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Storing memories

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Keeping a 'book of deaths'
Jean-Claude Carrière Film-maker
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So yes, I train my memory, I am like everyone else, subject to losing it, especially when it comes to names, which is the first type of memory you lose. You can do some exercises, such as trying to remember the names of people we only met briefly, but the act of remembering a particular woman or man is very precious. For instance, Buñuel taught me something about that. Buñuel was very worried about memory because his mother had Alzheimer's. Buñuel had a 'book of deaths', in which he would write down, in alphabetical order, the names of people who had died and whom he had met, even if briefly, for work or with whom he had spent some time. And in that 'book of deaths' – I keep one the way he did – in his, surrealists were marked with a star. From time to time, he would take it, find a name, someone whom he might have met only for a day, and whose name he was trying to place, as if, had it not been written down, it would have fallen into oblivion.

There is a wonderful phrase, which I can't quote literally, in Chateaubriand's Memoires d'outre-tombes, when he refers to certain women whom he met in the Castle of Combourg, or in his childhood or teenage years, and he describes them quite precisely, and says something like, 'I may be the only one left to remember those characters'.  In other words, 'It is only because of me as I write about them and describe them that they have some chance of enduring, otherwise they would have left no memories, they would have lived for nothing'. That is a very beautiful sentence, and I try to apply it myself in my 'book of deaths'. I use it once a week and I pick a letter, 'Ah, who was that one... oh yes, that actor who died quite a long time ago, and who was doing this and that'. That task forces you to go back to the past through a little random door, since you never know on which name your finger will fall. But there are many other exercises, any of us can come up with them.

J’entraîne ma mémoire, je suis comme tout le monde apte à perdre la mémoire et particulièrement la mémoire des noms propres, qui est la première que l’on perd, on peut faire des exercices là-dessus pour essayer de se rappeler le nom de quelqu’un qui, apparemment nous est indifférent, mais l’acte même de nous rappeler cette femme-là ou cet homme-là est très précieux. Par exemple Buñuel m’a appris quelque chose de ce point de vue là, Buñuel qui était très préoccupé par la mémoire parce que sa mère avait été frappée de la maladie d’Alzheimer. Il avait, Buñuel, un carnet des morts, c’est-à-dire il notait sur un carnet par ordre alphabétique, les gens qui étaient morts et qu’il avait connus, de près ou de loin, mais avec qui il avait passé un moment, il travaillait, etc.  Et sur ce carnet des morts,  que je fais moi-même, à l’imitation du sien, et où les membres du groupe surréaliste étaient marqué d’une étoile, de temps en temps il le prenait et il tombait sur un nom de quelqu’un qu’il avait rencontré une journée peut-être, et il essayait de se rappeler quel était ce nom, c’est à dire si je ne l’avais pas noté, ce nom là serait totalement tombé dans l’oubli. Il y a une phrase admirable que je ne peux pas citer de mémoire, dans Chateaubriand dans Les mémoires d’outre-tombe justement quand il parle de certaines femmes qu’il a connu dans le château de Combourg, ou pendant son enfance et son adolescence, il les décrit très précisément et il dit quelque chose comme: «Je suis peut-être le seul au monde à me rappeler de ses personnages-là». Autrement dit: «Ce n’est que grâce à moi et le fait que je les écrive et je les décrive qu’elles ont une chance de durer, sinon elles auraient vécus pour ne laisser aucun souvenir, on peut dire qu’elles auraient vécu pour rien». Cette phrase est très belle et j’essaye de me l’appliquer moi-même dans mon carnet des morts, je le prend une fois par semaine et je revois telle lettre: «Ah, c’était qui?  Ah! Oui, tel acteur qui est déjà mort il y a déjà longtemps et qui faisait ceci et cela». Cet effort de retour au passé par une petite porte d’hasard en fait, on ne sait jamais sur quel nom on va tomber, c’est un exercice que je recommande. Mais il y en a beaucoup d’autres, il y a des exercices que chacun de nous peut inventer.

French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière began his association with films aged 24 when he was selected by Jacques Tati to write for him. This early experience led to further contact with other film-makers, including Luis Buñuel with whom Carrière collaborated for many years. He has written screenplays for films including 'Belle de Jour', 'The Discreet Charms of the Bourgeoisie', 'Tin Drum' and 'Danton'.

Listeners: Andrzej Wolski

Film director and documentary maker, Andrzej Wolski has made around 40 films since 1982 for French television, the BBC, TVP and other TV networks. He specializes in portraits and in historical films. Films that he has directed or written the screenplay for include Kultura, which he co-directed with Agnieszka Holland, and KOR which presents the history of the Worker’s Defence Committee as told by its members. Andrzej Wolski has received many awards for his work, including the UNESCO Grand Prix at the Festival du Film d’Art.

Tags: Memoires d'outre-tombes, Luis Buñuel, François-René de Chateaubriand

Duration: 2 minutes, 19 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2010

Date story went live: 18 October 2010