On Moving: A Writer’s Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts, and Finding Home Again

There can never be enough written on the shocks of moving away from a long-settled home. With the same clean snip in the thread of your identity that ending a romantic relationship can give you, to say nothing of the work of fitting everything you own into small cardboard boxes and watching it all drive away in a truck, moving can be one of the most liberating, terrifying, traumatic passages in a person’s life; and one of the hardest to bounce back from. So why isn’t moving a bigger subject? There are no sonnet cycles about moving, no epic novel of the real estate market (although the collapse of the subprime mortgage industry could bear some novelistic fruit before too long). When people do write about moving there’s always something shy about it, as if writers are embarrassed to care so complexly about something so apparently ordinary.

When the memoirist Louise DeSalvo moved out of the house she’d lived in for over 30 years, she was taken aback by how painful it was: “a sense of loss almost as profound as when my mother died a few years before.” She talked to family and friends to see if the experience was universal but found more answers in literature. Not, again, in the major works (no Shakespeare problem play on house hunting) but in diaries and memoirs and letters from writers in the throes of relocation. DeSalvo’s new book, On Moving, is an attempt to synthesize what she gained from her reading. It’s a lovely light book, but the major gift it gives is the communication of other writers — the distillation of centuries of private writing on moves.

DeSalvo is a Virginia Woolf scholar, and her reading of Woolf on moving is the strongest part of her book. Woolf loved to move, seeing the dislocation as necessary to her growth as a writer: “A change of scene for her always led to a shift in aesthetic vision, a transformation of literary form.” Woolf herself called her need for movement “this ancient carrot before me,” and it was something she’d felt the tug of since childhood. In 1919 she bought a house in Sussex on a whim, then sold it almost immediately to buy a different one in a neighboring village. In her 40s, after living in suburban London for years, she determined to move into the city, and, without bothering to argue her husband, Leonard, into it, she begins to search for an apartment: “Life settles around one,” she writes. “Merely to think of a change lets in the air. Youth is a matter of forging ahead.”

Woolf was lucky, at least for the time being, in that moving to her fantasy houses ended up providing the creative ignition that she needed. (But, as DeSalvo convincingly argues, the destruction of her beloved London house during World War II may have helped precipitate the deep depression that led to her suicide.) Others were less lucky. DeSalvo is wisely skeptical of the idea that constant, manic change, of the sort that energized Woolf, can end happily for most people. Percy Bysshe Shelley, for example, was another peripatetic writer, moving his whole family, along with his wife’s stepsister and her illegitimate daughter (by Lord Byron), from England and through a succession of spots in Italy, always searching for the place where he might compose poems “stamped with immortality.” It was in Italy, however, that two of his children, his ward Elena, and another young relation died of illness, where his wife almost perished in a nightmarish miscarriage, and where he himself was to drown in a boating accident. Of their last Italian “dream house,” Casa Magni in the Gulf of Spezia, Mary Shelley quite justly wrote, “No words can tell you how I hated our house and the country around it.”

D. H. Lawrence, too, wandered compulsively, moving with his wife, Frieda, five to six times a year on average, always seeking, as he put it before a move to America, to “cut clear of the old world — burn one’s boats.” Lawrence loved the sharpening of his senses that each move brought, and every new home seems idyllic in advance: ” had seemed so fascinating to me when I imagined it beforehand,” he writes, sounding rueful. But each place eventually turns into “a log on my ankle,” the initial thrill wearing off with habituation. Lawrence’s constant moving (100 times during the last 17 years of his life) probably advanced his death of tuberculosis in 1935.

The sort of moving practiced by Woolf, Shelley, and Lawrence is absorbing but too neurotic to tell us much. When it comes to finding positive — or at least, more relatable — experiences of moving, DeSalvo turns to less famous but also less erratic sources. Vita Sackville-West, for example, provides a kookier but still more stable contrast to Woolf: Sackville-West found her dream house, Sissinghurst, a ruined castle near her ancestral home in Kent, and spent the rest of her life furbishing it and taking pleasure from living there. Eavan Boland’s move from Dublin into the suburbs threw her into despair at first, but she found eventually that the move forced a confrontation with a different way of life and therefore a different kind of poetry writing: “Suburban lives were ‘mythic, not because of their strangeness but because of their powerful ordinariness.’ ” Henry Miller’s effort to violently immerse himself in the life of Paris was what created him as a writer. And the poet and memoirist Mark Doty, in one of the more poignant sequences of the book, wrote about his move with a partner to their fantasy house in Provincetown, and then the new character the house developed after his partner died of AIDS.

DeSalvo works best as an observer and reconstructor of these other stories; when she tells her own, in plain language that occasionally verges on therapy-ese (“Confronting pain or loss is necessary if we are to break the bonds of old habits and reinvent ourselves or create an authentic work of art in a new place”), the book flags. The history of her family and of her marriage has already been told in previous memoirs, and the added glimpses here seem unnecessary. Still, as a primer on the trauma and exhilaration of moving, this book is overdue. Doty describes the universal experience of a “fierce internal debate, between staying moored and drifting away, between holding on and letting go” and concludes that “wisdom lies in our ability to negotiate between these two poles.” On Moving connects to those who’ve made this negotiation, for better or for worse, and provides some expert guidance for our own.