We’ve all heard readers say, “Oh, I just skip the descriptions of where they are so I can get to what happens." Perhaps this is why setting is sometimes a less-discussed aspect of the novel than, say, plot, character, or theme, but it is certainly not less than these. Perhaps we assume place is static, uninteresting even, or that a story might be set elsewhere—anywhere—if the author just described it adequately and because, well, it’s just a story, isn’t it?
This idea bears examination. What about the Mexico City, the bar in Amsterdam where Clemence confesses in Camus’ The Fall? Or the distraught landscapes of Faulkner’s novels? Joyce’s labyrinthine Dublin? Miss Havisham’s decaying mansion? The chiaroscuro of Genesis 1? I believe that setting is about culture, the culture out of which the story arises and that it is fundamental to storytelling.
In Suspended Sentences, Patrick Modiano entangles us in stories within stories, minds within minds. Here, his narrator imagines how Paris might have looked to a young Colette when she first arrived at the Gare du Lyon on a similar day but in a time quite different from the one in Modiano's story:
…Wind from the Atlantic shakes the tree branches and turns umbrellas inside out. Pedestrians huddle in doorways. You can hear the seagulls crying. Sunlight glistens on wet sidewalks near the Quai d’Austerlitz and on the walls around the Jardin des Plantes… (p. 12-13, Yale University Press, 2014)
Perhaps Colette saw the same Paris Caillebotte saw, but Modiano’s description suggests that she felt the cold and the damp more keenly than Caillebotte’s well-heeled pedestrians. The specificity of Modiano’s passage brings to mind Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City and the combination of nostalgia, melancholy and loss — hüzün — that is particular to the culture of Istanbul and to Pamuk’s writing:
This waterway [the Bosphorous]…is not to be confused with the canals of Amsterdam or Venice or the rivers that divide Paris and Rome in two: Strong currents run through the Bosphorus, its surface is always ruffled by wind and waves, and its waters are deep and dark…if you are following the itinerary of a city ferry, you will see apartment buildings and yachts, old ladies watching you from balconies as they sip their tea, the pergolas of coffeehouses perched by landings, children in their underwear entering the sea just where the sewers empty into it and sunning themselves on the concrete, men fishing from the banks, people lazing on their yachts, schoolchildren emptying out of school and walking along the shore…
…and so on with bus windows, cats, walled villas and gardens, alleyways, mosques, slums, high rises, “an ever-mutating mirage” of neighborhoods. (p. 51-52, Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) After reading Pamuk’s description, I put the Bosphorus and that ferry ride on my bucket list! Few places, however, evoke as much rapture as D. H. Lawrence’s when upon leaving Taormina he looks up at Mt. Etna:
…and then oh regal evening-star, hung westward flaring over the jagged dark precipices of tall Sicily: then Etna, that wicked witch, resting her thick white snow under heaven, and slowly, slowly rolling her orange-coloured smoke... (Sea and Sardinia, Penguin Books, 1921, p.7).
By skipping descriptions of setting, we forego place and risk missing the culture of the story. If we say that the story could be anywhere, then we may well be saying that it’s attached to no culture, no milieu, no time, no place. If a story could take place anywhere, it doesn’t mean that it’s universal. Rather, it means that the writer hasn’t considered the significance of culture and has likely written a story that is either outside of human experience or so generic as to be irrelevant to it. As a writer, my own experience has been that setting is so essential to story that attempts to change it cause the story to disintegrate.