‘There is always that element of surprise when, while walking down streets one expects to be ugly, marred and disfigured by the most degrading forms of manual labour, we suddenly see them transfigured by a ray of sunshine- like a moment of fleeting happiness.’
I’ll probably never get over the relationship between writing and setting. The poised atmosphere of the buildings in The Magic Mountain, Hotel Savoy, and Life: A User’s Manual, all inspired my first novel. And I’ve always had a deep regard for writers who remain loyal to a town or city or area, the kind who render their setting with such imagination that you find that you can never really encounter it except through their eyes. Iain Sinclair has Hackney, Niall Griffiths has Aberystwyth. James Sallis and James Lee Burke carve up New Orleans over beignettes in Café Du Monde.
Sometimes, I wonder if exploration of setting is the fundamental point of all writing, the thing that everyone is trying to get at with all that scribbling. ‘Man,’ as Wallace Stevens once said, ‘Is the intelligence of his soil.’ Or to quote Flannery O’Connor, herself a wonderful writer of place, ‘When we talk of a writer’s country we are liable to forget that no matter what particular country it is, it is inside as well as outside him… To know oneself is to know one’s region. It is also to know the world…’ All places are simultaneously other places, and by claiming a territory, a writer seeks to offer universality through the substance of a particular clay. A place is a knot, through which the world passes.
The Shape of a City, a later work by the French writer Julien Gracq is a prolonged meditation on such ideas of place. A poet, novelist, and playwright, Gracq refused the Prize Goncourt for his novel The Opposing Shore, and lived defiantly outside the literary culture of France by working for much of his life as a teacher of history and geography.
The book follows Gracq’s digressions on the city of Nantes: his return to streets not visited for a number of years, and the inevitable reflections on adulthood and childhood these visits provoke. Features of the city become tropes in recalled memory. A transporter bridge invokes ‘The Jumping of the Pole” when ‘an immigrant worker… climbed up the steel framework… in what I believe was a fireproof jumpsuit… before dousing himself with gasoline and plunging down in a burst of flames… He did not reappear.’
For Gracq, ‘place’ is conceptual as much as concrete, a philosophical ideal. By turns querulous, ecstatic, mournful, the narration leads you to imagine him as the kind of teacher who talks, staring out of the window across an empty sports field ‘(because of an old grudge held for a long time, I never returned to the museum…’) while the class remains either rapt or day-dreaming. Other literary figures are invoked: Poe, Verne, Fournier, Rimbaud, Proust, Balzac, Stendhal. Nantes becomes a gateway through which all of them pass; a place zoned onto other places: London, Paris, La Rochelle, Venice, Carthage, Rome. It reaches a moment of incredible, Sebald-esque vertigo, which remains one of my favourite sentences about place:
‘It was on that plain, the prairie des mauves, one afternoon while I had stretched out on the tall grass and was looking at the Loire flowing by flush with the meadows, that I suddenly had an odd quietist illumination: a vague feeling that location was irrelevant, that it was perfectly enjoyable and satisfactory to be here or elsewhere, that there was an immediate connection between all possible sites and all moments and that space and time were only universal modes of confluence.’
When I first moved to London, I worked for a chain of wine merchants, in Camden. One of my co-workers was a young Frenchman called Marcel. An innocent abroad, Marcel spoke halting English (he began each sentence with a deliberate ‘In fact…’) and held a special knowledge of the wines from the Loire, gleaned, he said, from his childhood in Amboise.
Part of that job included doing overtime at other branches around the city. Temple Fortune, Camden, Maida Vale, London Bridge… little pockets of the city were created indelibly for me from my time in those stores. Places were defined. In one of them, I met a French girl who coincidentally knew Marcel from the old country. As we stacked up the bins of wine, I mentioned his origins in Amboise. She huffed at me.
‘Pah! Marcel isn’t from Amboise.’ Impossible to describe the look of disgust which played swiftly through her face. ‘He is from Nantes.’
A few years later, I found myself walking through Amboise. The pale worn-bone brick of the curved towers of the chateau. The low lying land, given to flooding. The river ran swiftly, sparkling and silver and clear, and as I sat down beside it, I thought of Marcel and his longing to associate himself with a place which had become an ideal for him, and the wines we would pull from the crates on a winter’s morning, chilled in the store room to be cold enough to drink, the appley green of the glass hinting at their liquid sharpness and delight.
‘I have always paid very close attention to the progressive changes in the landscape which announce the approach of a city… if it happens to be a city where I like to live, I look upon them as a hand raised in welcome, waving from afar on friendly soil.’
Text © Daniel Bennett