The Reader’s Gazetteer: P

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We were in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Orsinia for the last post in this series, and we’re going to stay there for a little while, in Portacheyka:

… whose peaked slate roofs and climbing streets lay under the windows of the monastery school… The town was set in a deep gap between Sinivya and San Givan Mountains; framed by the towering slopes, Portacheyka’s northward view had a quality of vision. It seemed as if the shadowed pass could not lead out to those remote and sunlit, azure hills, but only look down on them as if on fabled kingdoms across the barrier of possibility. When clouds gathered full of thunder on the peaks and hung low over the town sometimes the view of the lower hills shone out in a clear, golden light, an enchanted realm, free of the storm and the darkness of the heights.

Those lovely mountains! I’m living in a very flat land at the moment, and have to find my gradients where I can. Fiction is as good a way to get there as any.

Idling by the Golden Lion Inn, Itale saw the coaches of the Southwestern Post set off for distant cities or come in, high, swaying, dusty, from their journeys; and Portacheyka, the gateway of his province, had for him the glamor of voyage and the unknown that a seaport has for one whose country’s border is the sea.

Indeed, there’s nothing to stop characters from a fictional location to find their way into less fictional ones. In John Buchan’s Castle Gay some mysterious foreigners turn up in Scotland, which is real enough, and the town of Portaway, which isn’t,  and find it a lively place.

The town of Portaway lies on both banks of the Callowa, which there leaves its mountain vale and begins its seven miles of winding through salty pastures to the Solway. The old town is mostly on the left shore; on the right has grown up a suburb of villas and gardens, with one flaring Hydropathic, and a large new Station Hotel, which is the resort of golfers and anglers. The capital of the Canonry is half country market town, half industrial centre, for in the hills to the south-east lie the famous quarries, which employ a large and transient population. Hence the political activities of the constituency centre in the place. The countryside is Tory or Liberal; among the quarrymen is a big Socialist majority, which its mislikers call Communist.

To tell the truth, it didn’t occur to me until I started this blog series that Portaway and the Canonry were made up by Buchan. Having had the Dickson McCunn books read to me as a child, it didn’t occur to me to doubt any of the Scottish bits. I understood of course that there wasn’t any such place as Evallonia, because you can’t very well have your characters meddle in the affairs of real monarchs, but what’s a by-election here or there? When I was eleven, Portaway was as real as London, and both were a very long way from where I was, just on the English side of the Welsh border.

Actually, this is a really good example of how to introduce a fictional location in half a paragraph. We have the physical geography, contextualised with a real-world feature, and then, more importantly, we learn about the people: the residents, the visitors, the workers, the politics (and those take us back to the physical geography: no quarries, no workers). The casual ‘famous’ is doing a lot of work, here; if we haven’t heard of this place before, it implies, then that’s an accident, because it’s been there all along. The politics will turn out to be useful a few chapters later, but here it’s doing the equally important job of telling us what this town is like some time in the 1930s.

In the same decade, we can travel through a little cluster of English villages along with Lord Peter Wimsey and his new bride, previously Harriet Vane, on the way to their Busman’s Honeymoon. After a day that’s taken them from Oxford (apologies: that map was the best I could find) to London, in an epistolary prologue composed of the first person narratives of various friends and relations, we follow Peter and Harriet (and, of course, Bunter) into Hertfordshire:

A town with a wide stone bridge, and lights reflected in the river…

‘Are we getting anywhere near?’

‘Yes – this is Great Pagford, where we used to live. Look! that’s our old house with the three steps up to the door – there’s a doctor there still, you can see the surgery lamp… After two miles you take the right-hand turn for Pagford Parva, and then it’s another three miles to Paggleham, and sharp left by a big barn and straight on up the lane.’

It’s an expansive, disjointed, chapter, with the time of the journey filled with memories: earlier in the day; earlier in the week; earlier in Harriet’s life. Paggleham is perhaps too much a stereotype of an English village, or perhaps the problem is more with its residents. I rather think that’s meant to be a feature, not a bug, at least in Harriet’s eyes:

In London, anybody, at any moment, might do or become anything. But in a village – no matter what village – they were all immutably themselves; parson, organist, sweep, duke’s son, and doctor’s daughter, moving like chessmen upon their allotted squares.

And of course it undercuts itself: usually dukes’ sons don’t marry doctors’ daughters. But that happened in London. I’m still very fond of this book, though, and ended up rereading the whole thing the day I looked up that passage.

