Saturday, July 4, 2009

In Partibus Infidelium

Beginning to plan for my vacation home, in a couple of weeks, to see family and friends in Pennsylvania. There are less of either than when I last went. My parents and my brother are now all the family I have left there. Of my friends, and the parents of friends, I now have one of each still to see when I go "home." It's an odd feeling, imagining a place with which I have so strong a connection to feel that connection growing ever more tenuous, more narrowly specific with every passing year. It is not as if there are not people there that know me and that I know, but of the people I love there, I now need less than the fingers of one hand to count them. And yet, every time I return now to the place I grew up, a place where I have not lived longer now by years than I did, there is always a sense that neither the place nor I have changed. Walking the roads I walked as a boy, I am again that boy, his aspirations, fantasies, securities and insecurities, his reality, possesses me again, like a ghost, rather than a memory. The road is the same, even where it isn't quite. The July heat is not the heat I remember but the same heat as it ever was, it osculates along the horizon I see exactly as it did across the horizon I saw at thirteen. How many skins have I shed in the intervening years, and yet the heat on my skin will be exactly what it was? The prospect of that sameness of things and of myself is more disorienting than any observable, obvious change in either. Perhaps that's what home is; a return not to a place but to the place one was and from which one never truly leaves.

I do not often indulge in such hazy speculations. I have only a very limited metaphysical vocabulary, and less inclination to nostalgia even than is common to the recently middle aged. I have no special fondness for the places of my childhood, no real tenderness for the landscape or the schools or the population there beyond my immediate family. In truth, however irrational the emotion, I feel that that place rejected me long before I turned my back on it. For every happy memory of what was, after all, a pretty happy childhood, there is a hurt, mostly from adolescence, that while long since forgiven, dismissed or excused, feels fresh again as soon as my foot touches the narrowness of that road. My first thought, always, is still -- escape.

That one word, verb and noun, represents nearly my whole experience of my hometown from the moment I came near to being an adult. It would be tedious, and in aid of nothing, to rehearse here either the reason or the means, but that I did escape, first into fantasy, then to a city, then to my lover, is the whole arc of my autobiography, and no more interesting to anyone else than any other ill considered and predictable story: small town boy finds a way out. I won't bore anyone now with the details, they aren't even all that interesting to me.

What does interest me, what I would wish to reclaim, are the mileposts that led me away from that place, the books that were the best friends of that boy. What was the book in the pocket of his cut-offs, that July I find myself lost in whenever I'm there? What year would that have been? Nineteen seventy six, seventy seven? What was I reading then? How full already was my room with scavenged paperbacks, yard-sale classics, books borrowed and begged and yes, stolen -- but what were they? Only stray titles drift up through the heat, books less significant perhaps to myself then than they seem in retrospect. Was that the summer when I tried to read Sartre? Or was that later? Had I found Henry James yet? I remember the revelation of James, the dazzling, seemingly endless depth of those sentences and my sense, in following each one out to the end that such thoughts were for the first time possible, that I might not simply read but think in such sentences myself, someday, somehow. Unimaginable now, the power of that, the newness of the possibility. The Europeans, The Portrait of a Lady, I remember carrying those around and reading and rereading and struggling to understand them for more than the prospect of a more aesthetically satisfying life elsewhere than where I was. I remember coming to understand that Isabel Archer -- or was it some other woman in James? -- is faced with consequences that require more than reaction, more than reflection, that force her to change, rather than to just change her circumstances. I could not understand how I could come to know something that even that exquisitely drawn character did not, that I could understand not only the narrative, but the narrator, the writer, that I could hear him thinking and even think like him. I remember the first time I read the story "The Altar of the Dead," and knew that some lives, actually, any life, might be made worthy of such close examination, that mine might be as well, that circumstances of birth, or income or advantage did not define the value of a life, or guarantee, or even predispose one to such examination, that one's capacity for love or forgiveness, that all the possibilities of life, could be taken up at any time, even at the last possible moment. How was it that the story of an old man so unlike any I'd ever known, so seemingly unlike myself, could have spoken so directly to my thirteen year old self? I have no explanation for that, beyond the mastery of Henry James.

Is it any wonder that I bless the man's memory?

Or that I remain so grateful to Twain, for teaching me to see beyond race, to see in boys not so different from myself, and in one boy specifically, a boy if anything far worse off than I had ever been, yet in such a boy, such moral superiority to his time and place that he transcends not just these, but the language he knows, even the novel he is in, that he transcends character, and fiction entirely? No wonder I am fierce still in his defense, and want to hear no criticism of that book.

Or going back further into childhood, how grateful am I for Baum and world he made me, where friends can be made of scraps, where boys can be girls, and frogs can talk, and chickens be wise and wizards frauds and witches defeated?

But these are just the books I see looking back. What were all the others? What authors, not famous or great, taught me, took me away from where I knew I no longer wanted to be? Who else showed me the possibilities of wit, besides Oscar? Who else convinced me that words had a limitless power, but Ray Bradbury? Who am I forgetting? Who else do I owe my life to?

Planning my trip back home, I am wondering what books to take with me. There is no bookstore in the town. There will be few opportunities to read, other than in the morning before we are all ready to go out for our early lunch, or just before bed each night. Reading is not the point of being there, but I could not be there, anymore than I could be, without books, so I will have to decide what to take with me when I go. I'll read something fun and thrilling on the long plane ride, but when I'm back in my childhood bedroom, on a hot July night, with just a fan in the window, I will need a real book to read, to let me be alone there. I'll need at least the possibility of more than one. What should I pack?

I was thinking I'd take Trollope, but maybe it's time I read The Golden Bowl again. I've read it many times, but I haven't read it in years now. Maybe I'll take that with me, and Huckleberry Finn, and maybe David Copperfield. I won't read them all in a week, I know. But I may need them, nonetheless.


  1. There was once a decent book store there. But I think you're right--no more. Everything is now overtaken by the mall. Of course one doesn't return there for books. And for those who live there.... well, they're on their own--they have to save themselves! lol

    Funny that I also really loved A Portrait of a Lady. And tried to read Sartre then. And have tried many times since, with varying degrees of satisfaction.

  2. There were as many as three bookstores, over the years, so far as I can recall. None lasted.

    Sartre remains a dead letter to me -- though I haven't tried again since high school, I should think.

    Thanks for this, anonymous.

  3. I read some of Sartre's philosophical writings as a philosophy major. And have returned to then in more recent years--some of his shorter essays, as I recall. Not going to wrestle with Being and Nothingness again at this point. And I've read a few of his plays--No Exit is of course excellent for what it is. His fiction.... well, I had a professor at U of Penn (for a 20th Century British novel class) named Deidre Bair, who wrote a biography of Simone de Beauvoir, which I read a few years ago. That rekindled my interest in Sartre's fiction, so I read The Age of Reason, which was pretty good. So I eagerly started into The Reprieve, I think it was, and made it through perhaps 30 pages. Rough going, and I didn't have the patience for it. So there my interest died. But I have an almost irrational reverence for him. When we were in Paris, Ann and I went to his grave site (buried with de Beauvoir) in Montparnasse. I still have a picture of the grave on my dresser.