I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place/Howard Norman: Reflections

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Today I went to a garden searching for an image worthy of Howard Norman's new memoir, I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place.

There was this, above, a suggestion of the many vivid parts that constitute this surprising memoir's whole—Norman's summer as a fifteen-year-old employee of the local bookmobile (not to mention lover-in-training, thanks to his brother's girlfriend, Paris, and amateur outsdoorsman, with terrible unintended consequences, and son of a mostly missing father), Norman as a young man trying to find his way in a cold and bitter Canadian city (to pay off an auction debt, to be worthy of a woman he might have loved, to keep company with an older, regretful man), Norman among the Intuits (their folklore, their landscapes, their whale-spume horizons, their birds), Norman in Vermont (it was the summer of Ken Burns' Civil War documentary; it was the summer of wells and hallucinations and fevers), and Norman as the man who tries to reclaim the home that he lent to a poetess and her young son—the home in which she committed a ghastly and famous murder-suicide.

So the parts. The vivid parts of Beautiful Place.

But also the alighted nature of the memoir's structure, the intricate workings among and between things. The time shifts, the slight but never precious self-effacements, the humor within the melancholy within the humor, and his overt address to each. The way art—Norman's art—comes into this, but only slightly and only sometimes. Beautiful Place is not a "how I became a writer" memoir—not in the least. It's a book of true, landscape-framed stories—five chapters circling five discoveries in five eras of Norman's life. Norman twice recalls the Robert Frost line about the best way out being through. He shows himself circling, regretting, freezing, succumbing, lying, and being a better man. He shows himself in the company of birds, and in the company of dying things, and in the light of the moon by the shore.

It's gorgeous writing, every sentence calm and clear and (again) vivid: "The novels I was reading at the time deftly orchestrated implausibilities along a clear narrative line, but I could not locate such a line in my own life." "As he dusted each globe with a moistened cloth and inspected it for hairline cracks, Michael also turned it upside down and them right side up so that the fabricated snowflakes inside fell like confetti on interior tableau." "In 1990, the second full summer in our 1850s farmhouse in Vermont, everything I loved most happened most every day, with exceptions."

I read many books that I love and many I want to share, and then there are those books that I read and think: This is a book that I must teach.

I will teach Howard Norman to my students at Penn next spring.


patti.mallett_pp said...

Lucky, lucky students!!

Your photos are magnificent.

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