Finally, further west, J. K. Rowling has another Pagford. I’m not sure that I would want to reread The Casual Vacancy – partly for the appalling fatphobia, partly because the whole thing is intentionally pretty bleak – but it definitely deserves its place in this series. It’s a fairly typical English village, in both appearance and culture:

They drove down Church Row, the steeply sloping street where the most expensive houses stood in all their Victorian extravagance and solidity, around the corner by the mock-Gothic church, where he had once watched his twin girls perform Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and across the Square, where they had a clear view of the dark skeleton of the ruined abbey that dominated the town’s skyline, set high on a hill, melding with the violet sky.

But what makes it particularly credible is the politics, of which there is plenty. I’m not sure that I can find a particular passage to quote, because the whole novel is saturated with the pettiness, the power games, the paranoia, of local politics; it informs everyone’s actions and character, usually not for the better. Some of Rowling’s characters are as much caricatures as Sayers’ are, and as susceptible to Funetik Aksents, but the overall impression is depressingly convincing. It’s the people that make Pagford what it is: a small-minded, suspicious, affluent, Nimbytown. You might want to live there, but you wouldn’t want to think about it too hard.

Books mentioned in this post

Castle Gay, John Buchan

Malafrena, Ursula K. Le Guin

The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling

Busman’s Honeymoon, Dorothy L. Sayers

 

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The Reader’s Gazetteer: O

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I’ve been reading a lot of travel writing lately, as well as novels set in places that are quite a way away from where I am. Most of it’s several decades old: I’m finding it quite reassuring, in a contrary kind of way, to read about places that wouldn’t be there any more, or wouldn’t be the same, even if I could get to them. When I went to Vienna, it was nothing like the way Eva Ibbotson describes it (though I was in a dreadful mood, and should probably go back there and stay longer). At the moment my bedtime book is My Family and Other Animals. Was Corfu ever the way Durrell describes it? I’m sure it isn’t now. I’m not in the mood for Bill Bryson, though I might move on to Paul Theroux. The exception is the latest edition of Hidden Europe magazine, which describes travel only a few months old, trips that I might replicate some day.

Anyway, here’s another place we can’t get to.

Orsinia is the setting for Ursula K. Le Guin’s Malafrena, and the supplemental Orsinian Tales. Le Guin had such a wide range that it seems meaningless to say, this isn’t what you’d normally expect from her. What I mean is, this isn’t sci-fi or fantasy: it’s a historical novel. It’s a portrait of the same doomed idealism as Les Misérables, and a fierce love of home.

In actual fact I read Orsinian Tales first, and might almost recommend that others do that too. Malafrena is very immersive, locked into the events and attitudes of one particular point in history. Orsinian Tales roves several centuries in either direction, across several social classes, and, I suppose, genres.

Orsinia breaks one of the ground rules of this blog series, in that it’s difficult to triangulate its geographical location. Some people on the internet seem pretty sure it’s meant to be on top of Hungary, others, (what would have been at the time of writing) Czechoslovakia. Personally, I think of it as being Slovenia. There’s a story in Orsinian Tales that’s set on the karst, which in my head is a Slovenian thing.

But I’m short on places beginning with O, and what Le Guin does do is tie it very firmly into European history. The events of Malafrena are informed, driven almost, by the country’s relationship with the Austrian empire. The first story in Orsinian Tales is actually set in Paris, during the Cold War, and follows an Orsinian’s decision to defect. The next one jumps back eight hundred years, to the uneasy introduction of Christianity, in a locality that’s recognisable, or will become recognisable, from Malafrena. The internal consistency of Orsinia feels trustworthy, and its external relationship with the Europe we know is plausible, and really, once you’re over the border, why worry?

Across one night of March the wind from the frozen eastern plains dropped and a humid wind rose up from the south. The rain turned warm and large. In the morning weeds were pushing up between the stones of the courtyard, the city’s fountains ran full and noisy, voices carried further down the streets, the sky was dotted with small bluish clouds. That night Lisha and Givan followed one of the Rákava lovers’ walks, out through the East Gate to the ruins of a guard tower; and there in the cold and starlight he asked her to marry him. She looked out to the great falling darkness of the Hill and plains, and back to the lights of the city half hidden by the broken outer wall.

