A Sense of Place

August 30, 2007

One of the things I enjoy when reading book blogs – aside from reviews about books (those I’ve read or more often books I’d like to read!) – is the links to articles, and quotes from books that can start you off on a whole new unforeseen journey.

Kate’s book blog was the starting point of one such journey, with Nicola Krauss’s essay “The Walker and the Walk”. It begins by comparing walking and writing

~ I like to walk to be alone with the world, not to be alone. In this way, walking is a lot like writing. Both writing and walking (as I know it) are fueled by a desire to put oneself in relation to others. Not in direct contact —some aloneness wishes to be preserved — but contact through the mediation of language or shared atmosphere of a city street.~

then draws on Alfred Kazin’s “A Walker in the City”

~ With each walk the territory expands until it contains everything — past, present, literature, childhood, longing, metaphysics; a lifelong answer to the question Kazin’s mother asks, looking out at the dusk: “Where is the day taking us now?”~

Her essay concludes with recollections of her own walks in New York, the different layers of time and events that converge on one particular street corner.

In the Guardian, V.S. Naipaul’s “Caribbean Odyssey” recounts his reading of Derek Walcott’s poems, illuminating the cultural climate of the West Indies at the time

~ And when, in the 1940s, middle-class people with no home but the islands began to understand the emptiness they were inheriting they longed for a local culture, something of their very own, to give them a place in the world.~

When Naipaul meet him in the 1960’s Walcott was languishing in Trinidad, writing articles for the weekend paper and scripts for locally staged plays.

~From this situation he was rescued by the American universities; and his reputation there, paradoxically, then and later, was not that of a man whose talent had been all but strangled by his colonial setting. He became the man who had stayed behind and found beauty in the emptiness from which other writers had fled: a kind of model, in the eyes of people far away.~

Another interesting piece (again thanks to Kate’s book blog) is Peter Carey’s “A New York Writer’s Catch-22”. He begins

~ I am a Marshian, from Bacchus Marsh, Australia, a place where the commonly accepted rules of alternate-side parking and literary publishing have never applied.~

He then goes on, in his usual entertaining style, to compare his early anonymity, writing at his kitchen table in Melbourne, with the opportunities (and ambitions) his writing students at Hunter College, New York have access to.

~ Of all the things I do at Hunter, this seems to me almost the most important, to close that huge, lonely gap between the kitchen table and the world of literature. ~

And he concludes with admiration and encouragement.

~No one reads fiction anymore? Says who? We are living in the middle of a roar of literature. The national newspapers are performing the surgical removal of their book-review pages like slick lobotomies, but the fiction writers continue like so many thousands of song-and-dance Rasputins who refuse to die. They’ll be there when we wake from this dark time and realize what all those “true stories” have really been. Imagination Dead Imagine.~

The depiction of the literary culture in those specific times and places is interesting. The tenacity and solitary nature of the writing life is highlighted in all. Picking up on Nicola Krauss’s idea of how a writer relates to others, I’m wondering if that can be extended to places as well. What role does the way we identify with our surroundings play in writing and in life? The position of writer as observer is a starting point, and there are a myriad of impressions and factors which combine to give a sense of place

~ those characteristics that make a place special or unique, as well as those that foster a sense of authentic human attachment and belonging ~ (wikipedia)

So to what extent does a writer’s sense of place inform their perspective? I’m off to Paris for the weekend, which epitomizes the delights of recognition, association and memory, that a city can inspire.