The Written World: Białowieża, and Other Forests Primeval

We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone.

–          Franz Kafka, Letter to Oskar Pollak

Litro’s Poland issue got me thinking about the woods.  You see, there’s a forest in Poland which is arguably the most important in Europe.  Puszcza Białowieska.  The largest surviving remnant of the vast primeval forest that would once have sheltered all of Europe under a single green roof.

They say that the Białowieża Forest is where we all once were.  Once upon a time, gnarled and ancient trees such as those now confined there grew from the steppes to the Atlantic.  Men and women painted in woad tracked elk and wolf through thicket and glade.  The plants were the people’s gods and their sustenance, their shelter and their fuel and their secrets.  They shared them with the wisent, the European wood bison, the last herd of whom still graze in the darkest depths of the Białowieża.

Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.

–          William Wordsworth

We live in a romantic era.  It might not seem that way, when we wake after too many whiskies in a rain-drenched concrete jungle, but we do, at least as far as our woodlands are concerned.  When we talk about nature we talk like 19th-century poets.  We cast it as beautiful and more honest.  We are nature-lovers.  We retreat to nature, set nature to symphonies on our television sets, frame nature on our walls.  Last year, when the British Government tried to privatize the country’s forests, there was uproar, even from those who visit forests rarely.  We like, I think, to know the woods are there for us.  They’re a safe haven.  They’re like an elderly and wise grandmother we might visit when urban life gets tough.  She gives us a sense of permanence, a sense that our lives are rooted in older things.

This is, of course, a deeply selective love.  Real nature is full of disease and poison and predators, but we don’t hang pictures of slime mould over the mantelpiece.  British forests in particular have been carefully managed to keep the unseemly at bay.  If it threatened to kill us we killed it back, long ago.  Our woods are gardens now, which we can retreat to for pleasure, but which have little of the true wild about them.  But Białowieża?  It is still as wild as it was at the dawn of time.

…Now the great flaming wheel
On the treetops descends, and a misty gloom steals
Down on crowns, trunks and branches, and lower descends,
The whole wood now unites, as if fuses and blends;
And the forest looms black like a mansion gigantic.

–          Adam Mickiewicz, Pan Tadeusz (trans. Marcel Weyland)

Just like mansions gigantic, very old forests are invariably haunted. Białowieża Forest is no exception.  When the Nazis occupied Poland, Hermann Göring seized Białowieża for his own pleasure.  It is one of the ironies of history that the idea of the pure, primal wood compelled Göring to protect it from deforestation.  Other senior Nazis wanted to fell the trees to eradicate shelter for resistance fighters and to create agricultural land to support the Reich.  But for Göring, as Simon Schama puts it:

It was a heiliger Hain, a “sacred grove.”  Not a leaf was to suffer hurt.  Fur and feathers were to be strictly protected.  For the elk and bison were now his elk and bison – German elk and bison.

–          Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory

Göring set about ensuring that Białowieża matched his own romanticized image of the primeval forest, and anything that didn’t fit into his vision he attempted to eradicate.  Louise Murphy’s novel, The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, describes some of what that felt like on the ground.  It follows the story of a young boy and girl left in the Białowieża by their parents, in the late days of the Nazi occupation.  They assume the names of their fairy-story counterparts to try to cover up their Jewishness, and their story somewhat mirrors that of the one told by the Brothers Grimm.  It is a moving novel but a hard one, full of the grim realities of the era.  Its Białowieża is a harsh forest of hiding places, both a refuge for its child heroes and a place in which their enemies can conceal executions.  Dangers and helpers both emerge suddenly from among the trees, but whereas the children become dirty and wild-haired like the peasant folk who aid them, the Nazis are shown to be inorganic monsters.  A trio of soldiers are described as passing, ‘One in front.  Two behind in perfect formation.  Precision even at midnight on a dirt road while chasing subhumans in eastern Poland.’

 The original Hansel and Gretel tale resonates for the same reasons that Louise Murphy’s novel does:  vulnerable children, at the mercy of both nature and amoral adults, make for compelling characters.  Although we wouldn’t much like to, we can all imagine what would probably happen to children lost in the forests of the real world (The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, while carefully researched and full of much truth, is not actually a true story).  In fiction, at least, children left in the forest tend to survive.  What’s interesting is who saves them.  It’s rarely the adults who do so, but nature itself.  Even in a folk tale as rarely bleak as Babes In The Wood, in which the two wandering infants do perish, nature affords them some final dignity when a robin buries them under leaves.

