After recently coming across Novalis’ statement that the true reader must be an extension of the author, I began thinking about how readers become the final “producers” of the “screenplay” they’re reading and more specifically, about how the settings in novels and stories are constructed in the reader’s mind. While reading the first volume of Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’ not too long ago, I had imagined the setting of the fictional town Combray to be based on the neighbourhood where I live, Ealing. My flat, located in a two-story ex-council building, became not unlike a stage on which the narrator’s childhood house in Combray was constructed. My room had become the narrator’s bedroom. It lost its stacks of papers, books and Ikea-esque furniture and acquired high ceilings and long curtains that flanked the now wooden-framed windows. The narrator’s “magic lantern” which would project colourful figures of a medieval knight and castle, now cast these figures onto my wallpaper. The view from the windows changed from that of a small back garden with a clothes hanger to that of a vast garden with an orchard visible in the distance. My room on the ground floor had now moved to the first floor and was found at one end of a long corridor lined with paintings in ornate frames. At the other end of the corridor was a staircase which lead down to my living room where, the narrator writes, the family would entertain dinner guests. The view from this dining room window incorporated my neighbour’s trees through which could be seen the distant steeple of Combray’s church.
This hybrid house and neighbourhood came into being as I began to modify my flat and surroundings to more closely match the descriptions of the narrator’s house and surroundings. I hadn’t consciously decided to base Combray on Ealing, rather, the spatial arrangement of my neighbourhood and street had simply “appeared” in Proust’s descriptions. The fact that I read most of the book at home might explain why the surrounding environment had somehow become part of the novel. With other novels it seems that the settings are usually based on familiar places: those from everyday life, those remembered from childhood or settings from films.
Last year I had a similar experience of my surroundings being used in imagining a place. While travelling on a train at dusk somewhere in southern Poland, the landscape outside the window seemed to have seeped into Borges’ short story, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, which I was then reading. The narrator describes the history and structure of the utopian world, Tlön, which he learns about from a single volume of an encyclopaedia of Tlön. The existence of this planet, though, remains uncertain throughout the story. Created (or imagined) by a secret group of scientists, this world is governed by a Berkeleyan idealism. On Tlön, novels and stories have plots that include all possible variations. Objects can cease to exist once someone forgets them (once a doorway disappeared after a beggar who would visit it often died). The snow-covered fields I saw from the train window began to provide an image of Tlön and it became a planet whose external features would solely consist of fields of snow, occasional railroad crossings, derelict small railway stations, signal boxes and forests, all in a perpetual dusk. (Other objects and places perhaps had already disappeared as a result of being forgotten.) The story continues on to describe how the press then spread the discovery of the literature about Tlön and soon after our world was obliterated by Tlön. Its history replaced our history, its language would soon replace English, Spanish and French. The world would become Tlön. It would become vast expanses of snow and railway track at dusk.
In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cites, Marco Polo describes to Kublai Khan the cities he has seen in his travels. By the end of the novel, it becomes apparent that all the cities refer in fact to Venice. One of the cities, Baucis, is a city entirely built on stilts projecting from the ground and extending above the clouds. Marco Polo states that one possible explanation for the placement of the city above ground is the inhabitants’ love for the earth as it was before they had existed. Consequently they prefer to observe the uninhabited earth with telescopes. If Baucis’ inhabitants prefer to observe from a distance, then maybe they are like readers, looking down into another place or planet, their view of it partly obscured as a result of that distance and partly created through their imagined presence in that other space.
Julie Rafalski is an artist living and working in London, especially in video. Is she Polish? American? Perhaps ‘European’ makes more sense. Julie Graduated from the Slade in 2006 and has contributed to the Henningham Family Press since 2005. In one film she asked Polish contacts what was missing under Soviet influence, but soon conversation turns to what is missing today; the oppressed exchange one lack for another.