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Book review: This anthology visits places that inspired iconic literature

In the 38 incisive pieces that make Footsteps, which spans cities over five continents, different writers retrace the footsteps of their favourite authors.

books Updated: Jul 20, 2017 11:49 IST
Sobrino de Botin in Madrid, Spain, is oldest restaurant in world and was founded by a French man Jean Botin in 1725. Ernest Hemingway often visited Botin when in Spain.
Sobrino de Botin in Madrid, Spain, is oldest restaurant in world and was founded by a French man Jean Botin in 1725. Ernest Hemingway often visited Botin when in Spain.(Shutterstock)

The unsettling story of an evil Transylvanian aristocrat’s depredations was brought home – in all senses – to the readers by a British coastal resort, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fictional Colombian setting of his best-known works actually exists and San Francisco highlights the spot of a murder catalysing one of the most famous crime noir novels.

Literature may be the ultimate epitome of inspired imagination, but it is somewhere tied to reality though its settings, characters or plot. And as these examples and others show, the first tends to take more prominence. There is scarcely a place in the world which has not figured in some story, and conversely, many places have inspired some of the most iconic fiction of all genres.

The dreaming spires and cloisters of Oxford, the “foreboding forests, striking towers, and even some genuine castles” between Germany’s Frankfurt and Bremen, the hedonistic playground of the French Riviera, the “brash, kitschy, postwar” West US seen from its back-roads, the grandeur of St Petersburg, the “dangerous, dirty and seductive” streets of Naples and more survive well beyond their depictions, actual or adapted from the works of Lewis Caroll to Alexander Pushkin to Elena Ferrante.

And there are people who revel in visiting these places to try to get insights into how they may have inspired these writers, as this anthology of literary travel writings from The New York Times’ popular Footsteps travel feature shows.

Publisher: Penguin Random House, Pages: 304, Price: Rs 499.

Noting that all travellers may have once strayed “onto turf that an artist, including those who paint pictures with words, once trod..”, Monica Drake, the editor of the New York Times’ travel section, says it shouldn’t be “unexpected”.

“All the world is a reliquary, filled with fields, forests and city plazas that lead visionaries among us to create work that endures the ages. We travellers are but devotees who touch these monuments and in place of prayers meditate on how someone else came to be who they are and create what they did.

“We inevitably look and wonder. Did the sweep of this hill and the mist of the morning somehow ignite a spark. Was this place more incidental than inspirational? Examining these questions has been the defining task of Footsteps since 1981, when The New York Times ran it as a short-lived series,” she says.

Footsteps, she adds, appeared sporadically in subsequent years before becoming an full-fledged feature and it is some of its pieces from the new millennium that feature here.

But Drake notes it is always not about the inspiration, for many of the pieces, including a few featured here, deal with writers’ impressions of places ranging from Mark Twain on a vacation in laidback Hawaii to Arthur Rimbaud recuperating in Ethiopian market town to Orhan Pamuk introducing his Istanbul.

Naples, Italy, has been the setting for four of Elena Ferrante’s books. (Shutterstock)

“What unifies them is a single guiding principle: Each story should leave the readers with a new perspective on an artist and the place that has somehow been a muse,” she says, and the anthology well meets the criterion.

And in three dozen-odd delightfully incisive, thoroughly informative and endearing pieces spanning cities, regions and routes over five continents by a range of writers retracing the footsteps of a favourite author, there is something for readers across genres.

Here are traced the settings that inspired works from Alice in Wonderland to Ferrante’s acclaimed Neapolitan coming of age quartet, from the Brothers Grimm’s fairytales to the gritty crime stories of Dashiell Hammett, and from the singular “romance” of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita to the surreal stories of Jorge Luis Borges.

And while there are many obvious spots like Rome, Paris, the coastal English “Wessex” of Thomas Hardy and the Madrid of Ernest Hemingway, there are many others not so obvious, including Alice Murno’s Vancouver, Antigua, Pablo Neruda’s Chile and even Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City and a Sri Lankan resort.

There is much to learn, including how Hardy invented the phrase “cliff-hanger”, how Hemingway cooked and what has survived war and revolution in St Petersburg.

A point to introspect for us can be why no Indian spot makes the cut, but that is ameliorated by the thrill of these essays meant “for the avid readers who can travel by simply turning a page” but also enjoyable for other travellers – armchair or potential.

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