A Sense of Place

27 Sep

A sense of place – it’s an important thing in life. In a few weeks’ time, I shall be heading for my writing den. The landscape of Brittany, and the specific topography of the tiny hamlet in which I live for two months of the year, have taken on great significance for me. My tiny house with its metre-thick granite walls has been a constant in my life for more than a decade while much else has proved transitory. My heart still races every time that I return to it.

My writer friend, Mari Biella wrote recently about the writing of Carson McCullers and how it brought alive for her the American Deep South. I’ve also been reading some atmospheric books of late. The novels of Roy Jacobsen and Per Peterson are remarkable in their evocation of particular places, at a precise moment in time. And I’ve just finished reading a novel by the Swedish poet, Bodil Malmstem, who also writes beautifully about landscape.

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The enchanting Breton coast

It strikes me that a sense of place is one of the essential elements of a novel, whether a real space or an imagined one. Some writers are much better at suggesting this than others. My writer friend, J Huw Evans and I have concluded that there’s no such things as a perfect novel, a book that gets all of the elements absolutely right. In popular fiction, story and action tend to be everything and many writers eschew description of any kind, dismissing it as ‘purple prose’. While I find that it helps if a story is engaging, when I read I’m looking for elegant prose and imagery, fully-realised characters and the evocation of place. I’d take place over pace, every time.

Many of the writers whom I most admire are adept at this aspect of their craft – Graham Greene, Georges Perec, Tove Jansson, W G Sebald… The imagined cities in Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole and Jan Morris’s Hav are creations of the sort to which I aspire in my own writing. It requires subtlety and skill to envision fully the setting for a novel and to express it such that vivid pictures are generated in the imagination of the reader. I find the work of these authors an inspiration in this regard.

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Landscapes of the imagination

The other day, I was thinking about the various settings that I’ve used in my own books. My first three attempts – all of which I’ve long since written off – were set in fictional English towns and villages. The setting for my novella, The Great English Novel is somewhere in the middle of nowhere, but still recognisably in England. A second novella, Norwegian Rock, is unsurprisingly set in Norway, in an imaginary town and a nearby lighthouse. It was back to the East of England for my war novel, “Mayflies” and its part-written sequel, then off to an imaginary European state for my other work-in-progress (there’ll be extracts from all of these in my forthcoming sampler, Jamboree Bag). I’ve worked hard on the sense of place in these books, striving to catch the essence of a barren fenland backwater, an airbase on a windswept heath or a Hanseatic port on the shores of the Baltic. How far I’ve succeeded is not for me to judge.

The extract that follows is taken from a work that I eventually abandoned.

Little Friesland is bisected by the Great East Road, a seemingly endless stretch of single carriageway, reminiscent of one of those freeways etched into the Arizona desert. The route connects one insignificant provincial centre with another, a frozen river of concrete passing through a procession of squat and squalid settlements: Fockinghall, Stumpney Dyke, Gullsborough, Dudney Wick, Porkington, Dedney End… For all that, it remains the only road of any size linking the region to the outside world. In places this great highway is deserted, at others it becomes congested by a stream of slow moving traffic: trails of caravans – heading westward on vacation, travelling eastbound on return – a vast array of agricultural vehicles, ancient contraptions that appear to have come from collective farms or Flanders trenches, futuristic devices resembling those used for exploration on the surface on other planets, convoys of articulated lorries blowing clouds of black smoke into the air, bringing in manufactures from the continent – Akkerman, Van Daalen, De Kok – and taking out rape-seed and turkeys.  Though passenger ferries may no longer sail out of Great Glumouth, its cargo operations are busier than ever.

For mile upon end it runs parallel to some festering stretch of canal, only for one or the other to diverge suddenly at an unlikely angle. The visitor may find himself disconcerted, driving alongside the steep banks that drop down towards those inky waters. The road holds further dangers, the hidden dips and deceptive bends out of which vehicles unexpectedly materialize, leaving the speeding motorist without refuge as he seeks to pass a crawling convoy of caravans and beet lorries. Elsewhere, the road runs in tandem with Little Friesland’s only remaining railway line, and for a while the juggernaut and freight train might appear to be in direct competition, racing each other across the featureless plains. The combatants seem to be playing out the final frames of a desperate chase sequence, trading blows in some pointless yet lethal game. The wheezing diesel locomotive heads off the rig at a level crossing and brings it screeching to a halt. The truck builds up a head of steam, thunders across a bridge and recaptures the lead once more. The battle ends as abruptly as it began, when one of the belligerents apparently tires of the fight, forking off at ninety degrees before vanishing towards the vast horizon in a storm of dust and soot.

All text and images © PSR 2013

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2 Responses to “A Sense of Place”

  1. Mari Biella September 28, 2013 at 8:54 am #

    Interesting post as always, Paul. I agree that a writer’s ability to conjure a sense of place is of high importance – more so, to me personally, than the breakneck pacing that is often held up as an ideal these days. It’s one of the things I miss if it is lacking, and one of the things I appreciate if it’s done well.

    I’d say that you were very successful at evoking place in your novel ‘Mayflies’, which enabled me to imagine, rather vividly, the landscape and lifestyle of rural East Anglia (a place with which I’m not well acquainted in reality). It also evoked a rural England that is probably long gone. I am also finding that the same is true of many of the extracts in ‘Jamboree Bag’, which I’m enjoying tremendously – though the going has been rather slow, I’m afraid, as I’ve been suffering from some nasty repeated attacks of gastroenteritis of late… 😦

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves September 28, 2013 at 10:11 am #

    Hi Mari and thanks for your kind comments.

    Place and pace, it seems to me, are diametrically opposed qualities that readers look for in a book. I always prefer the depth of a world truly imagined over the blur of constant action (all part of the depleted modern consciousness, I fear). I’m pleased that you’re enjoying the descriptions so far. I laboured over them for many hours. The art is that they should not to appear laboured. Your novella conjured a fully realised world for me.

    Sorry to hear that the gastroenteritis is hanging around – it can be a nasty illness. 😦 Get well soon!

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