Bernard Comment brings a fairy-tale premise into the modern world, where information, and its loss, can be a matter of life and death

Bernard Comment, The Shadow of Memory, Trans. by Betsy Wing, Dalkey Archive Press, 2012.

The debut novel of Bernard Comment, acclaimed author and editor, now available in English for the first time, The Shadow of Memory brings a fairy-tale premise into the modern world, where information—and its loss—can be a matter of life and death.

In this eerie, compelling, and playful novel, a young man tormented by his feeble memory meets an elderly man, Robert, endowed with the recall of an elephant. Soon, in exchange for becoming his live-in servant, Robert agrees to allow his young protégé to inherit his prodigious memory upon his death. While this might seem a fair if absurd exchange, Robert’s demands become progressively more macabre, until the narrator is forced to decide what he is truly willing to sacrifice for the ability to remember. The debut novel of Bernard Comment, acclaimed author and editor, now available in English for the first time, The Shadow of Memory brings a fairy-tale premise into the modern world, where information—and its loss—can be a matter of life and death.
 Comment’s novel, originally published in France in 1990 and now appearing in English for the first time, is a house of cards that collapses before it’s complete. To combat his faulty memory, the book’s unnamed narrator takes to filling his computer with the available documented history of the cultural past in order to better situate himself in the present. While doing research, he meets Robert, an intriguing old man with an expansive and insatiable memory, who, seeing in the narrator a gullible dupe, reels him into an impossible and cruel project of his own, offering in exchange to bequeath his memory to the young man. Frustratingly, the nature of the narrator’s dilemma—namely the absurdity of it—is apparent long before he catches on, and despite Comment’s spry prose, the trip to the inevitable tragic end slows to a crawl before finally arriving. Along the way, the Swiss-born Comment (The Panorama) cleverly looks at the ways in which memory can dominate and distort perceptions of the present, but it’s not enough to keep the book afloat. - Publishers Weekly

   "So much reading, in vain" is the cri de cœur with which the narrator of The Shadow of Memory opens the story. He is a young man who is obsessed with the written word and record, and frustrated by his inability to retain what he thinks is the essence of what he reads, desperate in his: "desire for the past, a past no longer eluding me". Then he meets Robert, an old man who seems to offer everything he is missing. Eventually, Robert offers him an opportunity he can't pass up:
A job as secretary, or better: factotum, to revise his memory, his knowledge, and see to its upkeep.
       More than that, he is entranced by the possibility that Robert will: "transmit his memory to me".
       The narrator is involved with a woman, Mattilda, but Robert pulls him away from her. These two figures in his life, each vying for his undivided attention and unwilling and unable to accommodate the other (Mattilda refers to Robert as his: "nutty old man"), represent the two directions the narrator is pulled in. Robert holds the promise of a store of the entire past, while with Mattilda: "You had the impression with her that she only lived in the future". The narrator, meanwhile, acknowledges that all he has is the present, "the perfectly ordinary present; only in the present was I able to speak, find ideas, words."
       He doesn't have enough imagination to see any future -- and even though he likes Mattilda's invented stories of possible futures he finds they are beyond him, in part because: "I was already so far behind with the past".
       Robert has his own issues and tics, many of which bother the narrator, but which he isn't strong enough to do much about. However, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow -- those treasured memories that might be all his after Robert (who is not in great health anyway) dies -- keeps him focused on the tasks at hand.
       Among Robert's obsessions is classification, as he tries to organize his library, and among the novel's best passages are his fanciful descriptions of how he has tried to and how he wants to organize his library. Among the ideas he has is for: "a system that took into account the pleasure or irritation felt in successive readings". And as to the most special books, his treasures, Robert explains that he wants:
All of these in the most ordinary, cheap editions, paperback if possible, so that no additional gratifying elements could dilute the intensity of the sensations experience. All those tremulous, ecstatic moments marking my existence ...
       Classification proves to be difficult, as does the narrator's pursuit of memory. Not surprisingly, things don't work out quite as the narrator hopes or plans, and even Robert proves not to be the fount of memory he had originally believed him to be.
       The novel switches from straightforward account to a journal that the narrator tries to keep, documenting the slow spiral out of control. No matter what he tries, the narrator remains frustrated: "My thought drags behind in confusion". Robert and Mattilda continue to tug him in different directions. It does not end well.
       The Shadow of Memory has some wonderful passages on memory and books, a theoretical framework on which Comment has structured his fiction. The story is fine, but only intermittently gripping; the book's best moments are those of single-minded pursuit and obsession, the brief digressions on classification and memory, and it's difficult for Comment to sustain the tension for the length of the novel. Still, these are intriguing ideas that Comment (and his ultimately hapless narrator) explore, and the whole premise is intriguing, too.
       A philosophical book-lover's book that doesn't entirely succeed. - M.A.Orthofer

Time is a complex substance, like a paste that slips away and soon disappears, while still remaining in the form of the traces it leaves on the ground, in the air, or in bodies and minds. It is a relentless flow, immediately suppressed and constantly repeated. The history of mankind is, for that matter, defined by this contradiction: to watch time pass by, and to try to count it, or to halt it.