Or, in another story,

The road led east from Krasnoy through farmlands and past villages to a grey-walled town over which rose the fortress-like tower of an old church. The villages and the town were on maps and he had seen them once from the train: Raskofiu, Ranne, Malenne, Sorg: they were real places, none over fifty miles from the city. But in his mind he walked to them on foot and it was long ago, early in the last century, perhaps, for there were no cars on the road nor even railroad crossings. He walked along in rain or sunlight on the country road towards Sorg where at evening he would rest. He would go to an inn down the street from the stout six-sided tower of the church.

And here’s Itale, the hero of Malafrena:

The road led up and over one of the long, low rises of land that made up the immense level of the plain. So gradual was the ascent that slope and summit were all one. Itale stopped and looked back. Aisnar lay five or six miles away, made entire by distance, tile roofs red in the declining light, the calm towers of the cathedral rising above blue shadow. Near where he stood was the ruin of a hut, a few stones and rain-rotted planks. He sat down there on what had been a doorstep or a hearthstone, between the city and the sun. The blowing of the country wind had finally blown his thoughts away.

I have many more pages bookmarked, but I think perhaps I’d better stop there, and really, all of them show the same thing. There’s history in the geography, and geography in the history, and stories in both of them.

Books mentioned in this post

Malafrena, Ursula K. Le Guin

Orsinian Tales, Ursula K. Le Guin

 

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#TBR20: wrap-up

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I finished reading my twentieth book of the year yesterday morning: The Invisible Woman, by Claire Tomalin. Here’s the full list:

1. Lying in Bed – Polly Samson
2. The Thrift Book – India Knight
3. Daughters of Darkness: lesbian vampire stories – ed. Pam Keesey
4. Trumpet – Jackie Kay
5. Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel
6. A Poet’s Bazaar: a journey to Greece, Turkey & up the Danube – Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Grace Thornton
7. The Years – Virginia Woolf
8. Malafrena – Ursula K. Le Guin
9. The Scarlet Seed – Edith Pargeter
10. Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin
11. Stress Family Robinson – Adrian Plass
12. What Remains and other stories – Christa Wolf, translated by Heike Schwarzbauer and Rik Takvorian
13. The Debutante – Kathleen Tessaro
14. Reaching Out – Francisco Jiménez
15. The Two Pound Tram – William Newton
16. Provenance – Ann Leckie
17. The Star of Kazan – Eva Ibbotson
18. Between the Woods and the Water – Patrick Leigh Fermor
19. The Silent Boy – Lois Lowry
20. The Invisible Woman – Claire Tomalin

It’s now April, so I’m almost exactly on time for the #TBR20 challenge. I committed to reading only books I already owned for the first three months of the year, and also for the first twenty books I read.

And I’ve just discovered, going back through Goodreads to put the links in, that I’d forgotten The Ghostly Lover, which should have gone in between Station Eleven and A Poet’s Bazaar. So I could have written this post on Friday instead. Never mind.

It’s an interesting picture, and I’m amused by the distinctly Mittel to Eastern European flavour that’s emerging. The Eva Ibbotson and the Patrick Leigh Fermor were deliberate choices – I was looking for nostalgia for a Europe that no longer exists to be visited even if I had been able to get to it. So were Andersen’s journey and Christa Wolf’s Berlin: they count towards the #EU27 project too. But they echo Le Guin’s Orsinia (which will get its own post, soon), and some of the lesbian vampires too.

Some of those are books I wanted to get read so that I could get them out of the house: six of them have now moved on via BookCrossing. Two were books that I’d started reading in 2019 (Provenance was my bedtime book, so I was only reading a few pages at a time; Malafrena my lunchtime one.) There are a couple of shorter books for school aged children which I read to hurry things along: Reaching Out was fairly dull, but The Silent Boy did some clever things with the form.

I’d been putting off The Two Pound Tram in case something awful happened to the tram (it did, but it wasn’t Death by Newbery Medal territory). Giovanni’s Room was something I’d been meaning to read for ages. I picked up The Years when I was packing to move and didn’t seal that box until I’d finished it. Inevitably, I suppose, some of these were things I might have read sooner if I’d known how much I’d like them, and some of them were things that I could just as well have done without.

And now I’m off to buy three books for three different book clubs or readalongs. (Madam, Will You TalkThe Flat Share, and An Experiment in Love.) I’m behind the curve on all of them, but I’m sure I’ll be able to catch up. Actually, I think I might have read the Hilary Mantel before. I certainly don’t own a copy, though…