Memory and fiction
by Keith Taylor
Nicholas Delbanco's 2000 novel What Remains takes its title from lines by Ezra Pound: "What thou lovest well remains, / the rest is dross." The phrase becomes the standard by which memories are measured, and the memories in this quiet little book seem to escape the realm of fiction and feel very much like memoir.
What Remains tells the story of a family of German Jews who have escaped from the Nazis a few years before escape became impossible. Karl, his wife, Julia, and his brother, Gustave, have made successful lives for themselves in London, the first brother in business and the second as an art dealer, and they live in comfort even during the worst of World War II. These are people who recite Goethe at the dinner table, play Mozart's chamber music together in the evening, and have a Kollwitz hanging on the wall. Although most of the book takes place in England during the last years of the war and the years immediately following, the family's immigration to America at least the move by Karl, Julia, and their two sons, Jacob and Ben is the action, set offstage, that gives poignancy to what is remembered. Karl defines the larger meaning of these moves in terms of his heritage: "In 1630 his family left Italy; in 1670 his ancestors were driven from Vienna and traveled on to Hamburg and resided there in comfort until Hitler threw them out. It isn't a question of whether but when: death and displacement will come."
The novel is framed by first-person chapters where Ben (who sounds suspiciously like Delbanco himself, even down to the names of his wife and daughters) returns to London to revisit the home where he lived as a very young child. When there, he is overwhelmed by memory: "For some time I wander around the locked house, full of nostalgia and what I can only call Proustian remembrance: this is the corner
where that happened, here is the window I rubbed at to peer through the chill wintry fog." Later he finds that he has visited the wrong house; his family actually lived a bit down the street. That uncertain certainty of memory gives this book its center; it also makes the book a "novel."
In What Remains Delbanco is concerned with how fragments of memory rise up and color the present. He cares deeply about the characters he is writing about, and the death of Julia, many years after the family arrives in this country, is as moving a piece of writing as this author has done in his twenty-some books. Delbanco has long been respected as a stylist, and I think this beautiful book of fragmented memory may contain his best marriage of style with content. It is impossible to imagine this story told any other way.
On Thursday, December 4, at the U-M, Delbanco will give his first local reading from his next novel, The Vagabonds, due out next fall. It is built around the camping trips Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Henry Firestone used to take with John Burroughs, one of the fathers of the environmental movement. It is typical of Delbanco's imagination that he should stumble across such odd pairings and recognize the story that could be made from them.
[Originally published in December, 2003.]