by Sarah Baxter, The Telegraph, March 7, 2019
It's World Book Day, so if you're stuck in the office today, fear not, you can still travel the world. You'll just have to use your imagination.
Writers build places. Sometimes they conjure make-believe realms, unfettered by rules of sense or science. But sometimes they evoke real ones – destinations you can find on a map. And sometimes they manage to make those real places feel more real than any photo ever could.
They render locations large in mere ink, perfectly capturing their sights, sounds, smells and essence, turning a previously blank sheet into a teleporter for the reader’s imagination.
In her new book, The Inspired Travellers’ Guide to Literary Places, Sarah Baxter reveals the finest locations that the world's greatest writers have captured in the world's greatest books. Here are some of her favourites.
Yorkshire Moors, England
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti called Wuthering Heights ‘a fiend of a book’ where ‘the action is laid in hell’. That ‘hell’ is the Yorkshire Moors, a bleakly beautiful swathe of hills and heath that provides the setting and defines the mood. The titular house is believed to be based on Top Withens, a 16th-century farmhouse near Haworth; its structure doesn’t match but its location does. Walk across the moor from Haworth parsonage – now the Brontë Museum – to the exposed stone ruin and it’s easy to think yourself into Emily’s pages.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2011)
You can feel the street-level wretchedness seeping out of My Brilliant Friend, which throws its heroines into the dirt and danger of post-war Naples. Just as pseudonymous Ferrante does not give her real name (the author’s identity remains a mystery), nor does she name the ‘neighbourhood’ at the heart of her four Neapolitan novels. But it’s widely believed to be the Rione Luzzatti, a working-class area just east of Centrale station, with a reputation for crime but also for showing an authentic side of the city.
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (1924)
The Magic Mountain is the tale of young man who goes to visit a tubercular cousin at a Swiss sanatorium and doesn’t leave, instead sinking rather happily into the insularity and decadence of sanatorium life. Mann’s Berghof sanatorium above Davos is a fiction. However, the Schatzalp, which opened as a clinic in 1900 and is now a smart hotel, is a good approximation; a Thomas Mann Way, dotted with quotations from the novel, now connects it to the affluent mountain town below.
New York, USA
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (1951)
Angsty antihero Holden Caulfield spoke to a generation – this posh kid who bums around Manhattan for a few days became a poster-boy for disaffected youth. Central Park is the book’s central location, and you can follow Holden’s trail through this great green lung: the vintage carousel, like the one Holden describes, is still spinning; sea lions still swim at the zoo; and the park-side Natural History and Met museums he recalls remain relatively unchanged.
Monterey, California, USA
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (1945)
Cannery Row is one of America’s most famous streets. John Steinbeck lived close to this noisy, sardine-stinking, down-and-out roamed avenue, and its sights, smells and characters leaked into his eponymous novel. Today’s Row bears little resemblance to Steinbeck’s – it’s a lot tidier now, the defunct canneries turned into restaurants and gift stores; the only sardines now swimming in the Monterey Bay Aquarium. But a few of the old shacks remain and the Pacific sparkles under the same California sun.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (1985)
Photo by alexmillos/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Márquez once confessed that “all of my books have loose threads of Cartagena in them”. And this is never more apparent than in Love in the Time of Cholera, set in a port near the Caribbean Sea – unnamed but unmistakeably Cartagena. The city’s walled Old Town remains as colourful and sensual as Marquez’s imagination; wander here, among bright houses and balconies draped with bougainvillea, and seek out Plaza Fernández de Madrid, the inspiration for the square where the novel’s hero pines for his true love.
Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa
Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer (1979)
Gordimer’s political novel was published when apartheid – ‘the dirtiest social swindle the world has ever known’ – still wracked South Africa. Initially banned for being dangerous and indecent, it’s a striking work of historical fiction in which the suffering is all too real. The ‘black backyard’ of Soweto features prominently. Then a dumping ground, it has – like South Africa – moved on since; where once only the bravest traveller ventured here, now it’s a vibrant Johannesburg must-see.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997)
Kerala oozes off the pages of this Booker-winning debut, which is less a book than a deep pool of colour, fragrance, heat, history and politics stirred by love and loss. It’s set in Ayemenem, a fictionalised version of Aymanam, where Roy spent time as a child. Now paddy fields cloak much of the area, the busy nearby town has spilled toward the village and the ‘History House’, where the book’s most tragic events occur, is now part of the Taj Garden Retreat.
Rue Catinat, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
The Quiet American by Graham Greene (1955)
Rue Catinat – now called Dong Khoi or ‘Uprising’ Street – is one of the oldest thoroughfares in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). It’s where Greene was based while working as a war correspondent in the city from 1951 to 1954. It forms the spine of his murder mystery/political parable set against the backdrop of the First Indochina War. Though no longer the opium-soaked expat enclave it was, you can still stroll the road and stop at some of the novel’s haunts, finishing with cocktails at the Majestic’s Rooftop Bar.
Hanging Rock, Victoria, Australia
Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay (1967)
Hanging Rock looms large in both the landscape and psyche of Australia. Rare and formidable, it is a mamelon, a mound of stiff magma that erupted, congealed and contracted around six million years ago, and has subsequently weathered to become ‘pinnacled like a fortress’. It’s also become a symbol of the strange, thanks to Lindsay’s creepy novel. Part of the Hanging Rock Recreation Reserve, it’s open to visitors, who can follow hiking trails around the Rock’s summit or, of course, have a picnic.
The Inspired Traveller’s Guide to Literary Places by Sarah Baxter is out March 7 2019 (White Lion Publishing; hardback £14.99).