Monday, 1 September 2008

Location, location, location

Shoulder on the mend, edit got back into after enforced layoff of holiday and agony, blogging recommences…

Sometimes, I wonder why any novelists set their books in real places. It involves a huge amount of extra research and the fictional evocation of any given town, city or country area is likely to annoy as many people familiar with it as it delights.

Obviously, those writing historical fiction concerning real people and events have no choice, they have to set their characters in their proper geographical context. But what about the rest of us? Does the portrayal of a specific place add an extra dimension to a novel that simply wouldn’t be there if its setting were fictional?

Apart from historical fiction, the genre which seems particularly keen on real locations is crime. Rankin’s Rebus, Brunetti’s Venice, Marcus Didius Falco’s Rome, Morse’s Oxford…Though I’m a crime fan, I’ll come clean and say that I’ve never read any of Colin Dexter’s Morse books though I have watched quite a number of the television adaptations. In the TV versions, the colleges and other locations are always fictional, though the game of ‘spot the college’, not to mention ‘spot the cut where the characters walk out of the main quad/library/lodge of one college into the garden/cloisters/hall of a totally different college’ is endemic amongst those who know Oxford well and accounts for at least half the fun of watching the programmes. But, on the page and away from the self-satisfied building spotting, would the Morse books be any less successful if they were set somewhere other than Oxford? Afer all, Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford seems to troll around to his readers’ perfect satisfaction in the fictional town and environs of Kingsmarkham.

The question is, do people read novels – especially novel series – set in a recognisable location because the city is like another character, a known and loved one?
All I can say is that I don’t. Though the cities in all the crime series I’ve mentioned are splendidly realised, I would just as soon read about cities which came totally from the writers’ imagination.

And sometimes, your novel just demands that the place it’s set should have features and characteristics which mean that you have to invent, that no real place will quite fit what you’re trying to do.
That’s why Testament takes place in the fictitious city of Salster. It might have seemed that the more obvious setting would have been Oxford or Cambridge but so much happens in the book which – historically – couldn’t have happened in either of those cities because of their socio-political context that I had to set the novel in a place whose context I could manipulate and bend to my will.

Salster, though fictitious, is set in a very recognisably English context. I’ve invented a city, not a whole world. But what if the things you want to say in your fiction demand the creation not of a conveniently different city, but of a whole new world?

A book I recently read - Tim Stretton’s The Dog of the North - takes place in Mondia, a place not of our own world but which is recognisably northern european in terms of weather, custom and race. Similarly, its cities - Croad and Mettingloom - are sufficiently like medieval European cities to make the reader feel at home in them. In fact, the novel reads – as somebody more pithy than me has pointed out – like a historical novel based in a country you’ve never heard of.

But there’s more to the cities than just familiarity. In Mettingloom, Tim has created the most beautiful fictional city I’ve ever come across. It has the feel of a smaller, more intimate Stockholm, a frozen Venice, a city whose entire character changes between summer and winter, a change symbolised by the two palaces of Printempi and Hiverno with their own kings, courtiers and loyalties.
As a device for complicating a political situation, having two kings who each rule for half the year is wonderful but the winter and summer kings are also a fantastic metaphor for a city gripped in ice for half the year, warmed by the sun for the other half. People’s concerns about surviving the cold echo their difficulties in staying alive in the tricky political situation of a city divided. When characters obsess about being warm it’s both a mark of wealth and a metaphor for safety; keeping warm means not invoking the wrath of the Winter King and losing your comfortable appartments or the wealth with which you can clothe yourself in furs and provide yourself with the warmth of the mysterious dimonettoes.

I imagine it was the demands of plot which led Tim to set his book in an alternative world rather than the one we’re all more familiar with. It’s clear from his deft handling of political intrigue, his light touch with military strategy and single combat, his understanding of the way church and state lived symbiotically in the medieval period - not to mention his use of voice - that he would be a fine historical novelist if he so chose. But I’m glad that he chose to write under the fantasy banner – if he hadn’t, we would have been denied the creation of Mettingloom, a city which has the brittle beauty of a spun sugar swan, whose glassy surfaces mask the disturbing currents beneath and whose warming furs cannot quite keep out the chill of death.

Mettingloom has leapt over all other contenders to become my favourite city in fiction, somewhere I feel I’d recognise if I was transported there by some literary device and my blindfold taken off.

So how about everybody else? What are the other contenders for most memorable city in fiction, either real or imagined?

1 comment:

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