Bookside Table, A Sleep and a Forgetting book cover, EM Keeler

William Dean Howells’ novella, A Sleep and a Forgetting, is touching and discomfiting in equal measure. A young doctor takes on an unusual charge when he meets a young woman and her father outside of a hotel in San Remo in the early 20th century. There’s something so charming about doctor stories from the past, perhaps because medicine has, as a science, changed so vastly in its scope and method through the years. I love the idea of a doctor advising a patient to ‘take the air’ in a mountainous or Mediterranean locale to cure if not the cause of their sickness, then at least any affliction’s accompanying melancholia.

The affliction faced by the young woman in this story can not, alas(!), be cured by salty sea air or walks through well kept gardens: she is trapped in an eternal present, having experienced the selective obliteration of her memory after witnessing the gruesome death of her mother. She retains her abilities to read, write, and converse, with some eloquence at that, but nothing sticks to the perpetually slick surface of her mind. Her father, happening upon the young doctor, insists that this qualified stranger join their party in San Remo and work on developing a cure for his daughter.

One of the virtues of the novella’s form is that it provides a knowing sort of space; while a short story must be read multiple times so that you can get your bearings, and a novel can use the exciting carrot of story or plot to persuade the reader down a specific path, a novella tells you exactly where you are without ever handing you a map. Howell uses the form well, and sets up the events he describes in a way that mirrors the strange facts that face the doctor. Howells also uses a distantly omniscient voice to tell the tale, and he seldom gives us much of a peek into the interior lives of these characters. Here again the framing mirrors elements of the young doctor’s struggles: he can only marvel at the young woman’s condition, and though he can offer endless interpretations of this malady he is at a loss to solve another beating heart. He will never solve the mystery of her life, even as he becomes increasingly involved therein. In his heart, this doctor is, just as we are, powerless to ever know the mind of another.

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