The risk of nostalgia
This afternoon I found myself reading a small journal I kept during a trip to Europe in 2010. At an exhibition in Vienna – and I didn’t record the museum but possibly it was the Museum of Modern Art (or Mumok) where I recall a fascinating exhibit on the Moderns – I wrote down this observation by Sidney Tillim, from an essay, “Notes on Narrative and History Painting”, published in Artforum (May, 1977), posted on the wall of one gallery:
“The risk of nostalgia is a morbid identification with the past. But its power is precisely as a criticism of the present. Representation, as I conceive it, is an admission of loss…and a criticism of an unfulfilling reality which takes the form of an attempt to re-establish a live equivalent of the lost ideal.”
This strikes me as particularly resonant as I am currently reading Artemis Cooper’s biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor. I first encountered PLF’s work in the late 1970s, just after A Time of Gifts (1977) was published. I remember how taken I was with both the journey described in its pages (and that of its sequel, Between the Woods and the Water, which came out in 1986) – imagine, a young man, 18 years of age, deciding to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (we would say Istanbul but that romantic boy insisted on its earlier name)! – and the rich prose taking the reader so generously to a time and a series of places about to be changed utterly by the Second World War. A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water trace his route through Holland, beginning in December, 1933, entering Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania, and ending at the Bulgarian border. He reached Constantinople a little more than a year later, in December, 1934. I re-read his books every few years and have had the pleasure of introducing several friends and family members to them. Like many fans of PLF, I am eagerly waiting for the third book, left in draft form after its author’s death in June, 2011.
How did he do it, I’ve always wondered. How did he write so vividly of a walk across Europe, years after he’d done it, with many more extraordinary adventures — his war-time service for instance, including his time in occupied Crete, working with the Cretan resistance. (If you’ve seen the film, Ill Met by Moonlight, you’ll know something about this.) I think it’s fair to say that A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water contain elements of embellishment. The gorgeous passages describing his grand ride across the Great Hungarian Plain are an example of this. The wonder of those days, walking and riding across a vast sunlit steppe among sheep and goats and long-horned cattle, hosted by one family of faded nobility after another, all of them kind and cultured. There were games of bicycle polo in courtyards followed by long dinners made splendid with poetry and music. It seems that he walked more than rode, though the story of being lent a horse at one end and honouring the arrangement to drop the horse off at the other is, well, exaggerated. In a letter to Artemis Cooper, he says, “I did ride a fair amount, so I decided to put myself on horseback for a bit. I felt the reader might be getting bored of me just plodding along…You won’t let on, will you?” Does it make any difference, knowing this? To me, not a bit. Memory has a way of storing and polishing the important events of our lives until they have the clarity of fine jewels. They are no less valuable for having begun as glass. And PLF is a writer above all, his imagination shaping his memories into narratives we are lucky to have.
In my Vienna journal from 2010, I wrote down an observation made by Alex Colville, accompanying (I think) “The River Spree, 1971”:
“I do not paint from direct observation but from memories. I paint exact, and only change the reality according to the requirements of the composition. To be a good realist, I must invent everything.”
A few years ago, everyone was reading The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, described by their publisher as follows:
“How negotiable is a fact in nonfiction? In 2003, an essay by John D’Agata was rejected by the magazine that commissioned it due to factual inaccuracies. That essay—which eventually became the foundation of D’Agata’s critically acclaimed About a Mountain—was accepted by another magazine, The Believer, but not before they handed it to their own fact-checker, Jim Fingal. What resulted from that assignment was seven years of arguments, negotiations, and revisions as D’Agata and Fingal struggled to navigate the boundaries of literary nonfiction.”
Oh, how times have changed. For the better? I wonder. I’m so grateful to have PLF’s glorious account of his walk across Europe, a copy of Horace’s Odes in his rucksack, and a greatcoat to keep him warm those nights when he hadn’t been taken in by a baron or a baker or a Rumanian princess, just before the maps he used were redrawn forever.