Saturday, 23 February 2013

Literary Landscapes Part One

When I think about literary landscapes—that is, a book's fictional setting—Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea comes to mind. It is one of the most memorable "places" literature has taken me.

The slim little novel tells the story of Antoinette Cosway, the woman destined to become Jane Eyre's madwoman in the attic. The first section, told from Antoinette's POV, opens on her childhood in post-Colonial West Indies and leads to her marriage to Rochester. The second section switches to Rochester's POV, and the third is back to Antoinette, but in England now, and leads to her tragic end at Thornfield. It's brilliant. A must-read for any fans of the Brontë classic.

I was deeply affected by Rhys' use of atmosphere, and for many years I've equated the book's atmosphere specifically with setting—the old plantations of Dominica and Jamaica. But when I went back to the book, I realized that there weren't nearly as many references to the physical setting as I'd thought. They were scant, but powerful. A few paragraphs into the opening pages comes this:

"Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible – the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched."

There are a few other spots where Rhys lingers over the setting, but my memory of her attention to this literary device was out of proportion to its use in the actual narrative.

From this I've gleaned some important lessons. First, a brilliant writer needs few words to create evocative, memorable settings. Second, setting is but one tool in the writer's toolbox. We use setting to build atmosphere, but atmosphere or mood is so much more than the physical elements. And mood, too, is just one other tool to enrich the story of the lives of the characters. 

Third is something else entirely. It is the magic of literature, it is why I love a good story. It is that alchemy that happens when an author's words are internalized by each reader of her work. No two readers will personalize a work in the same way. That is so rich! It is as though there is not one  Wide Sargasso Sea, but as many editions as there are readers of Rhys' novel. 

How powerful is that? How many lives can each of us live by reading! How wonderful and transformative.

On my first reading, I was entranced and even a little frightened by the lushness of the landscapes Rhys drew (and I mean drew). I felt the oppressive languor-inducing heat. I saw greenery growing with wild abandon, blooming audaciously, heavy scent hovering over it all. And I smelt rot, a rank smell wafting up unexpectedly through the overly sweet air. I even glimpsed the shimmer of stagnant pools through the thick jungle that crept up to a dusty path. And I saw the houses fall into decay as the slave-based economy that had propped them up was dismantled. I saw the land take back its due.

This was my personal interpretation of the setting. Someone from Dominica would have an entirely different experience of Rhys' words. Which led me to think that not only do we experience the setting of a novel through the prism of our experiences, but we do this with actual landscapes as well. Not a revelatory observation, I admit, but fascinating how we take in the world—fictional setting or not. 

Next up in Literary Landscapes Part Two, I will look at how my experience of the natural world shapes the Literary Landscapes I create.

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