening of Levine's old-fashioned typewriter yields to his aerial view as an ex-air force officer, for the small town in southwest France changes to the small market town in northeast England, Barnard Castle, where Levine currently resides. "I stayed in Barnard Castle, a place I hadn't heard of but I liked the name. And it was near enough to the places I wanted to see again." Despite the repetition of "place", Levine feels "out of place" in Barnard Castle, so he walks in the nearby countryside where he encounters another ex-air force officer, Albert Richardson, who suffers from some form of dementia, his own ability to forget.
The narrator himself forgets places he had seen fifty years earlier with the Canadian Lancaster Squadron. Memorial plaques for Richard III (1474) and Professor Parkinson (1909) around the church and manor house attest to the inability to forget the great figures of history, but the narrator remembers other events from World War II in France. One student in the narrator's English class in France uses the word "tenderly": "When my husband came back from Buchenwald I kissed him tenderly." This spot of time stands out in Levine's British world almost devoid of Jews. The narrator sees Albert again right after Remembrance Day when he had been in a parade, but Albert's memory fades, and by the end of the story he disappears from Barnard Castle: "Later a For Sale sign appeared by his house. Then the Sold sign. People disappear. And that's that." That kind of resignation is also reminiscent of Bernard Malamud's fiction with its naturalist fatalism.
Levine's naturalism and fatalism are in evidence everywhere from signs that remain while people depart; these negative epiphanies are part of our ability to forget. In his "Foreword" to The Ability to Forget, AndrT Alexis makes a number of telling observations about Levine's use of the "Encounter" motif; and if his short stories constitute "a fragmented poem of Encounter," then they are reminiscent of Wordsworth's "The Prelude." Levine shares with Wordsworth the growth of a poet's mind and a "fidelity to sensibility," as he draws lines between characters and their natural surroundings.
In an earlier story, "In Lower Town", Levine shrinks and telescopes his native Ottawa into a small town. The first part of the story chronicles Levine's childhood in the Jewish "ghetto" of Ottawa as he accompanies his father, who is a peddler. Once outside of "Lower Town," these Yiddish-speaking peddlers enter a foreign country of which they can never become a part. When the narrator returns from abroad a generation later, everything feels strangely timeless and frozen like a photograph. On the one hand, Levine's fiction displays photographic realism; on the other hand, these photographs fade and display the ability to forget as well as remember. Long-term exposure renders the photo slightly out of focus. Visiting his mother, he is saddened to see "everything in place," and all the neatness of her surroundings. "Until I went to look in the drawer of a dresser in the living room for the old photographs. And saw, to my relief, that the neatness, everything in its place, was only on the surface. That in the drawers, in the dresser, things were still jumbled up."
Beneath the composed order of Levine's prose, the reader discovers the hidden truths of lower towns and layers of meaning. The story concludes with a shift from the interior of his mother's dwelling to the demolition of public spacełthe convent on Rideau Street. "On the day I left Ottawa the chapel had also been knocked down, the rubble cleared. It was all very tidy. Nothing to show that there ever had been a convent there at all." In this epiphany of disappearance the keyword is "down": Levine repeats "knocking down" several times, neatness gets him "down," and the directions of a painting in the chapel are downwards. "And coming down from the top left of the picture, down to the upturned eyes of the nun, was a wide ray of sunshine." Levine takes you down to the lower towns of Canada and England where he reconstructs the rubble through memory.
Photographs (or the inability to forget) play a key role in the opening story, "My Karsh Picture", which takes place in Ottawa toward the end of World War II. Karsh's assistant Zhavel, a refugee, takes the narrator's photograph, which remains on the wall after the war, but "No one knew what had happened to Zhavel." The refugee's disappearance or negative epiphany forms part of a centrifugal forgetting that is countered by Levine's touching up of historyła portrait of the artist as nobody.
If many of Levine's stories seem autobiographical, he nevertheless invents situations and distancing techniques that throw realism into question. While "The Man with the Notebook" offers clues into Levine's status "in the naturalistic tradition," he employs techniques that complicate any self-portrait. The story opens with a mix of second- and third-person pronouns that frame and mystify the writer's identity. "If you saw him by himself, sitting in the park or in the corner of a pub, you would have noticed the clerical appearance of his face."
The nameless protagonist always carries a notebook with him for jotting down observations of his surroundings. By coincidence, the characters he writes about die soon after, so that his notebook in effect accumulates obituaries. He succeeds only with realistic pieces and fails when he attempts imaginative writing. By the end of the story he himself dies beside the leather-bound books he has burned in an attempt to keep warm. The story is thus a self-reflexive work of realistic fiction, a portrait of the artist as an old man, and realism fraught with the imaginative underpinnings of a fable of identity.
"A View on the Sea" is by far the longest story in this collection. Levine begins his seascape with four gulls and two French crabbers, anchored beside each other in the deep water. Compare these details with a similar description in "The Man with the Notebook": "There are five French crabbers in the Bay ą anchored and swaying violently." The narrator comments: "these were the reflexes of a writing animal." The self-reflexive writing animal in "A View on the Sea" lists many names "for characters that he would someday use."
AndrT Alexis singles out a paragraph from this story: "They came to the long beach. It was empty. A few gulls were standing above the tide line. Where they walked they left small anchors on the washed surface of the sand. The water was halfway in, on an outgoing tide. And with each breaking wave it churned and pushed up small pebbles. And as the water was sucked back it left some of the pebbles imbedded in the sand with a small sharp V in front of each pebble."
Levine accumulates monosyllables to imitate the tide's rhythm and the pebbles' spots of time. His pronouns shift with the tide and sands so that gulls' and characters' imprints become interchangeable, as do the lines of writing and tide. The small anchors symbolize the changing connection between the two characters above and beneath the surface, while the small sharp V picks up an earlier alphabetical description of the beach: "It was a magnificent beach, the finest I had ever seen. An elongated Cą. Within it was a smaller C made by a line of dead seaweed and pebblesą. in between the two Cs people lay." Levine's ability to remember resides between the letter, the line, and the landscape. ņ

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