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The Fiction of Memory in EMBERS and THE SNOWS OF YESTERYEAR

Jennifer Anthony


Jennifer Anthony

The University of Georgia


The Fiction of Memory:

A Case Study of Sándor Márai’s Embers and Gregor von Rezzori’s The Snows of Yesteryear


Memory is a complicated and often erroneous experience of the human mind. This paper will explore memory in relation to fiction and nonfiction as it applies to Sándor Márai’s novel, Embers, and Gregor von Rezzori’s memoir, The Snows of Yesteryear. This paper will explore how the inaccuracy of memory, the reflective nature of memoir, and the constructed nature of fiction allow us to compare the General as a fictional character in a novel with Gregor as a constructed character in a memoir. This comparison will demonstrate how the memories of the two characters influence their reflections upon their pasts and inform us of the adaptive (or maladaptive) strategies that have taught them to cope with conflict and trauma. 



Sándor Márai’s Embers and Gregor von Rezzori’s The Snows of Yesteryear both tell the stories of elderly men remembering significant events of their lives. Embers portrays the life of “the General” and features a lengthy monologue in which he retells significant events from his life and meditates on those experiences. The Snows of Yesteryear is a memoir focusing on the author’s relationships with those closest to him from childhood through adolescence. Both men are seventy-five years old at the time of recollection, though one narrative is presented as fiction and the other is presented as nonfiction. Though it may seem that the General’s story is entirely fabricated while Gregor’s story is a retelling of factual events, we will see how the inaccuracy of human memory and the reflective nature of the memoir allow us to find a strong point of comparison between this genre and fiction. Through this comparison we will consider how these characters’ reflections convey the adaptive (or maladaptive) strategies that each has developed to cope with conflict and the epistemological implications of the relationship between fiction and nonfiction on experiencing reality.

            We will begin by exploring the complicated and imprecise phenomenon of memory. Expectations and beliefs affect memory and shape the way we remember events in our life. What we remember is determined by what we thought was significant about an event when we initially experienced it and what we expected to happen. We focus on the details that stand out to us as a result of what we expect to happen. Even when events are different from our expectations, we notice the novelty of the difference, yet we still ignore other relevant information about the event that this novelty distracted us from noticing. Thus, expectations greatly influence the way we remember our experiences. Memory is also affected by the novel experiences you have between coding and recalling: each new experience changes the way we perceive older ones. Additionally, over time, our minds compensate for what we cannot remember by “filling in the blanks,” and every time we recall a memory inaccurately we are creating another memory of a memory; thus, memories become more and more erroneous over time. Through our analysis of Márai’s novel and von Rezzori’s memoir, we will see how the inaccuracies of memory collapse the barrier between fictional and nonfictional stories.

            In order to do this, we will discuss how the memoir functions as a literary genre. Memoirs differ from autobiographies in that the focus is on turning points or other significant events, usually during an exceptionally transformative period in a person’s life, rather than a verifiable, fact-checked account of events spanning the entire life of the author.  Memoir focuses not so much on the events themselves as on the author’s reflections upon those key moments. The interpretation of events by the author is highly subjective, and the way the story is remembered is, again, affected by the accuracy of their memory. The characters in both texts are men in their seventies who are remembering formative years in their lives. Decades have passed between the experiences in their youth and the recollections in their old age. Though the story of the General is fictional, the memories of his youth are designed to reproduce this passage of time as the reader is constantly reminded throughout the novel that the key events he relays occurred forty-one years in the past. Likewise, Gregor’s memoir is evocative of a novel, presenting a narrative that weaves a picture of his life for the reader while offering his impressions of the experiences and the characters depicted. His story is more than the communication of facts; it is a reflection upon what he remembers.

            People’s recollections of their lives, even if they aim to tell the truth as accurately as possible, are still constructed narratives of those events. A constructed narrative is a reality as the individual remembers it, and given what we know about memory, this is merely a version of the truth. Similarly, a fictional narrative may be based on the experiences of the author. Though fiction is presented as imaginary, fiction is still constrained by the reality of the author who wrote it.  The dividing line between fiction and nonfiction is never completely clear.  Fiction is constrained by memory, and memory is constrained by fiction.  Viewed in this light, the intention of the work, as truth or fabrication, becomes irrelevant. This is not to say that memory and fiction are one in the same, but that there are fictional aspects of memory as well as truthful aspects of fiction. Due to this constructed nature of fiction, “Gregor” will henceforth be treated as a character within the narrative rather than as the author of the text. Additionally, we will be focusing specifically on the dialogue of the General when comparing the two men’s memories. Though we can still gather information about the events of his life from the frame narrative, we will be comparing the two men’s memories and their reflections upon those memories as opposed to factual events. Now that we have established the basis of comparison between the two texts, we will use the characters of Gregor and the General to further investigate memory and fiction. The contrast between the two characters demonstrates how the inaccurate nature of memory affects the way people perceive their own pasts and how they communicate these pasts through telling a story, whether fact or fiction.

