Exploring Real and Fictional Places in Literature

Real Place: Florence, Italy

In Booma’s early days, when we published Daily Spot articles regularly about our contributors’ favorite places in books and poems, Cara Popeski wrote a piece about the Ganges River in Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”. After sharing the post, a commenter on Facebook took exception to the post. She felt that Marvell was not writing about the real Ganges River, which he never would have seen or known directly in his life, unlike the Humber River in England, which he alludes to a few lines later.

While I disagreed with the commenter’s contention that this was not a legitimate landmark to map–Marvell had clearly named a place that existed on the globe–her point did force me to think more deeply about how real geographic allusions in literature and poetry and even non-fiction works are. For Marvell, what did the Ganges represent? If it was not an image of a real river drawn from his own experience, what role did his inclusion of this specific river play: Was it an exotic symbol to capture the imagination of his reticent audience? A distant location to show the scope of his wide-ranging promises if there were enough time?

The location and its use within the writing remains fascinating to me, and by mapping and describing these locations, Booma can began to present a more detailed accounting of each of these places. How, for example, does Marvell’s description of the Ganges compare to those from Indian authors who were his contemporaries? What about descriptions of the same river from modern authors? The more information that bookmapping produces, the more interesting the insights are sure to be.

As I am working on mapping Dante’s Inferno, the division of mentioned locations splits into at least two broad categories: There are those cities and geographic features in northern Italy with which Dante is intimately, personally familiar–his home city of Florence and its many specific landmarks; the nearby cities of Pisa, Mantua, Ravenna; mountain ranges and rivers. Dante seems to be writing his own travelogue based on his life. He also fills his lines with literary allusions to ancient cities–Troy, Thebes, Athens–that have appeared in the myths and more specifically Homer’s and Virgil’s epics. Here we are given another kind of travelogue, a literary map of Dante’s influences.

Looking back 700 years at his work–especially for a non-Italian, non-European reader–these distinctions begin to blur. The Italy of Dante’s life–with its political intrigue and violent betrayals–has become for the modern reader almost as fantastic as the settings of those ancient books he pored over. One wonders, if when he set out to write the next great epic poem, drawing a line from Homer to Virgil to himself, if he also meant to elevate his home to the same mythic proportions as the settings of those works.

What do you think about this question–how real are the places that appear in the pages of books? Does their realness make a difference? Let us know at booma@booma.us or in the comments below.