Friday, June 5, 2009

The sweetness of memory without the bathos (Books - The Music Room by William Fiennes)

William Fiennes's The Music Room evokes the childhood memory of growing up in a medieval castle that is not merely the setting, but a character in this tender reminiscence. While told from Fiennes's point of view, this memoir is, uncharacteristically, a book about someone else - Fiennes's older brother Richard - who suffered from brain damage as the result of epilepsy. As I mentioned in my other post about this book, Fiennes alternates between memories of Richard, his parents and their unusual home, and descriptions of the work of the earliest neuroscientists who sought to understand the brain, its parts, and how they either function or fail to do so. The passages about the castle and his family are rich with well-chosen detail - the kind that evokes memory:
He arranged white pipe cleaners and scraping tools on his bedside table; he insisted we stop at the tobacconist's on the way to the station so he could stock up on tobacco and lighter fuel. A long curtain wall tupped with battlements ran out at an angle from the gatehouse and you could tell if Rich was walking on the far side by the steam-train clouds of smoke his pipe produced. Inside, he banged the pipe on the earthenware bowl, abrupt auctioneer raps to clear the last flecks of ash, to get the thing clean. Soon the pipe's repertoire of new sounds (the rap rap rap of the chamber on the earthenware dish, the lid flip and rasp of the angle-flame Zippo, the scratch of the cleaning tool, the blasts he blew through the stem to clear the airway, cheeks puffing like a trumpeter's) included a distinctive cough...

The mini-scientific histories have a contrasting character, more factual:
Berger proposed the name electroencephalogram for the curve he had demonstrated for the first time in human beings. 'We see in the electroencephalogram,' he wrote, 'a concomitant phenomenon of the continuous nerve processes which take place in the brain, exactly as the electrocardiogram represents a concomitant phenomenon of the contractions of the individual segments of the hear.' ...

'In the characteristic potential curve of the EEG of man,' Berger writes, 'which is composed of the action current of the various nerve cell layers and is woven into a homogeneous whole, the total physiological and psychophysiological activity of the human brain finds its visible expression.'
This may seem cold in comparison to what one expects from a memoir, but EEG is the metric we employ in our lab, and I don't only find learning about the birth of the measurement interesting, I found it exciting and moving to see Fiennes struggle to do what many of us thinking creatures who ponder people and behavior (whether through art or through science) do every day - find a way to understand what is going on in the brain to make a mind, an active body, a soul. There is a third, rarer category of narrative that combines the two, attempting to lay bare this struggle that people who love someone with a mental or a neurological illness go through each day:
A psychologist's report listed his 'problem behaviors': great difficulty with motivation; severe problems with impulse control, leading at times to aggressive behaviour; lack of personal hygeine; difficulty in getting started; difficulty once started, in stopping; inability to plan and sequence behaviour; disinhibition; unable to problem-solve; insensitive to social cues; inability to learn from feedback; perseveration; tunnel vision; rigidity. 'He cannot take into account the effect of his behaviour on others,' the report noted, 'nor can he always exercise sufficient self-control to behave appropriately.'
'R does not have brakes,' Mum scribbled in the margin.
The combination of these three narrative strategies, and the beauty of Fiennes's writing produced for me a book both touching and thoughtful, indulging in the sweetness of memory but never tumbling into maudlin longing. A very worthwhile read.

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