Old Paris leaves its clues everywhere, like the way the old street names remain in some places, only crossed out.
Looking up I see the sign for the Avenue d’Orléans, missing from my street plan, erased from the map, renamed after the liberation of Paris. There is something intriguing about this that suggests to me that somehow mapping the places, drawing a line from point A to B, even visualising them in space isn’t enough. I want to go there.
Literature is full of journeys and movements through space, and there is a growing interest in the geography of fiction and in spatial representations; in mapping fictional places and the routes and paths of fictional characters. This connects real and imaginary places, understanding them as made up of geographical layers and layers of stories.
There is also something unmappable about literature, too many blank spaces, too much that is uncertain. In my project, I am thinking about changing urban spaces and places that have vanished from the map. The idea of mapping the uncertain appeals to me. The places I am seeking are both the real locations and a subjective experience of them; they are a starting point for a fugitive kind of thinking and a blurring of the real and imagined. Rhys’s heroines walk the line between reality and fantasy.
Maps are about orientation, but I also want to think about disorientation and the disappearances and divergences that come about through walking, when walking becomes about wandering without direction, rather than travelling from point A to B. Rhys’s books and the journeys they enact are non-linear. Often they are stuck in dead ends or repeated, static and circular movements. I find that adding places and street names to the map and connecting lines between them, is illuminating only to a point. It doesn’t account for the movement between.
Seeking the atmosphere Rhys portrays in her novels, I need to locate the streets as they were. With no prospect of time travel available, I experience an epiphany. I will find old maps to use for my research. Maps which date to the time the books were written. Maps of the streets as Rhys would have known them and as walked by Rhys heroines in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
The maps open something up, a passage through: they are like a leap of imagination. I am remembering going to see the Jean Rhys archive collection at the British Library, and how profoundly moving it was to see those papers and manuscripts, her handwriting. It is something to do with touch, with holding the map in my hands and walking the streets; the measure of my footsteps.
Place, travel and exploration have always been amongst the most fundamental elements of literature. Our poetry, our fiction, our drama is itself a mapping of the world, wide-ranging, highlighted in some parts, dark in others, always changing in space and time. A very large part of our writing is a story of its roots in a place: a landscape, region, village, city, nation or continent.
Much more of it is an odyssey of travels: of adventure, discovery, exploration, pilgrimage, journeys to new worlds. What’s more, places themselves are changed by what is written of them, and take some of their meaning and mythic character from literature.
Malcolm Bradbury, ‘Introduction’, The Atlas of Literature.