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Reflections of a working writer and reader



A Clean Well Lighted Place II

A sense of belonging, of having a past that helps to explain you and perhaps went a long way to making and moulding you, comes through strongly in the fiction of such diverse novelists as Thomas Hardy and William Faulkner, of Graham Greene, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Gustav Flaubert. Not to mention contemporary authors like Nadine Gordimer, Carol Shields and Alice Walker.

In the work of all of these writers the sense of place is given added significance by the fact that the writers, the narrators and the characters speculate about place and the meaning it has in their lives. They want to understand how the place in which they are set is significant in their lives and in the lives of those who came before them. And in that respect they are universal characters, individuals.

I think it was Eudora Welty who pointed out that today, as in all previous times, one country speaks to another through art and does not really communicate at all in terms of politics or economics. And art is never the voice of a country, it is now and always has been the voice of an individual reaching out to the world. It is the voice of an individual doing its best to speak the truth and the art that speaks it most directly is fiction, and in particular, that of the novel.

It is not my intention to delineate the reason for the existence of the novel except to point out that it has always been concerned with what is regarded as local, ordinary and extraordinary day to day human experience.

The novel deals with the present even when its subject is the past because when we enter into the fictional landscape that the novel creates we can do no other than be there. It is a landscape we recognize, the landscape, not merely of you and me but of you and me, here.

Here is the place. And though, in the novel, as in life, we are concerned with human identity there is always the sense that the place, the rocks, the earth on which we walk has a more lasting identity than we have. And humankind, rightly or wrongly, always attaches itself to identity.

We need to hear or see that final delineation of place. The Mayor of Casterbridge. A Passage to India. The Canterbury Tales. Take away the name of the place and meaning flees away from us. It leaves us bereft of a vital component. But when we hear its completion in a geographical location we can relax because we have its measure. We know where we are and meaninglessness is transformed into pictures with the added attributes of sound, smell, even a certain atmosphere, dry, dusty, humid or chilly.

We learn to judge where we are by knowing where we stand on the earth. Our earliest experiences are intimately connected with place and the original core of awareness is formed by it. As children we slowly develop critical powers by our interaction with the place in which we spend our time, our neighbourhood. When we fall off the man next door’s wall or become too big for our boots the place we live in knocks us back into shape. We are constantly informed by it, through it, in relation to it, because, like us, it never stops changing, never gives up. And because we come to understand that one place so intimately we can forever come to terms with other places. We have that place in our minds as a constant reference point. It informs us not only about itself and about ourselves, but also about other people and other places.

3 Responses to “A Clean Well Lighted Place II”

  1. Stephanie says:

    John Steinbeck’s works can be (mostly) set no other place than my little corner of California. Salinas and Monterey are around a 2 hour drive for me. When I read his books or visit either place I instantly grasp the impact each had on the other. He captured the essence of the place, although times have changed.

  2. patry says:

    Until I build the house, see the street, hear the voices chattering in the alley, smell the cooking that emanates from the windows, I can’t begin a story.

    Interesting post.

  3. I write a blog about Charleston, SC, an evocative place, and place of my ancestors. This concept and Eudora’s Welty’s writing from her small town in the America South inspires me: the idea of knowing one place well. I like the above comment about the sensuality of a place. I write, feeling my Aunt Elizabeth Blanche Smith Torran’s presence at 36 Queen Street in the French Quarter. She lived there in 1758, for the next fifty years, and her daughter was a an artist, like I am. Indeed, a place is a universal character. She will last longer than I. Thanks for this post, John.

    jb says: You’re welcome Charlotte. Thanks for the comment. It is a delight to see this one resonating still.