Sunday, February 22, 2009

On forgetting the names of characters

On a recent post on another of my blogs, two of the commenters referred blithely to a fellow named Parviz, assuming the reference would be self-evident to me. I in turn assumed that with their far superior cultural literacy, this was just someone they knew and I did not. I figured it was some Arabic poet, along the lines of Rumi, say, or Kabir.

Much to my mortification, it turned out to be a character from a novel that I had not only read, but posted about, and not too terribly long ago, either. Parviz is the first narrator in a book told from multiple perspectives.

I say 'mortification', but I don't really mean 'deep shame' so much as a certain sense of ruefulness. The fact is, I often don't remember the names of characters even for the length of time it takes me to read a book. It isn't that I don't remember the characters--Parviz in this book is a particularly sweet and slightly lost one. But names are somehow not what my brain latches on to. This is particularly true if there is some kind of similarity between the names. An easy example is if they were all Arabic, or Russian. But the fact is that even with the last P.D. James novel I read, there was a certain sameness to the very Anglo-Saxon names of the multiple suspects and it took me awhile to sort them all out in my head.

Usually, I can eventually figure it out by context. But sometimes I really do have to go back and nail down some of the characters more consciously. Most of the time, that's enough.

I was sitting out in the crowds waiting for a matinee performance of Shakespeare Santa Cruz one day, eavesdropping on my fellow picnickers to pass the time. Some parents were sitting with their college-aged daughter and they were talking about some foreign person who was in the news at the time. (No, of course I don't remember who it was--are you kidding?) It wasn't the easiest name for an American ear to assimilate, whatever it was, but the daughter pronounced it 'trippingly off the tongue'. Her parents (and I) were impressed. She replied, quite casually and not at all sarcastically, "I find that if you just pay a little attention at the time, it's not that hard to remember these things."