On Moving

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

The inspiration for the engaging if not wholly satisfying On Moving was the move Louise DeSalvo made from one house to another. It was not just any move. DeSalvo and her husband spent thirty years in Teaneck, New Jersey, in a house that witnessed the raising of a family, the planting of gardens, and the launching of teaching and scholarly careers. Once their children were grown and departed, the DeSalvos decided to move to Montclair, New Jersey, but in their new craftsman bungalow DeSalvo did not feel the joy she initially imagined she would feel at the opportunity to create a new home and life together. Instead, she was surprised by a profound sense of loss and emotional restlessness.

To sort out and “temper the trauma of a move,” DeSalvo began asking friends and family about their experiences of moving, compiling stories that might help explain her own feelings. Because she wanted to go beyond that limited source of information, however, she soon found herself researching the lives of her favorite writers and artists to see what they had to say about this unsettling experience. She articulates her intentions in writing On Moving early on: I wrote this book to record the most useful moving histories I found, those that aided me in understanding my own experience in the context of my family’s and my past. I hope that it will help readers gain a new perspective on this, one of our most significant life experiences, and that it will impel them to reconstruct the history of this important transition in their own lives.

DeSalvo’s statement of purpose is admirably clear and direct, but it also strikes a distinctly therapeutic note that hovers over the entire book and its prose style as one of its less welcome features. DeSalvo is the author not only of several memoirs but also of a book about the writing of memoirs, Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives (1999). There is in On Moving a real sense that DeSalvo conducts her meditation on the subject preeminently as an exercise in producing psychological benefits for herself and her readers.

This therapeutic goal of the text registers not only in the explicitness of many statements (for example, “the most important personal outcome of my writing this book is that my father and I talked about my family’s moving history during the last months of his life . . .”) but also in the explicit nature of almost every aspect of the book. The author relies on lists and repetition, and she has a penchant for anaphora. She uses catalogs to group tidily such things as the lessons she has learned about moving or the discoveries about the subject made by other famous authors and thinkers. These features give the text a reductive feel, as if DeSalvo’s interest in what is “most useful” trumps all other objectives and risks, turning suggestive observations into mere practical applications.

There is an explicit touch to DeSalvo’s title as well in its clear invocation of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne and his characteristic approach to the personal essay, a form he virtually invented. Montaigne asked, in his famous formulation, Que sais-je? (“What do I know?”). As he looked out on a familiar sixteenth century landscape strewn with an inviting number of potential topics, he began to explore his own response to them. He wrote “essays,” trials or tests of what he knew, bringing to bear on his topic (whether “On Smells,” “On Liars,” or “On Coaches”) the full weight of his acute perception, his flexible humanist sensibility, and, not least, his capacious reading. Indeed, many of Montaigne’s essays are so larded with deftly embedded quotations from the authors he read and absorbed that they can sometimes feel like thematic entries from a particularly sagacious commonplace book. Nonetheless, it is precisely this combination of personal reflection and wide reading that gives Montaigne’s meditations a universal resonance, something beyond mere personal opinion or autobiographical revelation.

DeSalvo adopts the same strategy, seeking to create a braided essay that weaves together critical reflections on her own experience of houses and homes with what she has gleaned from her reading about the experiences of others. She thus creates a sound, promising structure, though it is sometimes more successful in conception than execution: After four chapters in which there is an easy movement back and forth between DeSalvo’s personal history and the house-hunting history of such figures as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Virginia Woolf, and Vita Sackville-West, a rhythmic disruption occurs whenfor the length of nearly three chaptersDeSalvo is altogether absent from her own narrative. The sections that are uninflected by DeSalvo’s story can begin to feel like a report on...

(The entire section is 1978 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Library Journal 134, no. 5 (March 15, 2009): 106.

The New York Times Book Review, March 29, 2009, p. 17.