The Greeks called it ονειρομαντεία – the interpretation of dreams. Artemidorus, author of the five-volume Oneirocritica, was the ancient world’s chief adept. The modern age has handed the crown to Freud, whose cold clutch holds it still, at least in the popular mind. It is an ancient science that once divined from dreams as a source of prophetic vision, but now attributes to them the repository of repressed memories and urges. If the latter is truly their function, to house things we’d rather forget, then one night, when I am safely abed asleep, I shall once again have to endure reading Marco Candida’s ‘Dream Diary’.
Symptoms vary amongst brain diseases, but memory seems to be an almost universal casualty. It is an indispensable element of one’s identity, and any impairment of its function can only mean an erosion to the self. But memory is a mysterious thing, and not something that is always subject to our will, in the way that fine motor skills are. Proust, though not alone, made the distinction between “voluntary memory” – that which one recalls at will, and “involuntary memory” – a memory that comes upon one suddenly, often without stimulation, seemingly all the more clear for its sudden appearance. Memory seems to follow no rules but its own; a capricious, untamed beast who only grows more recalcitrant as it ages and fails, along with its frail and deluded “master”.
To hear him tell it, author Stefan Sprenger’s native Liechtenstein has no national literature. It is a small principality of approximately 36,000 people and has long been surrounded by such towering cultural colossi as Austria and Germany. Yes, there are a handful of writers, but the absence of any kind of domestic publishing industry means that the books they write are published by foreign press, and the books they read are overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, foreign. Given such a literary climate it is inevitable that Sprenger’s story ‘Dust’ will resound with the echoes of German literature and culture.
There is an episode in Saul Bellow’s novel Henderson the Rain King where protagonist Eugene Henderson enters his maid’s cottage after her death. He is astonished to find a mass of objects, piles of string and cord, china doorknobs, buttons, baby buggies, all sorted into mounds as though in their very physical tangibility Henderson’s maid, Miss Lennox, might fool death and dissolution into passing her by. But it is all vanity and the mounds are no more than bric-a-brac pyramids. Sensing her own moribund corporeality the old woman gathers to herself the detritus of her own sepulchre. Her choice of things to collect, unlike a magpie’s, is not based on their glittering splendour, and the bowerbird is no model to follow. Rather, they are all objects without function, superannuated, as she knows she herself soon will be. And so they are simply objects whose mundanity, ubiquity and sameness mean they can be nothing more than “things”: the doorknobs open no more doors, the spools of string bind nothing. Lithuanian writer Danutė Kalinauskaitė has written a short piece – less a narrative than a discursive meditation – on the effects things have on our lives while we are living and after we have died that shares with Bellow’s novel a delightful fertility of detail written in resplendent prose.