Everyone, in order to shape him or herself during this lifetime, holds on to what he or she wants of the traces that time leaves all around itself. But, just as much, everyone lets him or herself be weighed down or filled with repressed, distasteful memories. (Freud is the proof of this, still current today.)
The practice of writing résumés, or the more recent example of Wikipedia, is as chilling as taking an X-ray, when all that remains is a skeleton. In these documents, the hazy tide of a life is reduced to a few dried-out drops – dates, diplomas, geographical locations, professional history – and you can't find any of that complex, contradictory, muddled pulp that is memory, with its radiant points and its miserable moments, its pride and its shame, its desires and its remorse – not to mention what's entailed by the Portuguese word "saudade," that is, nostalgia for what was, but also for what wasn't and could have been.
For me, this is precisely the realm of fiction: a "saudade," or a nostalgia with no bitterness, including for the foreseeable future, like the final story in Tout passe, entitled "An Outage." In order to bring to light the anthropological transformation which consists, for humanity, of having the access to memory depend on an energy source (electricity), I wanted to project myself several decades into the future, and place a character from our day and age in a world where paper books would no longer exist, having been replaced by screens. But that day there is a power outage, and this leads to a dialogue between the old man and a beautiful young woman from this new world.
At heart, memory has been the obsessive theme of my oeuvre, ever since my first novel, The Shadow of Memory, born from a long-lived suffering. It happens that when I was about twelve, I tripped on acid (LSD) several times, which literally left holes in my brain and my ability to remember. I felt then as if I were living on shifting sands, or rather on a beach, where footprints disappear with the next tide. And for years I lived in mourning for my memory; it was, for example, impossible to memorize anything by heart. So writing, for me, was this stubborn regaining of the past, and of the ability to engrave time somewhere.
I remember the evening when the idea for this novel came to me, like an epiphany. I was driving back along Tuscan country roads from a dinner at the home of an old writer who was equipped with a phenomenal memory (he had all of Dante memorized), I was a bit demoralized, and suddenly this fictional idea came into my mind: an amnesia-stricken young man who inherits the memory of an old scholar. Like that. Suddenly. It's the old dream: that memories wouldn't disappear along with death. What justification for writing is there other than this ultimate dialectization of death?
And so, for me, writing is a vast commemoration of the dead, the real or made up or simply possible dead. And also paying an ontological debt. In one of my favorite songs, "Fourth Time Around," Bob Dylan writes "Don't forget / Everybody must give something back / For something they get." With each book, I've paid debts. And I have still more ahead of me to pay. Because time doesn't stop, except through a work of art. To invent yourself a memory is to invent yourself a life, to appropriate other existences and other futures, to unset all stopwatches, abolish all barriers. "We write because life isn't enough," said Fernando Pessoa. Tombstones, with their falsely definitive dates, are a joke.
An extract from Les assises international du roman 2012, published by Christian Bourgois Editeur. Translated from the French by Peter Vorissis

An ambitious novel that plays on the tension between one’s desire to enjoy the present and the obsession with saving the past, without quite knowing what to do with it.-Isabelle Rüf

Bernard Comment is having a field day here. He slips and slides on puns, he surfs on comic situations, adds pearls of sweat to the unexpected, to the sordid details of daily life. La Liberté
The Painted Panorama

Bernard Comment, The Painted Panorama, Trans. by Anne-Marie Glasheen, Harry N. Abrams, 2000.

Panoramas-immense paintings, often in the round-were enormously popular during the 19th century, both in Europe and in America. Illustrated with hundreds of colorplates, including seven large double gatefolds, Bernard Comment's incisive and detailed study traces the history of an unusual art form, placing these elaborate 360-degree paintings in a full historical, social, and cultural context.
Drawing on extensive research, Comment, a cultural critic, brings to life both the reality and the significance of painted panoramas: the artists (often collaborative teams whose goal was perfect illusionism), the installations (specially built rotundas and tents), the subjects (cityscapes, vistas, battles, and religious tableaus, among others), and the meanings (panoramas as propaganda, advertising, substitutes for experience, and forerunners of cinema) of these amazing works of art.
210 illustrations, 120 in full color, 7 double gatefolds, 10 3/4 x 8 5/8"

