Free Press 2011
By Rebecca Fish Ewan
Memory fascinates me…as does madness, so Mira Bartók’s memoir The Memory Palace drew me in. As powerful a draw these subjects may be, I won’t linger long without words, long delicious strings of words, and here Bartók delivers. As I read, I could feel the careful attention she gave to each sentence, could sense the thought attended to, how each chapter offered the reader entry into another room in the memory palace she had created. What also astounded me was how Mira Bartók wrote it after suffering a brain injury that damaged her ability to remember. She was able to take the tragedy of her own injured mind and transform it into art.
Book structure is one of my obsessions as I struggle in framing my own memories, which sometimes seem like jelly fish, beautiful drifting beneath the ocean’s surface, but formless once beached. And they can sting. Bartók’s visual metaphor allowed me into her memories so I could see them not as collapsed blobs but as creatures full of life. It’s no surprise that she has made a career as a visual artist and interpreter/curator of museum exhibits. The book’s structure created dioramas for me like those in the Field Museum of Natural History where Bartók worked for many years and I had visited with my children.
In truth, like wandering in the immense museum of dead things, my attention drifted in spots because of the unflagging structure. Making each chapter into a room in a palace worked well, most of the time. But like any museum visitor, I have favorite rooms where I linger in rapt attention and others I just stroll through. In the end, however, I feel grateful Mira Bartók was so generous with her life and took such care in crafting a rich exhibition she could share. So even though I drifted away during her trip to Norway with her needy unstable ex-husband, I came away from the book transformed.
On the subject of madness…I have struggled with an unsteady mind my entire life. I read books on mental illness, in part, to help me discern the nature of my own madness, and the potential direction it is heading. When I read a book about schizophrenia, I feel a mixture of relief and horror. My family tree is well hung with crazy fruit: depressives, alcoholics, the bipolarly disordered, the generally anxious, and a paranoid schizophrenic. So I understand the relief that Bartók and her sister felt as they grew beyond the age when schizophrenia usually manifests. Schizophrenia is a tragic form of mental illness, because it is incurable and so completely isolates. Bartók reveals the horror of growing up with a paranoid schizophrenic mother, but she does so with tenderness. Even during the many years she keeps herself hidden from her mother, she maintained a connection through the mail, sending her mother warm scarves in the winter.
At times, as I sat comfortably ensconced on the couch reading, I found myself judging her for not staying with her mother and attending to her care, but Bartók anticipates, even shares this judgment, and takes it on within the book. Memoirs fail for me when authors paint themselves as super heroes flying above the flotsam of human imperfection. Bartók reveals herself as sometimes aimless, often unsure, occasionally selfish, yet always human, and always striving to transform the ugly mess of life into something beautiful. The Memory Palace is a triumph of human spirit and a fine piece of literary art.
Rebecca Fish Ewan, author of A Land Between and graduate of the creative writing MFA program in poetry at Arizona State University, teaches landscape history and is currently working on a memoir in lyric essays. She lives in Tempe, Arizona, with her family, and makes pilgrimages to the Pacific Ocean whenever life permits.