Edited by John Sutherland
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Some stories couldn’t happen just anywhere. As is the case with all great literature, the setting, scenery, and landscape are as central to the tale as any character, and just as easily recognized. Literary Landscapes brings together more than 50 literary worlds and examines how their description is intrinsic to the stories that unfold within their borders.
Follow Leopold Bloom’s footsteps around Dublin. Hear the music of the Mississippi River steamboats that set the score for Huckleberry Finn. Experience the rugged bleakness of Newfoundland in Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News or the soft Neapolitan breezes in My Brilliant Friend.
The landscapes of enduring fictional characters and literary legends are vividly brought to life, evoking all the sights and sounds of the original works. Literary Landscapes will transport you to the fictions greatest lands and allow you to connect to the story and the author’s intent in a whole new way.
By John Sutherland
“There is no there there,” Gertrude Stein, now by choice a Parisian, once wrote, haughtily, of her home city Oakland. These are words that could not be said of any of the books examined and described in this volume. Indicating that Californian city’s historical emptiness, positing the location as, disappointingly, a kind of anywhere, with no features to mark it out as either memorable or categorically distinct, Stein gives us a scornful shorthand for defining the elusive “sense of place”: an essential “thereness” or “isness,” without which a city’s edges fall apart.
Immediately one’s mind starts questioning the idea, subverting it. Was Oakland, when Stein was brought up there (where her childhood was, as Philip Larkin said of his hometown, “unspent”) the same as where the hippy revolution of the 1960s found its home? Did the Beatniks give Oakland a “there” which wasn’t there, and couldn’t be foreseen, in Stein’s childhood? Is “Cannery Row” still what the name describes as when fish are canned elsewhere and the place lives mainly as a shrine to lovers of John Steinbeck’s fiction? This, and many other questions on literary topography, are pondered, illuminatingly and informatively, in the essays that follow.
As a collection of the world’s most memorable fictionalized geographies, Literary Landscapes can be summed up as an investigation into Stein’s “thereness”—the enduring fixity of place (“There’ll always be an England”) and the fluidities and meltingness that places are subject to. They melt and reform themselves, over social time, historical time, and geological time. Describing literary place, in the dimensions of time and space, requires a fine critical touch—which, one can confidently assert, is displayed in the pages that follow.
All the works described in this volume capture, are even built upon, a sense of their authors having been to, seen, experienced, and been able to relate all the qualities of a place that, in combination, lodge that locale in cultural and geographical specificity. From Hardy’s Wessex to Mishima’s Japan, from Bulgakov’s Moscow to Proulx’s Newfoundland, the literary landscapes collected here are singular in their sights, sounds, associations, and representations; they could not be mistaken for anywhere else.
The idea of “literary landscape” was, originally, founded on a paradox. Entering the English language as a loan word by way of the Dutch landschap in the early seventeenth century, a “landscape” initially denoted a purely visual representation. The natural world had begun to emerge from its position as an undervalued backdrop, becoming a major artistic genre from Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin onward, but its depiction was a pictorial skill.
By contrast, “literary landscape,” the subject of this richly detailed and illustrated volume, cannot, like fine art, be experienced as representation by the eye alone. Literary landscape is composed of words which must be recomposed in a frame of imagination. “The inward eye,” British “Lakeland” poet William Wordsworth called it, drawing a distinction between perception and imagination. Just as the painter can choose his balance of verisimilitude—striving for eye-witnessed accuracy—and creative depiction, so the writer must decide how much of an influence his “inward eye” will have on the scene depicted. What one might call “creative bias” comes into it—subjective coloration. And sometimes moral judgement: when Bunyan called London “Vanity Fair” (“a place of ostentation or empty, idle amusement and frivolity”) he meant something quite different, morally, from what London-loving William Makepeace Thackeray presents in his novel Vanity Fair. Thackeray rather liked amusement and frivolity.
Some writers open up more than others to the demands of imagination combining studious historical research with the literary artist’s creative licence—Chinua Achebe’s chronicle of pre-colonial life in Nigeria, for instance (1958, here), or Eleanor Catton’s recreation of Victorian Hokitika on an epic scale (2013, here). Interweaving his knowledge of folklore with authentic details of life in postwar Tokyo, Natsuhiko Kyōgoku’s portrait of the city (1994, here) hovers between fact and fiction—creating a landscape at once familiar and foreign, populated by phantoms.
