As a child I once found a set of old photographs of my home, with unknown people posing. I stood in the exact same spots, imagining a shiver of communication. I have since had the same experience standing in Virginia Woolf’s writing lodge at Monk’s House, or surveying the fields of Waterloo from Napoleon’s headquarters, or looking up at the empty sky above Ground Zero. Sharing the same airspace as another human from another time, standing on the same patch of the planet, is a profound feeling. It is similar to the effect of reading a novel: your imagination bridges the gulf between someone else’s experience and your own, and expands your understanding in the process.
That’s why I get a particular thrill from visiting literary locations. Reading is a creative collaboration, so being in the environment that inspired a novelist enhances the place and the novel: the setting is overlaid with the events of the book and the book becomes more tangible and memorable as a result.
Lyme Regis, in Dorset, for example, is famous for its ancient, undulating harbour wall, the Cobb. I am particularly fond of a set of precarious steps on the Cobb, known as “Granny’s Teeth”. They recall that dramatic moment at the centre of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, when Louisa Musgrove runs up them so as to be jumped down by Captain Wentworth: “He put out his hands; she was too precipitate by half a second, she fell on the pavement on the Lower Cobb, and was taken up lifeless!”
London, where I live, is especially rich in literary associations and sometimes they overlap, creating unexpected dissonances. The top of Primrose Hill, for instance, is the location of both the Twilight Bark in Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmatians and where the last Martians are torn apart by dogs in HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds. In The Napoleon of Notting Hill by GK Chesterton blood runs in the streets past Bridget Jones’s local cafe; and Chaucer’s Miller tells his bawdy tale in what is now Greenwich Park, where the bomb explodes in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. My favourite is Senate House in Bloomsbury, which is both the sinister Ministry of Information in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and the survivors’ stronghold against a surging mass of flesh-eating flora in John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids.
Reading certainly enriches the places you know, and it can overpower less familiar settings. I don’t know Paris, Venice or St Petersburg as well as I know London or Lyme Regis, but since visiting those cities I have read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and my sense of all three has radically altered. In my mind the streets of Paris now ring with carriages ferrying le beau monde between glittering salons; Venice is a palimpsest of maps and fables; and St Petersburg is sweating in claustrophobic self-recrimination. In many ways the worlds of these books have become more vivid than my own fading memories. Conversely, I had read Kafka’s The Castle and Steinbeck’s East of Eden before I visited Prague and the Salinas valley in California, so from the start both locations were deeply coloured by my experience of those books. Prague was mysterious and impenetrable, with streets and cemeteries huddled around the castle on the hill, whereas Salinas was epic and open, a great canvas on which archetypal narratives might play out.
Of course there are many locations around the world I have never visited and yet they still form strong impressions in my mind. I feel I know the dark winters of rural Norway, where the lakes freeze so thick they crack like gunshots, because I have read The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas; I have felt the suburban Tokyo seasons turn full circle in the pages of Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima; learned about a societal and religious crisis in rural 19th-century Nigeria through Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. One of the joys of reading is that it gives us this strong physical sense of a place we may never visit. For example, I know how it feels to walk the dark corridors of Gormenghast Castle, I know the dust of its rooms, its towers and courtyards and its fields of stone in the sky, because Mervyn Peake’s prose is so evocative, but I will never visit because it’s a pure fantasy.
Often, I select my next book based on where I am. In 2015, on a week’s sailing holiday in Greece, I read the Argonautica (about Jason and the Argonauts) by Apollonius of Rhodes. The holiday should properly have been a voyage through the Dardanelles and along the coast of the Black Sea; instead it was a gentle week of island-hopping, but still it was wonderful to read about Greek heroes, clashing rocks, harpies, monsters and armies sprung from dragon’s teeth with the gentle sound of lapping waves and a soft pine-and-salt tang in the air, just as Apollonius would have known.
