It was an uncanny coincidence that just as I was reading about nostalgia, I found myself going home.
I mentioned The Hare with Amber Eyes in my previous post, but shall reiterate here quite how brilliant it is. Really, buy a copy and read it.
At this particular point in the book, Edmund de Waal is describing his beloved netsuke when they are owned by Viktor and Emmy Ephrusi in Vienna in the early 1920s. Anti-Semitism is on the rise, inflation is escalating and Viktor – an incredibly wealthy Jew, head of the family bank – is at the beginning of losing everything. They live in a vast house on Vienna’s Ringstrasse, filled with Old Master paintings, Gobelin tapestries, antique furniture, gold dinner-services … and of course the netsuke in their lacquer cabinet. And it is at this point that de Waal mentions nostalgia:
But the life of objects within the Palais was less mobile. The world had undergone an Umsturz, an overturning, and this led to a kind of heaviness in the things that made up their lives. Things now had to be preserved, sometimes even cherished, where before they had been just a background, a gilt-and-varnish blur to a busy social life. The uncounted and the unmeasured started at last to be counted very accurately.
There was a huge falling away; things were so much better and fuller before. Perhaps this was when there were the very first intimations of nostalgia … Viktor and Emmy kept everything – all these possessions, all these drawers full of things, these walls full of pictures – but they lost their sense of a future of manifold possibilities. This was how they were diminished.
Vienna is sticky with nostalgia. It has breached the heavy oak door of their house.
Nostalgia etymologically means the pain of homecoming, from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain), coined in 1688 as a translation of the German heimweh. Its meaning only shifted to take on its more current sense of wistfulness for the past in 1920 – just as the Ephrussis were entering their predicament. How particularly apt that de Waal invokes this sense of nostalgia so poetically, when it has just come into being.
My own nostalgia over the past couple of days should be more linked to its etymological sense – I went home and it was painful! But no, the pain was more to do with being lurgied and coughing and spluttering and sneezing everywhere, rather than a trauma of coming home.
In fact it was heaven to go home, to a big clean house, to a fridge full of M&S treats and a mother who was convinced that I was really terribly ill and must go and get some antibiotics. Masses of sympathy and masses of sleep – a winning combination.
But I did find the objects at home had taken on a wistfulness. Of course, my old bedroom has changed since I was its full-time occupant. Shelves have been cleared, cupboards emptied; a new bed has been put in, with new linen; a whole stack of bookshelves turned into a flat-screen TV.
But there are a few survivors. Old cuddly toys in a row up at the top of the shelves, all my children’s books, lined up series by series – Swallows and Amazons, Duncton Wood, the Lord of the Rings, Redwall, Tintin, Asterix, Barbar, Beatrix Potter … as well as the occasional piece of detritus that has accumulated from visits over the years. A post-it note about keys, an old receipt, a half-consumed packet of chewing gum. Useless bits and pieces that the cleaner is too nervous to throw away, just in case they might hold some hidden resonance.
And, over time, they have become ‘sticky with nostalgia’. These objects aren’t in my future – otherwise I would have carried them with me to my new home. I’m afraid that Charlie the Caterpillar and Dogga and Jeremy Fisher and all the other cuddly toys won’t be particularly welcome in the flat that I share with the fiancé. I suppose they were pre-boyfriend cuddling companions and have now been made redundant. (Although I do have one teddy bear who remains with me, for when the fiancé goes away.) But I would be heartbroken if they were thrown away. As de Waal says,
Things now had to be preserved, sometimes even cherished, where before they had been just a background
Yes I really should throw away that old post-it note and definitely the chewing gum – it’s probably not even all that chewy anymore – but there’s something about the way everything is preserved, as though in amber. On a minute scale, it’s a bit like Rodinsky’s Room, in which Rachael Lichenstein and Iain Sinclair describe a fetishised lost room off Brick Lane, untouched for eighty years, discovered as though its occupant had just left – a bowl of porridge still sitting on the desk, now with a thick layer of dust on top.
It is an effort to bring these objects up-to-date, into the present, to push them towards a future. It is too tempting to leave them be, redolent of that moment in the past, sticky with nostalgia.
And now I’m off to Florence, where I haven’t been since living there, eight whole years ago. Back then it felt steeped in the past, impossibly saturated with Renaissance art and history. But it was also filled with the excitement of the future, stretching and widening in front of my eyes. It was my first time living on my own, in a new place; school was behind me and freedom ahead …
I wonder if I’ll feel nostalgic.