For others, a more photographically exact portrayal of place yields a greater reward. Often these writers draw upon a personal topography, recreating the intimate corners of their own uniquely felt experience. From August Strindberg, whose Hemsö was recognized as a lightly veiled version of Kymmendö where he had spent his childhood summers (1887, here), to Armistead Maupin, who invests his richly vibrant chronicle of San Francisco with his own experiences of the city (1978, here), personal biography informs and colors these characterizations of place and renders them all the more fascinating because of that.
Sometimes authors choose to work on a large canvas landscape, powerful and dramatic, dwarfing humanity; others work on a smaller scale. Jane Austen, whose novel Persuasion (1817, here) begins the collection, could be described as a miniaturist. From Hampshire to Somerset, her novels stay within a narrow range; she herself was a writer “who only England knew.” She had sailor brothers who had seen the world, but not Jane, who never left England’s shores (except, perhaps, for the adjoining Isle of Wight). Yet her novels display, as Sir Walter Scott wrote of Emma, “the art of copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes from an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him.” Yet, even the “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory,” as she called it, on which she wrote can give us an occasional large canvas landscape. One such is in the Donwell Abbey Picnic scene in Emma. The picnickers have nothing much to say to one another, and Emma looks down from the hill on which she is standing:
half a mile, at the ruined Abbey and the Abbey Mill farm. It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a bright sun, without being oppressive.
What is Austen saying here in her encomium of the “Englishness” of the “sweet” landscape? Emma Woodhouse has this serene confidence that her country’s countryside was the best anywhere in the world: the dates tell us that these were ominous years for Anglo-French relations, with Waterloo, Napoleon’s exile, victory, then peace and the inauguration of the “British Century.” Not even a parson’s daughter in rural Hampshire could be unaware that society was changing. In short, this is an exquisitely described landscape—worthy of the miniature ivory artist—with a heavy historical subtext to it. Though rooted in her own observation, the novel becomes a commentary on a world beyond personal experience, as a vehicle for affirming “Englishness.”
Austen acknowledges in her writing that any conception of “landscape” is inextricably bound up with human presence and human purpose and human idiosyncrasy. Throughout this volume runs the presiding conviction that any landscape will be a synthesis of place and people: from Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (1817, here) to James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922, here), Gerard Reve’s The Evenings (1947, here) to Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (2012, here), across this international canvas the creation of place relies not just on physical details of geography, but on shared habits, customs, and values: a constellation of social actions which, in turn, contour the original concrete reality. Louise Erdrich’s Tracks (1988, here), Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005, here) and Peter Schneider’s The Wall Jumper (1982, here) make the point particularly plain: land is instrumental in creating a shared sense of identity, whether national, regional, or tribal.
No collection such as this can hope to be wholly comprehensive, although it can aspire to as wide a coverage as possible. This volume’s discriminating selection was driven by three criteria: firstly, each book must conjure a land that exists, or has existed. These are “literary” landscapes, but their bounds extend beyond the textual, insofar as they relate to tangible, visually “real” locations, in the specifics of their characterisation if not explicitly by name. Second, as the difference between the Paris of Balzac (1835, here) and the Paris of Modiano (1997, here) makes clear, these are books which are rooted in historical time as well as locale: “thereness” depends on history as much as on geography. As much as this collection might serve as a travel companion to the different corners of the globe, it is also a time machine, creating different visions of the same city. No one could confuse Edith Wharton’s New York (1920, here) with Jay McInerney’s (1984, here). One of the fascinating questions raised by this volume is whether there is, so to speak, a “New Yorkness.”
Finally, within the global reach of this literary selection, place is always more than mere “setting.” Where that descriptor implies “atmosphere” or “background,” landscape becomes a subject in its own right across the books in this collection, to the extent that some of these imaginings of place have, miraculously, even worked their own impact on the environments they describe. Ocean View Avenue was renamed “Cannery Row” in 1958 to commemorate John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name (1945, here). In Hongoeka Bay, developers gave up their harassment of the local Māori community in the aftermath of the publication of Potiki by Patricia Grace (1986, here), which allowed the community to build their own ancestral home. Offering commentary, criticism, eulogy, these writers define the countries and communities they describe.
