Postcards from `Dante's Florence'

Robert Winder muses on the significance of a guidebook for the perplexed; The Atlas of Literature ed Malcolm Bradbury De Agostini, pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
There's a saying in the property market that nothing really matters except the three "L"s: location, location and location. Malcolm Bradbury, taking this to heart in his Atlas of Literature, seems to be seeking a new sobriquet for himself: The Geography Man. An undeniably handsome volume - a coffee-table account of what happened where in the world of books - his Atlas is also a serious attempt to demonstrate that novelists are really travel writers, even if they don't go anywhere. It proposes that literature has always been inspired by real places (hard to argue with that) and has also impregnated and transformed these places for future generations. The Introduction quotes Melville ("Nearly all literature, in one sense, is made up of guidebooks") and Eudora Welty ("Fiction depends for its life on places"), and refers to Bradbury's own conviction that "literature and geography are intimately related." It is, on the face of it, a good subject, and no one has charted it so thoroughly before. It isn't easy, admittedly, to think of "Dante's Florence" in the same breath as, say, "Hanif Kureishi's London". And the book does imply that all writers are basically up to the same thing, which is to compose allegories about where they live. But clearly we do think differently about the Lake District after Wordsworth; we do visit Dorset expecting to bump into Tess, Bathsheba and the Mayor of Casterbridge; and of course we can't look at the maps of northern France without recoiling at the bloody associations of the names: Ypres, Passchendaele, the Somme. These landscapes have been handed a poetic or mythical resonance not merely by what happened there, but by what was written there.

Bradbury has assembled a notable team of contributors: Arthur Miller on Broadway, Melvyn Bragg on Lakeland, Louis de Bernieres on Latin America, Terry Hands on Shakespeare's London, Justin Cartwright on South Africa, and many others. There are masses of appealing photographs, and the maps are clear and useful (though the one illustrating "Henry James' International Scene", an elaborate route plan over the north Atlantic, looks absurdly like a frequent-flyer special offer).

But it was perhaps risky, in a project demanding both breadth and balance, to include only six female contributors out of 44. And it might, on second thoughts, have been better to have had fewer, longer essays rather than so many brief summaries. The contributors seem to have been asked to write a couple of thousand words on their chosen place - "Cervantes' Spain", "Shakespeare"s London", "Kafka's Prague "Dylan Thomas's Wales and so on - mentioning no fewer than a dozen writers. Inevitably, no one has time to stop and look at the view, which one might have thought was the whole point. The book veers, time and time again, towards an extremely banal idea which finds its most dismaying expression in a caption about Mrs Gaskell. "Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell" we learn, "was one of the many novelists to write about the society she lived in". Well, knock me down with a feather.

It seems baffling too that a volume so clearly aspiring to be encyclopaedic should be so fitful and patchy. Everyone, coming to a project such as this, will have their own list of writers who seem like foolish omissions, but here the gaps are breathtaking. Malory? Proust? Nabokov? Tolstoy? Chekhov? Wodehouse? All of them would seem to have contributed hugely to our imaginary versions of the dark ages, fin-de-siecle France, Tsarist Russia and Edwardian England, but they don't get so much as a look in. Even among the contemporary writers who one would have thought merited inclusion - "Bellow's Chicago... Updike's East Coast" - there are start- ling gaps. Raymond Carver is famous for having mapped a specific slice of modern Americana, but he escapes the book's eagle eye along with his friend Richard Ford, who once went so far as to say: "Sometimes I think that geography alone is enough to inspire a writer." A pity, too, that the author of the Caribbean entry has not read Derek Walcott's magnum opus, Omeros, which makes a big deal out of transferring a landscape - "Homer's Aegean" - to the West Indies.

At its best - as when Bradbury himself explains how Washington Irving's rose-tinted view of England informed America's kitsch sense of this country; or when Arthur Miller rejects the thesis of the book and insists that Broadway was always crude, commercial and anti-art - the volume does stir fresh air into the relationship between literature and place. But all too often it drifts towards statements of the obvious. The essay on modern London complains that Martin Amis's lowlifes are "literary".

Things have come to a pretty pass when a work of literary criticism uses the word "literary" as a term of abuse.

Some of these lapses may be inevitable by-products of committee-produced volumes such as this. The captions, in particular, seem to have strayed from a children's history book. "The studies in psychoanalysis made by Sigmund Freud are today recognised throughout the world...Goethe created figures of almost mythical significance...The Second World War provoked a now boom in art and literature." Occasionally these numb sentiments creep into the text itself. "The novel," we learn, "is generally slower than poetry to react to the immediate moment." Quite what this tells us - apart from the fact that novels take longer to write than poems - is a mystery, And when I read, of Virginia Woolf, that "her work provides some of the best accounts we have of literary insight", I had to fight the thought that only a biologist could accurately name the place where this needed to be stuffed.

It is a great pity, since the intention was a fine one and the book is mostly straightforward and clean-cut. But it does lead one to doubt the whole idea that literature is significantly about "place" at all. Raymond Carver once wrote: "Literature is about people - does that need saying?" Maybe it does.