Been on a bit of a Howard Norman kick of late (What Is Left the Daughter, Next Life Might Be Kinder reviews coming) so decided to listen to I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place; an autobiography of sorts wherein Norman recounts memories from five places he has lived. (My second memoir with a connection to Canada and art as it turns out.)
The NYT Sunday Book Review outlines the book:
The book is divided into five sections, each organized around an unsettling episode or spurring event over the course of Norman’s life: the accidental killing of a swan; the death of a girlfriend; the murder of John Lennon; a case of flu that lasted for months; and, finally, a filicide/suicide committed by a house sitter in Norman’s own home. Another memoirist would foreground the violence or drama of these incidents; Norman instead uses them as occasions for explorations of daily life. Over the course of the book, a coming-of-age story emerges, as well as a loose portrait of the artist, but the main project here is to explore the mysteries that live alongside us, unnoticed. Norman quotes the poet Paul Éluard more than once: “There is another world but it is in this one.”
I was pulled in from the start because of the connection to the city of my birth (Grand Rapids, MI). It was also interesting to think about Norman’s novels and ruminate on themes, perspectives, and plot hooks potentially related to his personal experiences. Not to psychoanalyze or anything but just to think about how his life and personality contributed ingredients and ideas to his fiction.
Norman’s novels tend to circle around a tight range of themes: gloomy Canadian backdrops, coincidence, death and a love for wildlife (particularly birds) that gives his work a quirky, musical vocabulary. These essays suggest the mood of the author isn’t very distinct from that of his fiction, and sometimes the connections are explicit: One piece is about an affair in his 20s that ended when his lover died in a plane crash, a story echoed in his 2002 novel, The Haunting of L.
It was like a series of evening conversations with the author where he told stories about his life. And the ingredients are interesting enough, and the teller skilled enough, to hold your interest.
Norman’s literate, slightly odd, but ultimately humane style makes for easy and thought provoking listening on the daily commute. It was both captivating and relaxing; even if unsettling at times.
Donna Seaman at Booklist captures it well:
Fluent in strangeness, versed in ambiguity, Norman combines rapturous description with meticulous restraint as he potently recounts these feverish, eerie, life-altering events and considers the profound and haunting questions they raise.