Children are saved by the forest all of the time.  From the Narnia books to Where the Wild Things Are, the forest serves as a place of liberation from the dangers of the adult world.  It might very well be terrifying, it might flash fangs at them along the way, but among the trees children learn their own power to withstand.


The great black forest – stern as it showed itself to those who brought the guilt and troubles of the world into its bosom – became the playmate of the lonely infant, as well as it knew how.  Sombre as it was, it put on the kindest of moods to welcome her … A fox, startled from his sleep by her light foot-step on the leaves, looked inquisitively at Pearl … A wolf, it is said, – but here the tale has surely lapsed into the improbable, – came up, and smelt of Pearl’s robe, and offered his savage head to be patted.’

–          Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

It is good to know that the Białowieża Forest sits under its own green shadows on the edge of Europe, despite its tortured history.  It is good to know that somewhere beneath its canopy the last of the European bison chew the cud, and it is good to think of them as the hoofed populace of some wilder time, still plodding through the tangled primeval forest.  Yet even in this precious relic of a place, history impedes a good story.  Today’s bison are all descendents of zoo-bred animals.  The last wild European wood bison was eaten in 1919.  Praiseworthy game-keepers, conservationists and forest-managers have worked wonders to rebuild a single herd, bringing the animals in to feed for the winter, monitoring their numbers, trying to teach them how to live independently in the woods.

To look too closely at nature is to spoil the fictions we create about it.  We know full well that the domain of human things isn’t, whatever else it may be, innocent, but to romanticize nature is to give the world its innocence back.  That is sometimes more valuable than telling the truth.  In stories, children get lost in primeval forests and are rescued by wolves and fauns and wild things because we adults need to believe such places remain with us.  Then we may have hope that we, too, might wander under their branches some day.

The Written World: Deserts

In the third instalment of his column, The Written World, author Ali Shaw explores the desert as the cradle of literature, religions and wars, and also as a mirror held up to ourselves – in which we may or may not like what we see.

Here there is sand.  There is camel, cactus and vulture.  A line of white bones staggered through the dust. A watering hole, sometimes, which proves when you reach it to be nothing but a prank, played by the sweltering air on your thirsty mind.

A third of the Earth’s land mass is desert, so it’s no surprise that a great deal has been written about it. As will be the norm with this column, we’re only going to get through a small selection here, but one deliberate omission are the American deserts and border country, which we’ll look at on their own in the future. The deserts the following writers talk about are those where the dromedary treads, chiefly the Arabian Desert and the Sahara, which is currently expanding at a few thousand square kilometres a year.

It is in the deserts and high places that religions are generated. When men see nothing but bottomless infinity over their heads they have always had a driving and desperate urge to find someone to put in the way.

—Terry Pratchett, Jingo.

It’s striking that such barren landscapes as deserts have had such a fertile effect on all things cultural, not least literature. Deserts have inspired the creation of extraordinary things, among them literature’s socially awkward older brother, religion.

In centuries past, before television and overseas travel helped us picture and perhaps even perspire in the desert, the British at least had only an imagined landscape of sand and symbolism, heavily informed by the Bible. Old Testament and New, the Biblical desert was where you were tested. Your every moral fibre strained and thirsted for survival, and should it be found lacking you could expect your dues of pestilence and smiting fire.

But God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red sea: and the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt… And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire.

Exodus 13: 18-21

In more recent years, with many more people sceptical of religion (not least because of its forays into the deserts from which it came), we might assume that we’ve developed an entirely new way of thinking about the desert. Yet a culture has a kind of DNA and, wherever we look upon the helix of desert literature, we’re likely to find an older symbolism at work: that the sandy wastes are the greatest leveller and examiner we might ever face. Here’s Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias, published in 1818, in which the land itself is just as decimating as any vengeful god.

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

—Percy Shelley, Ozymandias.

Contemporary writers, at least in the Western world, are unlikely to try to proselytise through their writing, but nevertheless their deserts work to the same effect as did those of more ancient imaginations.

