The Haunted Present: Using the Past as an Emotional Context – Kat Hausler


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Kat Hausler is a graduate of New York University and Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she was the recipient of a Baumeister Fellowship. Her debut novel Retrograde was recently published by Meerkat Press. She writes and translates in Berlin.

The Haunted Present: Using the Past as an Emotional Context

In James Joyce’s “The Dead,” hearing “The Lass of Aughrim” sung at a party causes Gretta Conroy to cry herself to sleep. Her reaction is not caused by any inherent quality of the song, but rather the memory she associates with it: a boy she loved who used to sing it, and is now long dead. Just as a simple tune can evoke passionate memories, ordinary scenes can connect both characters and readers to emotionally charged past events in fiction. In works with little external action, evoking these past events can invest a prosaic plotline with emotional resonance. Writers can recall the past through remembered settings, physical impressions or characters, or through parallels between past and present events.

Returning to a familiar place, we automatically recall earlier times spent there. A setting from a protagonist’s past has a similar effect. If this setting has been home to emotionally significant moments, the effect on the present is twofold. At first, returning to the physical location represents a return to memories associated with the place. But the secondary effect may be still more moving. The passage of time has changed both the protagonist and the place, creating disparity between memory and perception. As a result, the smallest details call attention to the difference between the two places—the remembered one, and the existing one—underscoring the loss of the past, and the impossibility of return.

Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Transparent Things follows Hugh Person on a series of visits to Witt, Switzerland, the last of them after he has killed his beloved wife Armande. The remembered setting evokes a false sense of return. Hugh is attempting to revisit not the town itself, but the past he associates with it. Because Witt is so heavily laden with memories, its contemporary appearance is secondary to its remembered one, and the mundane actions of the present are overshadowed by a more emotional past. His memory of Hotel Ascot with “apple green” shutters clashes with the actual “cherry red shutters” (9), and his dead wife is as present on the mountain trail as she was the first time they hiked it: “Again he was panting in her merciless wake. … Again she flirted with the eclectic English twins” (92).

Because this emotionally fraught setting not only summons up the past, but also calls attention to its absence, even trivial inconsistencies recall Hugh’s loss. After observing that “A new road had been built and new houses had grown, crowding out the meager landmarks he remembered” (90), he consults a signpost and realizes he has taken the wrong path, and will not reach his remembered destination. Witt as a setting invests the text with several layers of emotional resonance. On the uppermost is the unexciting present, where Hugh takes a solitary hike. But beneath the surface lie the deeper layers of memory: happy memories, now lost forever, and the painful ones that cost him his remembered happiness. Hugh remembers falling in love with Armande, and all the humiliations she subjected him to before entering his life, only to leave it forever. His banal observation that “This was not the way to the glacier gondola” is at the same time the painful realization of his inability to reach the time he spent there with Armande (93). In a memory-laden setting, otherwise trivial details become significant as a means either of recalling the past or mourning its loss.

Like Transparent Things, Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight features a setting where past and present both overlap, and are at odds with each other. Returning to Paris, Sasha Jansen is also seeking her lost past. Paris is the city she came to with her husband Enno, the city where they lost their baby, lived in poverty, and struggled to survive. Above all, Paris is the city where Enno abandoned Sasha and she “began to go to pieces” (143). Although years have passed, Sasha now meets the pain of these memories on every street corner. The opening words of Good Morning, Midnight are: “‘Quite like old times,’ the room says. ‘Yes? No?’” (9). This first indication of Sasha’s past is followed by a description of her crying into her drink, explaining to the strangers around her that “It was something I remembered” (10). Similar indicators hint at Sasha’s painful experiences in Paris even before the reader knows what they were.

Returning to the remembered setting creates the illusion of returning to an earlier time, which is dispelled just as quickly: “Walking to the music of L’Arlesienne” Sasha feels “for the pockets of the check coat, and” is “surprised… [to] touch the fur of the one… [she is] wearing” (91). Just as Sasha imagines wearing a coat she hasn’t owned in years, she is always returning to places she remembers, only to find them vanished or changed beyond recognition. Looking for a new hat as part of her “transformation” (63), she observes that “There used to be a good hat-shop in the Rue Vavin. It doesn’t exist any longer” (68). The contrast between her earlier familiarity with the city and current alienation from it evokes a sense of her loss: of Paris, of Enno, of the past and herself. In this context, her simplest movements within Paris are imbued with mourning and hopelessness.

While the return to a remembered place can recall the range of events experienced there, a single sensual impression—an object, a physical sensation—can serve as a more precise medium. O. Henry’s “The Furnished Room” follows the protagonist into a room he rents while searching for his lost love who has disappeared in New York. In the midst of the drab furnishings, he is surprised to recognize “the strong, sweet odor of mignonette… the odor that she had loved and made her own” (26). This scent is so bound up in his past with Eloise that he “crie[s] aloud: ‘What dear?’ as if he had been called” (26). The memories conjured up by this sensual impression are what fill the story with poignancy and eventually despair.