            Gregor and the General both confront their memories at the end of their lives, and though in doing so they undertake similar journeys, they each come to very different conclusions about their sufferings. Both characters’ reflections upon the events of their lives are inconsistent with their recollections; the recollections are what they remember, and the reflections are their interpretations of those memories. Although almost everyone in Gregor’s life disappoints him, he manages to find the best in the people closest to him, even when they do not live up to his expectations. Conversely, the General lives a relatively easy, pleasant life throughout his adolescence and early adulthood, and yet he obsesses over a single memory of the alleged betrayal of his wife and best friend. Through each man’s narration, their different methods of dealing with their circumstances become evident. Though Gregor has encountered more adversity throughout his life than the General, he is better able to deal with the tragic events of his past because he has developed positive adaptive strategies. This coping mechanism is a result of the way he remembers his past and the beliefs he holds about it; in other words, he remembers his past in this way as a means of coping with the conflict and trauma he experienced.

            The childhood of each character is quite different, and the function of each man’s childhood obstacles affects their ability to deal with stress. Gregor’s childhood was filled with constant stress and anxiety caused by his family, which provided him with the ability to handle more stress than the General, who lived a comfortable, unscathed youth. Gregor’s parents never loved each other, and both neglected him in favor of their own pursuits. He became caught in his mother’s manipulative web and could never feel secure in his relationship with such a fickle woman. His father only cared about hunting and was unfaithful to his mother. His sister held a superior role over him and imposed distance on their relationship in order to maintain her elevated status. In contrast, the General’s childhood was far more stable. The General’s parents were not necessarily happier in their marriage than Gregor’s parents were, but their marriage and their relationship with the General were certainly less turbulent than Gregor experienced in his own family. He came from a rich, well-known family which had given him prestige, and due to the social position he inherited from his parents, the General had unlimited opportunities available to him. Everyone liked the General He grew up with Konrad, his best friend, to whom he was always able to feel superior because of Konrad’s lower social class. They served honorably in the military together as young men, and later the General married the love of his life, Krisztina. The General’s stress-free, uncomplicated adolescence made dealing with a traumatic event later in life—betrayal by Konrad and Krisztina, the foundations of his childhood happiness--unfathomable.

            Each character deals with different traumatic events that radically alter their lives. The General goes hunting with Konrad one day and, with very little substantiating evidence, becomes suddenly convinced that Konrad intended to kill him because of his affair with Krisztina. The General disowns them both and does not speak to either till he is visited by Konrad forty-one years later. He becomes a recluse, his only human interaction with his lifelong nurse and housekeeper Nini. Gregor, on the other hand, comes from a broken home. His parents divorce when he is still a child (viewed as a tremendous failure at the time). This only added to the severely low self-esteem that Gregor already had from the lack of affirmation and acceptance he experienced from his parents.  Gregor also dealt with his sister’s death in her early adulthood, which tormented him because of their unresolved problems. Both characters endured intense pain with which they had to find a way to cope in order to move beyond it; Gregor finds adaptive coping mechanisms to overcome his pain while the General’s approach was ineffective and maladaptive.

            The coping mechanisms of both characters are rooted in their reflections upon these traumatic events. Their interpretations of their memories are inconsistent with what they report, and this determines the success or failure of their abilities to cope.  While the memories themselves may also be erroneous, they are still real to the person remembering them. In other words, both the memory and the reflection may be flawed, but the reflection is the significant variable that determines the psychological outcome for the individual. For decades, the General replays his betrayal over and over again, which goes back to our early discussion of memories becoming increasingly erroneous over time. He merely reinforces what he initially believed, and we never hear an alternative version; the General burns Krisztina’s diary, and when he confronts Konrad, he refuses to respond because the General has already made up his mind. It is important to recognize that the General’s traumatic event is unconfirmed and likely fabricated in his own mind. This suggests that the event may not even be comparable to Gregor’s situation. Gregor’s inconsistent interpretation of events, however, stands in stark opposition to the General’s. At the end of his life, Gregor views all his family members in an exceptionally positive light. None of his recollections about the characters live up the reverence and love he has for them. None of his family members deserve Gregor’s respect and unconditional love. To understand Gregor’s experience with unconditional love and mental stability, we must also look beyond Gregor’s immediate family to his nurse and his governess.