In Jim Crace’s novel Quarantine, a manipulative trader named Musa encounters Jesus during his forty days spent in the desert. Crace is an atheist, as he outlines in his introduction to the American edition, but the book is no polemic and he writes Jesus with a great deal of humanity.  Yet it is the land, not any god, that shapes the development of both his Jesus and Musa.  “[The scrub] was a less forgiving, more dogmatic host, despising doubt and mocking faith at once, and favouring the predatory, whatever their beliefs.” Crace’s desert is an even-handed judge who, just as it passes verdict, demands that those who set foot in it scrutinise themselves.

There was also something rich, at times, about the scrub, despite itself. Something sustaining, unselfish, fertile even.  Perhaps this was because it made no claims.  It did not promise anything, except, maybe, to replicate through its array of absences the body’s inner solitude.

—Jim Crace, Quarantine.

Is it any wonder that fire and sand lead to such introspection? Perhaps the blasted purity of the desert landscape moves the human mind to burn back on itself like an internal sun. Such is its allure. Just as we saw when we looked at the North Pole, extreme climates promise to either annihilate us or show us what we really are. It’s a beguiling promise, because we like looking in mirrors, but I fear that what the desert shows us might sit uncomfortably.

The history of deserts has always been one of wars, one of hell on earth, as if men have stared into their own souls in the wilderness and seen that they are bloodthirsty by nature. Writers through the ages have tried to draw some sense out of it, and are still trying in the teeth of today’s many crises. The American poet Brian Turner, who was a soldier in the most recent Iraq war, returns to the desert battlefields in his collections Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise.

They say the Garden of Eden blossomed here

long ago, and this is all that remains,

wind scorpions and dust, crow-like jays

cawing their raspy throats in memory.

—Brian Turner, from Mihrab in Here, Bullet.

Turner goes on to say, in the same poem, that, “if there is a heaven it is so deep within us we are overgrown.” It is hard to find any traces of heaven when we look into ourselves in the desert, so perhaps hope can be found in the voices of those who rarely depart it. I’d like to point you to this excellent article about Arab poetry of the desert, by Maysa Abou-Youssef Hayward. She finds, in Arabic poetry, the same laments over the horrors and causes of wars as can be found in the writings of Western war poets, but offers the following caveat.

For city dwellers, the desert is death and decay, a sign of destruction, forced exile, and a reminder of the absence of a homeland. For Bedouins, desert dwellers, the desert is a living presence, a place for establishing community, connection, and identity.

—Maysa Abou-Youssef Hayward, in Communities at the Margins: Arab Poetry of the DesertArid Lands Newsletter #50, University of Arizona.

Through an investigation of Bedouin poetry, Hayward uncovers a very different way of looking at the desert, one where the hostility of nature and the dangers of the scorching heat lead to a rich sense of community. In the desert, the Bedouin have to help each other in order to survive, and this ensures a level of kinship and hospitality that is the antithesis of the antagonism and bloodshed caused by those who have not learned to bear the sun.

But it was their true world.  The sand, the stones, the sky, the sun, the silence, the suffering, not the metal and cement towns with the sounds of fountains and human voices.  It was here – in the barren order of the desert – where everything was possible, where one walked shadowless on the edge of his own death.

—J.M.G. Le Clézio, Desert.

In J.M.G. Le Clézio’s lyrical novel, Desert, we follow Nour, a nomad boy, out of the hamada towards Morocco. In the first few chapters of this book alone, there are countless wonderful sentences I’d love to quote from, but it’s the word “shadowless” that I love so much here, implying that the land will abide not the slightest trace of those who walk on it. There is no way to forget your own mortality in the desert, and if at last you stagger out into greener spaces, you never forget what you learned on the sand. The desert comes with you, almost literally burned into your being. The Sahara creeps larger every year. Should you come to terms with it, as the nomads do, you may find in it an impetus and a liberation.

Let’s end with something by Michael Ondaatje, from The English Patient, a book about dealing with the scars of fires both actual and figurative. When it comes to the desert, this passage tells it all:

The desert could not be claimed or owned – it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East. Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures, left nothing behind, not an ember. All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscape. Fire and sand.

—Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient.

The Written World: The North Pole

Ali Shaw looks at the enduring idea of the North Pole in imagination and literature, a mysterious place of supernatural beings, prisons, snow palaces, eternal nights and endless days, the point where the world stops turning.

At the top of the world is a white land where the snow decides everything, where the wind blasts so cold it can burn you, where prismatic lights dance in the sky. Here a year is but a single day and its torturous evening. To here all compass needles point. The god of this land is the white bear, making red riddance of the seals who gasp up through the ice. To come here you must risk not only the bear’s meathook claws but the jaws of the orca, the nose of the wolf, perhaps even the magic of some stranger being stepping across the tundra, for in the far north they tell tales of mad devils and snow witches, and of Qalupalik and the Waheela.

