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Reflections of a working writer and reader



A Clean Well Lighted Place I

It is mooted from time to time that place in fiction can be seen as a character acting within the movement of the narrative. One thinks of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or of EM Forster’s Marabar Caves. Classically there are the examples of Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford, of Joyce’s Dublin and Conan Doyle’s London, while closer to our own time we have Sillitoe’s Nottingham, Rankin’s Edinburgh and Colin Dexter’s Oxford.

It is hardly a coincidence that all of these examples are novels. Place in a geographical sense is not as important in music or in poetry. In a poem a sense of setting or atmosphere can be created out of verbal texture, but when we turn to the first page of a novel we have one over-riding question: ‘Where am I?’ We need to identify the setting of the action because the setting, the place in which the action is set is always a point of discovery.

Our immediate environment is the place in which we shall discover other people. And those other people will mirror us and in a very real sense help us to discover ourselves. But the town or city or area in which we live is also inextricably a part of our being. The land itself, the kind of weather it attracts, its climate and the fruits that are cultivated there are not accidentals. The land knows that you are there in a subjective sense and it is only human arrogance that allows us to consider that we occupy the land, but at the same time fail to see that the land also occupies us.

When we say that someone is an Australian or a German, we mean that they were born and have lived their formative years in those places. And we also mean that quite apart from their individuality or their family traits, they carry something of that geographical area with them. Being Australian or German or any other nationality brings with it a host of attitudes and characteristics that are specific to that particular region. I’m not arguing racism here, there is nothing particularly good or bad about being Australian or German or Iranian or Tanzanian. But there is something distinctive.

For the purposes of this argument, a country is not really a place. It is a collection of different places. Benji Compson or his sister, Caddy in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury are characters who have their being in Mississippi. They could not come from anywhere else. Likewise, the Earnshaws and the Lintons in Emily Bronte’s only novel, Wuthering Heights, are born of the Yorkshire Moors. If you take them away from there they will have no vibrancy, no life force, and they will die on the page.

These characters, of course, are real and natural products of their time, place and history but in the hands of the best authors they transcend these limitations and inhabit a land beyond time and place where the fictional landscape is transformed into a mythical one. And there is also a sense in which the physical descriptions of place within the narrative of a novel, the trees by the side of the road, the new housing estate or the flat in which a body has laid undiscovered for several days, are mirrors of psychological states. These places may well be accurate descriptions of a town or a region but they are also a place in the mind of the narrator or of one of the characters in the novel.

2 Responses to “A Clean Well Lighted Place I”

  1. Stephanie says:

    A very interesting concept, one you quite clearly explain. As an historian (in training), we have been discussing the concept of race; what does it mean, where does it come from? Then I had the interesting realization today whilst entering loads of traffic tickets into the traffic court’s database that in the context of driver’s licenses and state issued ID’s, race is self-identified. No peace officer or DMV clerk points to someone and says, “You’re white. You’re black. You’re Chinese.” It’s all done by the person filling in the form. So race then becomes interpreted by the individual. I was born and raised in America and am of European stock (mostly English) but I self-identify as “white” not American or European, while others who may have been born in America has parents that came from Korea will identify as Korean, not American. Then I got to thinking “Well, what’s to keep me from self-identifying as something completely different?” It would be all too easy to self-identify as something like Hispanic or Asian and when called on it say something like, “What do you mean I don’t look Hispanic?” And I could totally make up this story about some great-great to the nth degree gran that fell in love with a handsome spaniard back in the day. Who would argue with me on that level? No DMV clerk is going to insist that I take my genealogy with me to apply for a driver’s license. And just because someone’s name is Hernandez, does that make them Hispanic?

    What were we talking about? Oh right, land as place and character in classic literature.

  2. Laura says:

    Two examples of this whom I greatly admire: Willa Cather and Wendell Berry. I think Wallace Stegner should also be included. The three W’s–I always thought it would make a superb paper. If you haven’t read Berry, I highly, highly recommend him, although my husband says he is too low on plot, and as it looks like your work is quite plot-intensive, maybe he’s not for you, but who knows?

    And referring to Stephanie’s comment, I am a person whose race it is difficult to discern. I’ve been pegged as about ten different things, because I am so dark of hair and eyes, but I am Scottish and English and nothing else, as far as I know. However, my first husband was Hispanic, my older son is dark, and people started assuming I was also Hispanic. I actually really enjoyed the chance to take on another race at times, although it also felt deceptive, although I never claimed to be anything I wasn’t.