I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place: A Memoir, by Howard Norman
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 what the author calls an “arresting strangeness.” A Midwest summer of working in a bookmobile and an encounter with a brother’s girlfriend and her grifter father. A trip to the Antarctic that coincides with the news 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.
Norman, the author of numerous novels, poetry collections, and criticism, unpacks these experiences by placing arresting images and moments alongside pivotal events. He keeps the pace slow, and portrays the meaningful in wonderfully vivid and dramatic scenes. 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—the mix shouldn’t work in essays that (at first) appear as meandering as Norman’s. But patterns begin to reveal themselves, and the choices driving them gather great emotional breadth. Norman uses scene and voice to 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.”
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 intend to provide answers, but use the essay form to his own end, showing us how things were, and how they felt, in a certain time and place.