Few even try to journey here, and those who do are adventurers all, seasoned by easier extremes. To come here means sleds and huskies, ice picks and snow caves, frostbite and hunger and perhaps even cannibalism and perhaps, worse, a seeming eternity spent with only the blizzard of your own thoughts for company. Should you survive, should you break far enough through the ice, you may come at last to one of only two points on the planet where the world stops turning, and it is this place, this North Pole, that draws all brave souls just as it draws their compasses.

Or so it goes.

In truth there are two North Poles, and neither of them stays still. First there is the northern axis of the Earth, currently poking out of the sea about 430 miles off the coast of Kaffekluben Island.  Second is the North Magnetic Pole, currently wavering towards Russia from Ellesmere Island, where you will find yourself if you follow your compass to its utmost. Often the North Poles are underwater, often they are sealed up by ice. It is dull up there and very cold, and while there are occasional signs of bears and detouring seabirds, there isn’t much in the way of wildlife or spectacle.  Do not believe them when they tell you that real life is stranger than fiction.

In the early 20th century, the idea of the North Pole drew many an intrepid explorer, often to their deaths. There is still controversy over precisely who got there first, so Robert E. Peary’s subdued account of his arrival there, heralded as the first by any human being, may be a work of polar fiction.

If it were possible for a man to arrive at 90° north latitude without being utterly exhausted, body and brain, he would doubtless enjoy a series of unique sensations and reflections. But the attainment of the Pole was the culmination of days and weeks of forced marches, physical discomfort, insufficient sleep, and racking anxiety. It is a wise provision of nature that the human consciousness can grasp only such degree of intense feeling as the brain can endure, and the grim guardians of earth’s remotest spot will accept no man as guest until he has been tried and tested by the severest ordeal.

–          Robert E. Peary, The North Pole

Merсator_north_pole_1595Long before any explorer attempted to reach the Pole, the world’s readers had paid regular visits in their imaginations. In  the 14th century, a book entitled Inventio Fortunata was presented to Kind Edward III. It was the account of a Franciscan friar who had travelled the North Atlantic in the early 1360s, and it contained what is believed to be the first account of the North Pole.  Regrettably, the book was lost, and all that remained was a paraphrase in a second book, the Itinerarium, written by Jacobus Cnoyen in the 1490s. This, too went astray, but a third iteration survived in the letters of the 16th century cartographer Gerardus Mercator, wherein he retold Cnoyen’s retelling of the Inventio Fortunata’s account as follows.

In the midst of the four countries is a Whirl-pool, into which there empty these four indrawing Seas which divide the North. And the water rushes round and descends into the Earth just as if one were pouring it through a filter funnel. It is four degrees wide on every side of the Pole, that is to say eight degrees altogether. Except that right under the Pole there lies a bare Rock in the midst of the Sea. Its circumference is almost 33 French miles, and it is all of magnetic Stone (…) This is word for word everything that I copied out of this author Jacobus Cnoyen years ago.

–          A letter dated 1577 from Mercator to John Dee, presented in a paper by E. G. R Taylor

Jules Verne imagined just such a magnetic mountain in his 1875 novel The Field of Ice. “The new continent was only an island,” he wrote, “or rather a volcano, fixed like a lighthouse on the North Pole of the world. The mountain was in full activity, pouring out a mass of burning stones and glowing rock. At every fresh eruption there was a convulsive heaving within, as if some mighty giant were respiring.” Verne’s central character, a polar explorer, is so determined to set foot on the Pole that he strides into the heart of that lava. The Pole is often portrayed as such an other-worldly place, and that’s what gives rise to tales of its other-worldly denizens. The bulk of the narrative in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is framed by the account of a Polar explorer who comes upon the monster in the blistering ice fields. In Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, the terrifying Gobblers conduct their experiments at Bolvangar research station, where their deeds can be concealed behind snowstorms. The Arctic in such stories is a land as much beyond the bounds of morality and the human psyche as it is beyond the limits of survivability. You do not stay in the Arctic, you escape, and doing so always requires more than just a snowmobile. There are prisons there, like Bolvangar, and like the Snow Queen’s palace in Hans Christian Andersen’s masterpiece, where “the walls were made of drifting snow and the windows and doors of razor-sharp winds.  There were over a hundred halls, all of them shaped by the drifting snow… so empty, so icy cold, and so glittering.”

