This week I was invited to join a small dinner party, and found myself at a table of mostly strangers, seated next to a very amusing man who apparently lives both in Ireland and Montreal, turn about. He didn’t bother to tell me himself, but it turns out that this man, Denis Sampson, has written several books, one of which my host gave me as I left.
The book is called A Migrant Heart, was published in 2014 by Linda Leith Publishing of Westmount, and acknowledged support in its publication from the Emerging Publishers Programme of the Canadian Council for the Arts. This appears to be Sampson’s fourth published book, the earlier works having ended towards literary criticism of Irish writers, he later moving closer to the art of the memoirist, of which this book is an excellent example.
I was slightly put off when the memoir opens with the author still in his pram, and when I had reached page 20 and the story had taken the author only to the age of five, I was beginning to feel that he should get on with it. But I had already discovered that this man can write, I mean he can really write, and I was kept going by the sheer elegance of the prose, and the air I took from it that this was all that mattered to this writer, and I should really persist if I wanted to be rewarded.
I have finished reading the book, and I think it worth writing about not only because of its beautiful, calm and measured language, but for an entirely surprising reason, namely, that Denis Sampson and I have lived in some particulars very similar lives, migrant lives, and that my view of such a life stands at the far opposite pole from his.
The burden of his story is that he has never been able to decide where he lives, or even where he belongs. At one point (page 166), he writes: “I now knew that I had not settled in Montreal, though I had lived there for 18 years.”
A man who was having a problem making up his mind? Much more than that: this is a memoir about a man who has never been able to detach himself from the little place in the West of Ireland where he was raised and nurtured. But it is even more than that: he speaks of dragging his wife and child to France so that he can fulfil the urge he had to assert himself as a European. By page 228, where he is acknowledging a new revelation, “that the opposite of attachment is not detachment, but betrayal,” I was wondering whether I could possibly be bothered finishing the book. He had been flagellating himself throughout, and it all seemed entirely unnecessary, to my way of thinking.
I should confess here my own experience: unlike Denis Sampson, I was not born in a forgotten hole of the Old World, mired in a feudal social and economic system, but in a flourishing part of the New World. His back-story almost matches mine in one particular. His grandfather was born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1867. My grandfather arrived from Northern Ireland thirteen years later and settled even further south in a small farming village on the Southland Plain. He died when my Dad was ten. We moved to the nearest city, Invercargill, when I was seven, and our boast was we were “the southernmost city in the British Empire.” A foolish boast, but true.
Denis was caught up in a Catholic-dominated world, of which he became for some years an enthusiastic participant, such a world as had me thinking as I read it “the poor kid, how terrible, what a dreadful legacy.” This is the boyhood he has never been able to leave. I lived at home until I was 20, when I went north to Dunedin for a new job with improved prospects. I had a week or so of homesickness, put it behind me, and have never suffered a twinge of nostalgia for my early upbringing, not a suggestion of it, ever since.
I married when I was 22, and thirteen days later we left New Zealand, with the intention of returning. We never made it back until 25 years later, but we couldn't settle to resume life there. We deliberately brought up our four kids in a way so as not to impose anything on them, leaving them to make heir own choices as they grew to adulthood. This laissez-faire attitude is another aspect of our lives that stands at the far pole from Denis’s experience.
In fact my experience has convinced me that all this stuff about the need for roots is nonsense. You carry your own roots within you, you establish them with your life, day after day, your friendships, your achievements, no matter where they occur, no matter how far from where you were born and raised. Denis comes close to admitting it:
“I thought how ridiculous this is, searching for my roots like a third-generation Irish-American when I know perfectly well my family history for generations. Once antiquated considerations of pedigree are stripped away what is a family tree anyway? A fiction embroidered from some facts: a myth of coherence, of orderly succession, of belonging.”
Denis comes close to admitting it under pressure from his eldest son, talking about the younger son and the problems he might have when arriving in Montreal.
“But Dad! It just takes a short time until you get to know your way around. One city is like any other city…..”
“I think it took me the most of twenty-five years,” I said in hope that the big numbers would have some shock value.
“Cm’on, Dad! You get to know some people. Maybe a few months.”
“There are many times I thought I was over it…..Maybe I never got over it.”
“What are you talking about? You have a house and plenty of friends….”
“Well, let’s put it this way. In twenty-five years I felt I lived through a century and a half. You can’t really know what I mean by culture shock.” The solemnity of my declaration is lost in the jokes from the other end of the table.
Much as I admire Denis’s prose, and sympathize with his evident wish just to keep on writing, to keep examining his life, endlessly, if necessary, just for the pleasure of writing, I find myself out of sympathy with this sort of nostalgia for things past. It is the more amazing to me because there is plenty of evidence in the book of how much he has involved himself in Montreal life, taking part in demonstrations for this or that, keeping in touch with changes in the political atmosphere, and so on. There seems like no good reason for him not to accept his Montreal life as his life, once and for all.
But then, he could respond: that’s easy for you to say. You haven’t lived my life.