Cartography of fiction: the complicated relationship between authors and literary maps | Books
FEfforts to map Odysseus’ journey to Borges’ comment on mapmaking in On Accuracy in Science (where the only sufficient map is actually as large as the territory it depicts), fictions, and maps have a complicated and intertwined relationship for a long time. While the right map may resonate uniquely with a literary text, that resonance exists amidst an undeniable tension: a fear that the map may demystify or oversimplify a story, at worst imposing a point of view unique and reductive on something that should be open and unlimited.
Exploring this tension, while describing how the relationship between maps and literature has changed across eras and genres, Huntington’s new exhibition Mapping of fiction brings together literary maps from hundreds of years of literary history. Drawing on Huntington’s archive of rare literary texts, the exhibition dates back to the earliest days of modern literature with texts like The Pilgrim’s Progress and Journey to the Center of the Earth (not Jules Verne’s version but rather a book from 1741 written by the Norwegian writer Ludvig Holberg), continuing into the contemporary era with cartography of the life and works of Octavia Butler and artist David Lilburn’s 2006 cartography of Ulysses by James Joyce.
“This exhibition explores the question of what is increased or decreased by reading a narrative with a map,” exhibition curator Karla Nielsen told The Guardian. “Are the text and the map competing or complementary? Do the cards interfere with the world being built, or do they help? »
Mapping Fiction was born out of Nielsen’s desire to celebrate the centenary of James Joyce’s Ulysses, first published in its entirety in 1922 by Sylvia Beach in Paris. As Nielsen explained, over the years the novel has had its own complicated relationship with efforts to map both its physical topography and its imaginary realms.
A flashpoint occurred in 1934, when, after years of pirated editions and court battles over the supposed obscenity of the text, Random House finally published the first legal American edition of Ulysses. Knowing the reputation of this particularly difficult novel, Random House wanted to include in its edition explanatory elements that would trace the novel, making an easier lift for its first readers. Joyce adamantly resisted, leading to a tense stalemate. Eventually they compromised, with Random House releasing a poster that included a map of Dublin, explanations of how to appreciate Ulysses, and assurances that the novel made sense.
Aware of this history, Nielsen saw an “opportunity to contextualize this moment and the way Ulysses was put into book form and mapped”, and thus the seed of Mapping Fiction was planted. Although the exhibition is centered on Joyce’s masterpiece, it includes works from various literary genres dating as far back as the 16th century, as well as various works of art and ephemera, all based on the question of the interaction of the cards with the literary texts that inspired them.
“I wanted to think about how, as technology evolved, the way cards could be inserted into books changed,” Nielsen said. “For example, it was in the 19th century that publishers started thinking about what you could do with a book cover, if you could put a map on it. Over time, people began to be able to put cards in multiple places in a book. These kinds of questions are about the materiality of story and literature, how the book as a form has managed to organize the story in space.
While Joyce was firmly anti-map, other authors featured in Mapping Fiction, including fellow apostle of great modernism William Faulkner, had a different perspective. When Random House published Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! shortly after Joyce’s Ulysses, the publisher feared the novel would be too difficult to follow and asked Faulkner for a map of Yoknapatawpha County and a genealogy of its characters. The gregarious southerner was more than happy to oblige. He also later made a map of Yoknapatawpha County which charted his various novels for the Viking Press edition of The Portable Faulkner, charmingly referring to the county map as its “sole proprietor and proprietor”.
Mapping Fiction also offers books whose authors have outright demanded that maps be included. When Robert Lewis Stevenson’s publisher attempted to release his 1886 novel Kidnapped without the author’s card, Stevenson was outraged. “Without the map, Kidnapped didn’t work the way Stevenson intended,” Nielsen said. “He really wanted readers to be able to understand how this kidnapped character was moved. Having that topographical awareness as a reader gives you a level of control over the story that the protagonist doesn’t have.
Nielsen’s exhibit offers an intriguing opportunity to ponder how cards and novels can work in harmony or get in the way of each other. Both can be seen as means of organizing narratives and making interpretations of reality, and each has its own way of achieving these goals. They are at their best when each uses their particular way of seeing to augment the other’s ability to build worlds and examine our common environment. In this careful balance, it is crucial to know which details to include and which to omit.
“It’s something about how the fictional narrative works,” Nielsen said. “It’s partial. You might not get thorough character explanations, but that doesn’t mean you don’t experience the character as fully. Maps are similar in that they don’t include everything. Both must answer similar formal questions, such as how much detail to include. »
Visitors to Mapping Fiction will be able to see for themselves how the authors and their publishers were able to manage these questions within the constraints of form and the technological possibilities of the time. The exhibit provides insight into how, as different styles, genres, and methods of novel production have come to prominence, they have allowed their particular ways to create fictional terrain. These fictional worlds have, in turn, shaped our perceptions of the places we inhabit.
“Our realities are world-building projects,” Nielsen said. “We create the world from our perceptions and the categories we construct. In the 18th century, for example, maps and novels responded to a curiosity about the larger world of things and the movements of others. In the 19th century, many readers experienced a westward expansion through Mark Twain’s chronicles of his life story. Emerging understandings of these places were made possible through imaginative storytelling.
It is a process that continues to this day. Mapping Fiction includes two maps that visitors can try out for themselves: one of Huntington’s Chinese Garden, which depicts many important moments in Chinese history, and another of Octavia Butler’s Pasadena, which is a short drive from Huntington. It also features contemporary works like Karen Tei Yamashita’s 1997 novel Tropic of Orange, which Nielsen says gives an “aerial view of Los Angeles.”
“I think it’s also important to publish contemporary books,” Nielsen said, “so people can come in and say, ‘Oh wow, I got this book! “”