I got excited when I discovered the subtitle of Duncan Fallowell’s book, How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits (2013), concealed an anagram—memento mori—until I realized I’d badly misspelled the Latin. It doesn’t matter. The mortal warning (“remember you must die”) is, along with its sunnier counterpart, carpe diem, implicit in the title. The title, though, is ironic, since this is no manual for recluses but a proposition on how best to make use of that disappearing thing called a life, how to rage against the dying of the light…how, almost, not to disappear, but to leave traces of oneself behind, and to find and appreciate those left by others. It’s also a lesson in, as Fallowell puts it at one point, “how not to be shy of the heart.” It’s advice dispensed to misfits, as if the level-headed conventional majority might miss what’s implied in this message from the margins.
A memoir is a piece of personal curation, a selection and arrangement of details rescued from the tendency of everything in one’s life, mental or material, to degrade or disappear over time. There is a sort of background hiss in the book, the sound of time passing (“a crunchy noise, like that of a death beetle”), which manifests itself in frequent references to demolished hotels, destroyed grand villas, vanished villages and defunct academies. But museums and archives also abound, symbols of a counter-entropic effort, an effort to spare specimens of memory from the universal slippage; as are the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, whose funerary monuments, for Fallowell, “remind us once again of the oblivion which awaits us all.” Not that awareness of what awaits makes for a gloomy tone—rather for frankness. If the grave gapes there’s no time for subterfuge or not facing facts. This is a book of unveilings, of searches and researches into personal oblivions, both the inevitable, unsought variety and the self-imposed sort pursued by those “shy of the heart” who “stew and hide.” A couple of these Fallowell tries to track down; but he’s a tactful, at times almost tender, detective. If he unmasks (in “The Curious Case of Bapsy Pavry”) the private misery behind the outlandish public pretensions of an Indian socialite, it’s done commiseratingly, not to mock; nor does he (in “Who Was Alastair Graham?”) buttonhole and then belittle the man who was once, to his great retrospective embarrassment, the boyfriend of Evelyn Waugh. Disappearance seems synonymous with dishonesty for Fallowell in this chapter, a sin he elsewhere can’t forgive, but his posthumous reconstruction of a lifestory its owner wanted kept secret isn’t undertaken in order to punish, as in many a recent biography specialising in digging up dirt and debunking the dead. It’s an exercise in nostalgia, which he defines, quite wonderfully, not as sentimentality but as rediscovery, almost restitution, of lost truths:
[C]uriosity and the pursuit of novelty does not exclude the past. Far from it. Nostalgia is often the route to rebirth. That is what the word ‘renaissance’ means, rebirth, and the Renaissance in Europe was the rediscovery of the old classical world, a discovery which enabled Europe to escape from the suffocation of the Middle Ages into a healthier light. Nostalgia isn’t a hankering for the past as such, but the desire to retrieve a loss.
“Nostalgia,” in fact, is a Homeric word, a compound of the Greek roots “nostos,” meaning homecoming, and “algos,” meaning pain, and a journey homeward in pain is what Odysseus makes in the Odyssey, which ends in ugly confrontation, not sentiment. Fallowell, traveling the literal Mediterranean as well as Mediterraneans of memory, is unabashed about not prettifying the past, his own or anyone else’s, and is more argonaut than antiquarian. Although the ancients are his guide throughout, it’s their attitude more than their artefacts that interest him—specifically the sort of sanity summed up in those complimentary mottoes I mentioned, which try to balance a frank acceptance of death with a frank relish for life. These are attitudes which, Fallowell feels, have today largely disappeared or been marginalised:
The ancients did not veil sexuality and are at home with it in a way that the Christian world never is, nor the Muslim or Jewish worlds. Sex in Pompeii was simply everywhere, openly displayed in pictures, household objects, public statues, graffiti, brothels and books, surviving testimony to the ruthlessness of sexual repression by the religions which came after…. Something goaty and awe-inspiring trembles in the air and one cannot help feeling that in the arts of congress the Pompeian would find modern man a curiously worried child. Modern European psychology and art has largely been devoted to repairing this rupture from the elemental which was master-minded in private life by the Church and in public life by the indsutrial revolution.
With his unsentimental curiosity about the past, cleansed of Christian criticisms, Fallowell is almost a sort of latter-day Renaissance man himself, with a penetrating, idiosyncratic eye. “I am describing the place in some detail,” he says of a hotel room at one point, “because it is a rarity, an example of a kind of sanctum which has almost disappeared from the world.” He is, in these pages, a collector and commemorator of rarities, drawn to, and delighting in, the eccentric, misprized, unofficial, and overlooked; the clichéd (notably touristy Venice) repels him. At one point he quotes Horace Walpole (“one hates writing descriptions that are to be found in every book of travels”) and appears to follow this example. His journeys take in Welsh fishing villages, Indian hilltowns, and the fringes of Europe—the Hebrides and a remote Maltese island called Gozo. This last place features in “Sailing to Gozo” (yes, an ironic echo of Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”; the chapter titles form a playful bricolage of references, from Beckett to Brad Pitt). If it begins with a storm at sea and features a Prospero-like wiseman on a lonely island (a polymath of an American professor who paints, recites Pope, and devises a private language), it’s not a teacup-sized Tempest, it’s a Calypso-like epsiode. Gozo is believed to be the site of that story from the Odyssey and here Fallowell encounters the same tendency to paralysis that afflicted Odysseus for seven years. All around him is a sense of stalled life, suppressed purpose, a dour Christianity hiding older impulses, pagan preferences. He sees through it, in a surprising epiphany at the end of the chapter, and this jolts him into his journeys elsewhere—and us into the book which follows. Which is a pleasure to read, and reminds me of a remark by Anaïs Nin: "The personal life deeply lived always expands into truths beyond itself." It won the 2012 PEN/Ackerley Prize. One can see why.