The following year I was walking with friends across the Isle of Jura in the Inner Hebrides: we skirted the magnificent conical mountains known as “the Paps”, camped by the shore and enjoyed a euphoric sense of remoteness. Jura is three times the size of Manhattan but only 200 people live there; the red deer outnumber humans 40 to one. Towards the end of our walk we arranged a visit to Barnhill, the remote house near the north of the island, where Orwell lived on and off between 1946 and 1949. The house is almost unchanged: it is still miles from the nearest road and there is a typewriter in the room where Orwell sat coughing in bed, dying of tuberculosis as he completed the typescript of Nineteen Eighty-Four. I reread his dystopian masterpiece as we made our way across the island. The novel is set in a crowded, urban, grubby version of London, of course, a world away from the empty natural grandeur of the Hebrides, but there was something about Winston Smith’s loneliness, his stubbornness, his belief in the strength of being an outsider that chimed with the location. Later I discovered that Orwell’s working title was The Last Man in Europe.
The experience of layering landscapes and literature can also be shared with others. I have twice organised walks from Southwark to Canterbury Cathedral with a motley group of pilgrims, on which we retold the stories from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. I’ve led similar communal readings of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur around Cadbury Castle and Glastonbury in Somerset, and the poems of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey in Grasmere, Keswick and other parts of the Lake District. The combination of text and topography is always special, but reading and walking in company brings increased focus: it allows both space to contemplate the words and time to discuss their effect. I have a fond memory of walking with friends from Epping Forest in Essex to Northborough in Cambridgeshire, tracing the footsteps of the poet John Clare and reading from his poems. Clare made the walk in 1841, absconding from his asylum at High Beach and covering 90 miles in four days, looking for his first love, Mary Joyce, who had been dead for six years. You can pick out his route from his remarkable account of the walk, which swings between joy and despair. Covering the miles ourselves gave us a new appreciation of his state of mind, as we dealt with exhaustion and blisters and revelled in the liberty of the open road. We tried eating some roadside grass at one point, as Clare did, but that was less of a success.
Perhaps my most memorable experience of visiting a literary location was in early 2018, when my wife and I were in Argentina. We were visiting friends, and as part of our trip they organised a day in Buenos Aires, themed around Jorge Luis Borges, the blind poet and librarian. We saw the apartment block on Avenida Maipu where he had lived with his aged mother; we drank coffee in Cafe La Biela where he would meet his friend Adolfo Bioy Casares. (Today there are plaster statues of Borges and Bioy sitting at a table in La Biela; the waiting staff lay fresh napkins and coffee cups each morning.) We visited the old National Library, where Borges worked and where the reflected octagonal rooms seem to have inspired “The Library of Babel”. We visited the new National Library building where we were allowed to sit at his desk. The greatest thrill, however, came from standing on Avenida Juan de Garay in the barrio of Constitucion, where Borges set his 1945 story “The Aleph”.
In the underground basement of an unremarkable house on this unremarkable street, Borges imagined something extraordinary: his “Aleph” is an iridescent sphere, about an inch in diameter, which contains every other place on Earth. “I saw the teeming sea,” marvels the narrator; “I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me …” The passage continues for over a page and it is one of the strangest, most brilliant and kaleidoscopic that I have ever read. We were standing in the very location where Borges had imagined every other location on Earth. The effect was vertiginous and completely exhilarating.
An editor at Penguin Classics, Henry Eliot is the presenter of their new podcast, On the Road.
The Woman in the Dunes
by Kobo Abe, translated by E Dale Saunders
Abe was born in Tokyo, but grew up on the edge of a Chinese swamp, collecting insects and reading Kafka. This unsettling 1962 novel is set amid the shifting Tottori sands, northwest of Kyoto in Japan – an otherworldly landscape, halfway between sea and solid ground. An amateur entomologist on a beetle-hunting trip misses the last bus home and seeks shelter in a strange village where the houses are half-buried by sand and only accessible by rope ladder. In the morning he discovers that his ladder has disappeared.
