Americans Abroad: Great Expatriate Stories
The French cannot stop borrowing words from us, and they are hysterical about the fact, so I propose taking one back to make them feel better. The word is dépaysement. It refers to the melancholy feeling of being outside of one's home country, though with an implication, too, of exhilaration at the dislocation.
It's also the feeling that we get from the best novels about expatriate life—that to leave home for other shores is to lose track of your old self, and perhaps to find a new one. This month marks the publication of my own novel of life abroad, The Last Enchantments, about an American studying at Oxford. The books to which it's indebted take place in many countries, but all of them have in common that giddy, nervy sensation: dépaysement.
My candidate for the greatest book with a truly bad title. Geoff Dyer's novel is divided into two sections, one set in Italy, one in India. The first is dedicated to the hedonism of the international art scene, to sex and intoxication, staples of the expatriate novel; the second is mostly about (though the depiction of it is more cheerful and funny than this sounds) death. Each country disarranges the book's hero, a British reporter, in a startling new direction—first toward the indulgence of the self, then toward its dissolution.
It makes sense that expatriate novels are often also novels of youth, since that's the period of life when our identities—geographical, sexual, social—are most fluid. This beautifully subtle and humane novel is about Jacob Putnam, a recent college graduate who goes to teach English in Prague during the early 1990s, just as the city is emerging from communism. Crain is in his 40s now. By waiting so long to write his first novel, he was able to fill it both with the elation of youth and, shadowed within the "errors" of such elation, the wisdom that comes when youth is over.
Patricia Highsmith had an unhappy childhood in Texas—she said that her mother had tried to get rid of her by drinking turpentine while pregnant—and her adult life was itinerant, spent at various times in New York, France, England, and Switzerland. Perhaps it's not a surprise, given all this, that her antihero Tom Ripley took the idea of expatriate self-invention to its far extremes: forging art, moving within the upper classes, and killing to maintain his cover. For all their darkness, however, the Ripley books never lose the insistent vitality of going somewhere new in order to be someone new.
Wait, I spoke too soon about that title thing. This is another novel that deserves a better name—Ben Lerner's story of a poet on a fellowship in Madrid, which participates in all of the usual 20-something subjects, its narrator doing drugs and meeting women and making tenuous friendships, but whose real subject is the comic calculations we make in every social setting, in every word we type or speak. Especially those in Spanish, if it's a second language. All this makes for an unusual book, light on plot, with secondary characters that never become very vivid, but with a narrator whose voice comes to seem universal and profound.
The dark cousin of the expatriate novel is the novel of exile, of life abroad without the prospect of return—for instance, W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants or Nabokov's Pnin. In 1948, Baldwin left Harlem for France with $40 in his pocket, in part because of uncomfortable attention from the FBI over his homosexuality; and, though he returned to America later in life to teach, he was close to a permanent exile. Paris was a haven of tolerance, and Giovanni's Room is a book about that liberation, but also about the inevitable alienation one must feel in choosing whether to be at home in one's country or in one's self.
The wonderful and idiosyncratic Lynne Tillman has never quite found a broad readership, though writers tend to rate her work very highly. She has an anticipated volume of cultural criticism coming out this year, however (What Would Lynne Tillman Do?), and perhaps that will drive people back to her underrated short novel Motion Sickness. An unnamed young woman travels between European cities, collecting postcards and experiencing very minor incidents.The book's floating observations establish the sudden feeling of rootlessness one can have, living abroad—and the feeling of looking at one's self differently, as from a very great distance—that gives the expatriate novel its peculiar and enduring magic.
If you liked this, we recommend signing up for the Bookish newsletter! Once a week, you'll get the best spam-free and book-filled editorial content.