Magazine article The Spectator

Writers Who Know Their Place, Sometimes

Magazine article The Spectator

Writers Who Know Their Place, Sometimes

Article excerpt

THE ATLAS OF LITERATURE edited by Malcolm Bradbury De Agostini Editions, 25, pp. 352 his handsome book purports to explore the connection between writers and places, to focus

on writers and works that are intimately bound up with a place and a time, capturing a town, a city, a region in its literary heyday. Confusion. Is the idea a) to draw a map of Gordon Square showing Virginia's sittingroom, Duncan's basement and Lytton's railings; b) to try to recreate Emma Bovary's Yonville and show to what extent it is based on actual Norman towns; c) a bit of both; or d) none of the above?

The answer, as it turns out, is c) and d); and the `none of the above' element is provided by the many essays in the collection of 80 or more that are brief literary histories with no more than a slight topographical bias. Thus Nigel West's `Cold War Tales' gives a good summary of the spy novel in the 20th century, but makes no attempt to ground it in any geographical way - a wise enough move, since the grounding of the genre is in any case not local but political. This and many other essays could as well appear in an unillustrated student's primer as in an 'atlas'.

It is only because the essays and the illustrations in this book are individually of a high standard that the confusion of intent is frustrating. Take the different treatment given to two place-fixated authors. Hardy gets the full Dorset-Wessex cross-indexing; not a syllable of it is new, but it is done with vigour and authority by Michael Millgate. Now look at Proust, on whose use of actual locations all the basic research has also long ago been done. What fun an atlas could have had with photographs of the Grand Hotel at Balbec, then and now, maps of Illiers-Combray and so on. But Proust appears only in chapters about other people, as the author of a book variously called In Search of Lost Time and Remembrance of Things Past.

Paul Micou has written a satisfyingly speedy piece on modern New York novelists, but I'm not sure that the accompanying map of Manhattan with daggers showing the location of the Oxford University Press offices or Saks Fifth Avenue adds much to it. Likewise D. J. Taylor's efficient whirl through `Depression Britain' is not only accompanied by a grim little map of the country with a sign coming out of Nottingham saying `Fred Boden Out of the Coalfields' but also by a dotted map of the world explaining: `Many of the writers visited abroad, too, and again used their experience of travel in their writing. …

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