I left my home twice — the first time, just after university, when I went to London, in the familiar march of the provincial for the metropolis. I borrowed a thousand pounds from the NatWest bank in Durham an account I still have , rented a van one-way, put everything I owned into it, and drove south; I remember thinking, as I waved at my parents and my sister, that the gesture was both authentic and oddly artificial, the authorised novelistic journey. In this way, many of us are homeless: the exodus of expansion. The second departure occurred in , when at the age of thirty I left Britain for the United States.
I was married to an American — to put it more precisely, I was married to an American citizen whose French father and Canadian mother, themselves immigrants, lived in the States. We had no children, and America would surely be new and exciting. We might even stay there for a few years — five at the most?
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I have now lived 18 years in the United States. I must have wanted to; there has been plenty of gain. But I had so little concept of what might be lost. Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.
The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind for ever. I doubt he intended that, but nonetheless, the desert of exile seems to need the oasis of primal belonging, the two held in a biblical clasp. I am sometimes homesick, where homesickness is a kind of longing for Britain and an irritation with Britain: sickness for and sickness of.
I bump into plenty of people in America who tell me that they miss their native countries — Britain, Germany, Russia, Holland, South Africa — and who in the next breath say they cannot imagine returning. It is possible, I suppose, to miss home terribly, not know what home really is anymore, and refuse to go home, all at once. For instance, I have no desire to become an American citizen. I mumbled something about how he was perfectly correct, and left it at that. But I am trying to describe some kind of loss, some kind of falling away. The gain is obvious enough and thus less interesting to analyse.
I asked Christopher Hitchens, long before he was terminally ill, where he would go if he had only a few weeks to live.
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Would he stay in America? It was the landscape of his childhood. The desire to return, after so long away, is gladly irrational, and is perhaps premised on the loss of the original home as the refusal to go home may also be premised on the loss of home. Home swells as a sentiment because it has disappeared as an achievable reality. Dovlatov, who left the Soviet Union for America in , and who appears as himself in the novel, tries to talk her out of it. Many brief note-cards were arranged chronologically, the last written only a few months before his death.
Beckett wrote to his publisher not in German but in French, a language in which he was deeply at home; but in the final year of his life, he switched to English. After so many years, life in America, or in my small part of America, has become my life. And life is made up of particulars: friends, conversation, dailiness of all sorts.
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I love the Hudson River, its steady brown flow; generally, I like the way most American rivers make their European rivals look like wan streams. Large American radiators in old apartment buildings, with their hissing and ghostly clanking. A certain general store in New Hampshire that sells winter boots, hand cream, excellent bacon and firearms. I am even fond, now, of things that reliably irritate Europeans, especially the British: American sports, say; or the fact that the word fortnight does not exist; that fudge is just chocolate; and that seemingly no one can properly pronounce the words croissant , milieu or bourgeois.
But there is always the reality of a certain outsider-dom. Take the beautiful American train horn, the crushed klaxon peal you can hear almost anywhere in the States: at the end of my street at night-time, across a New Hampshire valley, in some small Midwestern town — a crumple of notes, blown out on an easy, loitering wail . That big easy loiter is, for me, the sound of America, whatever America is. We lived about half a mile from Durham station, and from my bedroom, at night I could hear the arhythmic thunder of the big yellow-nosed Deltic diesels, as they pulled their shabby carriages onto the Victorian viaduct that curves out of town, bound for London or Edinburgh, and sometimes blew their parsimonious horns — the British Rail minor third.
Or suppose I am looking down our Boston street, in dead summer. A panic suddenly overtakes me, and I wonder: how did I get here? And then the moment passes, and ordinary life closes itself around what had seemed, for a moment, a desperate lack. Edward Said says that it is no surprise that exiles are often novelists, chess players, intellectuals. I watch my children grow up as Americans in the same way that I might read about, or create, fictional characters.
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They are not fictional, of course, but their Americanism can sometimes seem unreal to me. But there is also that strange distance, the light veil of alienation thrown over everything. And then there is the same light veil thrown over everything when I go back to Britain. It became harder to do so, because the meaning of these things grew less and less personal. I know very little about modern daily life in London, or Edinburgh, or Durham.
