This Is Not a Map

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IN THE MELANCHOLY YEAR 1882, ROBERT Louis Stevenson was 31 years old and in poor health. Though he had published by then, as he modestly said, "little books and little essays"--including Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879), the immortal tale of his tour through central France--his burning ambition was to write and publish a novel. He had actually begun a great many novels, from the age of 15 on, but none were ever finished. They all seemed to go along for a while, he observed, then suddenly quit, "like a schoolboy's watch." Meanwhile, his essays and books earned him not quite 200 [pounds sterling] in a good year, which was far from enough to support a family. That summer, he and his wife were forced to go and live with Stevenson's parents in the mountains above Pitlochry, Scotland.

Then his bad health drove him farther north, to a retreat at Braemar. And there, as an escape from the Highland rain, he passed a great deal of time indoors as friendly companion to a local schoolboy, home for the holidays, who had a passion, not for literature, but for watercolors. Some days the two of them would spend whole afternoons standing side by side painting together. Soon enough, doubtless in a fit of jealousy, the Muse of Fiction looked down and took a hand. "On one of these occasions." Stevenson recorded in the most charming possible understatement, "I made the map of an island." Few readers will need to be told what happened next. The shape of the map, he said, "took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance Treasure Island."

Stevenson is the only novelist I know of who was inspired by imaginary inlets and hills and harbors to begin a book. He wrote the story, as he cheerfully confessed, "up to the map. The map was the chief part of my plot." But he is hardly the only novelist to have drawn a map of his fictional creation. William Faulkner drew at least two maps of Yoknapatawpha County, one for the first edition of Absalom, Absalom! published in 1936, and a slightly different one 10 years later for The Portable Faulkner. J. R. R. Tolkien sketched several maps of Middle Earth for The Hobbit (1937); his son Christopher made the ones for the subsequent Lord of the Rings volumes. James Michener is said to have painted a map of the setting of each of his many novels. And if you had read Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native (1878) as a magazine serial first, then later picked up the three-volume novel version, you might have been surprised to find opposite the title page a very somber-appearing "Sketch Map of the Scene of the Story," drawn by the very somber author himself.

Hardy may have had several reasons for adding the map. For one thing, he was proud of having observed a classical unity of place, confining the whole story to a single setting, the fictional Egdon Heath. For another, the novel itself concerns characters so psychologically disoriented and lost--adultery, mother-son estrangement, and two drownings figure in the plot--that he may have been projecting for the reader a kind of graphic key to its themes. But surely at bottom was the motive that underlies all such fictional maps: the drive for realism, verisimilitude, mimesis--the nearly perfect representation of reality that makes a fiction seem to be true.

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We trust a map. It describes the known physical world, the most certain knowledge we have, and in such detail that we can easily check its accuracy. If a map sometimes reveals things we didn't know--for example, that Italy, as seen from above, is the shape of a boot--that only increases its air of authority. Some part of our mind is probably always aware that the map is not the real thing itself, or even always truthful--certain Soviet maps used to omit from the city plan of Moscow the streets where the KGB was headquartered. …