The Memory Palace/Mira Bartok: Reflections

Saturday, February 5, 2011

I have been reading Mira Bartok's The Memory Palace these last several days, slowly taking in the story this daughter (for Bartok is mostly, in his memoir, a daughter) records about her brilliant, beautiful, mentally ill mother.  It is a survival story, first and foremost—a deeply loving, never condemning return to a life spent looking for safety during a mother's unruly outbursts.  This mother and her two daughters are poor to begin with; Mira's father abandons the family early on.  But true poverty sinks in as their mother quickly loses her power to work and her ability to provide.  The quiet days are the days when their mother is institutionalized.  The terrifying days are the ones in which the mother leaves the girls stranded in places both foreign and familiar, or bangs on the other side of a door, demanding to know if the girls are whores.  There is a grandmother nearby, but she has troubles of her own.  There are neighbors and the occasional piano teacher or kind adult who step in, offering only temporary reprieves.

The specter of this mother (a former musician headed to Carnegie Hall) will haunt her daughters through high school and college, through early romances and careers.  Only after every possible intervention fails, Mira (who was born Myra) and her sister change their names and elude their mother—a tactic that might provide some order, certainly, but does not relieve either daughter from worrying over their schizophrenic, increasingly homeless mother.

Bartok began life as an artist, and her complex, quite lovely illustrations sit at every chapter's start, alongside notes from the mother's own heartbreaking journals, discovered by Mira and her sister in a storage unit during the mother's final few weeks of life.  The journal entries betray a woman struggling to hold on—to anchor in with some kind of knowledge, any kind of knowledge, any thing she can note, decipher, track.  The journals also provide a haunting counterpoint to Mira's own struggle to remember and understand, for Mira herself has suffered a brain injury in the intervening years, thanks to a terrible car accident.

Bartok, who is also a children's author, fills her story with allusions to myths and fantasy, softening the insufferable with flights of tremendous  fancy.  She writes at times quite simply and at times with a poet's stance.  She blames no one, but always tries to understand.  I admired her work enormously here—her empathy, her powers of recall—and if at times I felt that some of the tangents added unnecessarily to the story, or took the tale as a whole more toward autobiography than memoir, I closed the book with the deepest respect for Bartok, not just as a writer, but as a person.


Wendy said...

I have this on my TBR pile...thanks for the lovely review. I think I will probably really appreciate this one :)

Amy said...

This book sounds very powerful and touching. I can't begin to imagine how difficult life was for Mira and her sister at times. I love that she was courageous enough to write about her mother and herself, too.

Thank you for this beautiful review. This is the first post I've read about The Memory Palace and will be listing it on my list of books to read soon.
~ Amy

Lilian Nattel said...

What a difficult story--I'm thinking about it.

bermudaonion said...

This sounds absolutely amazing!

Becca said...

Oddly enough, I was reading some of this in the bookstore this afternoon before I read your thoughts about it. I was torn about whether to buy it - it seemed almost more painful than I could bear right now.

Also interested in your comment that it seemed "more an autobiography than a memoir," and wondering how it crosses that line, and also what that line even is. Obviously, a big topic...

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