This is a book to read, relish, and learn from. Its intention is to share with the reader insights which have enriched the contributors’ pleasures in, and reward from, great literature; specifically the places in which great literature founds itself. No one reading this sumptuous book will be tempted to think of literary landscape as mere “background.”
The reader of today has advantages denied, in most cases, their predecessors. I (now aged 80) was seventeen years old before I ever left British shores. My grandparents never left them. My son (born in 1974) had traveled the four corners of the planet before he was seventeen years old. Born in London he lives in Los Angeles and prefers to holiday in South America. He is not atypical of his multi-placed generation.
We are, as never before, a travelling, “sight-seeing,” “place-knowing” race of humans. It is a privilege. The contention of this book (grandiose, it may sound, but genuine) is that we should cultivate our historically unique sense of place and use the resource of great literature (more available to us, like travel, than our ancestors) to do so.
With the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, 26-year-old Anne Elliot renews her acquaintance with Frederick Wentworth, a captain in the Royal Navy. Both remaining single, Anne and the captain navigate a new engagement, setting a happier course for a second chance at marriage.
Draw a line on an English map from the coastal resort of Lyme Regis, located at the western edge of Dorset, to the city of Bath in Somerset, a distance of 60 miles, and this essentially is the world of Jane Austen’s final completed novel, Persuasion. The three key settings along this line—traditional country, fashionable resort, modern city—each mark not only a change in geography, but also the heroine’s growing independence and maturity.
At the beginning of Persuasion Anne Elliot’s activities are bound by the society of the landed gentry. She is living with her family at Kellynch Hall, which may well have been based on the Tudor manor Barrington Court in Somerset. It is seven years since Anne, under pressure from her family, ended her engagement to the young naval officer Frederick Wentworth, who lacked both the wealth and connections considered socially necessary.
Anne’s life changes during a visit to Lyme Regis, 15 miles to the south. By the start of the nineteenth century Lyme Regis had become a popular leisure destination for the upper and newly emergent middle-classes, and Austen is known to have visited Lyme Regis at least twice, in 1803 and 1804. It is here, by the sea, that Anne renews her relationship with her with her former fiancé.
As when Austen visited Lyme, today its most notable feature remains the imposing curved harbor wall, the Cobb. Austen brings a realistic eye to her portrait of Lyme: “… the principal street almost hurrying into the water, the walk to the Cobb, skirting round the pleasant little bay, which, in the season, is animated with bathing machines and company; the Cobb itself, its old wonders and new improvements….”
When the Elliot family suffer reduced financial circumstances, Kellynch Hall is rented and the family relocates to Bath, where Austen herself had lived for the first decade of the nineteenth century. Bath was then one of England’s largest towns with a population of around 60,000. Famed for its Roman Baths, the city was undergoing a cultural renaissance, with new Assembly Rooms offering a hub to fashionable society amid distinctive architecture of golden-colored Bath Stone.
As Austen satirically illustrates, Bath was class-bound and smitten with hollow gossip and social rivalry, despite its elegance. Yet even in the rain Bath could be invigorating:
… entering Bath on a wet afternoon, and driving through the long course of streets from the Old Bridge to Camden Place, amidst the dash of other carriages, the heavy rumble of carts and drays, the bawling of newspapermen, muffin-men and milkmen, and the ceaseless clink of pattens, she made no complaint. No, these were noises which belonged to the winter pleasures; her spirits rose under their influence.
Bath was, symbolically, the ideal place for Anne to break away from past values and set her future with Captain Wentworth, Austen’s prototype of a new type of “self-made” gentleman, whose wealth and outlook stemmed from personal endeavor rather than inheritance.
In Persuasion Jane Austen maps out a vision of an England in the midst of social and economic renewal, from ancestral estates that had barely changed in centuries to a resurgent Bath, a city that was once part of the Roman Empire, now an icon of a rising British Empire. Austen shows this transformation through the psychological development of her heroine, Anne Elliot, whose liberating romantic journey was one her creator was herself never able to make.
THE BETROTHED (I PROMESSI SPOSI) (1827)
Manzoni’s classic Bildungsroman is an enduring love story, set in the turbulent period of seventeenth-century Italy, in which the peasant protagonist grows into adulthood through the experience of the city of Milan.
