Home is Where One Starts From

Last week I spoke about the tendency of many, including myself, who discover a sense of belonging far from where they’re actually from. Such an experience of home is intense but also fleeting, a two-week trip or a series of later returns; or it lives on just as an immensely powerful memory.

But I was immediately reminded of those lucky few with the opposite experience, people who essentially spend their lives and find their meaning in the same place, and who have felt at home from the beginning.

No one that I know of has articulated this point of view better than the British writer Peter Ackroyd. Born in London, through his smaller or larger histories or novels London is as much a character in his books as any person. As he said in a recent interview:

“London has been my constant companion all my life. It’s been the source of whatever inspiration I possess, and it’s been the landscape of whatever imagination I have as long as I’ve lived; so for me it is the natural and inevitable subject, it is the sun in my sky, and I hope and trust that I will spend the rest of my life in London.”

I have to admit that I’m slightly jealous of him here, and I wonder if anyone else out there is, too, to have been able to live with and live through a place so thoroughly, from the beginning. I’ve never felt this way about anywhere in America; whether Ohio or Georgia, Southern California or Brooklyn, none of them have ever really seeped into what I was writing. Rather, they’ve always been the equivalent of the roadside diner (or nowadays just a Panera): a place to stop and concentrate on what I’m really doing, which is usually writing about people and places far away.

While I thought for many years that I might try something like what Faulkner or Stephen King have done, putting some version of their fictional Maine or Mississippi on the map, what’s emerged instead are voices from the long past; and indeed the only time place has ever been something other than a distraction has been in feeling a sense of deep history while visiting Britain: moments in London, in Salisbury, in Cornwall or the Lakes, or most of all in Orkney.

It could simply be a matter of having always been interested in a history much older than (the European part of) my own country. There has always been a pull for things ancient or medieval, and it was hard not to be seduced, at seventeen, by the closing moments of this documentary on T. S. Eliot; yet even in my late teens my mind completely ignored the imagery of the Mississippi River and the Massachusetts coast, instead latching onto rural England, stone walls, old churches, and deep greens and browns:

I’ve no idea why such imagery (helped along by Eliot’s voice, and  some late Beethoven) caught me as a young man, or why it still persists today. I’ve no idea why, more often than not, I feel most at home at some restaurant counter, reading (or writing) poetry which prompts a deep attachment to ideas of time and memory. I’m as interested in how life is lived just as much (if not more) as the art which the life produces, and these are just endless, answerless questions of origins, continuity, and how meaning finds it way in a million guises.

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13 Comments Add yours

  1. I’ve never had an attachment to one place. I was born in Philadelphia PA and spent most of my first 27 years there, but I never felt it “home.” And I was born in the more suburban Far Northeast part of Philly too, not the “Rocky” part, the Italian Market part.

    I now live in Piedmont, CA, which is inside (literally, like Vatican City) Oakland, CA, but don’t feel at home here either, though I’m definitely much more of a West Coaster than an East Coaster.

    > I’ve no idea why, more often than not, I feel most at home at some restaurant counter, reading (or writing)
    > poetry which prompts a deep attachment to ideas of time and memory.

    For me it’s a coffee shop. And it’s either a book of prose fiction (though fewer and fewer these days, as most contemporary authors, I’m more and more convinced, suck) or non-fiction (history, art, science, music).

    > I’m as interested in how life is lived
    > just as much (if not more) as the art which the life produces, and these are just endless, answerless
    > questions of origins, continuity, and how meaning finds it way in a million guises.

    You sound like you could be the main character in my novel.

    You know, I thought if I created a character with a voice that was like that, agents would be very interested in getting to know him and would want my book. You know, they’re always saying, “I like characters with strong, individual voices, who explore the world around them in a humorous way.” So I gave them that. Turns out they really want more of what’s already out there: Harry Potter, Twilight, Dystopian worlds, heroines in tight leather suits who can kickbox like Angellina Jjolie.

    As for that late Beethoven, mmmmm! And although it’s not late, I just got a particularly terrific recording of the Op, 18 string quartets…Fine Arts Quartet from the mid 60s. I had these on scratch sub-par Everest vinyl as a kid and was glad to see them appear. Really fine, natural performances, not rushed and over-caffeinated the way I find so many performances of these works.

    What are some of your favorite late quartet recordings?

  2. Tim, it comes down to the grass is always greener for some. for me, finding somewhere other than home was due to home being, pretty dull really, yes it is safe, it has some green space, pubs aren’t too bad, i can see farms & take walks, but it is never going to alter for me, i know it & am pretty sure no one really needs or wants to read about it— so i buggered off 6000 odd km across the globe & there eventually you find something other, some place that in its newness is a cornucopia that spontaneously forges you ahead on a subject. that is what the curious do, they gum themselves into an environment that is going to sensitize them, unless they have that insight from their birthplace, which is usually a place, on the map, with a range of subjects backed up: a London, Paris, Berlin, Lakes, New York. Eliot has to leave America to find his place. Walcott writes a ;lot about travel but St Lucia is ever present, ever reluctant to unlatch the poet from its grapple. you really should get Walcott’s The Prodigal & White Egrets, astonishing travel poetry, searching, humble, imagistic, delightful.
    Will Self is the same with London, though he has an American visa, still lives in some run down, i think N.London shithole, never left there, despite his boost in popularity.
    the ones who leave & finds other places, like Walcott, like me, always return to the mundane homesteads with a new fondness.
    hope Evie keeps you up more to write such nifty little pieces. keep you away from the myth poems. hahaha