In America, I crave the English reality that has disappeared; childhood seems breathingly close. But the sense of masquerade persists: I gorge on nostalgia, on fondnesses that might have embarrassed me when I lived in Britain. To hear a Geordie voice on an American news programme leaves me flushed with longing: the dance of that dialect, with its seasick Scandinavian pitch.
And you shall have a fishy On a little dishy You shall have a fishy When the boat comes in. But I really disliked that song when I was a boy. I never had a very Northern accent. My father was born in London. Where are you from? How vivid all those neighbours are, in my mind! And how strange they were.
I think now that in the s I caught the fading comet-end of allowable eccentricity. There was Mrs Jolley, though she was in fact anything but, who walked with three canes, one for the left leg and two bound together with string for the right. He knew many languages, and pages of Dickens by heart, and sometimes we would hear him pacing up and down, reciting and laughing. In their opinion, postcolonial writing has lost its political bite and now fills its toothless face at the trough of global capitalism.
The essay argued that World Literature should really be called Global Literature. Who could possibly approve of this complacent, festival-haunting, unit-shifting, prize-winning monster? In the end, a case was being made for well-written, vital, challenging literature, full of sharp local particularities, wherever it turns up in the world; and so there was inevitably something a bit random about the writers chosen for the preferred canon of Thorny Internationalists: Elena Ferrante, Kirill Medvedev, Samanth Subramanian, Juan Villoro.
It could no longer be confined to a single paradigm post-colonialism, internationalism, globalism, world literature. The jet engine has probably had a greater impact than the internet. What I have been describing, both in my own life and in the lives of others, is more like secular homelessness. It cannot claim the theological prestige of the transcendent. Perhaps it is not even homelessness; homelooseness with an admixture of loss might be the necessary hideous neologism: in which the ties that might bind one to Home have been loosened, perhaps happily, perhaps unhappily, perhaps permanently, perhaps only temporarily.
Clearly, this secular homelessness overlaps, at times, with the more established categories of emigration, exile and postcolonial movement. Just as clearly, it diverges from them at times.
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He came to Manchester, from Germany, in the mids, as a graduate student. He returned, briefly, to Switzerland, and then came back to England in , to take a lectureship at the University of East Anglia. The pattern of his own emigration is one of secular homelessness or homelooseness. Robbie is wounded and increasingly delirious. He is sustained only by letters from Cecilia and his hopes for their future together. He finally collapses into sleep, waiting for the evacuation which is to begin the next day. The narrative shifts to Briony.
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She is riddled with guilt since realizing that it wasn't Robbie who raped Lola. In part to try to atone for what she has done, she refuses to go study at Cambridge. Instead, to her mother's shock, she becomes a training nurse in London, where she cares for some of the first British soldiers wounded in the war. On one of her days off from the hospital, Briony goes to visit her sister and offers to tell their parents and the court that her statement about Robbie was false.
She discovers Robbie, who has survived the Dunkirk crossing, staying in her sister's apartment—scandal! Or at least the landlady is scandalized, anyway.
Though it seems unlikely that Robbie's verdict can be overturned, she promises to retract her statement before an official witness, to tell their parents, and to write them a full account of what she did and why. She also tells them that Paul Marshall has married Lola, and that it was almost certainly he who raped her. Cecilia and Robbie do not forgive her, since she did ruin their lives and it's hard to get past that.
But there is some sense of reconciliation. The final part of the book is told by Briony in first person. She is old now, and a famous author. She has just learned that she has vascular dementia, a condition which will lead her to senility and then death in a couple of years. We learn that the book—yup, Atonement —is her novel, and that she is waiting to publish it until Lord and Lady Marshall—Paul and Lola—are dead and cannot sue.
She recognizes that she will not outlive Lola, and that the book will therefore not be released in her lifetime. She also reveals that the book is not entirely truthful, and that Robbie and Cecilia did not reunite but instead died separately during the war. And if that doesn't make you cry when you turn the last page, then your heart is a big old lump of rock. All rights reserved. Cite This Page.