Friday, August 23, 2013

Dante, Proust and the Book of Memory

"In that part of the book of my memory..."  

Six centuries separate Dante, the greatest of Italian writers, from Marcel Proust, perhaps the greatest of the French. Dante died in 1321, and Proust in 1922. Yet both, in specific places in their work, imagined memory as a book.

The illustration shows the opening page of Dante's Vita Nuova or New Life, a collection of poems with prose introductions in which the poet explores his love for Beatrice Portinari, and the new life which began when he first saw her. This edition is part of the Central Catholic Library's Dante collection, and was published in London by the Chiswick Press in 1892. Our collection includes a number of editions of Dante's works in both Italian and English versions, as well as criticism and commentary ranging from the nineteenth to the present century.

Dante begins the Vita Nuova with an explanation; in the book of his memory he has found a page of written words under the heading "Here begins the New Life". He now intends to create a real book out of all these words. He wants to perpetuate the words so that the extract from the book of his memory relating his love for Beatrice is incarnate in paper and ink. The book of memory contains the text to be written. The writer becomes the scribe who will copy it.

In a related way, Proust, in his novel In Search of Lost Time, speaks of the "livre intérieur", the book within the mind. He says that the writer's task is to translate the "unknown signs" of this book. Proust conceives of a book generated by and held in the writer's consciousness; a book which will cross a membrane between worlds, becoming substantial on the writer's desk.

The concept of memory as a book, enduring across six centuries to link Proust back to Dante, shows how deeply wedded literary culture has been to the medium of the physical, individually bound book, the livre-objet. It's as if we have been thinking in books; as if they express for us not just what we think, but how we think as well.