I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place
In the essay-as-memoir, the writer can do a lot of things. She can describe some particularity of the world—a crime scene, the failure of a marriage, the loss of a parent—and at the same time, reveal something about herself. This blend of self and the world brings one of the pleasures of reading the personal essay, and comprises a memoir in indirect form. Like the short story, or even the short novel, the personal essay reveals the speaker’s state of mind at a certain time and place, and leaves a glimmering sense of a single consciousness.
Howard Norman’s memoir, I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, is a collection of five long essays, each connected by a time and event of “arresting strangeness.” A Midwest summer that combines working in a bookmobile and the introduction of a brother’s girlfriend and her grifter father. A trip to the Antarctic during which the author learns that John Lennon has been shot. The tragedy of a murder-suicide that takes place in Norman’s home after he sublets it to a troubled poet and her young son. The untimely death of a girlfriend, and the aftermath in which the author as a young man becomes obsessed with a painting she once loved.
Juxtaposition is a much overused and “crafty” word, and yet the placement side by side of arresting and pivotal events is the means by which Norman unpacks these essays. At the same time, he keeps his pace slow, and for the most part shows rather than tells in wonderfully vivid and dramatic scenes. The intervals that run between juxtaposed elements—for example, a painting at auction, an acre of Saskatchewan wilderness, the sadness of an adopted Jewish uncle whose only film role was that of a Nazi officer—shouldn’t work in essays that (at first) appear as meandering as Norman’s do. But soon enough patterns begin to suggest themselves, the choices driving the juxtapositions become clear, and the device enables Norman to gather great emotional breadth. An acclaimed novelist, he uses his way with scene and voice animate the connections. Here, he describes one of his first dates with his girlfriend, Matilde:
“…as she sat across the wooden table from me, her coat and scarf still on, I got lost in her physical self—entranced might be the word—as if I were memorizing her. This no doubt doesn’t speak well for me: shouldn’t one live fully in the moment? Still, there it was. Barely shoulder-length black hair with two red streaks swirled up in a topknot and tucked under her knitted hat, skin flushed from the cold, brown eyes wistful even when she was joyful, prominent cheekbones, and her nose—which as she put it, “I only liked after it was broken when I was playing high school lacrosse,” and which had been broken a second time when she’d taken a spill from a moped. She had a slightly tilted smile that thrilled me.”
Of Norman, Claire Dederer said in her recent review, he ” seems uninterested in telling us what it all means or employing the witty, facile technique of retrospective awareness more typical of memoir. Instead, he writes his good, plain scenes and lays them out like cards, letting meaning accrue from whatever strange synchronicities arise.”
And as the title states, place is fundamental to Norman’s point of view. In the introduction he writes, “If there is one thing that connects these disparate experiences, it is the hopeful idea of locating myself in beloved landscapes . . . and of describing how they offered a home for honest introspection, a place to think things through.” In doing that, Norman doesn’t mean to come up with answers, but simply use the form to his own end, showing us how things were in a certain time and place.