Senses of Place

Atlantic contributors reflect on intersections of books and travel.

Atlantic contributors reflect on intersections of books and travel

I BELIEVE in reading, while I'm there, about wherever it is that I've gone. And so I have carried Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard with me to Sicily, Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea to Dominica, Carl Hiaasen's novels to Miami. One of the headiest blends of book and place I've ever whipped up for myself was Keri Hulme's multiple-prize-winning and New Zealand, where the author lives and where the novel is set.

The tale unfolds in a craggy seaside back of beyond on which rain seems always to be falling -- as is the case in parts of the real New Zealand, alas! The Bone People has a worse-than-grim theme, the artful disclosure of which I won't spoil for anyone who hasn't read the book. The characters are prickly and antisocial; one in particular is monstrous. I was astonished to find myself empathizing with this person, but empathizing I was.

I read The Bone People on both islands of New Zealand, in rooms in hotels, motels, and lodges, and on Air New Zealand flights between one and another. The New Zealanders I met may have been eccentric, yes, but they were open and welcoming -- nothing like the book's characters. A good example would be my seatmate on one flight, an octogenarian whose arm was in a cast and who couldn't stop relating that he'd dived into the water near his home every day for years and years and years, and then the other day he'd done just what he'd always done but the impact had fractured his arm, and how was that possible, how could that be? Another time when I was in the air, a flight attendant, serving me a cup of tea, glanced at what I was reading. She commented on the book, favorably. We had a whole conversation about The Bone People. I loved being in a land where flight attendants have the time and the inclination to chat about wrenching great literature. Everyone and everything in New Zealand seemed more complex than I had any right to expect, and I loved that about it too.

A Real American

Four Corners

IT'S a strange circumstance of the arbitrary, straight-line divisions between our western states that the Four Corners area concentrates so much of the American landscape. The Navajo reservation, which overlaps all four states, offers a varied terrain of crisp mesas and deserts and pine mountains rising in winter into snow. The San Juan River flows through here, past dusty villages of trailers and stained government-built houses. The people are poor and Native American and not set up for strangers. They are in a way exotic. Even so, the region seems to me to be a celebration of the ordinary. It is accessible. It is unpretentious. More than any other single place, it seems to define an authentic United States.

This brings me to Tony Hillerman, the ex-reporter whose detective stories about the Navajo police are equally accessible and authentic. Quietly, mysteriously, without making a fuss about it, Hillerman's work captures the full sense of the Four Corners, and with it a sense of America. Any of his books will do. I take them with me to lonely or hostile parts of the world, not just for entertainment but for the grounding they provide. And I've learned that they serve the same purpose on their home turf: an activist Native American recently told me that members of his tribe give their children books by Hillerman, a white man, to encourage them to love their land. Hillerman's race doesn't matter. He pretends to write simple mysteries, but he is a master of the North American landscape. He reminds us all what we should remember about one another.

The Spies Who Came In From the Past

THE real Berlin can be sunny -- in August even warm. But the Berlin I love in books is always dark at four-thirty on a November afternoon, chill wind on the Kurfürstendamm, everything damp, the light oily through the fog. In Brussels such conditions would merely be clammy. In Berlin they call up a melancholy decadence that makes the city irresistibly romantic and sad.

The wartime horror of course shapes this sense of doom and mystery, but most of the appealing Berlin literature is set just prior to or after the war. Otto Friedrich's a prose equivalent of George Grosz cartoons, made me want to see the remnants of the flickering Weimar-era life -- the Bauhaus quarter where Walter Gropius's buildings still stand, the gritty Wedding suburb that inspired Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, Lotte Lenya, "Mack the Knife." Thomas Berger's underappreciated series of "Reinhart" novels begins with This book, published in 1958, is much funnier than a John LeCarré novel -- yet it also set the tone of cheerless, tattered Cold War spying that brought LeCarré fame five years later with Charles McCarry's and use the postwar Berlin of black-market cigarettes and hasty de-Nazification to much the same literary effect. Taking the U-Bahn to the deserted Olympic stadium, I could picture Hitler watching the black American track star Jesse Owens at the 1936 Games, and also Berger's and McCarry's furtive characters of the 1950s meeting in the shadows to trade secrets.

I have not seen the city again since reading Philip Kerr's trilogy of wartime detective novels, or John Marks's recent novel about reunification, -- or, for that matter, since the Wall itself came down. No doubt the reunited Berlin is a cheerier, less complex and brooding place. But I suspect that as dark falls, in the cold, the mystery is still there.

