Literary Landscape

by sunil on January 15, 2016

Literary Landscape: Old one, saving here for reference


I am doing Goethe’s Letters from Italy, which was bought 5 years back.(Yes, shameless I know). Reading it now refreshed one of the questions that has been bugging me for sometime .

Past the first twenty pages and I am totally awed at Herr Goethe’s ability in wordpainting the Italian landscape, which he is visiting for the first time. I must say that the rich and the vivid description converts any reader into a companion travelling along, inescapably hooked onto his admiring prose.

For instance this paragraph , giving an account enroute to Verona:

The Adige now flows more gently and in many places forms broad islands of pebbles. Along the river banks and in the hills everything is planted so thickly that you would imagine each crop must choke the other-maize, mulberries, apples, pears, quinces and nuts.

Walls are covered with a luxuriant growth of dwarf-elder and thick-stemmed ivy clambers and spreads itself over rocks; lizards dart in and out of crevices, and everything that wanders about reminds me of my favourite pictures. The women with their braided hair, the bare-chested men in light jackets, the magnificent oxen being driven home from the market, the little heavily laden donkeys–all this animated scene makes one think of some painting by Heinrich Roos.

As evening draws near, and in the still air a few clouds can be seen resting on the mountains, standing on the sky rather than drifting across it, or when, immediately after sunset, the loud shrill of crickets is heard, I feel at home in the world, neither a stranger nor an exile. I enjoy everything as if I had been born and bred here and had just returned from a whaling expedition to Greenland.

This reminds me of yet another treat of a passage from Gatsby by fellow drunkard Scott Fitzgerald wherein he describes an American house:

We walked through a high hallway into a bright rose-coloured space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end, The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up towards the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-coloured rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.”

Both the examples made me wonder about the dynamics involved in the art of narrating the landscapes. And how with little influence on the actual plot or story it provides an appliance for writers to reflect their observational perspectives without being pushed to get on with the story. And in this regard I could say landscapes are the Macguffins for writers. I know, perhaps they might not actually be as trivial as a real MacGuffin in a movie but given the variable dynamics of both the media, it wouldn’t be such that they are completely beyond comparision.

This naturally led to one of those questions Mr Naipaul had left me lingering ages back. I think in one of his books, the name of which eludes me now, he expounds how one can tell the style and depth of a writer by knowing his account of landscape description. If Im not wrong in guessing, I think he was referring to Gandhi’s lack of it(landscape accounts) in his journals either in England or South Africa.

What do you folks think about landscape description? How important a tool do you think it is? And do you have any such accounts or passages that had a strong influence on you while reading. Raj, I know one of yours is ‘The Mercedes episode’ from Portrait.
And again inevitably, this following a discussion with one another friend , would you say that when it comes to landscape the Indian writers could be gauged on the same scale that weighs the authors from other parts of the world ? Mind you , lets not forget that the Indian landscape, both of the country and urban alike are far more lively, lush and unique. I’m sure that makes it more complicated to express it and especially so in a language which originally is not Indian. See, so many variables already.

My take on the last bit is, from what I have read of the Indian literature , although at moments it is sublime it mostly tends to be two dimensional and if otherwise seasoned with emotional ingredients. I would go on to include Mr. Seth’s descriptions in the same bracket too. But I would like to think I am wrong.That there are really good descriptions out there, which justify the salient identity of the indian landscape.

In specific, there is this vast unsung and orphaned library of vernacular literature. With members here being from different corners of what defines vernacular in every sense of the word, I would be obliged if you could share your pennies on this- landscape literature in general and few other interests raised above either here or in the group.

My main interest is to identify and understand the reasons behind how the European perspective went onto express itself abundantly in painting as against the reasons for the Indian perspective which did not express as much in painting as in other art forms.

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