On not going home | James Wood
James Wood: In my memory this is exactly what happened: the radiance of the music, the revelation of its beauty, the final cadences of the Tallis, and my happy glimpsing of my mother. But it happened 37 years ago, and the scene has a convenient, dream-like composition. Perhaps I have really dreamed it. As I get older I dream more frequently of that magnificent cathedral – the long grey cool interior hanging somehow like memory itself. These are intense experiences, from which I awake hearing every single note of a piece of remembered music; happy dreams, never troubled. I like returning to that place in my sleep, even look forward to it.But real life is a different matter. The few occasions I have returned to Durham have been strangely disappointing. My parents no longer live there; I no longer live in the country. The city has become a dream…In that essay, Said distinguishes between exile, refugee, expatriate and émigré. Exile, as he understands it, is tragic homelessness, connected to the ancient sentence of banishment; he approves of Adorno’s subtitle to Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Mutilated Life. It’s hard to see how the milder, unforced journey I am describing could belong to this grander vision of suffering. ‘Not going home’ is not exactly the same as ‘homelessness’. That nice old boarding school standby, ‘homesickness’, might fit better, particularly if allowed a certain doubleness. I am sometimes homesick, where homesickness is a kind of longing for Britain and an irritation with Britain: sickness for and sickness of…It’s not uncommon for expatriates, émigrés, refugees and travellers to want to die ‘at home’. The desire to return, after so long away, is gladly irrational, and is perhaps premised on the loss of the original home (as the refusal to go home may also be premised on the loss of home). Home swells as a sentiment because it has disappeared as an achievable reality… … and I feel … nothing: some recognition, but no comprehension, no real connection, no past, despite all the years I have lived there – just a tugging distance from it all. A panic suddenly overtakes me, and I wonder: how did I get here? And then the moment passes, and ordinary life closes itself around what had seemed, for a moment, a desperate lack…… I watch my children grow up as Americans in the same way that I might read about, or create, fictional characters. They are not fictional, of course, but their Americanism can sometimes seem unreal to me…When I was first living in the States, I was eager to keep up with life ‘back at home’ – who was in the cabinet, the new music, what people were saying in the newspapers, how the schools were doing, the price of petrol, the shape of friends’ lives. It became harder to do so, because the meaning of these things grew less and less personal. For me, English reality has disappeared into memory, has ‘changed itself to past’, as Larkin has it. I know very little about modern daily life in London, or Edinburgh, or Durham. There’s a quality of masquerade when I return, as if I were putting on my wedding suit, to see if it still fits…In America, I crave the English reality that has disappeared; childhood seems breathingly close. But the sense of masquerade persists: I gorge on nostalgia, on fondnesses that might have embarrassed me when I lived in Britain…What I have been describing, both in my own life and in the lives of others, is more like secular homelessness…W.G. Sebald seems to know the difference between homesickness and homelessness. If there is anguish, there is also discretion: how could my loss adequately compare with yours? Where exile is often marked by the absolutism of the separation, secular homelessness is marked by a certain provisionality, a structure of departure and return that may not end…… Though the city is terribly damaged, and familiar landmarks have disappeared, he seems to have come back to his ‘true home’ – where ‘every place had a name, and everybody and everything in that place had a name, and you could never be nowhere, because there was something everywhere.’ Sarajevo, it seems, is where names and things, words and referents, are primally united. He goes through his parents’ apartment, touching everything…Pronek returns to America, but must take his home with him, and must try to tell incomprehensible stories – pigeons in the attics, honey and pickles – of that home to a people who readily confuse Bosnia with Slovakia, and write off the war as ‘thousands of years of hatred’. And at the same time, he is making a new home in America. Or not quite: for he will stay in America, but will, it seems, never rid himself of the idea that putting ice in the water is a superfluity…Exile is acute, massive, transformative, but secular homelessness, because it moves along its axis of departure and return, can be banal, welcome, necessary, continuous. There is the movement of the provincial to the metropolis, or the journey out of one social class into another…… perhaps to be in between two places, to be at home in neither, is the inevitable fallen state, almost as natural as being at home in one place…When I left this country 18 years ago, I didn’t know how strangely departure would obliterate return: how could I have done? It’s one of time’s lessons, and can only be learned temporally. What is peculiar, even a little bitter, about living for so many years away from the country of my birth, is the slow revelation that I made a large choice a long time ago that did not resemble a large choice at the time; that it has taken years for me to see this; and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life – is indeed how life is lived.