Certain lines in the English language feel so familiar and so true that you experience them as part of the ether. They don’t belong to any one person. They belong to everybody. You breathe, in an exchange with the world, and they’re inside you. They settle in your bones. So when, in Requiem for a Nun, Gavin Stevens looks at Temple Drake and tells her, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” we believe he’s speaking for all of us. And we thank Faulkner, but mostly just for jotting it down. Somehow we don’t believe he really wrote a line like that. It’s more that it was out there somewhere, in the mind of God or the universe, and he saw it in the stars or heard it on the wind, and put it on paper for us. Something like the way they used to tell me the Bible got written, when I was a kid in Sunday school. I imagined scribes with vacant eyes, trancelike, quills scratching onto parchment as they listened to whatever the divine, like a celestial fly at the ear, was telling them to bring into being.
Whatever else it is, all storytelling is remembrance. It’s a recounting, which is something that even the present tense can’t fool us out of knowing. We didn’t choose, beforehand, any particular idea to focus on in this issue. But, as occasionally happens, one chose us. We saw a nucleus of material gather around this notion of remembrance. The mysterious man in our lead story, Johanna Skibsrud’s “The Electric Man,” makes a surprising revelation toward the end. Whether we trust him and how we interpret what he says are almost immaterial, since what he tells us is the narrative that he believes sums up his whole life. In Maggie Shipstead’s “Something Like the Resurrection” and Lauren Groff’s “Abundance,” we travel with aging protagonists approaching their own personal conclusions and living almost entirely in the past, as the weight of a lived life threatens to whelm them.
Remembrance is one of the great subjects of our lives, and of literature. In his autobiography, The Last Sigh, published at the age of eighty-two, a year before his death, the filmmaker Luis Buñuel writes, “You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all . . . Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.” The present loses meaning without the possibility of remembrance; there’s nothing for it to stand on. The self surrenders its shape—parts of it begin to fall away.
Perhaps this tension has nowhere been captured more eloquently than by Fitzgerald in the famous passage that closes Gatsby, where Nick Carraway reminds us about “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us” and becomes, almost paradoxically, the reason that “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” We go forward every day, every minute, of our lives, in the present moment, one foot in front of the other, and yet, in our minds, we live so often in the past, since while we can plan and scheme, every moment but the one we occupy right now becomes by definition past. Here comes another moment. And another. Can you hold on to it? There’s an exact moment in your life—we never know when it is, in this mystery—where you cross over. There’s now more life behind you than there is before you. You now have more past than you have future.
What do we find when we’re borne back? Matthew Vollmer, in his essay “NeVer ForgeT,” found that the 2007 slaying of thirty-two people on the campus of Virginia Tech wasn’t the only massacre in the area’s history. The land had stories to tell. How do we experience collective grief, and how, we ask ourselves, should we commemorate tragedy? Robert Hass, in “Black Nature,” begins with the two Great Migrations of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North, and shows us the tradition of an earthy black poetry that has sometimes been overlooked. We’re fortunate enough to include, as companions, three language-rich poems by Patricia Smith that place us solidly in the timbre of those days. As we’re borne back, we everywhere locate items worth preserving. In his essay “Esto Perpetua,” Brandon R. Schrand ponders what we might be losing in the electronic age, where technology has begun to erase nearly everything we once thought of as an artifact.
I started with Faulkner. Among his many other famous quips is the statement, in reference to the ruthlessness required of a great artist, that “the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” One feels certain he didn’t have in mind the esteemed editor and memoirist Diana Athill, who’s still going strong at age ninety-four. Ms. Athill was an editor at the UK house André Deutsch for fifty years, championing such luminaries as V. S. Naipaul, Margaret Atwood, and Jean Rhys, in addition to being the British editor for American heavyweights Mailer, Roth, and Updike, among others. We’re privileged to publish, in what we hope will be an ongoing department including other writers, a small selection of her thirty-year correspondence with noted poet Edward Field. With apologies to Messrs. Faulkner and Keating, I’d happily trade in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and a good many other seminal works if it meant that a light as bright and vital as Ms. Athill’s could have another lifetime among us.
It was Kundera who said, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.” What are we left with? The messy—sometimes glorious, sometimes insufferable—imperfection of existence. Before us, a mist of the unknown. Behind us, a haze of the past from which we clutch our remembrances like talismans and try to see what they might mean to us. And so I pay tribute to all the writers gathered here, since their words and the words of so many of their compatriots, past and present, are what power the engine in my chest as I step forth into the mist.