Sunday, November 18, 2012
MY FAVORITE MEMOIR
Far Away and Long Ago was written in 1918 by the English writer W.H. Hudson. It is a memoir that seems almost odd today because it describes a happy childhood. Hudson had a rich and interesting childhood spent with loving parents but few restrictions on the wild stretches of the Argentinian pampas in the 1840s and 50s. His Anglo-American parents had settled as immigrants in Argentina and that's where he was born. Though his father's attempt to make a living were struggles (he had to give up sheep farming and a grocery store he opened later also failed), Hudson loved where he grew up. The house was full of books, and the only formal education he got was from traveling schoolteachers and tutors who would turn up sometimes at the house and stay for awhile. After catching rheumatic fever from being out in a hailstorm while herding cattle, the pre-teen Hudson was given the freedom of an invalid, though in fact he was hardly that. This meant little was expected of him and he didn't have much parental supervision. To his heart's content he could wander alone out on the plains, ride horses, and study the animals, birds and plant life of the region. He was also a close observer of the people in the area -- this a time when real gauchos were out and about, and Argentina was chock full of eccentric immigrants and untamed characters.
Hudson himself says he could hardly have asked for a freer childhood, and there's no doubt that those impressionable years studying nature helped turn him into one of the world's great nature writers, something he became as an adult when he moved to England and settled there. Far Away and Long Ago was written in England when he was an old man and the world he was describing had already pretty much vanished, certainly to him who had not been back to Argentina for over 40 years. It has a poignant tone that is really moving yet not without humor, and the descriptions of the landscape, the wind, the sun, the flora, the animals are vivid and precise and lyrical. As a number of people have commented, from Jorge Borges to Joseph Conrad to Virginia Woolf, Hudson ranks among the very greatest stylists of English prose. His sentences flow with an effortless ease and clarity. I was taken away to a totally different time and place when I read this book, and when I'd leave my room after some reading, I felt as if there was nothing I wanted to do more than go back to the mid eighteen hundreds and take a walk through the Argentinian pampas. A great memoir for any period.