I used to have a spectacular memory. I remembered everything: lists, conversations, details, names, embarrassing stories.

But now I am getting old, and my memory is getting all Swiss-cheese. Proper nouns are the first things that seem to be getting jettisoned. I can’t remember the name of the eldest son of Pandu in the Mahabharata. I can’t remember the name of the character who begins “Anna Karenina” with his very entertaining dream of “tables who are women.” I can’t remember the name of the actress who played Katniss in “The Hunger Games”!

So I am trying to rely on mnemonics, for what little good it will do me.

One is “the house.” Picture the floorplan of the house you grew up in. Now: walk around the house, in your mind. Put something you want to remember in each room. If you go back later (in your mind), you’ll find those things there.

This works pretty well for me (when I remember to do it). My childhood house had a long hallway, with rooms on either side, and I put things in the beds, and in the toilet, and on the sofa in the living room.

Also there’s the Peg Bracken method: flagpole, underwear, tricycle, pig.

A flagpole is vertical, like the number one. Underwear come in pairs, like the number two. Tricycles have three wheels. Pigs have four legs.

So let’s say you want to buy butter, and yogurt, and flour, and ground beef.

The flagpole is flying a flag made of butter. The underwear has a big picture of yogurt on it. There’s a big bag of flour on the tricycle. The pig is eating a big trough full of ground beef.

I’ll stick with the “house” method, thanks.

Book report: Martin Stannard’s “Muriel Spark: The Biography”

muriel spark

Over the past few months I have read quite a few biographies.

Most of them aren’t very well-written, but this is probably to be expected. Most books in general aren’t very well-written.

But it’s a shame to read a badly-written book, especially when it’s the biography of a writer.

There have been excellent biographies of writers, of course. Do I need to mention James Boswell’s life of Doctor Johnson? (Of course, most of the wit was courtesy of Samuel Johnson himself, but Boswell was the genius who remembered every word Johnson said, and who edited Johnson’s life and words into the joyfully lively memoir we have today.) And I remember that I almost wept when I read Quentin Bell’s opening sentence of the bio of his aunt, Virginia Woolf: “Virginia Woolf was a Miss Stephen.” It’s a perfect sentence: stiff, Victorian, but telling you something you vitally need to know (and probably don’t know) about his aunt.

And recently I discovered Martin Stannard’s biography of Muriel Spark.

Muriel Spark is one of my favorite authors. Well, I mean really: “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” and “Memento Mori,” and “The Abbess of Crewe.” I’d heard that her personal life was a ghastly mess, and now (having read some of the bio) I know it for a fact. (Her life was no more a mess than, let’s say, mine, but still – she’s an author, and it’s in a book!)

But Martin Stannard can write.

From only the first few pages of the book:

[Speaking of how to refer to Muriel Spark in the body of the book:] “At the risk of appearing over-familiar, I decided to describe her as ‘Muriel.’ This does not signify that she counted me as a friend.”

[Regarding Muriel’s grandmother Adelaide:] “Adelaide never welcomed Uncle Phil’s children. She was an appalling cook and there was always the danger that she might offer food.”

[Regarding Muriel’s mother Cissy:] “Cissy sailed through life like a ramshackle galleon.”

[A few pages later, also about Muriel’s mother:] “Cissy had once asked her mother how one kept men happy. ‘You have to feed ‘em both ends,’ she replied.”

Martin Stannard is a remarkable writer – probably more so for having dealt with a famously private and prickly writer.

Go read “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” if you haven’t already (the movie doesn’t count!). And then read Stannard’s biography.

And then get back to me, you old ramshackle galleons.

%d bloggers like this: