Living Without a Home

Yesterday I read two different reviews of Claire Messud’s new novel This Strange Eventful History. I’ve added the book to my way-too-tall to-be-read pile. (The pile continues to grow, despite my efforts to read the books in it. I suppose it’s a good thing that life is finite. Otherwise, the number of books in the pile would surely approach infinity.) I’m hoping to read the book someday; for the moment, I’m struck by a description in one of the reviews of a conversation between Barbara and her husband François: “In a moment of frustration, she rebukes him, telling François that he cannot understand her love for home because he has no home.”

I suppose that sentence would have struck close to the bone even if I hadn’t just returned from almost four weeks in Europe. Like François, I’ve moved around for most of my life. I moved with my wife to Georgia when I was 34 years old. We lived there for 10 years, and our fifth year there marked the longest time I’d ever lived in one place. Before that, my record was four and a half years in El Paso, Texas as a teenager – and our family lived in four different houses there. It was the itinerant life of a Methodist minister turned Army chaplain. After those years in El Paso we moved to Heidelberg, Germany, where I lived in two different stretches for a total of 20 months.

I didn’t return to Germany until 2006, over 30 years after I left it as a recent high school graduate. I’ve made three other trips to Germany since then, including the extended visit over the past few weeks. While there this last time, I found myself telling friends we met in 2006 that I felt more at home there than I feel anywhere else I’ve lived.

I suspect that wasn’t the first time I’d said that – I’ve entertained the fantasy of moving to Germany. But it still surprises me in two different ways. On one hand – and this is why Barbara’s observation hit home – she might have said to me what she said to François: there’s some truth in the claim that I have no home. Others think fondly (or perhaps not so fondly) of the home in which they grew up, and in some cases they can visit family still living in that home. But there’s no house still in my family that I could visit. On the other hand, I really do feel at home in Germany, despite the fact that the apartment in which we lived no longer stands. Or, as I wish I could say more readily, “Ich fühle mich dort zu Hause.”

One might say that the time I spent there was an especially formative time – my senior year in high school and a few months after. Or one might point to my repeated attempts to speak and read German fluently. (And, in fact, my extended time there this past month was part of a concerted effort to speak and read German.) If language shapes a world, perhaps my ability, albeit limited, to speak and read German is a way to enter and live in a world different from my native world.

I listened this morning to an interview of the German writer Jenny Erpenbeck. Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin, and she was 20 years old when the Wall fell in 1989. The interviewer asked her if she thought of herself as an East German. She pointed out that East Germany, or the GDR, no longer exists, so she can’t be an East German. On the other hand, she said, she was formed in the streets of East Berlin, so she carries that identity with her even today. I’ve not had 20 years in any one place. My identify has been formed more by moving from place to place – avoiding deep connections with people because I knew that I would lose them – than by being anchored in one place, putting down roots with places and people. It occurs to me now that my feeling at home in Germany is as much a longing for a home as it is a sense of home. It’s that longing that has me returning there as often as I can. And it’s that longing that has me spending time reading books and other writing in German.

But, of course, that brings me back to the problem I introduced at the beginning of this post. I returned from Germany with still more books to add to the TBR pile, including Erpenbeck’s new novel Kairos, recently short-listed for the International Booker Prize. The pile grows.