The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

All Issues
NOV 2013 Issue

Lasting Memory

James McCourt
Lasting City: The Anatomy of Nostalgia
(Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013)

The classical art of memory, as described by Renaissance scholar Frances Yates in her 1966 book, The Art of Memory, was “invented” by Simonides, lyric poet of ancient Greece, after the roof of a banquet hall collapsed and he, the only survivor, was able to identify the mangled corpses of his fellow revelers by the order of their arrangement around the table. Rules and techniques for the “art” were later recorded by Cicero, among others, elucidating how rhetoricians in the time before pens and paper were able to give exceptionally long speeches from memory.

 The idea, briefly, is to situate images in places (loci, or topoi): learn a building, preferably a large one with many rooms, and put in its varied loci images representing what is to be remembered. The images need to be grotesque and dramatic, thus impressing themselves most effectively on the memory. Once this is done, the practitioner will be able to “walk” through the building in his imagination, the images therein evoking whatever information he stored there. The process works because memory by nature wants order and drama. We don’t remember the insignificant things, because they are insignificant.

 Author James McCourt’s memoir, Lasting City: The Anatomy of Nostalgia, recalls the ancient practice with a detailed look at the halls of his memory places. Told almost exclusively in third person, it is a sprawling, intensely vivid work, driven more by poetry than narrative, the stated impetus of which was his dying mother’s exhortation to “Tell everything.” He makes a go of it, heeding Emily Dickinson along the way and telling it “slantwise.” The angle of that slant is his truth, as opposed to the truth. The images of McCourt’s chosen history tumble out in such a way that would seem almost whimsical or random, but for their recurrence and interconnection as the tapestry unfolds. Indeed, the order is McCourt’s own (as opposed to factual chronology), and its spontaneous, associative, disjointed nature makes it difficult to follow. It is the author’s use of terms pertaining to the somewhat esoteric idea of artificial memory that suggests his adaptive use of it.

The author on stage in the Theater of Memory. Men[…]sitting in the dark so that he can only see the first several rows of the orchestra and some faces in the front rows of each of the tiers above, up to the second balcony.

Yates’s book provides a diagram of a multi-tiered memory theater (from when the practice resurfaced during the Renaissance), although that one certainly wouldn’t have been dark like McCourt’s, because darkness obstructs accuracy.

Of course, accuracy isn’t McCourt’s point. He admits from the get-go that “rapt adherence to the family romance” will mean tinkering with truth. “The truth isn’t the half of it,” he says. The point, then, is not merely remembering, but remembering well–which is to say, remembering lovingly, fondly, romantically.

 Born in the ’40s to an Irish-Catholic family in the Bronx, McCourt had no easy time coming to terms with his homosexuality, to say nothing of asking his loved ones to do the same. The family picture is peopled colorfully and plentifully, its figures by turns gregarious, spiteful, proud, passionate, devoted to cultural tradition. The seemingly disparate memories draw out wishful, if not actual, connections between the figures of lore—Catholic, Irish, Classical Greek and Roman, Broadway—with the associations New York’s topoi evoke of his personal history: birthday parties, family excursions, old bar haunts, and dining spots, secluded nooks and dark bowers wherein he dared let himself be himself (“Central Park [is] an essential topos in our text.”) The memoir constantly turns back on itself, images echoing and reflecting each other in ecstatic recognition of a desired shape.

The only way to control the capricious mechanisms of memory is to restyle them[…]One must learn to rein in the headlong gallop of random and unbridled recollection or go stark raving mad.

Yet, the recollections, as presented to the reader here, are precisely unbridled. Line by line, Lasting City reads as compulsive, emotional, emphatically not reined in. McCourt evidently experienced an unimpeded course between head and hand while writing, the images arriving in flashes as he was taken up in the throes of remembering his dramatic and sometimes harrowing street education as a young gay man in New York City. In sentences that often seem to unfurl endlessly, McCourt’s web of words is likely too multifilamentous for the casual reader to be able to secure them in time and space. He is like a guide giving a driving tour of a city, perfunctorily pointing out the beautiful sights and driving far too fast for his guests to be able to appreciate them.

 Nevertheless, McCourt shines just enough light to indicate that there is a structure, there must be—“Throw away that truss, and good luck to you.” His “anatomy” of nostalgia may be better renamed the “art” of nostalgia. The capriciousness of memory is the very trouble with it, so we join McCourt on an impression of history, his fun-house halls giving more feeling than information.

Let them understand[…]he is not setting down the official authorized biography of his family or of the city they inhabited—they didn’t last, the city did, and does—he is bringing them to life to tell the story of themselves[…]The components of which, invisible at the outset, may be discovered singly and in primary-secondary combination by the prism of the reader’s consciousness patiently employed.

We learn from Yates that later incarnations of memory practice had a decidedly moral bent: there were lessons, whether religious, ethical, or otherwise, that exemplify a desirable world order, and it was therefore for the good of your mortal soul to transpose those lessons unfailingly to your inner world. When McCourt says, “life is short and art is long, but the transformation of life into literature necessarily prolongs it,” one thinks of the graffiti at Pompeii, some Josephus Flatus proclaiming, “I was here,” or of Humbert Humbert’s aurochs in Lolita. But, like those whose memory theaters were built to reflect the world in which they wanted to live, McCourt’s story isn’t merely about commemoration. It is about designing the most palatable view.


Geoffrey Young

GEOFFREY YOUNG is a writer living in Brooklyn. His debut novel, Fall, was published in 2010. More of his work can be found at


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

All Issues