“Everything written down these days and worth reading is oriented towards nostalgia,” one of the characters in Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch declares.
How handy to have David Berry’s new book On Nostalgia within reach, to illustrate the enduring interest in the matter, decades later.
(Cortázar’s novel was published in Spanish in1963, in English translation by Gregory Rabassa in 1966: Reese and I have undertaken to read it this summer, and we’ve barely begun, so if you’d care to join us, you’re welcome.)
Berry begins with definitions and how they have changed over time. “If asked, most of us basically define nostalgia as bittersweet memory.”
But he goes a little deeper: “Nostalgia is a form of reconciliation: not just of who we were with who we are, but with the idea that either of those questions has a settled answer. It helps us believe we might be more than just this longing.”
(This is the kind of question that arose for me recently with my reread of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Books, more often than other art forms, encapsulate that kind of longing for me, but I enjoyed his thoughts on film and music too.)
He also wrestles with the complications that emerge: “If my Christmas tradition involves watching a digital stream of Scrooge – a 1951 film, based on an 1843 novella, that I watched on VHS in the 1990s because my parents grew up watching it on TV in the 1960s – how do we meaningfully separate the layers of first-hand longing and second-hand nostalgia?”
Most readers will have an example of those layers in their own experience. And Berry is consistently careful with his tone, modulating it to widen his readership while openly acknowledging the complexities and the variety of possible interpretations and responses:
“Keeping it broad enough to be palatable, and trying to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, I would argue art is any creative output, unbound from the limits of factuality, that seeks to interpret the world through the framework of a particular medium – anything from cave painting and interpretative dance to video games and, of course, books.”