On James Wood’s “On Not Going Home” (2014)

What is peculiar, even a little bitter, about living for so many years away from the country of my birth, is the slow revelation that I made a large choice a long time ago that did not resemble a large choice at the time; that it has taken years for me to see this; and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life—is indeed how life is lived.

James Wood, “On Not Going Home,” London Review of Books

Come August it will be 15 years since I moved to the States. Those have been good years, for the most part, and they’ve brought me many valuable things: my wife and daughter, above all, my in-laws, many friends, a community, a job. Yet I remain ambivalent about this country, about living in it and about belonging to it. (I’ve been at the beginning states of applying for citizenship for a long time.) At the same time, I don’t quite know what my attachment to Canada—the place that the deepest part of me thinks is home—is made of. All states, nation or otherwise, are states of fantasy, as the critic Jacqueline Rose once put it. But my fantasy Canada is particularly a concoction, and there’s something unseemly about my feelings towards this imaginary thing. (All the more so given the current Canadian political situation—not much to long for there.) Wood talks about a “quality of masquerade” that accompanies him whenever he returns home. (He is an Englishman living in the U.S.) I feel that way too: after all, I don’t really belong to the place. Its problems and hopes, the texture of its lived reality, aren’t mine anymore. And yet still a little part of me breathes easier there. I didn’t think everything in Wood’s essay quite worked. The personal meditations don’t mesh as seamlessly as I’d like with his discussion of a contemporary literature of exile. But there were many points, like the lovely sentence quoted above, when reading it my eyes filled with the sharp prick of tears. Yes, I felt, yes, that’s right. I’m still sad about leaving there. I’m sad about learning how life is lived.

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