The Age of Innocence, Italian-Style

IT'S impossible to be indifferent about Gabriele D'Annunzio once you know even a little about him. He was a scoundrel -- a debtor, a plagiarist, a womanizer, and a self-mythologizing megalomaniac. He was also short, bald, and ugly. During the First World War he proved to be an indefatigable fighter and propagandist and a genuine, if loony, hero. His supernationalism, combined with his war record and literary fame, made him an all-purpose spokesman.

Lake Garda

At the beginning of the century D'Annunzio had few rivals for the title of Italy's greatest poet; every Italian schoolchild had to memorize lines and lines of his naturalistic, sonorous verse, filled with unusual words. The bourgeoisie was fascinated by his novel which took up the scandalous themes of adultery and infanticide and portrayed an upper-middle-class society hidebound by traditions of religion and class.

Today the writer is having something of a revival in his native country, but not for purely literary reasons: a small but vocal far-right wing is reclaiming him. D'Annunzio helped to pave the way for Mussolini, and the two men maintained a wary friendship that ended with Il Duce's keeping D'Annunzio at bay in a villa that got odder and more grandiose by the year.

Today the Vittoriale is an essential stop for any visitor to Lake Garda, not just for its twenty-acre park and commanding views of Italy's largest lake but also for its surpassing strangeness. One room is a Turkish harem, another a study full of Indiana Jones-style relics, another a hypersexual bedroom with imposing casts of naked bodies around the bed; a bust of the owner sits above the pillow. (Every room is a monument to global egoism -- one bathroom is said to contain more than 2,000 souvenirs.) In the park is a huge replica of a First World War battleship, its prow jutting from a mountainside. There's an amphitheater where concerts are held and D'Annunzio's plays are still staged, and a vast white Fascist-style mausoleum for D'Annunzio and some of his fellow war heroes.

The place is mad and maddening. John Updike set the climax of a story in the grounds of the Vittoriale, as a husband and wife commence quarreling over the poet's possible Nazi leanings (he died in 1938). At the end, during what may be only a temporary truce, the man tells his wife, "It's a tough country. Even the natives can't figure it out."

Down in Green Pastures

MANY place-names in the Bible designate locations of myth or mystery -- consider the Garden of Eden. But the place called En-gedi, the "Spring of the Young Goat," is as identifiable and accessible as it ever was. The biblical imagery is appropriately organic. "I grew tall like a palm tree in En-gedi," says the figure Wisdom in Ecclesiasticus. The poet of the Song of Songs offers a simile: "My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of En-gedi." From the oasis of En-gedi, on the salty shores of the Dead Sea, a jagged canyon cuts northwest into the parched cliffs and unearthly uplands of the Judean Desert. All year round a spring-fed stream cascades down the canyon's narrow length, tumbling in chilly waterfalls or gathering strength in clear dark pools. The water sustains an improbably lush ecosystem, whose trees and ferns and flowers create a gash of cool green amid the arid emptiness.

The canyon system at En-gedi lies about twenty miles south of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, and about ten miles north of the ancient stronghold at Masada. The canyons have been set aside as a nature preserve, and some of the trails at midday are heavily traveled. Go in the early morning, as the sun rises over the bare Mountains of Moab, on the far side of the Dead Sea. Ibex and oryx will scatter at your approach, loping to higher ground as you wind among the arching papyrus reeds. At various points the canyon walls rise 1,600 feet high. Perhaps half a mile from the trailhead a thin waterfall beckons -- but you may wish to defer the experience of it, for the trails continue, defining hikes of two hours, or five hours, or seven. You will encounter ruins along the way, some going back more than 5,000 years, to before the Israelites.

According to the first Book of Samuel, here, in the canyon, the young David hid from the wrath of his vengeful King: "When Saul returned from following the Philistines, he was told, 'Behold, David is in the wilderness of En-gedi.' Then Saul took three thousand chosen men out of all Israel, and went to seek David and his men in front of the Wild-goats' Rocks." The watercourse is called Nahal David, or "David's Stream." As Saul slept in a cave above it, David cut a piece of fabric from Saul's tunic, to show that he could have killed the King, had he so wished. Thereupon Saul begged forgiveness, and took his men away. David remained behind.

Any visitor would understand why.

Whose House This Is

HIGH up outside Franconia, New Hampshire, a rather ordinary white farmhouse stands back a little from the road, as though too shy to press forward to the view that opens across the way, down declivities of pasture and out to the west. Here for five of his most productive years, from 1915 to 1920, Robert Frost lived with his family after returning from his discovery of England -- and England's discovery of him. Here his children began to come of age, and here he felt able to take his stance as an American poet, with a modicum of American support. Here he sat in his favorite Morris chair, carving out poems in his stubby handwriting with a broad-nibbed pen.

