Sunday, 2 February 2014

Places with a Voice - Mari Biella

One thing that I’ve always appreciated in fiction is a fully realised sense of place: a writer’s ability to bring a real or imagined landscape to life on the page or screen. Not too long ago, I read Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café, and found that it made the American Deep South – an area with which I’m actually unfamiliar – seem absolutely real and immediate. By the time I’d turned the last page, I felt that I’d just paid a visit to the Georgia town in which it was set. And, to McCullers’ credit, I hadn’t felt like a gormless tourist once, but almost like a local. Putting the book down, I was surprised to find myself back in Northern Italy on a chilly autumn night.

Many of my favourite books share this quality: they allow the reader to immerse him- or herself in the world in which the story occurs. In the hands of a skilled author, the reader can move quite easily through an unfamiliar place, and never feel like a stranger.

Place. It’s more than just a geographical location. It often ties in with intangible concerns such as identity, the elusive “sense of belonging”, and the landscape of the imagination. Unsurprisingly, given that I’m British, I’ve always felt most at home in the British countryside, whether it be the flat expanse of the Norfolk Broads or the rugged Welsh mountains. The British landscape – not, I suppose, the most beautiful or dramatic by any objective standards – holds a special place in my heart. I set my novel The Quickening in the windswept Lincolnshire Fens, which always seemed to me a good setting for a ghost story. My forthcoming novella Loving Imogen, on the other hand, is set in an ordinary British provincial town, much like the one where I grew up. In both of these works I’ve tried hard to evoke a complete and vivid world; whether or not I’ve succeeded is for others to judge.

Coming soon, as they say

One of the upheavals that affected me most deeply when I moved to Italy was, strangely enough, not the strange new currency or having to learn a foreign language, but the change in landscape. Italy is, of course, justly famous for its splendour. People come from all over the world to gaze at its hills, lakes and towns. I’m often told how lucky I am to be living in a country of such outstanding beauty. I am. At first, though, I felt little emotional or imaginative connection between the landscape and myself. That developed over time. It was a little like getting to know a new friend.

One place with which I soon developed a rapport was the town of Bergamo, near where I live in Lombardy.

Bergamo at its most beautiful
Bergamo is one of Europe’s prettiest towns, and one of Italy’s lesser-known gems. It doesn’t get the tourist traffic of Venice, Rome or Florence, of course; those cities are in a league of their own. However, compared to other Italian towns of a similar size (and greater fame), Bergamo can hold its head high. Not for nothing did Stendhal call Bergamo’s Piazza Vecchia “the most beautiful square on Earth”.

Bergamo is a paradox. The sternly handsome modern town is a place of wide boulevards and light industry. The old town, standing on its hilltop, is a mysterious cityscape of domes and spires and belltowers. Overlooking the Lombard plain on one side, and glowered over by the foothills of the Alps on the other, it stands between worlds. It is located far inland, and yet was once ruled by Venice (a Venetian lion gazes out over the Piazza Vecchia). The main thoroughfares pull you in with their bright lights and cheerful shopfronts; take a walk there on an average evening, and you’ll join a large crowd of smartly-dressed, chattering Italians taking the traditional passeggiata. Step away from the main roads, though, and you’ll soon find yourself in an echoing labyrinth of lanes: a place of dank, dimly-lit alleys, crumbling walls, and sudden dead ends. It is a place where past and present, and beauty and menace, meet.

Off the beaten track in Bergamo
It is also, I’m beginning to think, the perfect setting for a story.

“Some places speak distinctly,” Robert Louis Stevenson said. “Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwrecks.”

Bergamo is a place that speaks, a place with a voice. Will it speak through me? I’m not sure; it’s too early to tell. I’m jotting down notes for a story – highly imaginative working title “Bergamo Story” – but plenty of my stories have never got past this preliminary stage. However, it gives me an excuse to spend plenty of time in Bergamo, ostensibly for research purposes.

After all, there’s nothing quite like a fully realised sense of place.


Kathleen Jones said...

Lovely blog Mari - you conveyed the atmosphere of Bergamo brilliantly. I'm a little further south in Pietrasanta - also adjusting to the shift from the UK. But I've found the transition quite creative. Good luck with the 'Bergamo story'!

Lydia Bennet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lydia Bennet said...

yes Italy is beautiful, I don't know Bergamo, perhaps we'll have a AE coach tour of your and Kathleen's necks of the woods! Sense of place is so important in fiction and poetry too, it's an added pleasure to any book.

Dan Holloway said...

So lovely to see you here. Place is so important, and places can speak to us like beloved characters. I think when that happens for a writer, the reader can tell, and it gives books an extra dimension.