The House of Memory

House of Memory

reviewed by Dick Aherne

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The most striking thing about John Freely's HOUSE OF MEMORY is that he remembers so much from so long ago - the 20's and 30's in New York and Ireland, the 40's in New York and the navy. It is practically a day-by-day record of events large and small: cashing in empty bottles for the few cents deposit, trying to wangle a way into Ebbets Field to watch the Dodgers, visits to Coney Island and the parachute jump, stickball in the streets, neighbours and storekeepers, and the like.

An era hard to imagine today. Item: once or twice during Freely's time in the Navy, his ship unexpectedly spent a night at Brooklyn Navy Yard. Freely was unable to contact his family while in NY, despite the fact they lived in Brooklyn. Why?

Because the family did not have a telephone. Nor did anyone they knew. So while Freely could've used a phone at the Navy Yard, there'd've been no way to connect to those nearest and dearest to him.

Not only is his memory prodigious, he is able to summon up all these years later how he felt about what was happening. Almost to the point of caricature in today's humor about psychiatrists - the old joke about the patient who tells his shrink he's just axe-murdered his parents and wants to know what to do next. To which the shrink replies, "Never mind that. What's important is, how did you FEEL?"

Freely's thoughts and feelings about what was going on around him and the people he met are not only a prodigious feat of recall, they add colour and reality.

Particularly in his stories about what it was like driving the legendary Burma Road to bring supplies to China during WWII. The Japanese were never far away; attack and ambush were frequent. As was day and night rain.

No connection between the two, of course, but therein lies the book's readability: Freely's early life - Jean-Paul Sartre's later misconceptions aside - was truly existential.

Dick Aherne, Paris 

 

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