Labor Day Rerun: The Role of Place in Literature

In yesterday’s, Bookends (Sunday Times Book Review) Moshin Hamid and Thomas Mallon were asked to comment on the role of where you live in how and what they write.

Both agreed it has considerable influence. Hamid suspects Nadine Gordimer would never have written July’s People if she had not lived in South Africa. And Tolkien’s The Hobbit might have been quite different had he lived in Osaka instead of Oxfordshire.

Mallon says much the same things with two examples. “One wouldn’t take Booth Tarkington out of Indiana any more than one would remove Proust from Paris.” And then he isn’t entire sure. “And yet Joyce wrote the most local novel of all time, not in Dublin but in Trieste and Zurich and Paris.”

I imagine a little of local place and imagination is responsible for the work of most novelists. The issue interests me every time I move from one town to another, although I’ve not noticed any difference in what or how I write.

Currently I’m in Honolulu, where surfing and the military seem to dominate local life. Yet, I’ve not written about either. Then again, I’m not a novelist but I have written about the subject and copied what I said below.

In Florence I begin to wonder about the role of place in literature. So many writers have come to this city--Montaigne, Shelly, Byron, Elizabeth and Robert Browning, Henry James, George Eliot, Goethe, E. M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, D. H. Lawrence, and Dostoevsky.

Some settled here for long periods, others stayed for only a short time during their travels, and many have returned time and time again. More often than not they come to Italy and to this city in Tuscany to escape the cold, damp areas of the North and for some hoping that its sun and warmth will cure them of some ailment, primarily tuberculosis. However, once winter arrives in Tuscany they very quickly learn it can be as bitterly cold and damp here as it is in the North

How has living in Florence affected their writing? Would they have written differently had they remained in the city they left? If being here influences their work, does that depend on how long they stay?

Lawrence Durrell wrote, “What makes a “big book” is surely as much to do with their site as their characters and incidents." Eudora Welty agreed that, “fiction depends for its life on place. Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?”

We know that Florence has been the setting of the many of the writers who have come here. One need only think of Forster’s A Room With a View:

It was pleasant to wake up in Florence, to open the eyes upon a bright bare room, with a floor of red tiles which look clean though they are not, with a painted ceiling…It was pleasant, too, to fling wide the windows, pinching the fingers in unfamiliar fastenings, to lean out into sunshine, with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and close below, the Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road.”

Yes, very pleasant!

But what we really want to know is whether or not being here shaped their style or turned them in a new direction or solved a writerly problem they were facing. In general, is being here a source of literary inspiration?

Albeit a single example, I think the clearest answer to this question is provided by Dostoevsky, who came to Florence for the second time in 1868, then to escape the “damp and cold of Milan, where he and his wife [Anna] had been living for two months.”

In her Reminiscences Anna records how thrilled Dostoevsky was to be in Florence and that he was working productively on The Idiot. Yet, it did not take him long to realize there is more to writing than being in this benign place. He soon began to miss his friends or any form of congenial company. Anna writes in Reminiscences:

We did not know a single soul in Florence with whom we could talk, argue, joke, exchange reactions. Around us all were strangers, and sometimes hostile ones; and this total isolation from people was sometimes difficult to bear.

And in a letter to his niece, Dostoevsky wrote: I cannot write here. For that I must be in Russia without fail, must see, hear and take a direct part in Russian life; where’s here I am losing even the possibility of writing, since I lack both the essential material, namely Russian reality…and the Russian people.

Then the summer arrived and he and Anna found it almost unbearable to deal with ever increasing heat of this city. Some people seem to thrive in hot weather. Apparently Dostoevsky was not one of them, for he found it almost impossible to write under such “hellish” conditions.

At other times he felt differently. When the sun shines, it is almost Paradise. Impossible to imagine anywhere more beautiful than this sky, this air, this light.

In A Literary Companion to Florence, a rich source of information for this post, Francis King claims that Dostoevsky not only completed The Idiot in Florence, “but also began the gestation of The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov.”

Let us just say, then, that being here in this Tuscan town can offer some writers a comfortable place to work and sometimes give spark to their work. But that these sparks can occur just about anywhere, regardless of place and climate.

The life that Dostoyevsky led in Russia gave him a subject matter that ultimately led to his masterpieces. However, he did not have to be there to write them, at least, not all of the time. Eventually, he needed to return to the source of his tales. And while he did not write novels about the people or places he knew in Florence, he was able to write well while he was here, but only if it wasn’t too hot.

In answer to the general question about the role of place in literature, let us conclude that, as with all general literary questions, there are no general answers. Place has a role, but its role is highly variable and dependent on so many other factors that it is impossible to disentangle their effects from all the others that influence a writer.