Monday, July 19, 2010

More on place in fiction

What does a writer owe a reader when it comes to rendering place? What is a reader's expectation of a writer's fidelity to "reality"? Is there a single "reality" of place, or is place deeply colored by things like time, point-of-view, and emotional associations?

I don't suppose there are canonical answers to these questions, so in this follow-up to last month's Place in fiction post, let's take a literary tour.

One of my favorite authors of place -- okay, he's one of my favorite authors period -- is the late W.G. Sebald. In Rings of Saturn, the narrator (who may fairly be surmised to be Sebald, thinly disguised) travels around the county of Suffolk in England, making deeply informed and vivid observations about the land and landmarks, touching on times present and past. The German-born author taught for many years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, located in the county of Norfolk -- just north of Suffolk, as you might guess. Like his narrator, Sebald took long walking tours in which he absorbed the place and culture in which his life occurred. Rings of Saturn can be read as a kind of travelogue, albeit one that veers across continents and centuries at the least provocation -- sometimes to places and times that the author, born in 1944, can only know as a product of research, such as the court of the Empress Dowager Tz'u-hsi in late nineteenth and early twentieth century China. Sebald renders place that is now and real, but portrays it as a surface over historical deeps and linked distances that give his places life.

Last month I wrote about place in my own novel-in-progress, Consequence, most of which takes place in San Francisco. In Michael Ondaatje's Divisidero, named for a street that bumps right up against the neighborhood in which my story takes place, the street and city play a minor role: Divisadero takes place elsewhere. In his novel Prague, Arthur Phillips writes about five expatriates in Budapest who would rather be in the city by the Vltava. In these two novels, then, authors take liberties with place. Place is 'not here,' a strategic bit of misdirection.

Tying together Sebald, Prague, and my own experience of place in fiction, here's a curious story about Austerlitz, the last novel Sebald published before his tragic death in 2001. In that novel, the protagonist unearths his early history as one of thousands of children taken in by the U.K. from Nazi-occupied countries on the eve of World War II. As an adult, Austerlitz returns to Prague in search of his past and finds not only the building in which he lived as a child, but his family's neighbor and his nurserymaid still living there.

From the novel: was as if I had already been this way before and memories were revealing themselves to me not by means of any mental effort but through my senses, so long numbed and now coming back to life. It was true that I could recognize nothing for certain, yet I had to keep stopping now and then because my glance was caught by a finely wrought window grating, the iron handle of a bell pull, or the branches of an almond tree growing over a garden wall. [...] Then there was the cool air as I entered the front hall of Number 12 Šporkova, the metal box for the electrics built into the wall beside the entrance with its lightning symbol, the octofoil mosaic flower in shades of dove gray and snow white set in the flecked artificial-stone floor hall, the smell of damp limewash, the gently rising flight of stairs, with hazelnut shaped iron knobs placed at intervals in the handrail of the banisters -- all of them signs and characters from the type case of forgotten things, I thought, and was overcome by such a state of blissful yet anxious confusion that more than once I had to sit down on the steps in the quiet stairwell and lean my head against the wall."

I visited Prague in May of 2002, and stayed at a small hotel across a small square from the Lobkowitz Palace, now the location of Prague's German embassy. The hotel, Dům u velké boty (which translates to "House at the Big Boot") is located about equidistant from Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge, in a quiet quarter, the Malá Strana, that is nonetheless near the heart of the city. I recommend it highly if you're looking for a place to stay in Prague. My partner and I arrived in the evening from the airport, jet lagged of course, because it was early morning back home. The kind hotelier, Jan Rippl, showed us to our room, facing the square and the Lobkowitz Palace, and we soon sacked out. As dawn rose not so many hours later, a richly-voiced bird began to sing -- it might have been a nightingale. As best we could tell, the sound was coming from around the corner; there were no trees in the square directly outside our window. Between the jet lag and the birdsong, I didn't get much more sleep that night.

