Memory in Sara Suleri's Meatless Days
Yishane Lee '91 (English 137, 1990)
The notion of memory recurs in her text in many ways. In particular, Suleri's inclusion of her sister Ifat's death was not an outward attempt to reconcile her death, she says, because grief never has a terminal point. "You go through different permutations of course, but there's never a point where you say, 'Now it's okay.'" What did happen is that friends of Ifat would call her up and tell her they were glad to have read the book. In this way, "the memory bank is not just mine alone, it becomes more collective," Suleri says. A version of Ifat thus remains in this world beyond her death; a memory of her sister will continue in her consciousness as well as in others. Indeed, Suleri speaks of her "need to elegize," because she believes that it is "an important act of devotion to remember" (Interview, December 1990). The strands joining Suleri's work once again emerge: memory, devotion, history.
These elements continue when Marcel Proust's work is mentioned. Proust, in A la recherche du temps perdu, has shown how people writing about their own lives necessarily distance themselves from the prose. As an autobiographer sits down to write, he describes his self at an earlier time, when a particular event actually occurred, and he also writes about his self when he first recalled the memory of the past self. Thus there are three selves involved in the creative process: for Proust's narrator Marcel it was himself as a child in the town of Combray, then it was himself recalling his childhood in Combray via an involuntary memory, and finally it was himself remembering his recollection of his childhood now as he is writing it down in an autobiography. To this Suleri reiterates her desire to present a multiplicity of voices, saying she hopes she not only presented the voices of various people in the book but also the various voices of her own self. "I did feel that even when I was using the first person I was looking at myself in the third person," Suleri says, conjecturing that "maybe that's some of the detachment people noticed" (Interview, December 1990) in her prose. In addition, Suleri would subscribe to Proust's notion of involuntary memory, as an instantaneous and spontaneous occurrence not governed by any conscious action: for the narrative, be it fiction or non-fiction, shapes itself. Skipping through her well of past happenings, automatically her mind chooses without conscious reason this memory and that, giving birth to Meatless Days.
Suleri, then, shares a common philosophy, at least on general points, with Proust. When comparing her to other authors, including those who profess to be writing autobiographical works, Suleri's approach differs to various degrees. Focusing on contemporary writers and speaking in general terms, the objective of an author such as Tom Wolfe to enlighten via the use of parody, sarcasm and even defamation is at odds with Suleri's wish to avoid excessive explanation and to present a loving account of events and people. Though she shares with Wolfe an attention to detail and a focus on set pieces centered on one person (or, for Wolfe, a group of persons), their methods essentially are different. Wolfe's artistry relies on the weird, on the symbolical grotesques that caricature the objects of his attacks; Suleri in contrast attempts to reveal people as they actually were or are. Embellishments are directed not at the character of the person or event itself, as is the case with Wolfe, but act to color instead Suleri's language, lending her words texture and finitude without distorting her subjects. Annie Dillard, writing about her childhood in Pittsburgh, seems akin to Suleri in both women's attention to tender and poignant descriptions that reveal a certain devotion to their subjects, but Dillard's emphasis on interpretation moves her a few beats away from Suleri, and Suleri also lacks Dillard's precociousness. In addition, Suleri's belief in intertwined public and personal histories runs counterpoint to Dillard's anecdotal short stories interspersed with an occasional philosophical digression that serves to underpin her stories.
Last modified 18 May 2001