After living in Bucharest, ‘The Paris of Eastern Europe’, for a while we decided to move to Pittsburgh, ‘The Paris of Appalachia.’ We anticipated that this kind of move might call for a bit of a mental realignment, a kind of cultural clearing of the palate. Stopping in the real, actual Paris, Paris, France, seemed like the best available intermezzo. A month in Paris is an excellent palliative, and it gave us the chance to say au revoir to friends it would not be as convenient to visit from Pittsburgh.
Inconvenience can frequently be part of the travel experience. That inconvenience is a very good thing, at least to me. Inconvenience makes me slow down and helps me to enjoy a ‘deep, leisurely’ journey, as Barry Unsworth described travel at its best. The sobriquet ‘The Paris Of…’ signals the necessity of assuming a more expectant, observant, and absorbing attitude to fully appreciate the promised epitome of ‘cultural’ treasures. Spending time leisurely in one place has some inconvenience built into it – choices are different, and you must find solutions and answers to ordinary, day in and day out things in unfamiliar places. I like that kind of travel. It gives idiosyncrasies of a place time to affect me. To paraphrase Unsworth again, culture in all of its meanings and expression, is ‘written on the margins’ of daily experience. It filters through as you savor your journey.
A similar kind of experience is filtering through to me while reading Victorian Literature this summer. Each of the authors I am reading are a ‘Paris’, of Victorian Literature; an epitome of time and place. Yet each author’s way of communicating points, and the themes that resonate in their writing, are as joltingly different from one another as my three Parises, Bucuresti, Pittsburgh, and ‘Le Ville-Lumiere’. Today I thought that reading widely in a literary period is a lot like traveling leisurely. Things affect you, and you notice details without realizing how it all has been taken in and absorbed.
Absorbing the breadth of experience and opinion in a place, or in a text, is a rather amazing process. It is almost as amazing as communicating experience through great art. Literature and art are like travel in that way. In them experience and opinion is always written on the margins. Looking back over some past exam questions I answered using Victorian authors amused me this week. Reading my old essays reminded me of how it feels to hold preconceived notions about a place, then, after lingering there a while, having those notions dispelled and replaced with a more subtle point of view.
A few exams ago I attempted a question asking how a single author handles political themes. Referring to one of Dickens’ texts, I wrote about everything but politics in my essay. In the Victorian texts I am currently reading, the metaphorical ‘Parises’ of their period if you will, themes like politics are written on the margins. They are written larger in some than in others, and come alive through characterization, tropes, diction, and narration. Recognizing them depends upon me asking questions, and making my own margin notes. When I first started studying in this program reading with a question like expression of political ideas in mind was incredibly difficult. Now asking questions while I read feels like living a month in Paris. Not the ersatz experience, but the genuine, irreplaceable thing. Reading widely in a literary period, questioning and contemplating the texts, and noticing their unique details create a deep impression of a time and place that stays with me. Try ‘traveling’ leisurely, and lingering in some Paris of your own. Bonne chance!