The hero of Alessandro Manzoni’s historical novel The Betrothed is a young peasant, Renzo, who has never left his native mountain village. Yet the search for his dearly beloved fiancée, Lucia, drives him to the big city. The pair have been separated by the powerful don Rodrigo, who wants to seduce Lucia. Arriving in Milan, Renzo learns that Lucia has been infected with the plague and brought to the lazaretto. He has to experience the city—its tragedies, dangers, and ambiguous attractions, flee it, and then come back—before he can finally discover that his betrothed has recovered from the disease, and they can satisfy their ardent desire to be wed.
The story is set two centuries before publication. On 11 November 1628, the young Renzo enters the big city of Milan for the first time. He is running from the fury of don Rodrigo, and he will return to the city for a second time in order to look for Lucia at the end of August 1630. Both dates are relevant, because they span the great historical events of his time: the bread riots and the plague. While the novel tracks a journey of personal transformation, showing how the hero confronts this new geography and its troubled history, it thus also stamps a new vision of Milan on the atlas of literary imagination, presenting a city that has burgeoned since that incarnation enshrined in Italian literature since the Middle Ages. Renzo’s first glimpse of the city registers its otherworldly proportions:
As Renzo climbed up one of those paths to a higher level, he caught sight of the vast mass of the cathedral standing up alone out of the plain, as if it had been built not in a city but in the middle of a desert.
For Manzoni, one of Italy’s preeminent writers in the nineteenth century, Milan is not only the setting for The Betrothed, whose map covers the wider Lombardy area, it is also the familiar city where he spent most of his life. He was born there, and his beautifully decorated terracotta townhouse (a stone’s throw from the Duomo) still stands in the city today, now a library and a museum. All his works, including The Betrothed, were published in this city where his life and career were so deeply rooted. The importance of Milan to the book and its story is stated by its subtitle, sadly ignored by most translations: Storia milanese del secolo XVII secolo (“A Milanese History of the Seventeenth Century”).
In the novel, after Renzo’s first sighting of the Cathedral from afar, he journeys further toward the city; towers, roofs, and houses soon begin to sprout before his eyes. He passes a long, low building, the hospital called lazzaretto, and enters Milan from the East Gate, which is now Porta Venezia, and makes his way along the street that is today called Corso Venezia, heading to the Duomo itself.
Yet before he has an opportunity to search for Lucia further, he is forced to flee: implicated in the riots, he is pursued from the city by the police. After various adventures, during which time he also catches the plague, he finally hears news of Lucia again. Learning that she is still in Milan, he once more makes his way to the city, to be belatedly reunited with her. On this second visit, the hero follows a significantly different path to the town, approaching Milan from the north and finding the city center via “the canal called the Naviglio.” Every detail is authentic, carefully chosen by the author from seventeenth-century sources.
But he could discover nothing either way but two reaches of a winding road, and before him a part of the wall: in no quarter was there a symptom of a human being, except than in one spot, on the platform, might be seen a dense column of black and murky smoke, which expanded itself as it mounted, and curled into ample circles, and afterwards dispersed itself through the gray and motionless atmosphere.
Since then, the city’s map has not changed, but the urban setting has. The character’s walk is a time machine: through his eyes, readers see small dusty roads that will in time become alleys and kitchen gardens; washerwomen’s little houses are described that are soon to disappear; there is a small square with elm trees that had already been replaced by Manzoni’s time by a grand palace. In this way, this fictional Milan is for modern readers the object of an ongoing act of imagination, where three levels of realism entwine: the seventeenth-century city of the characters, the nineteenth-century city of the writer, and the city that will be experienced by future readers.
This movable background is also an agitated, disordered one, because Renzo happens to be in Milan first in the middle of a popular revolt and then during one of the great tragedies of modern European history, the plague of 1630. Because of these extraordinary events, the city becomes the animated setting for apocalyptic visions: a fluctuating world whose strongest symbolic image is maybe that of a cart laden with plague-dead bodies “piled up and interwoven together”—a sort of hyperbole of the grotesque that attracted the praise of Edgar Allan Poe, who mentioned this very passage as an example of the strength of Manzoni’s prose.
When Renzo finally finds a recovered Lucia, no longer a victim of the plague, the circle is closed: experiencing the city—its tragedies, dangers, and ambiguous attactions—has made an adult of the novel’s young and humble hero, and he is ready for his new life.
HONORÉ DE BALZAC
LA COMÉDIE HUMAINE (1829–48)
La Comédie humaine consists of 94 novels and short stories, most of which depict French society in Paris during the post-Revolutionary period.
