Ten armchair excursions by Natalie Davis, Jessica Grant, Alexander MacLeod, and more
Summertime, and the reading is bountiful.
If you want to hit the beach along with a thousand other oily unclad bodies, go right ahead. If erecting a tent while the kids sit playing with their iPads appeals to you, be our guest. If long motionless queues of cars at the American border are just what you need, then bon voyage.
On the other hand, if you would like to join some of the world’s great fiction writers in some of the strangest, most romantic, exotic, bucolic and ominous places in the world (or out of the world!) without leaving the comfort of your own balcony or leafy backyard, why not follow the leads of the LRC’s hand-picked literary travel agents, who are only too happy to direct you to their favourite fictional getaways?
Since I am the editor of these pages, I get to start the tour.
Vanity Fair (1848)
William Makepeace Thackeray
My passion is people watching, so the getaway I would recommend is the spicy and gossipy atmosphere of Vauxhall Gardens on a sultry midsummer London night in 1814, as brilliantly sketched by William Thackeray in Vanity Fair. While his two pairs of ill-matched lovers—George and Amelia, Rawdon and Becky—stroll among the fiddlers, the singers, the “cockneys and cockneyesses” performing peasant dances, the rope climbers, the hermits, the dark alleys designed for canoodling and the boxes designed for eating, drinking and showing off, Thackeray notes ruefully that one should only turn up in this extravagant place with a date: “To be alone at Vauxhall, I have found, from my own experience, to be one of the most dismal sports ever entered into by a bachelor.” Which is why there is a fifth wheel strolling there with the two couples, the melancholy Captain Dobbin, carrying the ladies’ shawls.
– Bronwyn Drainie
The Issa Valley (1955)
In the heat of the summer, one retires from the dust and stench of the city to the countryside, in particular the countryside of Czeslaw Milosz’s Issa Valley, a green and woodsy landscape in the old Czarist borderlands just before World War One. The place seems remote from everywhere, but Napoleonic soldiers, among others, lie buried in the fields and forests, and ghosts often appear among the river mists at dusk and dawn, sometimes in the company of a miniature devil in a green waistcoat. The last European wood bison snort well within earshot, and the remains of secret, underwater bridges from the Middle Ages are fascinating but dangerous to look for because the bogs are of infinite depth.
Time moves very, very slowly here, but it is difficult to distinguish the reality of time from illusion because the forces that are gathering to tear up Europe express themselves here as well. At night, when one sleeps with the shutters open, that harmless shepherd you greeted during the day might toss a hand grenade into your bedroom to show his displeasure with your bourgeois origins. The Issa Valley is a calm and restful place perched on a precipice of disaster.
– Antanas Sileika
At the Bay (1922)
If I could, I would go to the beach in Katherine Mansfield’s short story “At the Bay.” It is summer in New Zealand around the turn of the 20th century. The cottages are nothing, the dressing tables made from packing cases fitted with skirts. But you do not really want to stay inside, starting from first light, when “a heavy dew had fallen. The grass was blue. Big drops hung on the bushes, and just did not fall; the silvery, fluffy toi-toi was limp on its long stalks … Ah-Aah! sounded the sleepy sea.”
At 11 a.m., I want to join the women and children who take over the beach, throwing off their clothes and stays to go swimming. The water is warm, “that marvellous transparent blue, flecked with silver.” The sand at the bottom looks sunny, so you can kick your toes and raise “a little puff of gold-dust.” In tidal pools in rocks nearby, a sea forest waves: “pink thread-like trees, velvet anemones, and orange berry-spotted weeds.” It is a child’s forest. This is the beach Mansfield remembers from her childhood, and maybe that is where I really want to go, back to a child’s endless, drowsy summer.
– Lesley Krueger
“Longing on a large scale is what makes history.” This is classic Don DeLillo, taken from the opening lines of his Cold War masterpiece, Underworld. The scene is the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, on October 3, 1951, and the moment is Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world,” the unlikely line-drive home run that just cleared the wall in left field and won the New York Giants the National League pennant over their hated rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Travel back to this place and this time only if you want to feel what contemporary American literature can be at its best and only if you want to read something unique. In DeLillo’s hands, the crowd itself, the 35,000 people crammed inside that stadium, become one character, and their separate but shared desperation and fear, their separate but shared “longing” become palpable and real. On the other side of the planet, the Soviets have just detonated their first nuclear weapons, and, even while the Giants fans celebrate, the age of mutual assured destruction is dawning. DeLillo gets it all. This is what the third-person omniscient narrator was built for, to blur the bomb and the baseball, and to connect the poor kid in the stands with the guy at the plate, the announcer behind the microphone, the celebrities in the luxury boxes and, yes, even J. Edgar Hoover sitting there in his seat, taking it all in while he simultaneously contemplates the “Kazakh Test Site” and “every festering secret in the Western world.”
– Alexander MacLeod
I want to join the Caribbean novelist Maryse Condé along the Niger River in Mali in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She writes her Segu in quest of her Bambara ancestors, and I am in search of the world known by the ancestors of Suriname slaves, who people my current history book. The men in the wealthy Traoré family of Segu travel widely for war, religion, trade or wives, but I will settle in Segu itself, then at the height of its political power. I will follow the slaves to the fields of millet and cotton. I will walk into the Traoré compound through its sculptured gates and marvel at the storehouses full of crops, gold dust and cowrie shells. Little children will be swirling about, protected by their strings of amulets and cowries. I will accompany the Fa, the head of the Traoré clan, as he walks the busy streets to the king’s court, and, with Condé as my translator, I will marvel at the griots clustering around him, singing his praises and those of his ancestors. Especially, I will note the difference between the revered fetish priests, with their necklaces of horns and teeth and their belts hung with divining rods, and the newly arrived Muslim teachers in their dark robes and shaven heads, enticing the Segu boys to the Quran. In that difference lies Segu’s future, with the triumph through conquest by a purist Muslim preacher (although some converts feel that Allah will forgive them their amulets).
