A Sense of Place

by Derek Neal

One of those mysterious concepts that we use as a criterion for judging a novel or film is a “sense of place.” I call it mysterious because it’s so often poorly defined—we recognize it because we can feel it, but what goes into creating it? How can one go about transporting a reader, for example, into a time and place via text? I’m under the impression that if asked this question, most people would mention things like using the five senses to describe a character’s impressions of his or her surroundings, or providing detail via adjectives and adverbs. This may be a gross generalization, but it’s what I’ve gathered from my experience in creative writing courses. It’s also the sense I get from reading short stories in literary journals, which seem to be where aspiring writers publish their attempts at fiction. I often find this writing technically good, but lifeless; it has all the components of effective writing but doesn’t add up to anything compelling. I don’t mean to suggest that I could do better, but I do know what I enjoy reading and what I don’t.

Another way to create a sense of place, and this is my preferred method as a reader, is to include an abundance of proper nouns relating to real places, streets, and buildings. I’m not sure why this works. It would seem that this way of writing should only make sense for readers who have visited the places being mentioned, while readers unfamiliar with the locations might feel something lacking and be unable to create an image in their minds. But do we ever really create an accurate image of what we’re reading, or do the words on the page merge with our own ideas and create something unique in the mind of each individual reader? I’d say it’s the latter.

Perhaps it’s for this reason that what I’m describing works: by including proper nouns at the expense of (or in addition to) extensive description, the reader is allowed a way into the story, can personalize it in a sense by filling in the blanks and making the story their own. The inclusion of real places also allows the reader to bring their own preconceptions—factual or not—to the story. I’ve just pulled a novel from Patrick Modiano off the shelf and opened it to the first page, in search of an example of this idea. Modiano, a French writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014, is the writer who first made me think of this phenomenon of proper nouns—his writing overflows with names and places, submerging the reader into a post-World War II France that may or may not have existed. On the first page of Rue des Boutiques Obscures (Missing Person in English), the narrator, a private investigator, mentions a case he’s been working on and how it involves the wife of a man meeting a possible lover at a hotel on “Rue Vital, next to Avenue Paul-Doumer.” A few pages later, the narrator goes with his boss down “Avenue Niel, just until Place Pereire,” where they sit on the patio of a café called the Hortensias. At the beginning of the following chapter, the narrator arranges a meeting at a bar on “Rue Anatole-de-la-Forge.”

A quick Google search reveals that these are, in fact, real places, although Place Pereire is now called Place du Maréchal Juin; and there’s even a café called L’Hortensia, although one wonders which came first, the café or the book (published in 1978)? As I read these names and places, their initial appeal could be explained by their foreignness. To see a street called “rue,” or a square called “place,” or a name with “de la,” is simply attractive for the reader from a non-French speaking place, and the effect is only heightened if you read the book in translation, as these words will stick out all the more. I imagine the sensation is similar to those foreign readers who, upon reading an American novel and coming across “Main Street” and “Church Street,” feel the pull of the exotic. I still remember a conversation I had in France with a classmate who told me that he’d visited America and his favorite thing was seeing the suburbs, where each family had their own house and a big yard in which the children could run around. I couldn’t believe my ears, but he probably felt the same way when I told him the thing I liked best was to walk around the medieval streets of Old Lyon and sit in the cafés.

But the foreignness of these names cannot fully explain their appeal; I could have just as easily cited a Bret Easton Ellis novel and mentioned Sunset Boulevard and Melrose Avenue. Another explanation, perhaps, is that the inclusion of proper nouns anchors the story to a time and place, giving it a certain weight that would otherwise be lacking. This reasoning makes sense in the case of Modiano, as one of his main preoccupations is French collaboration during World War II and the country’s difficulty or unwillingness to acknowledge and remember this. Modiano’s novels, and in particular Rue des Boutiques Obscures (itself the possible name of a street), grapple with this question, attempting to locate and solidify the past while also acknowledging the inherent danger caused to our present reality in doing so. Indeed, the narrator of this novel, Guy Roland, begins the story in search of his own past. His name is not even his own but was given to him along with forged identity documents after amnesia caused him to lose his memory 10 years prior to the events of the novel. When he mentions his search to his boss, he is warned that it might not be worth it, and he recalls how upon being given his documents he was told “don’t look back, think only of the present and the future.” But the pull of the past is too enticing to ignore, and the story begins.

If the purpose of using real names and places is to preserve the past by making the story more factual, it seems to work. We can look these places up, even visit them if we feel like it, similar to those readers who go on literary pilgrimages in search of the places where their favorite stories have been set. But we’ve also seen how time marches on, and the names of streets and squares can and will change, leaving the past untraceable. Returning to Modiano’s novel, in the second chapter our narrator leaves the bar with an acquaintance, possibly someone from his past, and is driven to a restaurant “on the edge of Ville-d’Avray and Saint Cloud.” On the map of Paris, we can see that the places previously mentioned were in the 16th and 17th arrondissements, maybe not central Paris, but certainly within the city limits and not so far from the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower.

Now, however, we’re on the other side of the Seine and we’ve crossed the ring road surrounding Paris, the “Boulevard Périphérique,” which when seen on the map clearly delineates the city from the suburbs, or the banlieues. The Boulevard Périphérique was built upon the land of the Thiers Wall, a 19th century fortification meant to defend Paris, and the on and off ramps of the boulevard correspond to the ancient city gates. As Roland is driven out of Paris, he feels “a desire to jump out of the car,” going all the way to Ville-d’Avray “seems impossible,” and he has to “fight the panicky fear” all the way to Saint-Cloud. Roland is safe within the confines of Paris, ensconced in the city walls; outside these, his past is waiting for him.

Clearly, the story takes on a different meaning for the reader familiar with Paris. The rest of us must use a map to understand the deeper meaning present in the narrative, and most readers will not use a map; I certainly didn’t the first time I read the novel. And yet, the names and places still have an effect on the reader unfamiliar with them. The novel, like a film noir, is imbued with darkness and shadows, and when I read it, I can’t help but think of my own time spent in Paris, exploring the city streets at night and wandering along the banks of the Seine and the Canal Saint-Martin in late autumn, fog rising off the water and my breath misting in front of me.