And tracing through several places unfolded by these visionaries
July 31, 2019 | by Anush Ter-Khachatryan
From Dublin to California to Goris, our own ideas of a place are quite often illuminated by literature. Follow the pathway toward several of those places, as recreated by literary giants.
From Cafe des Amateurs to 12 rue de l’Odeon and hence to the studio apartment on 27 rue de Fleurus—this Paris of roasted chestnuts, cheap wine, and anxiously-awaited checks for short stories belongs to Ernest Hemingway.
Working in the top floor of a hotel where Paul Verlaine had lived and died—or at the studio apartment of the writer Gertrude Stein, a mentor and fellow American expat—Hemingway wrote his “one true sentence” peripheral to a piece of conversation caught in the early morning walks down rue Descartes.
Behold the Paris of Hemingway’s early days: when hunger was common, but “there were no problems except where to be happiest.”
From California to New York and back to California, Joan Didion was always “on the track of the real soufflé,” her words cutting through the identity of place with the exactness of a master cook. Her California was “a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension,” and it starts from her native Sacramento, where people speak grandly of the past. Unlike San Bernardino, the golden land, where “the future always looks good, because no one remembers the past.”
Didion’s California is one of juxtapositions—the screaming silences of the hot dry Santa Ana winds that hit the same Los Angeles where a pouring rain can crumble a cliff of homes into the surf. It is a California of private, inland empires, of heroes sung and vanished, of first wifes and last husbands. Hers is the California of fact and the California of fiction—and the generous literary refusal to tell the two apart.
“If Dublin one day suddenly disappeared from the Earth it could be reconstructed out of my book,” James Joyce famously asserted. Barely 4.25km from west to east and 3.5km from north to south, Dublin was the city of paralysis which Joyce tried to move string by string.
Starting his Ulysses with a scene of mutton kidney breakfast at the Eccles Street and ending it at the same location, Joyce presents Dublin as a deadlocked land of badly-housed and poorly-fed people. His Dubliners criss-cross through the streets, pass O'Connell Bridge, running from their early morning drunkenness into their late night booze in the Mulligan’s pub of Poolbeg Street. With empty pockets and intoxicated minds, Dubliners “live a short distance from their bodies,” eventually one by one turning into shades and dissolving in the grey urban landscape of the city.
A circular 9-floor tenement for lost and sinful souls—this is how Dante Alighieri, the poet of the late Middle Ages, envisioned hell. Neatly compartmentalized and subdivided, Dante creates a poetic infrastructure where all residents, among whom were Alexander the Great, Dionysius, Cleopatra, and Helen of Troy, become trapped in strong whirlwinds, flaming tombs, and boiling blood and fire.
“In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark woods where the straight way was lost.” Typically, one lost way leads to another. In the 13th century it has all the chances of leading to hell. Accompanied by fellow poet Virgil, Dante’s journey through the nine circles define for us a well-organized, nonchaotic, and yet for the same reason even more ferocious Hell.
“Tell about the South. What's it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all,” Canadian Shreve McCannon demands from his Harvard roommate, Mississippian Quentin Compson, in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! Isolated in its “masculine solitude”and distinct with its dialect and rooted historical burdens of racism, sexism, and poverty, Faulkner’s broken South endures and prevails as he carefully resurrects it though his literature.
His characters are haunted by the past crimes of the South and they know all too well that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Which somehow liberates them to accept it into the fabric of their lives.
“The only pathway leading to the Dark Valley is closed with the first snowflake and no one sets a foot in the forests until springtime,” begins Armenian short story and screenwriter Axel Bakunts’ The Dark Valley, his ode to the mystic forests of his hometown Goris. It is a short reminder of the days when humankind did not yet exist and “the fossilized dinosaur was feeling as comfortable as the bear in our days.”
Bakunts’ Goris becomes the Armenian Wild West, where battles between man and bear are dealt with quiet practicality, and where the forester resembles a wild boar. Bakunts’ brief and powerful depictions make the dark-green density of the Goris greenery even darker.
Anush Ter-Khachatryan is a writer living in Yerevan.