“The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. They were only a thin slice in between contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.”
The last paragraph of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way from his seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time (1913-27) sums up the author’s nostalgia for a past existence that has passed tantalisingly out of reach. The places he knew are the context for other memories that lie just beyond his reach.
Nostalgia is the English word for the sentimental – not necessarily mawkish – longing for the past, typically for a period or place personally associated with happiness. The word comes from the Greeka νόστος (nóstos), meaning “homecoming”, used by Homer in The Odyssey, and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning “ache”. The word nostalgia was invented in 1688 by Johannes Hofer (1669–1752) in his dissertation on medicine. Hofer coined “nostalgia” or mal du pays (homesickness) to describe the condition also known as mal du Suisse (Swiss illness). Apparently it occurred among Swiss mercenaries who, in the lowlands of France or Italy, pined for their native mountain landscapes.
Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese express the same feeling in saudade. It is a unique Galician-Portuguese word that describes a profound state of yearning for an absent place or person that one loves. It often carries a sense that the object of longing might never be seen again. Fado (from the Latin word for fate) is a Portuguese music style, generally sung by one person and accompanied by the distinctive 12-stringed Portuguese guitar. Its most popular themes are nostalgia, jealousy, and local tales of the city. One of its great exponents was the guitarist Carlos Paredes.
Nostalgia is intimately related to personal identity and to the countless incidents and events of one’s childhood and adolescence. Sights, sounds and smells are its trigger, and so is physical exile from one’s country. Psychological exile can be equally powerful. French author Alain-Fournier wrote about the trauma of the end of youth in his novel Le grand Meaulnes, the centenary of whose publication will be celebrated next year. In his Afterword to the American edition translated by Lowell Blair, novelist John Fowles said: “What he [Alain-Fournier] nailed down is the one really acute perception of the young, which is the awareness of loss as a function of passing time. It is at that age that we first know we shall never do everything we dream, that tears are in the nature of things.”
Alain-Fournier’s story begins in his childhood school, which is the time machine that enables him to revisit the past and to relive his memories. The school is a lieu de mémoire and – to paraphrase an expression of French sociologist Pierre Nora who invented the term – what Fournier finds are only shells on the shore when the sea of nostalgia has receded: empty, but evocative of what used to lie within. I, too, attended a school that is no longer there except in memory, a school haunted by friends who are no longer as I knew them. The past is indeed a foreign country, peopled by ghosts and impervious to the call of nostalgia. And, like an old postcard whose image is fading to nothingness, I, too, am no longer there.