In Nicolai Gogol’s The Overcoat, sometimes cited as the short story from which all (but especially Russian) short stories flowed, the opening paragraph (in Ronald Wilk’s translation, in Russian Short Stories, Folio Soc.1997) describes with comic irony ‘a certain Department’ of Government, or rather, the way that people might feel about such a department.

Capturing, obliquely, both the time and the place in which the story is located – the time a matter of manners, the place a milieu of particular behaviours – that opening indicates the fundamentally comic intent of the story. The second paragraph goes on to describe Bashmachkin, the hapless protagonist.

The Overcoat was published in 1842.

Some dozen years earlier Prosper Mériméé published the story Mateo Falcone. This too is cited as being one of the beginnings of the short story. Of course, writers like A.E.Coppard trace the form much further back, into the oral tradition, whence it escapes the slur of being a younger brother, or sister, of the novel.

Mateo Falcone begins with a description of the ‘maquis’, the word rendered into italics in the French original, signalling the its exceptionality. The maquis is a type of wilderness, farmed, if that is the word, by Corsican shepherds, who burn off the old top growth each year and plant a crop into the ashes. It is a hard country, in which brigands hide out and a code of honour demands compliance.

As with Gogol’s story, the description of the setting in which the story is located – time and place – sets also the ambience of the telling, and these two stories are quite different in their ambiences. The former is tragic-comic, the futile struggles of an un-empowered man against the system; the latter is tragic-serious, the working out of a lethal formula in the case of a wilful child.

Gogol had worked in institutions and so perhaps had a template upon which to build his imaginary department, but Mériméé had never visited Corsica. In fact, when he did so, many years later, he was surprised and delighted to find that his description of the maquis, taken from books and imagination, was uncannily accurate.

It has been said of W.E.Johns, who wrote the ‘Biggles’ and ‘Gimlet’ books among others, that he had visited few of the many countries in which his stories were set. Yet it was the locations of his stories rather than the plots, particularly in the later Biggles books, that were so interesting, at least to this reader in the early 1960s.

The use of real places, described from imagination and second or third hand report, can be found in Shakespeare, and earlier. In these days of global travel – at least for the top few percent of the world’s rich (and that includes most Europeans) – it’s all too easy to find fault with those imaginary locations, and to find ones that can’t be held up to such scrutiny becomes increasingly difficult. There are still patches on ‘the map’ that might be tagged ‘here be dragons’, but they are fewer, and likely to appear on TV at any moment, seen through the head-cam of some explorer-presenter. Writers have long since been driven to space, outer and inner, to find locations that cannot be questioned.

All such places, along with the real places, and the lucky descriptions, like Mériméé’s, fulfil a function in the storytelling. It is to give the ‘there and then’ of the characters’ ‘here and now’ – to be credible, even when they are not authentic. And it is to provide a base upon which the ambience of the story can be built, the comic, tragic, absurd or grimly realistic feel of the story, to the teller, and to the told.

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