by Willa Cather
In this sweeping 1913 novel, Cather recalled her childhood among the pioneer farmers of the Nebraskan frontier, surrounded by windswept prairies, where a hard-earned living had to be squeezed out of the weather-beaten soil. “I decided not to ‘write’ at all,” she said, but “simply to give myself up to the pleasure of recapturing in memory people and places I’d forgotten.” In 1974 a tract of Nebraska was preserved as the Willa Cather memorial prairie.
by Eileen Chang, translated by Julia Lovell
Set in occupied Shanghai during the second world war, this 1979 novella tells the story of actor Wang Chia-chih who is recruited by the Chinese resistance to seduce a Japanese collaborator and facilitate his assassination. It captures the intrigue and romance of wartime China. Ang Lee, who directed a 2007 film of this book, describes Eileen Chang as “the fallen angel of Chinese literature”.
by Alfred Doblin, translated by Michael Hofmann
This monumental 1929 novel recreates the city of Berlin through a dazzling montage of multiple points of view, sound effects, newspaper reports, Bible stories, drinking songs and urban slang. In its scale and ambition it has been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. It follows the story of Franz Biberkopf, a murderer, who is ineluctably drawn back into the murky underworld of pimps and thugs that he had hoped to escape. In 1980 it was adapted by Rainer Werner Fassbinder as a 14-part, TV series.
by Cyprian Ekwensi
The eponymous heroine of this 1961 novel is a brassy, big-hearted, chain-smoking sex worker in 1950s Lagos, Nigeria. She enjoys parties, scandals and wild nights at the Tropicana club, but then she falls for young Freddie and must use all her charms to secure his future. Ekwensi was born in Nigeria, the son of an Igbo storyteller. He worked briefly as a pharmacist in Essex before returning to west Africa and writing more than 40 books.
by Patricia Grace
Grace is a Maori writer, descended from the Ngati Toa, Ngati Raukawa and Te Ati Awa peoples. She lives on North Island in New Zealand, on her ancestral lands, close to the marae (sacred meeting house) at Hongoeka Bay. Her lyrical 1986 novel describes the life of a coastal Maori community, with traditional ties between family, the sea and the land. When “the dollarman” and his band of developers arrive, however, the community must band together to protect their ancient way of life. In 2008 Grace won the Neustadt International prize.
In the Castle of My Skin
by George Lamming
In the 1930s, nine-year-old G is growing up in a sleepy village on Barbados, overseen by an English landlord. G becomes gradually aware of a distant mother-country across the sea and a legacy of historical injustice. Lamming wrote this 1953 coming-of-age novel while living in England: “In the desolate, frozen heart of London, at the age of 23, I tried to reconstruct the world of my childhood and early adolescence.” His title comes from the Derek Walcott poem “Epitaph for the Young”.
The Man-Eater of Malgudi
by RK Narayan
Narayan invented the bustling south Indian town of Malgudi, the setting for almost all of his novels and short stories. He drew heavily on his native Chennai: “The material available to a story writer in India is limitless,” he said. “The writer has only to look out of the window to pick up a character.” This 1961 novel revolves around the owner of a small Malgudi printing press, who ill-advisedly rents his attic to a belligerent taxidermist, who fills the house with stuffed hyenas, pythons and tigers.
by Francoise Sagan, translated by Heather Lloyd
This sultry 1954 novella is set on the French Riviera: 17-year-old Cecile is holidaying near the sea with her playboy father and his mistresses, and she starts to explore her own sexuality under the Mediterranean sun. Bonjour Tristesse made Sagan’s name at the age of 18; she became a literary celebrity, indulging a passion for fast cars, cocaine and gambling at Monte Carlo.
The Story of an African Farm
by Olive Schreiner
Two orphaned girls, Em and Lyndall, live on a lonely ostrich farm in South Africa with their sadistic, superstitious stepmother. Their lives are disrupted first by the arrival of a charismatic vagrant and later by a handsome Englishman. Schreiner was a feminist campaigner and her character Lyndall was celebrated as one of the first “new women” in literature. Doris Lessing compared this 1883 novel to Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.