  3. Tim Miller says:

    Daniel, I agree with everything you say, which is in part why Ackroyd seemed such a wonderful anomaly, I can’t think of many like him at all. The only poet equivalents that come to mind are William Carlos Williams & Wallace Stevens; WCW born & dies in Rutherford; & even though Stevens settled in New Haven, he might as well have been writing about his birthplace in Reading. These are the exceptions, whereas Joyce leaves Dublin in 1904 but never really leaves it at all, he can’t possibly shake it. Maybe Wordsworth counts, even though he did see the French Revolution, he essentially does find eternity in his Lakes District. I think of poets who didn’t move much, your friends Milton & Blake, but I don’t know that you’d gather from any of their poetry where or when they lived. I’m glad you think the post was worthwhile, stuff like this feels like shapes in dust you can blow away in a second.

  4. Tim Miller says:

    John, with classical music I usually don’t rummage around with different recordings; once I find a good one the others fall away. There are the Harmonia Mundi/Herreweghe recordings of Bach’s Passions, Art of the Fugue, etc.; & it’s the Quartetto Italiano versions of Beethoven’s quartets. For a million entirely non-aesthetic reasons it’s hard to believe any other versions are as good, though I imagine some must be–& of those I do find they are almost always older than fifty years–Klemperer’s Bach Passions, & the Budapest Quartet (I think?) doing Beethoven on a scratchy record. I was lucky enough to see the op.132 performed back in 2008 at the Met in NYC, & it meant more than I can say to see it performed about ten feet away.

    I feel the same way about prose authors in general; perhaps I don’t have the time or am just not looking around enough, but there is something lacking in the “serious” novelists. I wonder if you can mention anyone writing today that you do recommend; the ones who’ve hit me the hardest in the past few years are either in their 80s or recently dead: William Trevor and Cormac McCarthy; or DeLillo’s Libra and Morrison’s Beloved. It’s hard to imagine anyone in their thirties or forties writing anything like those two novels now, or like Trevor’s short stories. Or more importantly, it’s hard to imagine them *wanting* to, which is a shame.

  5. i think Blake’s London is clear, but Felpham & Lambeth are just as prominent. you really should read Blake Tim, i have no reservations that you’d find much of value in his poems, especially what Keynes title hsi ‘Didactic Works’. his mythologizing is astonishing. London was Blake’s love, he never left, except for Felpham, Sussex & Lambeth, which is London.
    i missed WCW, funnily though i watched Paterson last night, Jim Jarmusch’s new flick & it has actually caused a psychological turn in me, i actually feel this pull to change the way i perceive my life, i feel more satisfied, i feel as though i have a role model in Jarmusch’s Paterson, the peaceable man who doesn’t butt heads against his station in life, it is an absolute gem of a movie, perhaps the most influential film i have ever seen. can’t praise it enough, i haven’t stopped thinking about it & Driver’s is the best performance i’ve seen since Joaquin Phoenix in the Master.
    as for your dust analogy, mandalas have their time.

  6. David Lim says:

    When your mind experiences a sense of affinity with the environment it’s relating to a template already existing within the conscience.

  7. Don Royster says:

    Of course, you can always think of the past as a place.

  8. CB lives on the west-coast in a beautiful place but he feels a pull for the prairies where he was born. The open spaces, the big sky, sounds , smells, landscapes, the vastness, grasslands. So many good writers have captured it. Wallace Stegner would probably be at the top of the list.

  9. Tim Miller says:

    Angle of Repose has been in my to-read pile for ages… you comment may finally get me to it

  10. Wallace hits it on the head for me. ‘Repose’ is a good one. A real sense of place with that one. Same as ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’. I’m going to re visit ‘Wolf Willow’ soon. That really captures his boyhood on the prairie. I’m going to get around to your ‘To the House of the Sun’. I love that era and your work has caught my interest. The only Peter Ackroyd I’ve read is his ‘Dickens’ bio. Enjoyed it. I’ll be back to poke round your site some more.

  11. Your comments have sent me back to the Italianos for Beethoven, a set I abandoned about 15 years ago. Now I’m wondering why. So far so good, though no set will work completely for me, for no interpretation can contain all this music. I’ve liked the Lindsays for the late quartets (if you can forgive all the technical lapses, of which there are quite a few), the Amadeus for middle (though nothing is quite as bracing as the Busch in the Serioso) and the Fine Arts in the early, though listening to the Italianos this morning makes me think they’d eclipse them. I must re-order this set, I think.

    For serious American authors, try Deborah Eisenberg. Don’t be fooled by how she doesn’t write about “big” and portentous topics, and frequently has as her subjects ordinary people, often women, often young or recently on their own, struggling to make sense of the world. Although many female writers do this sort of thing to death, none can compare to Eisenberg for insight and the ability to say so much with so little, with such small gestures. There’s a great two-part interview where she explains a lot of what she’s trying to do: http://kathrynkuitenbrouwer.com/interview-with-deborah-eisenberg-window-from-twilight-of-the-superheroes/.

  12. BTW, who do you like for the Mozart “Haydn” quartets? Those are six more gems I wouldn’t want to be without.

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