His examination of the room might be ordinary to the point of tediousness were it not for this emotional backdrop. Yet once the connection to the past has been established, his discovery of “half a dozen hairpins… a discarded, tiny, ragged handkerchief… odd buttons, a theatre programme, a pawnbroker’s card” become expressive of his dwindling hopes (27). After the landlady tells him Eloise was never there, the setting comes to reflect his despair: “The room was dead. The essence that had vivified it was gone… In its place was the old, stale odor of mouldy house furniture, an atmosphere in storage” (28). Once the scent of mignonette has passed through the room and disappeared, each trivial item he finds is reminiscent of what he does not and will not find: Eloise.

The title character of Colette’s linked novels Cheri and The Last of Cheri experiences an equally irrevocable loss, though he remains in contact with his former lover. It is not the much-older Lea herself, but their past together, that Cheri cannot recover. As the years pass, Cheri finds the world moving on without him. He marries Edmee, the war starts and ends, Edmee loves, despises and becomes indifferent to him, and Lea, the only one he has ever really loved, ages beyond recognition. By the end of The Last of Cheri, Cheri has lost not only Lea, but everything he believed in and his place in the world. Because Cheri’s loss is so inextricably linked to the passage of time, each reminder of his past fills him with sorrow and bittersweet nostalgia for what he once had.

Cheri can never see a string of pearls without thinking of Lea. The first words of Cheri are his demand: “Give it me, Lea, give me your pearl necklace!” (15). In this opening scene, pearls are nothing more than one of the many trappings of his comfortable life as Lea’s lover. Yet after he leaves Lea, they never fail to recall her to him. Although Cheri “felt bored” during a hysterical scene with his young wife, “her string of small, milky, evenly matched pearls” moves him as she never could, by reminding him of Lea (74-5). After Cheri abandons Edmee, he seeks respite in nights out with “the Pal,” an aging opium addict. Cheri is temporarily able to avoid the thoughts that plague him and “appeared to be perfectly happy, except that he stared now and then, with a painful and questioning intensity, at the Pal’s withered throat—a skinny, far too red throat, round which shimmered a string of false pearls” (87).

These false pearls recall both Lea and her absence. Whereas everything about Lea was lovely and of good quality, Cheri is now surrounded by cheap, filthy objects. The sight of the Pal’s throat is another reminder of the passage of time—even if Lea wears real pearls, her throat will soon be just as unattractive. Spending the night with Lea after his marriage, Cheri feels for “her lace and her pearls” to reassure himself that they are really together again (118). This reminder of their past makes Cheri’s return to his wife the next morning all the more poignant—he’s not leaving Lea after a chance night spent together, but ending their relationship all over again.

The same image recurs in The Last of Cheri. As Edmee chats on the phone, “her pearl necklace” serves as a painful reminder of what Cheri has lost by giving up the woman he loved for one from whom he is estranged (142). Cheri returns to Lea too late and finds an unfamiliar old woman, yet he nevertheless “at once recognized” her “twisting, coiling, resplendent string of pearls” (194). The recurrence of this image underscores Cheri’s tragedy: his hopeless love for a woman who no longer exists, and his inability to function in a present cut off from the past he longs for.

Unlike Cheri and the protagonist of “The Furnished Room,” Dr. B. of Stefan Zweig’s Chess has no desire to return to his past. On the contrary, he strives to forget the psychological torture to which he was subjected by the Gestapo. Yet as in Colette’s novels and “The Furnished Room,” a single impression—the sight of a chessboard—is enough to stir his memory. Because a book of chess matches was Dr. B.’s only contact with the outside world in his months of solitary confinement, he began by memorizing these games, and ended up playing against himself so constantly that he lost all touch with reality. Having recovered and left for Buenos Aires, Dr. B is filled with “surprise and horror” when he happens across a chess game on his ship (698).

Awareness of the role chess played in Dr. B.’s past changes the way narrator and reader view his actions. Because of the strange mental maneuvers he performed in his madness, Dr. B. is able to predict all the moves Czentovic, a renowned chess champion aboard the same ship, will make. Yet rather than rejoicing in Dr. B’s initial defeat of Czentovic, the narrator watches with alarm as Dr. B. grows “more impatient” and “hostile,” pacing the room as he did during his imprisonment (745). Awareness of what chess means to Dr. B. gives his final match a far deeper emotional resonance. Rather than rooting for him to defeat Czentovic, we hope he will give up the game, knowing each move endangers his recent recovery, and loosens his grip on reality.

