25 April 2014

The Geography of Books

   
(The real) Andorra
I don't have much interest in reading travel writing, but I do like the experience of place when I read novels. But what do I mean by 'the experience of place'? As an urban planner, the notion or feeling of 'place' is very much on my mind, yet it is so often a difficult thing to explain. As I sat at my desk trying to come up with a way to explain it, I went through a series of mini epiphanies that ended up surprising me a bit. The first is that, while I definitely prefer a book with a discernible geographic setting, not all locations can induce this feeling of experiencing a place. For instance, for as much as I love Forster's sunny Tuscany, the grey streets of Anita Brookner's London, the bucolic Scottish countryside in D.E. Stevenson, or any number of other places described in various much loved novels, the settings of those books don't necessarily trigger an actual emotional reaction. As I pondered this, it seemed to me that I only feel the setting of a book when I haven't already been there. But then I realized I have read lots of books set in places I haven't been that don't give me this feeling. I've loved the worlds that Rushdie and Naipaul and others have introduced me to, but they don't necessarily make me feel the place on a visceral level.

So what in the world is it that makes me actually feel a place in a novel? What do books like Durrell's Alexandria Quartet (Egypt) and Peter Mayle's Anything Considered (Monaco) and even Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley (Italy) have in common? Ah ha! the Mediterranean. That's it, they are all set on the Mediterranean.  But then I realized that for as much as I hated Lowry's Under the Volcano (Mexico) the one thing I really did like about that book was the feeling of place I got in the opening chapters. But that is nowhere near the Mediterranean. What could it be, what could it be? I'm not entirely sure I have it figured out, but I think has something to do with an older, European-settled, urban place in a warm climate. A place with long lunches at outdoor cafes, national alcoholic beverages playing the triple role of coolant, social elixir, and emotional anesthetic, siestas, swimming, grand old hotels, linen trousers, trains, telephones, handwritten notes, newspapers, luggage, late dinners, cobblestones. Yes, yes, yes. Somewhere once grand, maybe still so, somewhat remote, or at least set apart from everyday life. Hmm. Places with no TVs, no internet and where the International Herald Tribune is always a few days old at best. Oddly, Katherine Anne Porter's brilliant novel Ship of Fools--set almost entirely at sea between Mexico and Germany--also gives me this feeling of place.

Alexandria, Egypt in 1930
So is it really place I am experiencing or is it some sort of time warp travel fantasy? Maybe both.

Andorra by Peter Cameron
Whatever it is, I felt it from the very beginning of Andorra by Peter Cameron. I picked up the novel at a book sale a few weeks ago almost entirely because I had recently been spending a lot of time online trying to name all 196 countries in under 12 minutes. After some study, I was eventually successful in doing so, but one of the countries that often eluded me was the tiny country of Andorra, landlocked between France and Spain. It isn't big enough to be seen on the map when doing the quiz so I often forgot about it. So when I saw this book on the sale table I couldn't pass it up.

The odd thing about the Andorra of Peter Cameron's Andorra is that it isn't in the right place. Cameron apparently wanted to set his book in a tiny country on the Mediterranean so he made up a country so located and then decided to call it Andorra. Why he didn't just make up a name rather than move an existing country about 200 km closer to the sea, I do not know. But, once I got over this geographical oddity, I realized how much I liked this book, and how it induced that experience of place for me. Published in 1997 the book is just old enough to suggest the time warp nostalgia trip I described above. Alex Fox checks into a grand hotel hoping to leave something from his past behind him. He meets a woman at an outdoor cafĂ©, he takes naps, people leave notes for him at the hotel, he walks the streets exploring the capital of this tiny nation, there is beach, espresso bars, boats, old families, everyone knows everyone's business, the outside world doesn't really exist.  You can see how this one tripped all my triggers.

The fake Andorra? (Banyuls-sur-mer, France, about 200 km from the real Andorra.)
There are various little mysteries along the way, and some big secret Alex is holding onto, but this is no whodunit. I kind of guessed the big secret half way through but there were still times I wasn't sure I was right.

This book is unlikely to change your life but it is enjoyable and interesting. Definitely worth a read.

10 comments:

  1. How odd that the author named his fictional place after a real country. When you described the type of place in stories that you love, what jumped to mind was the movie M. Hulot's Holiday. It has everything but the urban setting and cobblestones I think. (Actually what I first thought of was Wes Anderson's recent movie The Grand Budapest Hotel, but that was not set someplace warm.) Now I'm off to give a try to naming all the countries in the world.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know, it is awfully strange. I usually not all that interested in asking authors questions, but I would like to ask Peter Cameron why he did it.

      Delete
  2. I am always taken by to the physical place of the book where I am reading. This is particularly so when it is countryside and when it is detailed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do love it when a book transports me to another place.

      Delete
  3. Wow, that quiz is appalling; no, rather, I am appalling at that quiz. *crawls away in shame*

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's a good way to waste some time that is for sure.

      Delete
  4. I now want to visit both the real Andorra pictured above, and the fake. My library has one copy and I have placed a hold on it.

    And I'm still unsuccessful at that quiz, though I'm up to 98%. I was really proud this last time because I finally got ALL the Pacific island nations, though I'm sure I couldn't find them all on an actual map.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It would be fun to take a tour of all the tiny countries in Europe: Andorra, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City.

      Delete
  5. Years ago, in preparation for a trip to Washington, DC, I began reading Gore Vidal's "Lincoln." Certainly not thought of as a travel book, it's well worth the read to get a picture of the life and times in DC when Lincoln was in the White House. When you're walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, it's hard to imagine that it was once a dirt road, well worn by horses and carriages, and full of mudholes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If you liked that, you should try Echo House by Ward Just.

      Delete