Would you wish to enter the house of a character? I’d much rather enter the mind. A home, it is assumed, reveals how the character thinks, and this is of course if such a place exists.
Recently, Slate did a detailed piece on Jay Gatsby’s mansion, which prompted CBC to track a few others. There could well be tremendous interest in these in a manner of ‘seeing is believing’, but a good story is suspension of disbelief. I use this phrase consciously to permit an exploration of how seeing is not necessarily believing.
There are often replications, to supposedly bring the reader closer to the actual setting if the real one is not around anymore. I do not relish the superimposition of the real; it is an intrusion. It is like visiting concentration camps or war memorials or Graceland and Neverland. These are tourist sites, where you pay homage to the dead, to history — beloved or tragic.
One might conjecture that it is indeed possible to understand the characters better when you see where they “come from”, the hip terminology that these days denotes one’s mental state, to suggest that a person is aware of your motives or the baggage that makes you who you are or say what you do.
When a writer gives the character a home, another character is created. It is not so much about Jay Gatsby's mansion, but about a mansion in 'The Great Gatsby' and what happened in it, how the table was laid, the garden pruned, the pillars, the antiques and mantelpieces. Did the cupboards smell of mothballs and the coverlets on the beds hide secrets?
Unless a home is a standalone, it works better as the backdrop, especially in the case of the protagonist. Some years ago in Salzburg, there was the mandatory stopover at the locations where 'The Sound of Music' was shot. Except for the undulating greens, and I am not quite sure about the lake, it is said that the huge mansion was nowhere quite like the real one that the von Trapps lived in.
Later, when I watched the film again, I saw myself there, a different time, a different crowd, cameras in hand. There was the familiarity. But would I care to share a brandy with Maria, although I'd have delighted to swap places with her and take on the Baroness when she asked, “My dear, is there anything you can't do?"
I was jotting down some portions of a chapter and I realise now that there are too many details about the house. It was not intentional. As I keep re-reading it, I find that the characters are the props here, subservient to where they live. They have been overtaken by their surroundings and are, in fact, nothing without it.
Charles Dickens' Bleak House would probably be one such. And what about characters that have no home? There are books about vagabonds or the eternal travellers. And how would any home be able to contain The Outsider?
In a sense, the writer is a character. I have seen quite a few homes and landmarks, but visiting Stratford-upon-Avon, walking about with squeaky sounds on the wooden floor, looking at the table with the quill, I could not imagine Shakespeare here. I could not think of Macbeth or Hamlet conceived here.
Characters are born to live in the recesses of our minds. Their homes, like the garments they wear, reveal their tastes, not their thinking. I'd like to dust the cobwebs from and throw open the windows of thoughts.
© Farzana Versey
Image: Jay Gatsby's mansion, Slate