By Edward W. Said

Knopf. 295 pp. $26.95

Reviewed by Jill Ker Conway

Out of Place is an unusual memoir -- unusual because its author, Edward Said, has lived a different form of uprooted life from that of the average mobile Western person; because he has changed the contours of the scholarly world through his analysis of the operation of European imperialist concepts on our understanding of geography and culture; and because he has been a passionate and outspoken supporter of the Palestinian cause.

So one comes to the book carrying some intellectual and political freight. Well before the scheduled publication date, Said and the self he reports on in Out of Place were attacked by militant Israelis, as though the man and his Palestinian memories were some kind of political dynamite. Other readers, myself included, will come to this memoir eager to understand the experiences that shaped the intellectual formation of so creative and pathbreaking a late-20th-century intellectual. The book has a plangent tone, not only because the author seeks to recreate the vanished world of his childhood in Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt but also because Said is battling a terminal illness, so his look backward is a real farewell.

"The basic split in my life," Said writes, "was the one between Arabic, my native language, and English, the language of my education and subsequent expression as a scholar and teacher, and so trying to produce a narrative of one in the language of the other . . . has been a complicated task." Thus, Said's narrative rests upon one of the basic postmodern assumptions: that language is a shaper of people and identities in as deterministic a fashion as the economic structures of Marx and Engels's dialectical materialism.

Ever the brilliant student of cultures and the agencies that transmit them, Said provides a series of sketches of the schools in which he, an anglicized Arab Christian, somehow had to find his way toward maturity. The Gezira Preparatory School in Cairo taught English history, required its students to sing British hymns at assembly, and practiced the old-fashioned English discipline of caning. A brief interlude in a British boy's school in Jerusalem followed, after which Said returned to Cairo to St. George's School, once again in the hands of philistine English colonial teachers, whose teaching and manner instructed the non-Western young in their inherent inferiority. The scenes in St. George's recall Dickens's ability to mix comedy and horror, while the account of the puzzles of religion Said experienced at his confirmation prove him a master at depicting out-of-placeness. After the ceremony he awaits a new vision of God:

"The hot and cloudless Cairo sky, my aunt Nabiha's disproportionately large hat perched on her small head and body, the placidly flowing Nile immediately in front of us in its undisturbed immensity as we stood on the cathedral esplanade: all these were as I was, exactly the same."

The theme of exile and strange languages unites Said's description of his American education, first at Mt. Hermon School in Massachusetts and then at Princeton. At Mt. Hermon, where his academic record was brilliant, his athletic prowess considerable, and his performance as a pianist distinguished, he never mastered the local codes that could bring recognition as an outstanding member of the school. "I was known as someone with a powerful brain and an unusual past, but I was not fully part of the school's corporate life. Something was missing."

The something was the readiness to fit in and model himself on the accepted ideals of student achievement. At Princeton, Said knew he was "Arab, musician, young intellectual, solitary eccentric, dutiful student, political misfit," totally unable to enter into the world of Princeton dining clubs.

The quest to be comfortably subsumed within a sustaining community is finally replaced as he nears the end of his life by a musician's sense of the self as a complicated but dynamic musical composition. "I occasionally experience myself as a cluster of flowing currents . . . These currents, like the themes of one's life, flow along during the waking hours, and at their best, they require no reconciling, no harmonizing. They are `off' and may be out of place, but at least they are always in motion . . . " We should see our lives contrapuntally, he thinks, without a unifying central theme.

Such a view of the self makes for challenging reading, because Said's narrative never provides the moments of synthesis at which a reader can rest and contemplate what the narrator has now become. A single chapter may sweep from infancy to midlife to impending mortality, and move from Jerusalem to Cairo to Lebanon to Cambridge, Mass. In this Said is true to a lifetime of studying how the point of observation changes reality. His refusal to allow us even momentary rest on a single perspective on his life gives this rich and touching memoir its hold on us.

Jill Ker Conway is the author of "When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography" and is currently at work on the third volume of her memoirs.