Before there was Titanic the movie or Phantom the musical, one of the great spectacles was the panorama. This art form, popular for a relatively brief period in the 19th century, saw large crowds turn out in cities across Europe and North America to view depictions of battles, great land- and cityscapes, and historic events in, most often, circular purpose-built structures. Many factors, including the cost of the paintings themselves as well as the rise of photography and eventually motion pictures, led to the death of the panorama. French writer Comment, in this excellent history of a mostly forgotten art form, traces the history of the panorama, describes audience reactions, and gives biographical sketches of many of the artists as well as a critical assessment of their work (when possible, as most of the panoramas themselves have been lost). A highlight of the book is the inclusion of the gatefold color illustrations of seven panoramas that give only the slightest hint of what the panorama experience must have been like. A fine complement to Stephan Oettermann's somewhat more academic The Panorama (LJ 1/98), this is an accessible introduction for informed lay readers. - Library Journal


Bernard Comment, Panorama, Reaktion Books, 2004.

Read it at Google Books

Invented in 1788, the panorama reached the height of its popularity at the time of the 1900 Universal Exhibition. Vast circular canvases installed in purpose-built rotundas were designed to be viewed from centrally placed platforms and attracted an admiring public. The aim was to produce a perfect illusion. Thus the relationship between viewer and 'reality' underwent a profound mutation, opening up a new logic according to which the world was transformed into a spectacle and images substituted for direct experience.

This lavishly illustrated book examines the wide variety of panoramas in both the Old and New Worlds. Included among views of cities are Robert Barker's View of Edinburgh and Karl Friedrich Schinkel's View of Palermo, as well as depiction of Paris, Moscow, Jerusalem and Lima; among historical themes, The History of the Century and Battle of Moscow proved especially popular. The author expands his subject to encompass the sister formats of diorama and cineorama.
Panoramas were designed to put people in the picture, pretty well literally: the public stood on a central platform inside a rotunda totally encompassed by a canvas painted with a view that was usually a cityscape or a battle scene. In Bernard Comment's view, the pictures expressed the 19th century's fantasies, fears and aspirations. At any rate, they were an immensely popular feature of life - one estimate places the number of spectators between 1870 and the beginning of the 20th century at 100m souls avid for virtual travel before the age of travel. But cinema arrived in 1895 and panoramas became history. Still, a few survived and a few new ones have been added: Comment has counted 27, from (old) Waterloo - the battle depicted in a rotunda on the site of Napoleon's come-uppance - to (new) Jinz-hou. Some of the survivors are in the rotundas built for them, so this particular history lasts more or less from the time of the first 18th-century panorama to Disney World, where cameo cities from around the globe save the natives travelling. There is a relatively new panorama in Volgograd celebrating the victory of Stalingrad, and in 1962, on the 150th anniversary of Borodino, Russia's Dunkirk, the state restored an early 20th-century panorama of the battle painted with Tolstoyan detail and verve some way removed from social realism.
One of the older survivors is the Panorama Mesdag in The Hague, a 360-degree view 390ft around and 45ft high. It is a painted snapshot, as it were, of Scheveningen, the former fishing village on the outskirts of The Hague also painted by Van Gogh, who himself visited Mesdag's rotunda soon after its inauguration in 1880 and is said to have remarked: "The only fault of this canvas is that it doesn't have one."
That couldn't be said of most panoramas. The great Thomas Girtin, too, painted a watercolour panorama of London from the top of a factory on the South Bank encompassing the view from Lambeth to London Bridge as the model for a canvas shown in London in 1802-3 and now lost, though three of his four watercolour studies survive.
But mostly panoramas were pedestrian; both they and their makers had an uneasy relationship with fine art, despite formidable championship from Baudelaire. In the review of the 1859 Salon in which he deplored the standards of landscape painting (including, if you please, the work of Corot and Daubigny), he concluded: "I would rather return to the diorama [an extension of the panorama principle], whose brutal and enormous magic has the power to impose a genuine illusion upon me!... These things, because they are false, are infinitely closer to the truth..."
Could Baudelaire and a hundred million of his fellows be wrong? Comment argues that, apart from the sheer enchantment of the illusion (and this book is wonderfully illustrated), the panorama provided people with a way of repossessing their cities at a glance, metropolises that had expanded beyond comprehension under the impact of the industrial revolution.
He supports this with a battery of references, one of which had this reader turning to the end of Old Goriot, where Rastignac's "gaze fixed almost avidly upon the space that lay between the column of the Place Vendôme and the dome of the Invalides; there lay the splendid world that he had wished to gain". Was Balzac inspired by a painted panorama? If not, he lagged behind Dickens and Delacroix, Ruskin, Kafka, and, not least, Monet, who bequeathed his Nymphéas to the nation on condition that they were shown in specially constructed circular galleries - he got an Orangerie oval instead. - Mike McNay