‘The Search for a Different, Deeper Truth: a Review of Katherine Brabon’s “The Memory Artist”’, by Khalid Warsame


In its thirty-sixth year the Vogel Award seems to have settled into its position, along with most other long-standing literary prizes and awards, as being more or less a nice thing. This is the prize, after all, that helped launch the careers of Tim Winton, Andrew McGahan, and Kate Grenville. After some controversial flashes of excitement in the 1980s and 90s it’s had a solid and dependable run – one that hasn’t strayed too far beyond its remit of crowning young writers with good novels as, well, published young writers with good novels and a bit of cash in the bank. It’s commendable. It’s a fine prize. It’s a nice thing.

Katherine Brabon’s The Memory Artist, the winner of this year’s Vogel award, begins in a Khrushchev-era apartment building in Moscow. The novel’s protagonist, Pasha (who embodies that blend of reticence and longing that is so characteristic of male protagonists in Russian literature), spends the bulk the novel grasping at threads from his childhood and adolescence and digs into his turbulent, troubled, and altogether unknowable past.

In the epigraph for part one of the novel, Brabon quotes Elizabeth Bonner: “If you ask me, ‘Did this happen?’ I will reply, ‘No.’ If you ask me, ‘Is this true?’ I will say, ‘Of course.’” And from this flows the rest of the novel: a meticulously researched, thorough accounting of the Brezhnev years of Pasha’s childhood, the Glasnost years of his young adulthood, and finally, his solitary adulthood in St. Petersburg, on the cusp of Putin’s new Russia.

The claim to truth is a bold cloak for a novel to assume, and Brabon does not shy away from this – it’s right there, in the epigraph. In a recent article in Kill Your Darlings, she elaborates on this:

[W]ith a literary work we can access a different, deeper truth; or that I wanted to convey loss and the aftermath, silence and trauma, disillusionment about all the things that did not happen rather than only what did. These are states of feeling and being, not facts.

But facts are judge and the jury in Brabon’s novel: written in the form of a memoir and absolutely bursting with authenticity, Brabon has clearly done her homework. Even the moments of the novel that aren’t strictly 1:1 with reality still ring true. In one passage, Pasha wakes uneasily from a dream and compares himself to a character in one of Dostoevsky’s short stories who is plagued by dreams of his dead brother which invade his ordinary life. Pasha quotes Dostoevsky’s character, “I swear to you gentlemen that to be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness.” The short story that Pasha recalls is ‘The Dream of a Ridiculous Man’, but the quote is actually from Notes from the Underground. The quote fits so well with the fevered and suicidal madness of the narrator in 'The Dream of a Ridiculous Man’ that it would have slipped my notice if I hadn’t by chance just read Notes from the Underground a few days before. This small misalignment is important because it both elevates the novel’s verisimilitude—through the presence of such an organically trifling misquote—and reinforces Brabon’s central argument, which is that fact and memory are both closely related species of the truth, and that truth itself is an unstable proposition that often prostrates itself at the feet of power. It is this claim that brings Brabon’s novel into the tradition of classic Russian literature, perhaps more so than the novel’s setting and subject matter.

Realist fiction has always been popular, but it is rare that one reads a realist novel that is so deeply influenced by the perambulatory postmodernism of Teju Cole and W.G. Sebald. And rarer still that it does this while still managing to so thoroughly ground itself within the conventions of the realist tradition. It’s an intriguing balancing act that I suspect has a lot to do with the novel worldliness of The Memory Artist being, at its heart, an Australian novel clothed in the garb of a Russian novel. The realism here isn’t Russian, after all, it’s Australian: the scenes are slow, intimate, and the imperiousness of the Russian landscape is given a slightly alien undertone in Brabon’s rendering that seems more of-the-colony than of-the-steppe. That is not to say, however, that the novel is lacking in moments that firmly ground it in its setting. In one scene, as Pasha and Oleg trudge through the grey outer-edge landscape of Solovetsky in search of the site of a former gulag that exists only in memories and old maps, Pasha observes: “once or twice a rabbit stopped suddenly to stare at us, apparently horrified, before disappearing into the trees.”

Brabon came to write The Memory Artist through the somewhat unconventional path of academia. In the midst of writing a dissertation on Russia’s twentieth century—on dissidents and censorship and the long shadow of Stalin’s labour camps—she found the she couldn’t quite capture the emotional core of her subject matter. Something was lacking.

The result is a haunting memoir-novel that encompasses three periods in Pasha’s life, and three periods in the history of Russia. At every point, Pasha seems to be striving for a secret illumination, and a sense of thwarted yearning pervades his perambulations around Moscow and St. Petersburg. In his childhood Pasha wonders at the thick blanket of silence that covers every aspect of his life—he cannot speak of the kitchen table discussions between his mother and her dissident friends, he cannot speak of the murky fate of his father—and this silence carries forward to the point where, years later, he comes to realise that with silence comes a new language: that of prescribing pathology to assertions of freedom. The Memory Artist is at its most engaging in these moments where Pasha explores the vastness of the Soviet machine of repression, where the language and science themselves were refashioned in order to serve the needs of the state:

The diagnosis made political dissent a mental disease. The psychiatrists were trained—ordered, as it were—to diagnose this condition according to symptoms such as delusional aspirations, or a heightened sense of self-empowerment.

The Memory Artist, at times, however, descends too eagerly into intertextual flourishes. There are a few moments where Pasha pauses discursively on novels and books and cultural artefacts of the era and the significance he attaches to them occasionally feels a little too on-the-nose. But the weight of the extensive research Brabon brings to the table is never overwhelming: Brabon’s prose is understated enough to carry the weight of the narrative without bogging it down in exposition. Her strength as a novelist lies in bringing a stolid lucidity to the realist form and, wisely, a lot of the more formally daring elements in this novel are relegated to the background.

Rather, Brabon is clearly more interested in assembling the solid weight of the past into a compelling narrative, and in this act she emerges as a deft and formidable new writer. The novel truly reads like the closest thing it could be to the best version of itself: a memoir of a lost soul, and a lost country.

Khalid Warsame is a Brisbane-based writer and fiction editor at The Lifted Brow.