In the most recent Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris, the story's pat and rather cliché moral is that it's easy to romanticize time and place - that the distance we experience between our world in the 21st century and, say, Paris of the 1920s contributes to an artificial view of that time and place. We romanticize something, in other words, that we don't know enough about...
I have this tendency, too, and though I occasionally romanticize about a time and place in the past (I went through my Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre and Paris of the 1940s and 50s while I lived in China many years ago and certain streets and buildings still remind me of that bleak and meaningless period!), what turns on the daydreams and nostalgic longing are books set in a contemporary setting of a particular country. Often it's because I've recently travelled there and reading a book set in that land is a way to learn more about it or, less nobly, to consider refashioning my life there.
So I've gone through spells where I read books from Poland, Japan, China, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Lithuania, Vietnam, etc., etc. But it's not just picking up a novel set in Warsaw or Buenos Aires: it's doing hours & days & weeks of research, finding the country's most famous writers, ordering everything I can get my hands on by them and reading obsessively for months, sometimes years.
There are huge chunks of American (and Canadian) literature I've not read - nothing by David Foster Wallace, Saul Bellow, Robertson Davies, Studs Terkel, Thomas Pynchon, for example - but I've read huge swathes of modern Japanese fiction or contemporary Chinese poetry or countless essays on the development of nationalism in Lithuania and Poland. Good thing I work for an International Literary Festival!
All this said, I've read more American and Canadian and American literature in the past 9 months than I have in the past 9 years which means I am trying hard to catch up. I read Philip Roth for the first time (shocking!) and Mordecai Richler, Alice Munro, Michel Tremblay, Joyce Carol Oates, not to mention all the writers who aren't on the international stage.
Yet during our down time (as the summer was for us), I revert back to my old ways: from late June to mid August I read books set in Uruguay, Colombia, Mexico, Japan and Thailand. A mini-vacation, perhaps...
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