Marcel Proust’s autobiographical novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu opens with an act of memory. The narrator describes his childhood bedtime routine, when he would drift between waking and sleeping, hoping for his beloved mother to come and give him a kiss. Grammatically, the imperfect tense presides. Proust realized the possibilities of the tense, used to describe repeated past actions, in part through his reading of Madame Bovary. There, the imperfect recreates the deadening effect of actions that repeat and never change. For Proust, the imperfect offered a way to show not the past’s barrenness but its fullness, its texture and tone. Time becomes less a series of discrete events than a landscape, even a world.
Francisco Goldman’s masterful autobiographical novel Monkey Boy also opens with an act of memory. In a nod to Proust, the narrator describes his childhood morning routine, when he would drift between waking and sleeping, hoping for his bullying father to go to work and leave him in peace. The narrator, named Francisco Goldberg, is a writer who shares many biographical features with his author, tyrannical father included. Francisco’s narration slips from one memory (the first time his father beat him) to another (the first time he kissed a girl), from repeated action (“Ian Brown used to invite me to his house”) into singular event, as in this lovely memory of visiting Boston Common with his mother and seeing a woman toss a walnut to a squirrel: “The squirrel plucked the walnut up in her front claws, transferred it to her mouth, and ran with it up a tree trunk where she hung upside down, hind talons sunk like iron hooks into the bark, splayed legs elastically stretched, and turned the walnut over and over in her hands, gnawing on it. When her teeth broke through the hard shell, we heard it.” The reader hears the shell crack, too. This is past as Proustian landscape, as world.
Like Proust, Francisco wants to recreate the past in its entirety. “I wish I could remember every single second of my entire life so far,” he writes, “in full 3-D Technicolor and surround sound, and at every past scene reinhabit myself exactly as I was.” This desire arises in part from things passing away. Francisco’s father has died; his mother, suffering from dementia, is in a nursing home in suburban Boston; the working-class town he grew up in has turned into “Silicon Valley East.” (Unnamed, it’s Goldman’s hometown of Needham, Massachusetts.) But the desire to reinhabit the past also comes from Francisco’s lifelong feeling of self-division. He is the son of a Jewish father and a Guatemalan Catholic mother. (So is his author.) He’s reported on the civil war in Guatemala but he also writes fiction. (Same with Goldman.) As an adult, he is known as Francisco and Frankie Gee. As a boy, he was called Monkey Boy, Pablo, Chimp Face, “a dirty kike,” and Gols. “When I was a kid,” he writes, “I never would have dared to say out loud: I want to be just one thing, like a normal person is, though I thought it all the time.” The dream of perfect memory, of reinhabiting every second of the past exactly as he was, seems also a dream of perfect integration. Heal the temporal gap between now and then, he thinks, and heal that other, deeper feeling of a self fractured.