In total defiance of the accepted notion that reading unfetters the imagination, I have been setting the domestic scenes of 30 years’ worth of novels on just a few familiar and well-trod stages.
They work together, shifting measurements and accommodating amenities to fit textual requirements (a dumbwaiter, a patio fountain, a half-door and mansard window), but they are always recognizable behind these architectural liberties. Cognitive scientists claim you can’t dream of a face you’ve never seen. Well, I can’t read a room I haven’t inhabited.
My childhood homes have been pressed into service for so many plots that they are more crowded with characters than my own memories. Anne Shirley threw tantrums and Harriet Welch lurked (wrongly, rurally) in a big house in the country that I, personally, left at age 10 but through which I can still slide across its hardwood floors and kitchen flagstones under the feet of a novel by the third chapter. Just last winter the family Buddenbrook ate cold soup in its dining room while Caldonia Townsend received her slave by its fireplace and ordered him to brush out her hair. The crooked stairs where I posed in my prom dress—that’s the bad-news arrival of Cousin Lymon and the speedy departure of John Gardner’s Sunlight Man. The gold-flecked formica counters my mother never replaced have been wiped clean by countless Irish serving girls; and the French doors to the small musty study have harbored Humbert Humbert’s desperation and all the grief of Terabithia.
There are other commandeered homes: Gothic tales and references to back stairs and whiskey decanters demand my father’s boyhood home, and so the Matzeraths play skat in a Cleveland Heights mansion (which is also subjected to Hercule Poirot’s investigations, Rebecca’s relentless haunts, and many wayward teens contemplating escape from the forgettable novels that trap them).
“Swann’s Way in London!” she gasps. “The Magic Mountain in Spain!” she hoots. The modest house of my maternal grandparent’s has also seen a lot of action—divorces, midget spies, the occasional rapture. Downstairs Humbert Humbert despairs, upstairs it’s Shug Avery. James Herriott can birth all the Yorkshire calves and lambs he likes, but when he comes in from the dales he goes straight to my grandmother’s sink to wash the muck from his hands.
The fact is I’m hardly aware that I’m letting them in… the lodgers and laborers and lovers and sleuths. Sometimes it’s months after I’ve read a book, and am trying, in passing discussion, to recall the plot, when a familiar set takes shape. I’ve forgotten why the landlady was shot dead, but I know that it’s the spindly triptych vanity mirror in our bay-windowed guestroom that she breaks when she falls.
And I wonder: Is there anyone else out there so domestically imposed upon by their reading life?
Novels have bet on (and sometimes lost on) shoestring plots, postmodern narrative, and an abundance or deficit in dialogue. But no novel can experiment with its sense of place without losing its own credibility. Place, be it revolutionary Petersburg, an Atlantic Crossing, the British Raj, or Saturday on the Boardwalk, is what pinions fictional flights of fantasy.
Place is what Eudora Welty once called “one of the lesser angels that watch over the racing hand of fiction,” but she insisted that its guidance alone prevented fiction from slipping into fairy tale. So pivotal is the setting in Welty’s thesis, that an attempt to relocate it is nothing short of “an emotional bomb.” “Swann’s Way in London!” she gasps. “The Magic Mountain in Spain!” she hoots.
That Leopold Bloom has slept in my great-uncle’s bed on Long Island does not demonstrate that James Joyce has an inadequate sense of place. What sticks with me are the smaller places—the corner and the doorway and the drapes. For me, it is crucial that I recognize the length of the moonlight as it stretches across young Swann’s counterpane. I need to be able to march Hans Castorp down a recognizable hallway en route to his calisthenics… even if it must be flipped end over end to fit the correct dimensions.
And I’ve been bolder—lodging both Ada Monroe and Moses Herzog in the same bungalow as one of Iris Murdoch’s spinsters. Strangely, this one is not a house from my childhood. It is only a house from my childhood reading. But I have visited it so often and toured it so telepathically, I fully expect to enter it in my old age and identify it at last. Where is the emotional bomb now?
That Leopold Bloom has slept in my great-uncle’s bed on Long Island does not demonstrate that James Joyce has an inadequate sense of place. On the contrary, it indicates that Dublin on Bloomsday has become an easily-referenced truth. It means that an Irish butcher shop or the Celtic coast live beyond their physical confines. It means Ulysses once again jumped ship and swam across his literal borders.
Virginia Woolf was much opposed to film adaptations, which she said reduced Anna falling in love with Vronsky to this: “the lady in black velvet falls into the arms of the gentleman in uniform, and they kiss with enormous succulence, great deliberation, and infinite gesticulation on a sofa in an extremely well-appointed library, while a gardener incidentally mows the lawn.” Much better, she deduced, was for the eye to receive the storyline as the brain, at its own tempo, attend to the making of “dream architecture.”
Maybe. But my dream architecture is all about that sofa, which I recognize under its chintz as my one-time balance beam, and that lawn, with its decidedly Midwestern trees. My dream architecture is limited, recycled, and less cinematic than Merchant’s or Ivory’s, but it is where Vronsky nonetheless shares quarters with missionaries in the Congo, drunkards on the lam, and the Count of Monte Cristo on his way to vengeance.
And I offer this to a certain Italian absurdist playwright: Send them to me, and none of your characters will ever search for a backdrop.