Each story belongs to a particular time and place. Writers are told to ensure they pay close attention to these elements – and if you think about favourite novels, hopefully you will appreciate the work put in, and immediately taste the dust in the air of John Steinbeck’s Great Depression era ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ feel the contemporary concrete underfoot in Paul Auster’s ‘The Brooklyn Follies,’ and itch to get back into the genteel drawing rooms of Jane Austen.
But then readers get hold of whichever novel and take the time and place thing to a whole new level. We make bizarre connections, adding another layer to the idea: the time and place we read the novel; the time and place, when and where, we lived in the fictional world, marrying the two firmly together.
Going to stay somewhere after a long time is an interesting experience. I had the chance to do this last week as I headed for the coast. Time has made some things about the place unrecognisable, and yet has also left pathways and glimpses intact. The beach line has changed at my wonderful holiday spot. An island I remember as a teenager is now a headland. The underlying geology has its own timescale.
And I cannot think about the beach house on this coastline without thinking about the American Civil War. My memories are very thickly entwined with ‘Gone With the Wind’ (1936).
‘Gone With the Wind’ – does it go without introduction? It is a much loved, Pulitzer Prize winning novel, but perhaps in some circles a little looked down upon now, because we all think we know what happens, so it has become like background noise.
I was given Margaret Mitchell’s epic saga on the first day of my first week staying on this spot. I was thirteen(ish) and was mesmerised. Mornings at the beach couldn’t go quickly enough. I wanted to get back to the American South. War broke out and cities burned and hearts broke. I finished the big fat novel before I left to go home.
It was the first time (that I remember) where I didn’t like the chief protagonist, the so-called heroine, of a novel, and yet still become genuinely caught up in the story. Is this how we can develop empathy and compassion for those we don’t like or admire? It was complex, but, frankly Scarlet, I did give a damn.
I’ve always had an aversion to reading on a beach – the sun, the glare, too much burning all round. And the sand in everything. I read ‘Gone With the Wind’ in the shade of the backyard, lying on a hammock. The backyard of the house has changed too of course, though I think one of the two trees that supported the hammock is still there. And maybe that is actually the greatest milestone of the holiday: some people have grace, but I took time to master getting in and out of the hammock, enduring cartoon levels of slapstick.
It is a skill I have since lost. Time has gone with the wind (no apologies for the belaboured word play). Luckily though, I have held tight to the dragon’s tail of reading outside my experience and ken and comfort.
The painting of the great skill of hammock reading is by Winslow Homer.