The red bricks of Cambridge and other wordy sights

WE were reading a novel the other day, or rather reading at it. The characters, alas, did not totally grab us. There was an anti-heroine with a "Habsburg chin." We can never seem to get interested in anti-heroines with Habsburg chins, especially when they're "impeccably expensively dressed." Lavinia -- for that was her name -- made it her business to keep a lot of anti-heroes with first names like Potter unhappy, thoroughly unhappy. We can never seem to get interested in anti-heroes named Potter, especially when they make it their business to keep a lot of anti-heroines with names like Lavinia unhappy in return.

Why then did we not thrust aside the novel with a decisive gesture, like a diner summoning the headwaiter to complain about a burned steak? The answer came as a shock to us. Our attention was being held by the setting -- the backdrop against which these noncharacters were playing out their nonplot.

The scene happened to be Cambridge, Mass. The author inserted sentences about the "hard spare elegance of the big houses on Brattle Street" and the "severe white lines" of certain churches in Harvard Square. The subject of "New England air" kept coming up -- "wild blue air" in the spring, turning to "brilliant air" in June.

We didn't necessarily agree with these descriptions of Cambridge or its air, but the sense of place, though off-hand and subordinate, still constituted our reason for turning the pages.

Modern novels aren't supposed to be read for their settings. Settings were 19th-century stuff -- something to be glimpsed out the window of a Dickens stagecoach or brooked upon by a walker through a Thomas Hardy health. Then along came the camera, dangling from railroad cars, automobiles, and helicopters , and suddenly descriptive prose seemed obsolete.

Oh, if you were terse enough, like Ernest Hemingway, you might hit off a quick sketch of a Paris cafe or a Spanish bullring. Or if you were a moralist like Graham Greene, you might use the tropical backwash of your choice to serve as your inferno. But on the whole, settings in the 20th century became the province of the "magic lantern," from the time David W. Griffith turned his silent cameras loose on New York for the out-of-towners to gawk at in their out-of-town movie palaces.

If you wanted to see the world, you went to the movies and saw Marco Polo's China, Sir Francis Drake's England, Stanley and Livingston's Africa, and Moses' Egypt (or at least Cecil B. De Mille's) -- all preceded by a Lowell Thomas travelogue.

In due time television finished off Planet Earth as everybody's private stage set. We free-trippers, slumping ever deeper in our seats, have become so saturated with post cards, as it were, that our cameras are now embarrassed to take us places. The viewfinders of the '80s focus on never-never lands -- the world as a "Star Wars" props room, the spacey special-effects future according to Steven Spielberg.

And, so almost by default, the written description of places has come back, like walking. We stroll at the old, meandering pace of words to see our country through the eyes of William Least Hat Moon. Paul Theroux puts together glittering and ironic clusters of prose to illuminate England today, in all its complexity, as a camera never could. Writers like Joan Didion in El Salvador and Arthur Miller in China have brought the well-scribbled traveler's notebook back into modest fashion.

Does something in us hunger for sights filtered through human consciousness and coming out in words -- the writer's vision?

Back to Cambridge, 100 years ago, and the words of George Santayana: "In the 1880s a good deal of old-fashioned shabbiness and jollity lingered about Harvard. . . . Cambridge in those days resembled in some ways the London of Dickens: the same dismal wealth, the same speechifying, the same anxious respectability the same odd figures and loud humor. . . . Old corners were pointed out where the dingy red brick had lost its rigidity and taken on a mossy tinge. Here and there a pane of glass, surviving all tenants and housemaids, had turned violet in the sunlight of a hundred years; and most precious of all were the high thin elms, spreading aloft, looped and drooping over old streets and commons."

Now that's Cambridge.

Now that's writing.

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