Honoré de Balzac was born in Tours, in the heart of the Loire Valley, in 1799. However, it is as a Parisian novelist that he is most often remembered. Balzac first arrived in the capital in 1813, when he began attending classes at the prestigious Lycée Charlemagne in the Marais. After completing his education in 1819, he promptly turned his back on the legal career that his family had planned for him, and instead took up residence in a garret in the Rue Lesdiguières, where he wrote his first play, Cromwell. Over the next 30 years, Balzac lived at 18 different addresses in the city. Following his disastrous attempt at establishing a printing business in the 1820s, a venture which saddled him with crushing debts, he led an itinerant life in the capital, moving from one location to the next in an attempt to evade his creditors.
Balzac was fascinated by Paris, and viewed its urban landscape as a constant source of artistic inspiration. He described the capital as “the city of a hundred thousand novels,” where behind every door was a story waiting to be told. One of his favorite pastimes was to stroll through the Paris streets eavesdropping on conversations in the hope of discovering ideas and plotlines for his work. Shop signs also provided him with inspiration for the names of some of his fictional characters.
La Comédie humaine stands as a towering monument to Balzac’s lifelong connection with Paris. Written between 1829 and 1848, the collection comprises 94 novels and shorter fictions, and forms a vast panorama in which Balzac hoped to document every aspect of nineteenth-century French society. Paris occupies a central place in this ultimately unfinished realist enterprise. For Balzac, the capital appears as a place of infinite diversity, and he revels in transporting his readers through its various districts, from the muddy backstreets of the Latin Quarter to the aristocratic salons of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. Balzac was also sensitive to the way in which the city was changing. It was not until the 1870s that the urbanization program of Baron Haussmann swept away much of the medieval city and gave Paris its wide, open boulevards. During his own lifetime, however, Balzac sensed that the old city was already starting to disappear under the dual pressures of industrialization and new building works. As the novelist warned in his 1845 essay “Ce qui disparaît de Paris” (“What is disappearing from Paris”), “the Paris of yesterday will exist only in the works of those novelists who have the will to depict faithfully the last vestiges of the architecture of our forefathers, since the serious-minded historian cares little for such things.”
Balzac’s enthusiasm for exploring Paris and Parisian life in his fiction is reflected vividly in Le Père Goriot (Old Goriot), the 1835 novel that marked the full blossoming of the author’s literary talents. Weaving together the stories of Goriot, a retired cereal merchant, and Rastignac, a young law student eager to make his career in the capital, the plot begins in a boarding house in the Latin Quarter (the building that is thought to have inspired Balzac still exists today, at 24 Rue Tournefort). At the outset, the narrative foregrounds the squalor of this corner of the city, where men and women were packed into boarding houses due to a chronic shortage of accommodation, and raw sewage still flowed down the middle of the cobbled streets. This is the Paris that Balzac mud, a vale of sorrows which are real and joys too often hollow.” Casting himself in the role of guide to this urban labyrinth, Balzac wonders aloud whether a story so fundamentally Parisian will even be understood by those unfamiliar with the city.
In its often grim depiction of the capital, Le Père Goriot reinvigorates the established literary theme of Paris as a modern hell. Parisians, Balzac had claimed in his 1834 novel The Girl with the Golden Eyes [La Fille aux yeux d’or], are obsessed with the pursuit of gold and pleasure, and will go to reprehensible lengths in order to satisfy their appetite for them. As the master-criminal Vautrin explains to Rastignac in Le Père Goriot,
- "Part of the attraction of most classic novels is their strong sense of place... [Literary Landscapes] delves into the geography, location, and terrain of 50 beloved books - from Joyce's Dublin to Harper Lee's Monroeville, Ala."—The New York Times Book Review, 'New & Noteworthy'
- "Deep dive into the inner workings of your favorite literary world in this beautiful coffee table book."—The New York Post
- "[Literary Landscapes] is gorgeously illustrated, wide-ranging, and very pleasingly idiosyncratic.... Readers will be reminded throughout of what a vital role location plays in virtually everything they read, and the generous artwork of Literary Landscapes will help to send that reminder home."—Open Letters Review
- "This fascinating (and beautifully designed) book looks at how novels' settings impact their plot, character, and tone."—Refinery29
- On Sale
- Nov 13, 2018
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Black Dog & Leventhal