There are, of course, those who long ago mastered the art of survival in such conditions, whose architectures are ingenious not because they cage and torture but because they turn the fabric of hostile nature into a protection against itself. In The Snow Tourist, Charlie English recounts his experience of igloo building in Iqaluit, Qikiqtarjuaq. “There were few better building materials than snow,” he writes. “There was something perfect about its transience. What structure could exist in better harmony with the earth than an igloo, which creates no waste and leaves no footprint?” The Inuit are believed to have learned much of their snowcraft from a prior indigenous culture, the Dorset People (I like this, being a Dorset person myself), but we don’t have much of a record of them. What we do have are the Inuit’s wondrous traditional stories, which tell us more about life around the Pole than any explorer’s temporary stay. Crow Brings Daylight, for example, gives an insight into what day-to-day life might feel like if a day lasts for six months. In that tale, the Inuit live for an eternity in darkness, until Crow flies south and steals for them an orb of daylight. After flying it home to the Arctic, he smashes it against the ice, whereupon light bursts forth and illuminates the world. After many months the light fades, but Crow instructs the Inuit not to despair.  The orb will slowly regain its powers, and in half a year the light will shine again.

The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, in his book Escapism, records this of the Inuit, “Happy people have no reason to think; they live rather than question living. To Inuits, thinking signifies either craziness or the strength to have independent views. Both qualities are antisocial and to be deplored.” The type of thinking Tuan is referring to here is the kind that questions why the world is the way that it is, as if to question it might be somehow to change it. That kind of thinking is often valued in Western cultures, but perhaps the ice does not abide such self-indulgence. Ted Hughes wrote a short story, Snow, in which an amnesiac wanders five months in an Arctic blizzard, with only his dreams to inform him of the memories he might have had from his life before. Yet this wanderer tries diligently to drive from his mind all thoughts unrelated to survival. “They are the infiltrations of the snow,” he says of such things, “encroachments of this immensity of lifelessness. But they enter so slyly! We are true they say, or at least very probably true, and on that account you must entertain us.”

Perhaps this is the real magnetism of the Pole, the thing that draws the restless spirit of the explorer: that to strive to reach it is to purge all other thoughts and achieve simplicity, a kind of barren purity that only the stilling of the Earth can provide. Robert E. Peary said, “The determination to reach the Pole had become so much a part of my being that, strange as it may seem, I long ago ceased to think of myself save as an instrument for the attainment of that end. To the layman this may seem strange, but an inventor can understand it, or an artist, or anyone who has devoted himself for years upon years to the service of an idea.” It seems to hold true that the deathliness of the landscape is the same thing as its beauty. That the chafing cold might rip away all human superficiality and face us with the naked cores of our selves.

Amy Sackville, in The Still Point, describes the ice of the polar regions in the most elegant prose I have found on the topic. She writes this:

It is beautiful, he thought, as they stood in despair looking out at the sculpted surface. Like an ocean in arrest. Crests and flats, the light trapped in hollows, elsewhere deep blue shadows pooling, or a roseate rainbow in a translucent arc of ice; in places the snow curved over itself, a wave in the moment before breaking, creating a cave that he longed to curl into. Such a landscape is beautiful indeed, and treacherous and almost impossible to cross.

–          Amy Sackville, The Still Point

Then there is this, from Jack London, albeit written about land further south, but of the same inhospitable cold.

The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness — a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.

–          Jack London, White Fang

For those of us who venture there, the Pole is an absolute. A kind of surgery. Only day, then only night. It is the closest thing we have, living as we do on a globe, to the end of the Earth, and therefore perhaps the closest thing we have to any kind of certainty. For those of us who are never likely to brave that journey, save in our reading, the Pole is fiction and reality blurred. There, on the frontier of the inhabitable world, we can perhaps still believe in armoured bears and snow queens, and be all the better for it.


My thanks to everyone who sent me pieces to include here: I’m sorry I couldn’t use everything. Thanks, too, to those of you who sent me ideas for Antarctica.  I’m going to use those in a future entry.
Next time, we’re going to crank up the temperature and head after the mirages of the desert. I’m not sure which desert we’ll travel through just yet, since it depends on what literature I can find. Perhaps it will be the Sahara, perhaps it will be all the deserts of the equator. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve read anything on the subject, any fiction or poetry or travel writing (or anything else) that stood out for you. You can drop me an email, get in touch on twitter, or simply leave a comment in the section below.

