Writer’s memoir grants memory the distance of irony
Novelists’ memoirs are tantalizing because of the clues they provide about their writers’ sources, and Howard Norman’s I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place certainly echoes his fiction, set mostly in Canada and consumed with the landscape and its inhabitants. Norman’s novels are also filled with orphans, crime, violence, art, copious quantities of coffee, difficult love affairs and the stumbling paths of wounded souls. So is this memoir.
A creative writing professor at the University of Maryland at College Park, Norman uses the tight focus of geography to describe five unsettling periods of his life, each separated by time and subtle shifts in his narrative voice. Like the best writers’ memoirs – I think of Hilary Mantel’s Giving up the Ghost and J.M. Coetzee’s Boyhood – this one grants memory the distance of irony. Norman the Memoirist is as wryly humorous and soulful as Norman the Novelist.
He grew up in Michigan, where his compelling opening chapter is set. From his bookmobile window, young Howard spies his father, who has deserted the family, at an apothecary counter. His brother steals a car, apparently to get caught. The brother’s girlfriend goes topless for Howard in his house and goes further in the local movie theater. The emotional extremity of his situation seems almost unreal in long stretches of dialogue he can’t possibly remember verbatim. Or can he? He submerges himself so convincingly in the past that even outrageous feats of memory don’t seem impossible.
In Nova Scotia, where he drifts after high school, his difficult affair with an older landscape painter ends brutally when her plane crashes in the bleak Saskatchewan snow. His interest in folklore leads him to the Canadian Northwest, where he is driven off by an angakok, a shaman who hates non-Inuits (and “most Inuit people, too,” an elderly woman tells him). He finds a measure of peace with his wife and daughter in a Vermont farmhouse, but spends one summer there fighting a mysterious fever coinciding with his confusion about reality’s borders and his concern over an ailing kingfisher and a brother on the lam.
These incidents illuminate the aesthetic and philosophical underpinnings of Norman’s novels, which often take place in a lyrically beautiful natural setting and often in a border zone between the real and the fanciful. The painter’s celebration of bleak landscape, the Inuit delight in surrealism, even the dreaminess of his fever, explain Norman’s art as beautifully as his many literary allusions do.