REFRACTIONS: Writers and Places by Robert Packard

REFRACTIONS: Writers and Places

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Nine locales as nine literary masters described them, as they really were when the masters described them, and as they are now. This is an inspired idea that has fewer rewards than might be expected. English professor and travel-guide writer Packard chooses to bring light to Homer's and Chaucer's Troy, Proust's Combray, Byron's Sintra, Dostoevsky's Florence, Washington Irving's Alhambra, Twain's Venice, Cervantes' La Mancha, and Thoreau's Cape Cod. Packard's style works best when least seen, as in his Thoreau chapter. The Proust essay, marred by longueurs, restates the chapter's theme perhaps five times, while the conceit in the book's title--about refraction of light and separation of colors--is driven home again and again. The reader's highest moment has Packard himself set forth to retrace a 30-mile beach-and-dune hike by Thoreau from Eastham to Provincetown, described in Cape Cod: ""Not a grain of sand that Thoreau walked upon is still there."" Dostoevsky, busted by his gambling and anguished with writer's block, calls his wretchedly poverty-stricken time in Florence worse than his eight years in Siberia: ""He invented a Florence that reflected bis psyche."" Proust's Combray, largely an invented place given 200 pages in Swann's Way, is based upon the village of Illiers; Illiers, however, has taken him seriously, reworked the town to fit the novel, and become a tourist spot. Visitors tasting the so-called Proust patisserie's madeleine will find a ""pleasant and in every way unremarkable plain sponge cake."" As with Thoreau, Packard is most keenly engaging on the physical layout of Troy as determined by details in the Iliad. Homer's Troy, a place of fancy, was created by the poet some 500 years after the Trojan War, while Chaucer's Troy is Middle Ages England. Excellent here and there, but patchy.

Pub Date: May 28th, 1990
Publisher: Carroll & Graf