Have you ever had that feeling that you had been somewhere or seen something before, even though such a thing was not possible? The French, as usual, have a word for it, but up until this week, I have never really believed in deja-vu.
Anyway, memory is a notoriously unreliable witness. It often seems that we ourselves are the worst judges of what has happened to us. Autobiography, they say, is really a branch of fiction.
Memory is such a slippery, multi-faceted thing that writers have always been fascinated by the tricks it plays.Marcel Proust is of course famous as the author of the greatest memory-recovery scene in all literature. When the narrator of À La Recherche de Temps Perdu bites into a Madeleine cake, scenes of his childhood flood his memory.
I experienced a kind of Proustian moment this week, but the memories that came back to me were not my own, or could not have been.
I was staying in Kelly’s Hotel in Rosslare. It was my first time to do so, yet the place seemed familiar to me.
When I was growing up, this hotel had a totemic status in my family. People were treated to breaks there, or went there to recover from a setback, or an illness.
My mother was a tireless prosletyser in the cause of Kellys. She loved the place, and especially the food. To hear her describe the afternoon tea circa 1975 was to be present at a virtuoso performance.
My uncles, too, were regulars. They liked its solidity, its sheer middle-classness. They liked the fact that they met people like themselves there: brusque, outdoor, golfing types.
So I had heard plenty about Kelly’s, but had never been. And yet, as I walked along the shore at the front of the hotel or played crazy golf with my wife as our daughter ran about, I felt sure I had seen it before.
I was reminded of Gore Vidal’s idea of memory as a palimpsest. He chose a typically obscure word to express himself: a palimpsest is an old Roman writing tablet which has been scraped clean to be written on again, but which retains some imprint of the original writing.
His image is a good one: perhaps old layers can peep through, and shadows of the past are still visible today.
I was conscious of the fact that I was standing where many of my family had stood – my father, my uncles, perhaps even my grandfather – in this exact same spot, at the excact same time in their lives, when they had just become family men.
Perhaps I was the last layer of many to have been laid over this place.
One of the most powerful passages about memory I have ever read is by W G Sebald in his novel Austerlitz. The title character stands in a waiting room at Liverpool Street station in London and has a flashback to his four-year-old self in the same place, waiting to be taken to foster parents in Wales.
His memories of this painful time are released, and the tenderness he now feels for himself as a boy finds expression. His former life as the son of Prague Jews emerges from his memory, and he can finally acknowledge who he is and what has happened to him.
Of course, it is an attractive notion that he is purveying here, the notion that, once we can remember everything, our life will all suddenly make sense.
And it certainly wasn’t working for me. The more I remembered, the more confused I was. The crazy golf? I won, of course. Sure didn’t I know the course backwards.