Although it is many, many years since I last sat an English Lit exam, the instruction to ‘compare and contrast’ can take me right back there. Knowing plenty about one of the pieces but not enough about the other! Trying to make what I did know, fit some kind of structure. Hoping that it wouldn’t be too obvious that most of the quotations came from the favoured text.
The phrase came to me quite involuntarily this week when reading two very different books in tandem – Stoner by John Williams (a work of fiction) and Where Memories Go by Sally Magnusson, (part memoir, part research and reporting into the effects of dementia on memory.)
Two very different reads set in highly dissimilar contexts and yet the overriding feeling that remains is of having walked the road step by step with the author. William Stoner is a university professor in the 1930s-50s in Tennessee, initially amazed to find himself an academic when he had expected to return to his father’s small farm to continue to scratch a living. His life is in many ways low key and uneventful; he is probably forgotten very quickly once he hangs up his gown. And yet his acceptance of a life full of disappointment and sadness is quietly inspiring and laudable.
If only he had experienced the love which permeates the account of Sally Magnusson’s mother’s increasing loss of memory due to dementia. Love shown by her family to her in the final years of her life when she almost totally loses her sense of self. And the love she shows to them – to the end and erratically. Keeping Mamie at home, is a challenging and exhausting physical and emotional load for the family. Love and commitment and sheer graft make it possible.
Sally interweaves the memoir with a journalistic report on the research into and understanding of dementia. It’s obviously a very different read from Stoner. A contrast in many ways.
What will preserve them together in my memory is the feeling that I once knew John Stoner and Mamie Magnusson. Just as I knew Diane, Lesley, Patricia, Nancy, Alix and Carys (our characters in Eight of Cups).
Even if one day I find their names escape me.