It is said that Proust knew Praeterita by heart. Given the length of the book and the limitations of Proust's English, the story seems improbable. Nevertheless, one can see why it has stuck. Proust worshipped Ruskin and would be likely to adore his autobiography before all other books; and whether or not he had total recall of each and any of the work's 500 pages, we can accept that he in some sense remembered it, as surely as Marcel remembers the taste of a madeleine.
In a 1995 review that makes some very perceptive points about truth in Ruskin's autobiography, Clive Wilmer also raises the issue of the remarkable memorability of its prose:
Praeterita, unusually for a work of prose, is easy to remember in detail: almost as easy as the King James Bible, most of which Ruskin himself knew by heart, having memorized it daily from earliest childhood. (He tells the story in Praeterita's opening chapter.) Memorability is hard to account for, but, in this case, it must have something to do with the character of Ruskin's late prose, as richly rhythmic as his early writing and sometimes as encrusted, yet with a colloquial turn to the phrasing, an aleatory thrust that catches us off guard, beguiling with distinctive tones of voice. One need go no further than the opening sentence: "I am, and my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school; (Walter Scott's school, that is to say, and Homer's)." It is partly the unpredictable movement — that early parenthesis about his father —and partly the "intellectual bravado" (in A. 0. J. Cockshut's phrase) of calling Homer a Tory. It is also to do with our surprise at this prophet of ethical socialism presenting himself as of the same persuasion. Whatever the reason, the sentence is unforgettable.
Wilmer is surely correct: Ruskin's early, much-anthologized word-painting differs greatly from the late prose of Praeterita, just as both differ from the more stripped-down, less lyrical writing of Unto This Last. What other reasons — that is, what other specific techniques — does Ruskin employ in his autobiography that make it so memorable?
Wilmer, Clive. "Back to nature: Ruskin's aspen and an art in the service of the given." Times Literary Supplement (1 December 1995): 3-4
Last modified 10 July 2006