In autobiographical nonfiction, place is elastic, no firmer than smoke. Nostalgia carries with it the desire to return, and memory its own mindfulness, less the urge to go back than the desire to stay put and try to understand. An autobiographical essayist’s relationship to place has to do with his ever having left it. Memory erects a universe of civic construction, where things — fields, buildings, people — remain where you last left them. Physically return years later to the neighborhood in which you were raised and it can look like a cartoon image of overdevelopment, or decay. Changes look incremental to one who never left; to the one returning, the displacement can be overwhelming. But Nabokov insists: “One is always at home in one’s past.”There are a few days left to pre-order a signed copy of the book here. Like and join the facebook page here.
The friction between place-as-remembered and place-as-is warms any personal essay charged by its author with investigating the now mythic past. The danger comes when this warmth, sometimes startling, sometimes pleasant, morphs into sentimentality, a maudlin, grabby insistence that place matters simply because I once existed there and now I have lost it. When, in memory, I’m sitting on the low brick wall in front of an office building in Wheaton, Maryland, lovingly flipping through a newly-purchased three-pack set of Topps baseball cards, happy beneath the high Saturday sun, on my own and rich with my small weekly allowance, among stops at the newsstand and Barbarian Bookstore and Highs for a Slush Puppie, the impulse to sing it all produces a melody with both major and minor chords. (“No one cares for your tragedy until you can sing about it,” says V.S. Naipaul.) Yet my loss is no greater than yours.
The past shapes and reshapes itself into vast proportions; the setting of my youth now glows as myth. The larger the imagined, geographic, and temporal distance, the more burnished and epochal that remembered place feels. Was. Is. This place is a lot smaller than I remember. It is huge.
Thursday, February 21, 2013
This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began
Orphan Press on March 1. Here's a section from "Colonizing the Past":