Some twenty years ago the town of Franconia bought the house from the people who had bought it from the people who had bought it from Frost, and it once again became a residence for poets. It was dedicated with some ceremony in 1977 by Senator Edward Kennedy, of Massachusetts, with a planeful of his relatives in attendance, and a little nature trail was opened in back of the house, each stop along the way a sort of icon illustrating in the natural world one of Frost's poems -- "After Apple-Picking," say, or "Rose Pogonias." In due course the residence became more inclusive, and now the house and barn, supported by Frost's lifetime publishers, Henry Holt and Company, spend each summer open to writing classes and visitors to the Frost heritage. It's a place worth seeing and remarking on: out of such plainness enormous views can be seized.

Heart of Starkness


GENEVA is a glaciated Paris. Here the mechanics of banking, diplomacy, and sophisticated bourgeois living have asphyxiated passion. The silvery blue of Lake Leman suggests money and oblivion. Geneva: I think of Calvinism and gray stones and too many jewelry shops. Despite the bracing winds and the swans, Lake Leman seems but another enclosure. The wrought iron, the pollarded trees, the conical hedges, the crystalline dawn haze where Lake Leman meets the Rhone, the Gothic monuments and gabled roofs, the marble fireplaces and the valences in my hotel room -- all are exquisite, but it is an austere and hollow beauty. Joseph Conrad called Geneva "the very perfection of mediocrity." In Conrad's 1911 novel set partly in Geneva, the Swiss city serves as a counterpoint to the expatriate Russian anarchists whom his tale is about.

Geneva's cold, angular streets are even now backdrops to murky, Conradian plots. Here are secret bank accounts and whole armies of diplomats. And every manner of political group -- good, bad, or merely self-righteous -- does business here. The heated politics of Russia and other troubled regions fill Geneva's emotional vacuum. Because Geneva is such a monument to order and perfection, officials from poor countries find it attractive. This is a city that people pass through. I walk into a luxurious tea salon off a narrow umber street. It is filled with whispering. I think of Conrad's irrational terrorists imagining revolution in Russia. Geneva is immensely stimulating.

Paradise Found

TO understand the original lure of the southern-California good life, forget Venice Beach and ignore Beverly Hills. Instead take a drive on an October afternoon when the Santa Anas are blowing, or on a February morning after a rainstorm. The sky will be a flawless blue; the various greens of the palm, the eucalyptus, and the ficus will shimmer in the sun; and everything you see will stand out sharp and clean in the brilliant but never harsh light. Head for Pasadena, unglamorous Glendale, Alhambra, Altadena, Culver City, Los Feliz, the Hollywood flats, the mid-Wilshire area, or the modest "alphabet streets" of Pacific Palisades, where the once-ubiquitous California bungalows of the early 1900s and their successors, the Spanish-style ones of the twenties and thirties, still prevail. These tidy, stylish, airy, (originally) inexpensive houses, which seem to flow into their lush gardens, were built for the lower-middle-class transplanted midwesterners who long defined the city culturally, socially, and economically. The bungalows are, as two prominent architectural historians put it, "the closest thing to a democratic art that has ever been produced."

The great realistic novel of Los Angeles, and the only one to take seriously the concerns and aspirations of what Frank Lloyd Wright derisively called "the commonplace people" who filled these bungalows and the city, is James M. Cain's With cumulative detail Cain re-created the intricate, ordinary lives of small entrepreneurs, real-estate agents, waitresses, and next-door neighbors. Los Angeles is now, famously, among the world's most ethnically diverse metropolises, but Cain and this architecture tour reveal its earlier incarnation, as America's most bourgeois, homogenous Anglo-Saxon big city. In what critics dismissed as a "huge country village," the veterans of bleak prairie winters found a place that in their earnest wonderment they called a "Paradise on Earth," where they rapturously grew in their own back yards the oranges, lemons, figs, nectarines, and pomegranates that were rare treats in groceries back home.

Usually belittled as bland sun seekers, these people seem to me grim realists who understood that because life was mostly loss and disappointment, small consolations should be gratefully savored. Today, for all their complaining, Angelenos have the same sense of gratitude when, after flying home from a trip to the East or the Midwest in January, they hungrily roll down the windows of the cab to smell the jasmine and feel the soft night air.

Illustrations by Jean Hirashima

The Atlantic Monthly; January 1999; Senses of Place; Volume 283, No. 1; pages 36 - 40.