Friday, March 4, 2011

Anthony Doerr: What The Story Prize Judges Had to Say About Memory Wall

When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were bookseller Marie du Vaure, Granta editor John Freeman, and author Jayne Anne Phillips. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.

Here's what one judge had to say about Anthony Doerr's Story Prize winning collection Memory Wall:
Anthony Doerr’s incandescent collection of stories is a poignant elaboration on the idea of how memory affects the course of our lives, and how it acts as the true portal to our own selves. Each story is a tribute to the irrepressible need of humans to draw on remembrance in order to shape their future. When confronted with the alienating pain of loss or disappointment, the protagonists compensate for that void in projecting their recollections of that experience onto the canvas of their new daily reality. As such, and through the solicitous and careful artistry of the writer, these characters are able to recreate a stronger self, and they move on through a last reshaping process, even if that means facing their very own end and erasure. It is the shimmering space between the two planes of reality and memory that Doerr captures with immense sensitivity.
  Doerr is adept at evoking a variety of places and different times in history, conjuring sharp settings in which the fragility of his characters is played out. The diversity of backgrounds underscores his poetic skill at illustrating his themes of emotional distancing and the resilience of hope. While he displays a rare imagination in the handling of his subjects, he maintains a beautiful and quiet grace in his precise, spare style, providing a harmonious resonance to all of the stories. Memory Wall is an astonishing work that bears the signature of a writer of remarkable talent and impressive maturity.  It leaves the reader deeply moved and carrying the indelible impression of having witnessed compassion in the making.

And another judge observed that:

Anthony Doerr has long been fascinated with the natural world. He has a botanist’s broad vocabulary, a trail guide’s solo instincts. But there has always been a division – especially in his fine and very funny book on trying (and failing) to write in Italy, Four Seasons in Rome, between our lives, and the lives of, say, crustaceans. As if the natural world were out there, fleetingly glimpsed, constantly being pushed aside by the so-called everyday world. Doerr has finally broken down that boundary with this extraordinary collection of stories, Memory Wall. It is the work of a writer who has absorbed the natural world so deeply he can write with its metaphors. Or to put it another way: this book creates its own ecology. Instead of water, there is longing, and instead of air, there is memory. Within these parameters, Doerr unspools the lives of men and women who are haunted by the past’s proximity. In the brilliant title novella, a woman in South Africa undergoes a dangerous procedure which allows her failing memories to be restored to their original state in replayable cartridges—only to have them stolen. Other stories take place in Estonia, Germany, Korea, and Wyoming, as if Doerr is making a political point that not only are our memories ourselves, they are the bedrock in which nations plant their strongest roots. The heroes of these stories are equally wide-ranging—from Holocaust survivors to a storied sturgeon which reappears, long after people assumed it was dead. They all stand before the same existential dread – erasure, and the vanishing of memory. “Every hour,” Doerr writes in “Afterworld,” “all over the globe, an infinite number of memories disappear, whole glowing atlases dragged into graves. This astonishing collection identifies what needs to be preserved. And brings us right to the water’s edge, where the sand bags are being put down.
photo © Eric Richards