The Light That Falls Upon The City

I am sometimes asked to recommend a good book to read. It doesn’t take me long to respond. While I read Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon over a year ago, I still mention it first and do so without qualification. I haven’t found anything to match it since my first reading.

It is a long novel and one with a ceaseless stream of unanswered questions. But the questions are fascinating and wide-ranging. Raimund Gregorious, the scholar-teacher in the novel wonders:

“How are we to be happy without curiosity, without questions, doubt and arguments?”


I live on the island of Oahu now and do a lot of pondering on the role of the weather in my life, that part of my life that involves “doubts and arguments.” I wonder if all these warm sunny days will finally put an end to my bookish ways.

A while ago I did an analysis of where Nobel Laureates in Literature were from going back as far as 1901, the year the prize was first awarded. Alas, the vast majority were from cold weather climates. Only 9 of the 116 (8%) were from warm weather, usually tropical countries that fall within that band of nations below the Tropic and Cancer and above the Tropic of Capricorn and where one-third of the world’s population is said to live. Of course, that is precisely where the Hawaiian Islands are.

Amadeau Prado, the physician-author in Night Train to Lisbon asks a somewhat similar question about the role of the weather in answering questions about the causes of human action. He says:

It is extraordinary, but the answer changes in me with the light that falls on the city and the Tagus. If it is the enchanting light of a shimmering August day that produces clear, sharp-edged shadows, the thought of a hidden human depth seems bizarre and like a curious, even slightly touching fantasy, like a mirage, that arises when I look too long at the waves flashing in that light. On the other hand, if city and river are clouded over on a dreary January day by a dome of shadowless light and boring gray, I know no greater certainty than this: that all human action is only an extremely imperfect, ridiculously helpless expression of a hidden internal life of unimagined depths that presses to the surface without ever being able to reach it even remotely.

So on a warm summer day, the question seems largely irrelevant, compared to a cold winter day in January. In my case, however, the warm, sunny days in Honolulu have not put an end to my questionings or general doubts about most everything. They are just as relevant here as they have always been. It has not put an end to the work I like to do. Frankly, I’m not doing anything different here than I did in the cold Northwest except feeling content rather than uncomfortable most of the time.

Does the weather matter when it comes to creative achievement? The question calls for a detailed analysis of accomplishments in all the arts and sciences and, at the same, time, knowledge of the exact location where they were made. A reader doesn’t expect a novelist to undertake such an analysis. Indeed, the complexity of the issue has deterred most investigators from looking into it closely

The best that can be done is to examine the creative accomplishments of particular individuals. For instance, Thomas Mann might have been born and lived most of his life in chilly Germany, but I suspect he wrote much of Death in Venice right there in his hotel on the Lido during hot and humid days on the Venetian Lagoon.

In a word, perhaps it doesn’t matter where you live. What matters is what you make of where you live and the life you have led, as well as your talent in translating those experiences into some form of artistic or scientific brilliance.

Surely I am no less creative, wiser or productive where it is warm than I am where it is cold. In fact, I think the weather probably has no uniform effect on how thoughtful or clear-headed a person is. Maybe some work better on a sunny, warm day or think they do, while others prefer to work on dark and rainy days. At least the winter was more likely to keep you indoors, pounding away at the keyboard. Maybe that’s why so many Nobel Laureates in Literature came from the freezing North. But I am surely not in their league anyway.