Review: Forgetting

A fascinating book of reflections on memory and forgetting, says David Herman


Forgetting by Gabriel Josipovici (Carcanet, £10.99)

Forgetting is a fascinating book of reflections on memory and forgetting. On the face of it, failing to remember — forgetting — seems straightforward but Gabriel Josipovici shows how complicated it is, especially when we look at how remembering has changed over time.

His book consists of a dozen or so short essays on different aspects of forgetting, from the work of medical scientists like Alexander Luria and Oliver Sacks on memory, to great literature and recent books on the Holocaust and memory.

As always, Josipovici asks big questions. Why, as a culture, are we so fascinated by issues of forgetting? Is there something a little anxious about the injunction to “never forget”? How do we explain the many new prominent memorial monuments, from Eisenman and Serra’s “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” in Berlin, to Rachel Whiteread’s Judenplatz memorial to the murdered Jews of Austria and the 9/11 monument in New York?

And was there a shift in the way we think of burial and the dead around the time of Hamlet and Poussin’s great painting, Et in Arcadia Ego in the first half of the 17th century?

The insights are fascinating. Is there something about the ghost in Hamlet and all those unburied bodies which tells us how the play has one foot in an old medieval world and another in the new modern age? Does Proust’s famous account of how a madeleine suddenly brings alive memories of his childhood tell us that there are very different kinds of memory: remembering simple facts about the past, and then those richer, embodied kinds of memory where the past suddenly comes to life? In Homer’s Iliad, do the ways in which women mourn the dead feel different from the way men speak and, if so, why?

This mix of detailed readings and large questions has been typical of Josipovici’s critical work for almost half-a-century. It is what has made him one of the outstanding critics of our time, ever since his first great breakthrough work, The World and the Book (1971).

His range is astonishing, from Homer and Hamlet, to Kafka, Borges, Proust and Beckett. But this isn’t too heavy or dense a read. Josipovici’s essays are personal, often very moving. One of the best essays describes why he burnt an old scrapbook that he and his mother had brought with them when they fled from Egypt to Britain in 1956. Why did he destroy something that carried so many memories for him and, especially, his mother? Was this act of destruction necessary to forge a new life in exile?

Forgetting makes you think quite differently about one of the great subjects of our time. A work of substance, it is a pleasure to read.

Gabriel Josipovici will be discussing ‘Forgetting’ and memory with other distinguished members of a panel chaired by Sue MacGregor at Jewish Book Week 2020 on Sunday March 8.

David Herman is a senior JC reviewer

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