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.