When Dr. B. loses the match because he’s confused it with another, imaginary one, the spectators are disappointed, but for the narrator and reader, his failure is moving in a more profound way. What Dr. B. has suffered leaves him permanently endangered, always at risk of sinking into madness. This tormented past, recalled for Dr. B., the narrator and reader by a chessboard, makes the present moment at once more urgent, and less significant.

In Dr. B.’s torturous isolation, chess became a “monomaniac obsession” which “attacked” him until he “lost weight… [his] sleep was restless and … it always cost … great effort to” make the smallest movements, while the “frenetic fury” of his mind continued whether he woke or slept (648-650). Because of the threat chess poses to Dr. B’s health, coping with his past is more important than the outcome of his current match. Chess accomplishes this emotional resonance and shifting of values by setting up Dr. B. as a character with a troubled past, and using a physical object to recall it in the otherwise ordinary present.

Powerful as memories evoked by places and physical impressions can be, they are relatively passive. Whether the protagonist has sought them out or happened upon them, the connection to the past occurs not in the places or objects themselves, but in the protagonist’s mind. Remembered characters are more complex. When protagonists encounter people from their past, they must come to terms not only with the memories associated with these people and all that has changed since they last met, but also with the past as seen through the lens of another person’s memory. While an object or a place may serve as a surface onto which to project the past, characters from the past can actively engage with the present moment.

Koberling, the protagonist of Judith Hermann’s “This Side of the Oder,” is content in the peaceful, settled life he shares with his wife and young son until the daughter of a former friend turns up at their isolated summer home. At first Koberling thinks Anna looks “the same as before… a grown-up child” (123), but then he sees that she’s come in high heels with a seedy-looking man, and realizes how many years have passed. Koberling has no interest in recalling Anna’s father, with whom he shared the kind of wild youth Anna is now living. Seeing Anna, Koberling feels he’s crossed into a “precarious region” where “The house, the garden, the veranda… are no longer protecting him” (133). He is forced to explore “Disgusting, almost embarrassing, recollections” of drugs, sex, ideals, irresponsibility and the foolish belief that “the things that happen to them don’t happen to anyone else” (130).

But while Koberling looks back on his youth with distaste, Anna disturbs his present contentment by reopening the past, so that he finds himself wanting to “grab [her]… shake her and slap her for the years of self-deception, for the years themselves” (135). When she asks, “do you remember?” he doesn’t answer, and when she asks why he and her father are no longer friends, he says that they grew apart, that there were “No tragedies, nothing decisive” (125, 136).

Anna is both a reminder of Koberling’s youth, and of its conclusion, a child when he was young, and now a grown woman with her own ideas about the past. Koberling’s tranquil present is upturned by the intrusion of a past that he must now question rather than rejecting outright. Even after Anna has left and he attempts to return to the peaceful routines of his present, he “feels an ache in his stomach” (138). This intrusive past recurs throughout the story, hovering over ordinary scenes at the summerhouse. Preparing dinner, making small talk or sitting on the veranda, Koberling “feels weak, overwhelmed” (124) in the face of memories that threaten his sense of identity and peace of mind.

Even when a protagonist seeks out an old acquaintance, the encounter can be jarring. After Cheri gives up his six-year affair with Lea to get married, his conventional life with Edmee is constantly haunted by the ghost of earlier happiness. Yet when desperation drives him back to Lea, it takes only a night for him to discover that she is no longer the woman he remembers. In the morning, he notices the “meagre twist of hair at the back of her head, double chin, and raddled neck” (125). These signs of Lea’s age divide the present from their earlier affair, during which Lea was perfect to Cheri, and he gave little thought to the years separating them.

Lea’s appearance is not all that has changed. Whereas Cheri remembers her telling him not to “be cruel” or “make [Edmee] suffer,” the new Lea makes “Cheap little jibes” at Edmee’s expense (130-1). Unable to come to terms with these changes, Cheri “forbid[s] her to spoil” his memory of her, telling her: “I know how [Lea]… should speak. I know how she ought to think” (130). It is nothing inherent in Lea that upsets him, but rather the difference between her old and new selves. Before his wedding, Cheri had told Lea, “There’ll always be you” (55), and it is in this naïve belief that he has returned to her.

Like a city he once lived in, Lea herself is both a reminder of past times, and a sign of ineluctable change. But unlike a city, which Cheri might visit and recall on his own, Lea actively distances herself from the woman he remembers. Having once sent him off to be married, she now begins a discussion about “all the settlement details” to take care of once he leaves his wife (127). In Cheri’s memory, Lea is calm and restrained, but now she betrays her feelings as she never used to: “What a fool I was not to understand that you were my love, thelove, the great love that only comes once!” (127). Weakened by love for Cheri and worn by age, Lea is both unwilling and unable to conform to his memory of her.

