Saturday, November 10, 2007

Novels, Maps, Modernity

Eric Bulson
NOVELS, MAPS, MODERNITY: The Spatial Imagination, 1850–2000
176pp. Routledge. £40.00. 978-0-415-97648-0

In Novels, Maps, Modernity Eric Bulson examines the many ways in which writers have, literally, mapped out their plots. In particular, he looks in detail at the “cartographic encounters” of Herman Melville, James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon. Melville consulted sea charts, maps, guidebooks and logbooks while writing Moby-Dick (1851) in order to plot Ahab’s meeting with his nemesis. As Bulson points out, tracking down one specific whale over four oceans is highly improbable, but by referring to genuine whaling routes Melville manages to give Ahab’s plotting of this climactic encounter an air of probability.

Novelists have known about the “reality effect” of using maps in their fiction at least since Robinson Crusoe (1719), but according to Bulson the shift from realism to Modernism in the last century led to a significant change in the use of topographical details. Instead of trying to orientate their readers in a “novelistic space”, Modernists like Joyce sought to disorientate them by referring to an overabundance of street names and other details, creating a fragmented space in which it is easy to lose one’s way. Modern urban living is bewildering, says Bulson, and this shift in the novel from orientation to disorientation, went hand in hand with urbanisation and industrialisation. An extreme example is the “Wandering Rocks” section of Ulysses (1922), which Bulson calls a “topographical symphony” of Dublin, and which Joyce plotted using a red pen and a map of Dublin.

Just as Joyce pored over an Ordnance Survey map to create his fictional world, Thomas Pynchon studied Baedekers, and Bulson’s chapter on Pynchon’s “Baedeker trick” is fascinating. “Loot the Baedeker I did, all the details of a time and place I had never been to,” says Pynchon in Slow Learner (1984), though he worked hard to overcome the “two-dimensionality” of the travel guide. Bulson’s comparison of two passages is instructive. Here is Baedeker’s Egypt (1898):

The prison lies to the left of the road; and on the same side are the village of Gîzeh and the station of the same name on the Upper Egyptian railway. The road makes a curve, crosses the railway, and then leads straight towards the Pyramids, which are still nearly 5 M. distant.

And this is what Pynchon made of it in his short story “Under the Rose” (1961):

“Damned if it isn’t the road to the pyramids,” Goodfellow said. Porpentine nodded; “About five and a half miles.” They made the turn and passed the prison and the village of Gizeh, hit a curve, crossed the railroad tracks and headed due west.

Bulson also looks at Pynchon’s use of Baedekers and Second World War aerial maps in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), where he plots the unlikely correspondence between Tyrone Slothrop’s sexual conquests and the fall of the V-weapons. As Bulson points out, Pynchon knew that the Nazis used Baedekers to locate targets, and he quotes the Nazi propagandist Baron Gustav Von Sturn in 1942: “We shall go all out to bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide.” So began the “Baedeker Raids” on Exeter, Bath, Norwich, York and Canterbury.

Bulson is alert to the politics of literary mapping, which developed out of “literary nationalism” and the age of empire. He perhaps makes too much of the fact that the Ordnance Survey map of Dublin that Joyce consulted for Ulysses was a product of the British Empire. By choosing to use this map was Joyce really “reclaiming the country that had been taken away from the Irish”, as Bulson claims? Somehow, I doubt it. If it was an “act of reappropriation” the motivation was personal rather than political. Joyce recreates Dublin in his own image.

Bulson is critical of literary maps. In his view they diminish the experience of reading rather than enhancing it, reducing a unique fictional landscape to a bare two dimensions. How can a map of London ever do justice to Dickens’s “Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill”? he asks. The literary map conceals more than it reveals.

But not always. When plotted on a map, for instance, Leopold Bloom’s journey in “The Lotus Eaters” to see if there is a letter for him at the Westland Row Post Office forms the shape of a question mark. With Joyce the idea that there might be some topographical code waiting to be cracked is not so fanciful. How else can we explain the fact that, if plotted on a map, the paths of Father Conmee and the viceregal cavalcade of the Earl of Dudley in “Wandering Rocks” form an “X” over Dublin?

As Bulson observes, when it comes to fiction, accurate maps might be less valid than “more whimsical, personalised” ones. The reader produces the space of the novel as much as the writer, drawing on her own memory, experience and understanding. “No city indeed is so real as this that we make for ourselves and people to our liking,” observed Virginia Woolf in the TLS in 1905, reviewing a guide book to Dickens. In a discussion of psychogeography (in which he considers the positive aspects of disorientation, the Situationist dérive, and the urban experience of “lostness”) Bulson remarks that “In the future, individual readers may actually decide to compile psychogeographic maps of Ulysses”. But why stop there?

In his Lectures on Literature (1980) Vladimir Nabokov draws his own maps, locating the action of Bleak House or Mansfield Park, or following the trajectories of Bloom and Stephen in Dublin. He even sketches the layout of Gregor Samsa’s flat. Perhaps we should all be encouraged by his example to make our own literary maps, or at the very least to amend the pre-existing ones – new versions of Hardy’s Wessex or Zola’s Paris infused with our own dreams and prejudices, our incomprehensions and our private angst. One sense that the relatively new field of literary geography has a great deal more to offer yet, and Bulson’s informative book maps out the territory and points the way to further research and discovery.

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