“I read of the world of the Russians and the French, of the English and Americans and Scandinavians, and nothing stopped me feeling at home there. I was akin to Gaugin in Tahiti, to Van Gogh in Arles, to Myshkin in St. Petersburg, to Lieutenant Glahn in the Norwegian forests and to Fabrizio in the Charterhouse of Parma.”
Being exiled is a training ground for a dedicated reader, rootless, inwardly alone and never without the lonely good company of a book. In Leavetaking and Vanishing Point, the twentieth century as the age of alienation finds eloquent expression. Peter Weiss writes: “For me there were no lost home and no thoughts of return, for I had never belonged anywhere.”
Cosmic and social unity is gradually displaced by commodification and selfish individuality, transformations accelerated during the industrial revolution. The wars of the twentieth century and the continuing aftermath: perpetual crisis, wars and persecutions make rootlessness a common experience for countless individuals. But even those fortunate to lead relatively settled lives are, to borrow Camus’s term, irremediable exiles.
Peter Weiss’s two autobiographies are possibly the best I’ve read on the emotional and intellectual manifestation of that feeling of not belonging and its concomitant desire for security, yet fear of loss of freedom. Like many lonely wanderers, Weiss turns to literature, both as reader and a writer. In these two spiritual autobiographies he recollects his tentative beginnings as an artist and reflects on the literature and experiences that provided a formative substratum. Without a home, all literature is foreign, but in what is strange or unfamiliar we can feel alive.