This disconnect is still more apparent in Cheri’s final visit to Lea, in which he fails to recognize the fat old woman sitting at her desk. Slowly recognizing certain tones and expressions as Lea’s, Cheri “intended somehow to find his way past this shameless flesh, the greying curls, and ‘merry friar’ joviality, and reach the being concealed behind them, to whom he was coming back, as to the scene of a crime” (193). Yet even as small details recall his remembered Lea, it is impossible for Cheri to “reach the being” he remembers. The more he longs for the Lea of years before, the less he can find her. Looking “all over the room for her, except in the very spot where she stood” he is overcome by irrational thoughts of “ask[ing] for her help… beg[ging] her to give … back Lea” (198). Even as visiting Lea reminds him of their past happiness, her altered appearance and character confirm its loss, and her own engagement with their shared past prevents him even from remembering it as he would like to. After their separation, Lea both awakens Cheri’s desire for return, and attests to its impossibility. His ultimate despairing realization is that “The tragedy is not her age, but” his, all the remaining years of “empty, arid present” that will be filled only by nostalgia, longing and regret (223).

Evocative as each of these elements—places, sensations or characters—can be on its own, the echo is still stronger when they are combined to create a parallel between a remembered experience and the present. Initially, the protagonist may seem to relive an emotional memory, yet the ostensible repetition soon gives way.

Hugh experiences several such parallels in Transparent Things. Attempting to find his way back to the villa where Armande, now dead, lived when he first met her, Hugh gets lost and questions a woman with an old white dog, only to realize “that eight years ago he had stopped right here and noticed that dog” (90). Yet when he reaches the Villa Nastia, Hugh sees that “All its windows were shuttered” (90). He can follow the same route, pass the same people, and arrive at the same destination, but he can never return to his past with Armande; it is as boarded-up and empty as her old home.

Going to bed in the hotel where he once made love to Armande, Hugh settles into the room as he did years before, and the parallel between that past night and this present one is so striking that he begins to imagine he is still waiting for her. He feels the same anxious uncertainty—will she come, or won’t she? Awareness of the past, of Armande’s death, makes this illusion doubly painful. Recalling the way Armande refused to spend the night, Hugh first thinks of how she “would not see” the sunlight coming into the room, then realizes she “would never see” it (104). These parallels create the illusion of unity between memory and reality only to undermine it where the present must diverge from the remembered pattern. Armande no longer lives in the Villa Nastia, and she will never come into Hugh’s room again.

A similarly hopeful parallel is set up in Cheri’s initial return to Lea. Lea and Cheri’s reunion, the familiar environment of her apartment and the physical details that belong to it combine to create a parallel between this night and all their past nights together. Watching how Cheri “knock[s] off his cigarette ash into a jewel tray,” Lea “unconsciously adopt[s] the tone of their old familiar quarrels” (116), and her maid knows to prepare “Brioches and chocolate” for Cheri the next morning (119). Cheri thrills to recognize “the shape of [Lea’s]… shoulder,” her “scent,” her “pearls… and that little burnt taste [of her] … hair” (118).

Yet despite their seeming resemblance, past and present eventually diverge. Even as they make love, Lea “anticipate[s] with a sort of terror the moment of her undoing,” “endure[s] Cheri as she might a torture” and finally “founder[s] in the deep abyss, whence love emerges pale and in silence, regretful of death” (121). The comfort of past years is gone, and Cheri’s unfinished question “and then tomorrow, how will you manage about—” keeps Lea awake (123). Plagued by worries about the future, they are unable to return to the carefree past that once seemed endless. As in Transparent Things, the parallel between present and past awakens an impossible hope of return, in which disappointment is already inherent. In these parallels, past loss echoes in the present moment, its pain as fresh as the first time it was experienced, and still more poignant for the intervening years.

There is a certain sense of loss inherent in memory. We feel nostalgic for places we have moved away from, not the ones we still live in, and the people we miss are either gone from our lives or changed beyond recognition. We remember what was, and no longer is. Both sad and happy memories can be painful, the one by recalling past pain, and the other by evoking lost happiness. People, places, physical impressions and parallels to a character’s past can serve as literary memories for the reader. The experience of recalling past events, familiar from real life, is one readers recognize and respond to. In works where few momentous events occur, reminders of the past build a vital emotional backdrop and create conflict where the plotline does not: between past and present, youth and old age, hope and disappointment, happiness and loss.

Works Cited

Colette. Cheri and The Last of Cheri. Trans. Roger Senhouse. Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1962. Print.

Hermann, Judith. “This Side of the Oder”. Trans. Margot Bettauer Dembo. The Summerhouse, Later. London: Flamingo, 2002. Print.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Transparent Things. U.S.A.: Penguin Books, 1972. Print.

Henry. “The Furnished Room”. The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1992. Print.

Rhys, Jean. Good Morning, Midnight. London: Andre Deutsch Limited, 1967. Print.

Zweig, Stefan. Chess.Trans. Anthea Bell. London: Penguin Books, 2011. Kindle edition.

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