            The development of the adaptive strategies of Gregor and the General originates from their respective caretakers. Gregor’s nurse, Cassandra, and his governess, Bunchy, are the only characters who are named in his memoir, suggesting that his relationship with these two characters was more intimate than with his immediate family. Cassandra loves him in an instinctual, primal, maternal way that gives him a kind of stability that no one else in his early childhood could. It is a simple kind of love and acceptance that differs from Bunchy, who affirms his autonomy and self-sufficiency. Cassandra is the maternal figure Gregor needed as a boy, while Bunchy becomes the embodiment of that maternal role in his early adulthood. Bunchy nurtures him as an artist and an intellectual with her openness and acceptance. She believes in Gregor as no one else had and gives him the confidence to pursue his dreams of being an artist. She does not want to change Gregor into someone other than who he is or who he wants to be, as his parents try to do; rather, she enhances the qualities and aspirations he already had. Gregor was afflicted by the doubt and negativity from so many others in his life, and all he needed was for one person to believe in him and love him for who he was. All of Gregor’s familial relationships were damaged, yet he views them all with love and understanding. This appreciation of his family is a result of the role his other caretakers played in loving and appreciating him. Cassandra was the only person in his childhood who loved him unconditionally, and Bunchy nurtured the artist and young man in him during his adolescence. Because of these affirmations, Gregor is able to break free of the self-doubt from his childhood and forgive his parents, his sister, and even himself. He integrates his grief about his sister’s death by creating a mental dialogue with her that reconciles their differences and gives him peace. These positive adaptive strategies are possible because Cassandra and Bunchy taught Gregor to love himself and be confident and secure in his individuality.

            Though Nini is concerned for the wellbeing of the General, she is not proactive as Bunchy was. In his adolescence, she predicted a negative outcome from the relationship between Konrad and the General and did nothing about it. She allowed the General to stay away from Krisztina, who moves into another house nearby, and not confront her about what happened while complicity relaying messages between the two as they are still married. She enables the General to live as a recluse and seethe in his own frustrations and disappointments in life which he projects onto Konrad and Krisztina. She could have talked to the General to avert the oncoming disaster she evidently saw coming, but she does not. She could have talked to the General to help repair the damage once everything fell apart, but she does not. She could have used the insight and knowledge that she had about the General to help him overcome his shortcomings and integrate his pain, but she does not. She has the potential to help him free himself of his pain, but instead she merely remains his silent housekeeper who does his bidding and leaves him to his own devices. Nini does not serve the same function for the General that Bunchy and Cassandra serve for Gregor. The General does not benefit from his relationship with his nurse the way Gregor benefitted from his because the General’s nurse chooses inaction in the face of a looming disaster. The General has no one else in his life to give him perspective or help to relieve his suffering, and as a result of his maladaptive coping, he deteriorates in his own grief and loathing, shutting himself off from the world and becoming unable to function within it.

            The childhoods of the characters make them predisposed to expect different things out of life. Since the General once lived a happy, uncomplicated life, he had an expectation of happiness that caused the pain of the alleged betrayal of his wife and best friend to be felt more severely. Conversely, since Gregor lived an unpleasant, difficult life for so long, he never expected happiness and is therefore better able to forgive the shortcomings of those closest to him. The stress levels of their childhoods contribute to their ability to handle stress later in life. Furthermore, qualitatively, the General suffered a more severe, shocking pain whereas quantitatively, Gregor suffered a more enduring, permanent pain. However, Gregor had people in his life to help him integrate his pain whereas the General had no such person to give him this kind of objective insight. Consequently, the kind of coping mechanisms that Gregor uses are never developed by the General. Gregor recalls the pain of his narrative candidly and with more objectivity and understanding, while the General is still raging inside about his pain. Gregor’s past has the potential to make him a similarly dysfunctional individual. The key difference between Gregor and the General is the subsequent experiences each had following traumatic events that altered the way they remember their lives.

            The later experiences that modified their memories of the original experiences to be either adaptive or maladaptive coping mechanisms did not necessarily have to involve their nurses. Any number of experiences could have had altering effects on their memories which inform their ability to cope. This is the nature of memory. It is a fluid and dynamic phenomenon occurring in the human mind. By its nature, the mind must make changes with new experiences in order to incorporate the new information gained, and this new information informs prior experiences. The mind is constantly constructing our views of ourselves, of the world, and especially of our memories. Everything we can think about beyond what is occurring in the present moment is a memory and even our present experience is informed by our memory. While bits of our memory are based in fact, the rest is created, with errors and alterations. Our experience is constantly being constructed by our minds, and in this way, memory has more ties to fiction than we may often think. The way we view our lives, through memory, determines how we think of ourselves, whether positively or negatively. We are able to cope with and move past stressful or traumatic events when we are able to construct a positive view of ourselves and others that allows us to integrate the pain of our pasts, our memories. The implications of the flexible, constructed nature of memory are, therefore, surprisingly positive. While it may seem that this would make us unable to trust our memories, it actually indicates our ongoing potential to start fresh and live our lives differently with each passing experience. 




Works Cited


Márai, Sándor. Embers. Trans. Carol Brown. Janeway. New York: A.A. Knopf, 2001. Print.

Rezzori, Gregor Von. The Snows of Yesteryear: Portraits for an Autobiography. New York: Knopf, 1989.   Print.




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