The Written World: An Introduction

Let us be frank. No place we ever read about, be it the grandest mansion, the humblest hovel, the village shuttered up for sleep, the city bristling alive all night, the jungle filled with steam and chirruping insects, the mountain making us feel impossibly small, none of them exists entirely. We make them up as we read of them. We prank ourselves.

Sometimes we know it’s a lie as soon as we read it. That’s when we hear about fairy-tale forests, or make-believe shires, or spaceports floating in alien atmospheres. Those times, we let our guard down while we’re reading, pretending to believe until the last page turns and the covers close. Then we marvel at the fanciful sights we have seen as we return to our granite world of supermarket visits, dirty dishes and more laundry than it ever seems possible to be rid of.

Other times we flirt with belief. That’s when we read of times long past, of grand palaces and forgotten fashions, horse-drawn carts clattering down cobbled roads, tall ships cresting the waves of bright blue oceans. Although we know these things have faded into history, we have faith in what we read about them. Yes, we tell ourselves, I believe that it was like that all those years ago. It is easy to muddle the permanence of a tangible location with the images of such a place that we build up when we read. Sometimes we can still visit the place, stand on the milestones of history and imagine their stories passing by. Then it’s all too tempting to think that the brick and mortar, the rock and dirt we’re surrounded by, is somehow related to the words we once saw on a page.

Good literature gets into the parts of our minds where our perceptions are formed. Things we read about take on qualities as “real” as things we’ve actually seen. It can happen with both characters and landscapes, but it’s easier to compartmentalise a character. We know that people come and go, but that’s not how we think of places. They take demolition, long erosion or catastrophe to wipe away.

Most crafty of all are the stories set in the present day, in places so familiar that we might have even lived there. These can dupe us hook, line and sinker. The more their accounts tally with our own lived experience, the more it seems that the places we read about and the places that we’ve been are one and the same. The words can feel like souvenirs, like clods of soil dug out of the earth we’ve walked on.  We say things like, “That’s just what it’s like when you’re there,” or, “They really captured that in words.”

Truth is, it’s the words that capture us. They may have absolutely nothing to do with the actual atoms of a place, but such is their genius that twenty-six Latin symbols and a handful of dots and dashes, clustered into bundles long and short, can transport us anywhere. Language is a boat or a jet plane. It can make us believe that looking at lines of ink on a page can somehow be equivalent to staring into the depths of the ocean or gazing out across a mountain range. So when we visit a place for the first time, having read something striking about it, it’s hard to remember that we have never actually been there. Our minds are always ready to muddle fictitious experience with the blunt reality of where our bodies have been.

Perhaps there is a danger in this, and we should be wary of literature’s wiles. Perhaps it is something to celebrate, one of humanity’s most liberating inventions. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. Because I’m not sure either way of perceiving a place is any less “real” than the other.

“This is how we see the world,” said the painter René Magritte (see picture above). “We see it as being outside ourselves even though it is only a mental representation of what we experience on the inside.” Language knows this. In that part of our brain where we make a picture out of the things we hold to be true, it adds its own graffiti. This new column for Litro represents an effort to both applaud and warn against its work. I’m going to follow language around the world, observing its behaviour on its migrations. I’m going to play the willing victim and let it lead me wherever it might wish, keeping a weather eye open along the way. I’m going to watch my footsteps carefully, and test the links between the landscapes of language and the hard geology I can feel beneath my feet.

My itinerary will be straightforward. With each instalment of this column, I’ll focus on a different location, be it a specific mountain, sea, or city, or a wider-ranging terrain (the tundra, the coral reef, the temperate forest). I’ll look at as broad a selection of writers as I can find, to get to grips with how each has summoned a particular landscape before their readers’ eyes. I can make no claims that the results will be exhaustive; I’m only eager for them to be interesting.

To that end, get your suitcases packed. As I write this, the snow is falling past my window and the day is the coldest yet in a freezing week. My first stop, then, will be the region surrounding the North and South Poles.

What may not be expected in a country of eternal light? I may there discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle; and may regulate a thousand celestial observations… and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man.

— Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

I hope that those of you reading this may be able to help with directions. Have you come across any great ways in which writers have described the Pole — either its Arctic surroundings or its southern twin? Anything from a favourite novelist or poet, or from a travel writer or biographer? Nonfiction is better at closing in on the solid facts of what a place is, although thanks to that tricky devil, language, even such accounts are likely to be removed from the tangible elements of the place itself.

Let me know your suggestions by commenting on this post or dropping me an email. I’ll use everything I can, adding it to the passages I find, and I’ll see you at the extremes ends of our world in a few weeks’ time.

Five Expressionist Shorts

I guess the thing that appeals to me most in fiction is an emphasis on expressionism: the literary equivalent of (bear with me) the German Expressionist painters from the start of the twentieth century.  Those painters broke with realist ways of depicting subject matter so that they could better convey emotion. Think of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. It’s not a realistic depiction of a man screaming, but nor is it some kind of fantasy. Munch has altered the way a screaming man would realistically look in order to try to convey a more realistic expression of a scream. To try to say, this is what a scream feels like, using colour and shape.

My favourite kind of fiction is anything that does a similar thing, albeit with sentences and paragraphs instead of oil and canvas. Prose that breaks with reality in order to address it in a way that can carry more emotional weight than straightforward realism, especially in the shorter form. Just as expressionism in painting can take many shapes, so too can expressionism in literature. I’m not trying to lump the following too closely together, but they all have this common: they break realism’s hard and fast rules to better convey human feeling.  There are so many brilliant examples I could pick, but these five seem like quite a balanced bunch, ranging from the light-hearted to the heavyweight literary classic.

  • Dan Rhodes – Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love. Although it wasn’t his first to be published, this is the first book that Dan Rhodes wrote. It contains seven exquisite love stories, each altering reality to express more poignantly or more humorously the feelings of the lovers they concern. A stand out story is The Violoncello, in which a man takes it upon himself to transform into a cello to be played by the hands of the woman he loves.
  • Stanley Donwood – Slowly Downward: A Collection of Miserable Stories.  Stanley Donwood is probably best known as Radiohead’s in-house artist and designer of their record sleeves, but he is also a writer of short stories. You can read most of his work on his website, or order it there in print. Be warned, this stuff is as dark as midnight on Friday 13th, but it’s full of striking, nightmarish imagery that cuts straight to your spinal chord. Fingers is a good place to start.
  • Jorge Luis Borges – The Book of Imaginary Beings. There are several beautifully illustrated editions of this book that it would be worth investing in, but the words themselves will paint the brightest pictures.  Borges’ playfully academic style is the perfect medium for this tour-de-force of creatures drawn from the strange depths of human imagination. You can fill a spare minute by opening it to a random page and reading about a weird and wonderful animal, or you can read the book in its entirety and immerse yourself in the monsters of humanity’s subconscious. Either way Borges’ conviction is clear: these made-up animals are an important part of humanity’s expression of itself. ‘Necessary monsters,’ he calls them.
  • Tim Burton – The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories. This one is just plain fun (and it makes a good present if you’re ever stuck for an idea). It’s a collection of simple, rhyming poems about children with magical and ghastly problems. The Girl who Turned Into A Bed and Stick Boy and Match Girl in Love are two examples where the title says it all. The book is as much about the accompanying cartoons as the poems, but set aside half an hour to read it in one sitting and you’ll be left with that glorious, pleasantly disturbed feeling unique to Tim Burton.
  • Franz Kafka – Metamorphosis and Other Stories. What can I say about this? Metamorphosis is the best short story I’ve ever read, and is justifiably as famous as it is.  But the Other Stories part of this collection is remarkable too. I like dipping into the tiny pieces that make up Meditation and A Country Doctor (among these The Sudden Walk is a choice example, and Kafka in his less-publicised uplifting mode), but the dark masterpiece of the book is, for me, In The Penal Colony, in which a government inspector visits an isolated colony and is given a guided tour of the most elaborately grotesque execution contraption you’re ever likely to come across. The sense of horror as the machine is described is compounded by the pride its operator feels in it. So proud is this operator, in fact, that he is determined to demonstrate the machine’s virtues to the inspector, even if that means offering up his own body for a test run… A perfect moment of expressionist literature—Kafka’s loathing of bureaucratic systems given mechanical form—but not for the faint-hearted.

I hope you enjoy checking out some of these short works if you decide to do so. Likewise if you have any recommendations along these lines, please do post them below.