Remember Me . . . is the story of a ten-year love affair, which begins in the early 1960s when Joe, an undergraduate polymath from the north, persuades Natasha, French, artistic, mysterious and slightly older than him, to trust him and finally to fall in love with him. Melvyn Bragg ensures that we see their life together at every stage along the way, and from every point of view. The consequence is that the novel details not only the many nuances that affect the relationship, but the excitement of young professional success at the BBC, of gaining a circle of trusted friends and of learning to write novels. Nearly all the subsidiary characters have well-defined personalities, and this is achieved by courageously extensive deployment of dialogue, all of which is convincing. This is an especially admirable achievement, as much of the dialogue concerns the intellectual and aesthetic concerns of a generation; this type of conversation is always in danger of seeming contrived, even when it is spoken, but Bragg manages to make it sound authentic and interesting at the same time.
The main thrust of the plot is emotional; surprises lurk in the psyches of Joe and Natasha; moments of tension rest on the anxiety that one of them will suddenly fall prey to inner demons, and darkling suspense is built up around Natasha’s mental fragility. The pair attracts touching loyalty in their friends, and their relationships with their own families are sensitively drawn. Throughout, there are observations of acute insight, especially towards the end when the weakening effect of psychoanalysis contributes to a frightening downward spiral, as it removes the layers of mental scar-tissue from the traumas of the past.
The problem with the book is that it is too long. Joe’s enthusiasm for London, Paris, rural France and Cumbria is clearly matched by the author’s, and as we are whisked hither and thither with Joe and Natasha, each new location prompts a great deal of description. The changing landscapes can act as catalysts to reveal different shades of character in the two protagonists, but often I found myself longing for pace rather than place. As the book is based around small moments of revelation or concealment, leading to an ending that is foreshadowed from the very beginning, one can see why Bragg has given such a thorough account: firstly, and rightly, for the sake of psychological accuracy, and secondly because when there is a tragedy, all the minutiae that may have signalled it or contributed to it, and even those that make it poignant, become interesting in real life;
literature needs to be more selective, in order to hold the attention of the callous reader. At one point Joe explains to his daughter, years later, that there is ‘no point trying to remember “everything” about Natasha . . . It is too fragmented, too unreliable.’ Joe, however, is not the narrator; our narrator, by contrast, arguably recalls too much. The scenes he gives us are vivid, but there are just too many of them.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 12, 2008