– Natalie Zemon Davis
The Dublin that sings in my imagination is the one celebrated and sung and explored by James Joyce, in Ulysses, on “June 16th 1904,” largely seen through the eyes of Leopold Bloom and his wife, Molly, and conjured into life by the seductive and hypnotizing dialogue of Bloom and Stephen Dedalus and their companions: at the cemetery where they planted Paddy Dignam, the Sandymount beach where Bloom masturbates while watching a teenage girl across the sands, Buck Mulligan’s Martello Tower, Mabbot Street in Nighttown, the snug in Barney Kiernan’s pub in Little Britain Street (on the site of which is now a hairdresser’s) and Davy Byrnes’s, which Joyce frequented and which still exists, a gourmet restaurant now, advertising itself as “Dublin’s Most Famous Pub.”
Grafton Street, a seductive long street of shops and pubs, now closed to motor traffic, is alive and well. Along it we cannot help almost hearing the tapping stick of the blind young piano tuner, who left his tuning fork behind. And, of course, 7 Eccles Street, the Bloom house, on whose sidewalk the fabulous small-hours conversation between Bloom and Stephen Dedalus takes place, a street that has, alas, been extensively reworked.
All, all alive, and resonant, and almost more vivid, in the memories of Joyce’s fans (for me Ulysses is easily the best novel ever written, and I am not alone) … almost more vivid as narrative recollection than they are as real and present places.
– Patrick Watson
Infinite Jest (1996)
David Foster Wallace
Wanted: Athletic reader-travellers willing to relocate to David Foster Wallace’s O.N.A.N. (Organization of North American Nations) for a minimum of three months and a maximum of, well, permanently. Mostly, while you are here, it will be the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (time is now subsidized by corporations). Do you enjoy tennis? Let’s home in on the heart of the novel, the cardioid-shaped Enfield Tennis Academy in Boston. Here is how to play tennis with a thousand-page book: chase the ball from main narrative to endnote, 388 times. Play with your whole heart. Are you Canadian? Bring your sense of humour: America is launching its waste at us.
Wallace’s Infinite Jest is infinitely silly. But it is also wondrously deep. I have been here for three years, and it feels like home. Meet me at the bar called The Unexamined Life on a Friday when the bouncers are blind. Alas, poor Yorick! Do you wish you knew him? I can arrange it.
– Jessica Grant
The Lover (1984)
For its transporting erotic atmosphere, I choose the 1929 Saigon of Marguerite Duras, a city in the waning days of French rule.
In The Lover, two unlikely people meet on a ferry crossing the Mekong River. He is rich, Chinese and experienced. She is poor, French and inexperienced.
Soon, the unnamed girl is sneaking away from her boarding school to spend afternoons in the unnamed man’s street-level apartment in Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon. They make love, torment each other and stare lazily at the circling ceiling fan. The only contact with the outside world is through slatted shutters: “Whiffs of burnt sugar drift into the room, the smell of roasted peanuts … the smell of the city is the smell of the villages upcountry, of the forest…”
Because it is a French novel, the lovers have fantastic style. (She with her threadbare “almost transparent” dress, “gold lamé” heels and “brownish-pink” fedora. He in his “light tussore” suit.) Because it is Duras, the story is rueful and sepia-toned, seedy and romantic. It brims with doomed desire, moral complications and existential philosophizing. The spell Duras casts is so sultry and hypnotic, you may find yourself stirred up, in a sweat, dreaming of Saigon for many days.
– Kyo Maclear
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
Zora Neale Hurston
I am drawn to the tradition and sense of community of black people in the Deep South. Travel back with me to a half century past slavery to the Everglades in Florida and an area called The Muck. That is where lovers Janie and Tea Cake begin life anew in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The couple settle into a tiny cabin on the shores of sprawling Lake Okechobee, where Janie sloughs off her life of privilege as wife of the mayor of all-black Eatonville. Tea Cake teaches Janie to hunt game. Together they fish in the teeming waters while Seminoles in dugouts paddle by. The couple picks beans alongside a community of seasonal workers. They spend their money at the “jook,” where “pianos live three lifetimes in one” and where “the blues are made and remade” every night. Some evenings Tea Cake sits on his doorstep, strumming his guitar. Neighbours gather to swap tales and to gamble. A roll of the dice and a man might forfeit a week’s wages. But tomorrow is another day. And, The Muck, hidden from the world behind a wall of cane, is a place for living in the moment.
– Donna Bailey Nurse
The October Country (1955)
If you are tired of Barbados or the French Riviera—or of sunlight in general—and looking for a less-travelled off-season getaway, consider Ray Bradbury’s The October Country, “where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay.” This is a country “composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun,” so accommodations may be less than four star, but visitors who persevere will appreciate such offbeat attractions as mirror mazes, catacombs, calliope music and “those things they keep in a jar in the tent of a sideshow on the outskirts of a little, drowsy town.” A one-way ticket may be a wise investment; some visitors never return.
– Robert Charles Wilson