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The place of childhood in modernism is a strangely under-considered one, and its place in literary modernism has been particularly neglected. Lorna Martens's The Promise of Memory itself holds much promise, then, in its attention to the relationship between modernism and memories of childhood. Her three central chapters focus respectively on Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, on Rainer Maria Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and on Walter Benjamin's Berlin Childhood around 1900. These chapters promise much, and at moments they deliver. Martens is a careful and sensitive close reader, and she makes many nice points about the details of each work. Her reading of the rich and complex nature of Proust's metaphors is especially good, but here as elsewhere, fine notation of detail doesn't really add up to a convincing argument. Overall, Martens's work doesn't live it up to its promise because, like Wordsworth, she wants memory to be a pure, untouched thing. She wants it to be untouched, in particular, by psychoanalysis and its "Freud-initiated discourse of repression" (205), but implicitly and more generally, she wants it to remain untouched by any acknowledgement of theory or of wider critical disputes.
Martens argues in her introduction that each writer's engagement with childhood memory is interesting for three reasons. First of all, she argues, "The sheer importance they accorded to memory and to childhood memories in particular is remarkable" (2). Secondly, their "quest for . . . childhood memories" is interesting because of "their temporal placement with regard to Freud" (4). Neither Proust nor Rilke, she argues, has "preconceptions formed by psychoanalytic theory. [End Page 401] . . . We have in their works what they thought they remembered about their childhood . . . and not what psychoanalysis or psychology thinks they remember" (4-5). These are problematic claims; as Martens acknowledges, a retrospective consideration of childhood, a sense that childhood has consequences beyond the limit of its years, has been central in European culture since at least the eighteenth century (17). She makes problematic claims with little attempt at justification, a move that seems even stranger in the light of the third assertion that Martens puts at the center of her thesis. She is interested in the fact that Proust, Rilke, and Benjamin all focus on their childhood memories because they all "perceive difficulty in recovering a childhood that they nevertheless highly prize" (6); unlike Wordsworth, with whom Martens compares each of her writers in her introductory chapter, Proust, Rilke, and Benjamin all acknowledge the struggle to recover memories. This is suggestive; it points towards the work needed to reclaim memories, and precisely such work has produced the intensely self-conscious and stylized writing that she is considering. However, Martens does not follow this line but swerves back to her claim about the independence of her writers' memories. She argues that although Proust and Rilke might differ from Wordsworth regarding how easily memories could be recovered, they nevertheless share with him a "belief in the truth of their memories" (25).
This is problematic for a number of reasons. These writers' sense of the difference writing makes is not compatible with a straightforward claim for the truth status of their memories. Moreover, the truth status of Proust's memories seems to me to be the least important question in À la recherche, and I can only think that Martens reaches this claim due to the conceptual necessities thrown up by her own unwillingness to theorize or to consider fully questions of form. Memories make Marcel a writer, and what we read is not so much what he has remembered as what he has written. Yet Martens claims that "[b]etween a childhood memory written up for publication and what an author thinks of as [a] credible specimen of one, there is . . . little relevant difference" (15).
At the center of Martens's argument is her claim that childhood memories in Proust, Rilke, and Benjamin are linked through their powerful response to and focus on...