After breakfast we walked around the corner to see whether we could find the spot from which we were serenaded through the wee hours of morning. Matthew and I had both read Austerlitz recently, and for each of us the novel was part of our foreknowledge of the city we were visiting for the first time. We'd made no plans to seek out the places portrayed by Sebald, though I had every intention of visiting the Old New Synagogue where the Golem is said to be concealed in the attic; Matthew was anticipating a visit to the pub U Kalicha, where the eponomous protagonist of The Good Soldier Švejk had begun his adventures. Imagine our shock, then, when the name of the street alongside our hotel looked familiar: Šporkova. And there, at the foot of the courtyard, opposite to a tall tree in which our nightingale might have perched, stood Number 12.

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Was it actually Sebald's model for the childhood home of his character, Austerlitz? It was as if we'd flown into the twilight zone...

One of the most troubling and fascinating places I've come to know through fiction doesn't exist. In The City and The City, China Miéville renders two cities that are geographically co-located, yet rigidly segregated from one another. On pain of permanent exile, residents of Beszel may not acknowledge residents of Ul Qoma with whom they share streets and sidewalks, but never shops or restaurants -- let alone conversation. The reverse is true as well: citizens of Ul Qoma may not acknowledge the people of Beszel. The strangest thing about these cities is their eerie resonance with commonplace insularities in cities we know: how one can live for years in an urban street and know few or no neighbors; the ways community business, conflict, and loyalties in Chinatown (I'm thinking San Francisco's) play out in vigorous bustle and shouted Cantonese as if the tourists mobbing its sidewalks were transparent; the way office workers in any city routinely ignore the impoverished homeless; and so on. Miéville renders a place no one has seen, yet everyone recognizes.

In my own work I'm not consistent in requiring that I know a place well before I write it. Consequence occurs in places I know (San Francisco) and places I don't (Nebraska). One of the first short stories I wrote in a creative writing class in college was about an old man remembering the highlights of his life. My professor in that class, Tom Farber, approved of a name I invented for a restaurant in Paris ... though at the time I'd never been. The first short story I published, in Christopher Street Magazine, unfolded at Big Sur, describing a drive down the California coast that I've made many times, cabins along the Big Sur river that I've visited often, beaches I've been to in every season. Another short story, of more recent vintage, takes place in San Francisco and Broward County, Florida. At the time I wrote it I'd never visited Florida. I've been there since, but only to the Panhandle.

When you read place in fiction, do you want or expect an experience that reflects reality? Have you ever visited a city first known through fiction, and sought out places where the fiction occurred?


  1. Enjoyed this! Thanks for permission to reblog.

  2. Man, I miss Prague! Have I ever mentioned that I lived in the Czech Republic for a couple of years in my 20s, most recently Prague for a year in '99 - 00? *sigh*

  3. Very interesting post.

    When I read places in fictions, I don't usually connect it to the places, if I haven't been to. Some people do, for example, people tried hard to pin down Thomas Hardy's locales. My exception is Kafka's "The Castle" - the castle in Praha.

    When I read novels about distinct places I'd visited before, and particularly if the locations in the novels are very important, I usually pay great attention to the locations, and compare notes to my memories, for example: Bruges, Belgium -- "Bruges-la-Morte", "Le Carillonneur" and "The Folding Star"; Paris -- "L'invitée", many works by Balzac.

    Actually, there is a website dedicated to Balzac's Paris

    Matthew Felix Sun

  4. Yes this is great! We were talking about novel tourism and you sent this link ... This summer I read along as my mother went off to avoid her 80th bday party and instead went and traveled to Machu Pichu....I sent her there w one I had just read, the new one by my fav writer Ann Patchett, an imagined one about that region that I keep giving to people..really a perfect novel, and then she turned around a gave me "turn left at Machu Pichu", a non fiction piece that is again so richly descriptive Steve...the one before Israel trip that I visit w her now is the David Grossman novel , The End of the Land...can't wait to go visit those places ..she said it's the tip of the Nile ...k