Last night I napped, unintentionally, waking up at midnight, groggy and unsure what day it was. I smoked a fag and gulped down a glass of red wine as if it was medicine. Down the street, the doors of a derelict hotel rattled. The moon was obscured. I was ill-at-ease, like someone poised in the moment before an apocalypse. I suppose there were moments like this one throughout history. When someone paused at night and sensed a malevolent change, and woke up the next day to a countryside stricken with plague.
To calm my nerves, I read a little from a collection of essays published between 1963 and 1990 by Natalia Ginzburg, who had endured the end of her world: the rise of Fascism in her native Italy, the second world war, the death of her husband in prison. The essays are haunted by the past, by her confrontation with evil, which she had survived and others had not. Offhandedly I think at the heart of all narratives there is this idea of home, around which all thought and action pulsate. Home is something to yearn for, as in romance, or home is uncanny, or becomes so, a site of abjection, as in horror. (The post-apocalyptic novel, then, is preoccupied with a future in which we are all homeless; refugees, in real life, are figures from the future, portents of a world transformed by climate change.) Each essay is written from the experience of exile, of losing home in its many forms, and achieving, if not equilibrium, then a kind of peace with exile. Thus, years later, she writes of looking at her young grandson, seeing him so:
“He was walking along with a serious air, holding his father’s hand yet absorbed in himself as if he was alone, carrying a nylon bag where he kept his windbreaker… In his pace, his long, austere, delicate head, his dark and deeply knowing gaze, I suddenly perceived something Jewish that I had never seen before. He looked like a little immigrant. When he used to sit on the porch in Boston, he seemed to reign supreme over the world around him. He looked like Genghis Khan. Now he wasn’t Genghis Khan anymore; the world had shown itself to be changeable and unstable, and he seemed to have been struck by a precocious awareness of the menacing, unreliable nature of things, of how a human being must learn to be self-sufficient. He seemed to know that there was nothing he could call his own except that faded nylon bag containing four little plastic figures, two chewed pencils, and a faded windbreaker. Little wandering Jew, crossing the street with his bag in his hand.”