Text and Place


I have been thinking over for a while the relation between literary texts and the places where they are set, an idea which I will call Intertextual Geography. My Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines Intertextuality as “a term coined by Julia Kristeva to designate the various relationships that a given text may have with other texts”.

What I think is that not only do places influence what is in texts, indeed many stories, James Joyce’s Ulysses is of course the prime example, are as much about place as they are about people, but that what we have read influences how we see places and, further, influences how those places are later written about, and more importantly, the places we have experienced influence how we read about those places.

So, intertextuality says that as we read we bring in to the reading allusions to other texts, sometimes in line with the author’s intentions and sometimes not, and so, likewise it is not possible for an author to describe a ‘real’ place or to describe events in a ‘real’ place without our superimposing our own knowledge of that place. And now I am saying that is also not possible for us to be in a place, or to see a place portrayed, without us superimposing on that place our readings about it.

The clearest recent example might be Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, a near-future dystopia, which is set in the inner western suburbs of Melbourne. I have worked in Footscray, in the warehouses along the Maribyrnong, (map here) and Lou, my non-driving son, lives nearby and walks and trains through the setting of the novel (although not yet via dodgy maps to San Francisco!). So it was easy to picture in my head the action of the novel as I read it, and then to re-think about the novel when I recently visited Lou and we walked and trained around some of those locations again (and discussed the novel). (Jane’s blog here)

As a long distance truck driver my life is all about place. These days, running north from Perth I am in a space occupied, in my mind at least, by Daisy Bates, Ernestine Hill, the Rabbit-Proof Fence girls, Coonardoo and Robyn Davidson as I have written previously. And there are others, Neville Schute’s Beyond the Black Stump (1956) is set on a sheep station in the desert country between Geraldton and Meekatharra and I used to work with a driver who grew up there.

A dozen years ago, when I first started thinking about this idea, I was a road train driver running out of Melbourne to North Queensland. The road goes up from Echuca, to Hay, Cobar, Bourke, Charleville, Roma, Emerald, Charters Towers and Townsville. The Murray River and the Hay plains are Tom Collins (Such is Life) country, and as we rounded the corner at North Bourke, onto the road to Cunnumulla, it was impossible not to think of Henry Lawson drinking beer on the balcony of the pub (in 1892, I think) overlooking the Darling, nor of Captain Starlight’s crew setting out on their great cattle drive south to Adelaide (Robbery Under Arms).

For a final example, the Alpine region of southern NSW and north eastern Victoria, the ‘High Country’, seems particularly well-served by our national literature and while this is country I have not travelled through very often, it is difficult to read the more recent books without thinking of the earlier ones. In time of writing, first is Henry Kingsley’s The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859). Set at a similar time, at least in their beginning, are the novels Miles Franklin wrote based on the stories of her mother’s and father’s families, Up the Country (1928), Ten Creeks Run (1930), All That Swagger (1936) and so on. Then we have of course Banjo Paterson’s The Man From Snowy River (1890). More recently, Patrick White, who was for a while a jackaroo on his uncle’s property in the Monaro, used this experience in The Twyburn Affair (1979) and Thomas Keneally set part of Bettany’s Book in the same area, based partly he says, on WA Brodribb’s Recollections of an Australian Squatter (1883).

4 thoughts on “Text and Place

  1. Place … love discussions about it, Bill. I’m intrigued by your discussion of intertextuality – or, specifically, about how how reading about place informs our response to a place, and vice versa. Makes good sense to me. What does fascinates me is how people can be critical of a book because of some inaccuracy or other in the description of a place but love another book which may very well have a similar inaccuracy but they don’t know it because they don’t know that place. This always bothers be for some reason, it feels a bit dishonest, to judge one work by one rule (close knowledge of a place) and another work not by that rule. If it’s fiction, the author is allowed in my mind to be inaccurate (generally speaking anyhow), to compress space or elongate it, to move a mountain, or whatever, to suit his/her needs. I’ve taken the subject into a different direction I know, but it’s relevant still, I think!


    • We’ll have to think up a new expression for inaccurate referencing of another text or place – misintertextualising? It has always impressed me that Joyce wrote from Switzerland to his friends back home to make sure every detail of the streets of Dublin in Ulysses was correct.
      But to be honest, inaccuracy annoys me too.


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