Review: The Memory Effect, eds. Russell Kilbourn and Eleanor Ty

You know how sometimes when you’ve been drinking you hit that stage where you are ready for bed but you can’t actually go to bed yet, and you’re not really listening to people around you but you want to pretend you are to be polite? So you put on a really serious face to make it appear that you are listening and comprehending every word that’s being said, and periodically you nod enthusiastically? Have y’all had this? Because that was how I felt during some of the essays in The Memory Effect. I requested it on NetGalley and I was all, Oh yeah, I’m definitely smart enough for this, and although I probably am smart enough for it, I am not smart enough for it on the subway early in the morning before I’ve had coffee.

Many of the essays were really fascinating. I admit that I skipped some of the more heavily theoretical ones, but listen, that is just because I had no idea what they were talking about. (Don’t judge me.) Since I can’t speak to those sensibly, I thought instead I’d highlight a few essays that I thought were particularly good.

Kathy Behrendt’s essay “Hirsch, Sebald, and the Uses of Postmemory” talks about the dangers of broadening the concept of postmemory, or the way the generation that follows a catastrophe understand the suffering of the generation that underwent the catastrophe (Art Spiegelman’s Maus is an example of a postmemory work). The inventor of this theory, Marianne Hirsch, has evidently in recent years said more about the idea of postmemory to the effect that it is the act of participating in other people’s memories. Kathy Behrendt dislikes this whole idea. Kathy Behrendt thinks there is a danger of slipping into appropriation. This was just a really good, clear essay, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Sarah Henstra’s “British Propaganda and the Construction of Female Mourning in the First World War” is right in my wheelhouse. It’s exactly what it says on the tin, basically, so if that appeals to you, then there you go.

Marlene Kadar’s fascinating “Resisting Holocaust Memory: Recuperating a Compromised Life” explores the life of a concentration camp guard called Hermine who lived for years in Canada before being discovered; the essay talks about the viciousness she displayed as a concentration camp guard as well as the gendered challenges she faced as a women in a deeply gender-conservative Germany. From this essay I learned one of the only things I know to Canada’s discredit: Apparently they permitted very few Jews to immigrate during the Holocaust, but had looseish immigration rules following the end of World War II. And we have no way of knowing how many Nazis came to Canada to escape retribution for their participation in Hitler’s regime, because apparently Canada destroyed most of their immigration records from the period following World War II. The more you know!

Sheelagh Russell-Brown’s essay about memories of the Holocaust in Roma communities is shattering. This is an aspect of the Holocaust that doesn’t get a ton of play, but as Russell-Brown points out, an overwhelming majority of European Roma concentration camp victims did not survive, and the population has never recovered from this.

Stefan Sereda’s “The Cinema of Simulation” compares two films about World War II — Soderbergh’s The Good German and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, examining each film’s critical eye (or lack thereof) on the American role in World War II. Without having seen either film, I thought this was a very strong essay. Soderbergh, to no one’s surprise, was making a film about the problems with an over-simplistic view of how America acquitted itself in World War II, whereas Tarantino is writing a simple revenge fantasy that plays up America’s role in defeating the Germans and almost completely ignores the role of Russia in defeating Hitler’s forces.

As a whole, I would have liked to see wider geographic variation in the essays assembled in this volume. There’s a heavy, though certainly not an exclusive, focus on memories of the Holocaust in this book; and while that is a hugely important thing in history, it’s not the only thing. I’d have loved, for instance, to see something contrasting British and Indian memories of the rebellion in 1857; or (and I am not just saying this because I love Adichie!) an essay about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s portrayal of the Biafran War. That would have made a nice change from the many many Holocaust essays.

Note: This book was provided by the publishers via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

  • This one sounds really interesting. Memory is such an elusive thing; maybe I’ll be able to get something out of the less technical essays!

    • Gin Jenny

      Yes! I think as long as you’re reconciled to the fact that not every essay is accessible to non-specialists, you’ll enjoy the book.

  • Jenny

    OMG I went to the conference that put these essays out! It was a really awesome and interesting conference. I wrote an essay for it (about medieval memory in the works of Julien Gracq) but they didn’t think it was sufficiently theory-heavy, so they didn’t accept it for the book! Wow, this is a small blogosphere.

    • Gin Jenny

      Whoooooaaaaa. You’re blowing my mind right now. I’m sad they didn’t take your essay! It would have been so cool to read an essay of yours!

  • Reading this review made me feel slightly guilty because I have another book on memory (‘Memory: An Anthology’, ed. Harriet Harvey Wood & A.S. Byatt) sitting unread on my bookshelves… But this one sounds really interesting. It seems to touch on memory as myth-maker, would it be fair to say that?

  • Fascinating. You read such interesting things and I love the way you write your thoughts about what you read.

  • Oho, this was something I used to teach – via literature – when I was teaching. I used to give the first-thing-Monday-morning lecture on memory in Michaelmas term, and it had to be a lively one to keep the students awake. And in the hope they might retain even some of it. All that Holocaust stuff is very familiar to me, and often hard-going, though worth it. Ahhh, the memories!