Take the last exit to Pushkin's

27th September 1996 at 01:00
THE ATLAS OF LITERATURE Edited by Malcolm Bradbury De Agostini Editions Pounds 25.00.

Atlas addict Lynne Truss loses herself in Malcolm Bradbury's mapping of literary landmarks.

Cartomaniacs can't help it. "Do I have to draw a map?" people say with heavy sarcasm, and the cartomaniac says: "Thanks, that would be nice, yes."

Some of us only really feel safe when properly oriented. "You are here" is our favourite sentence. We force a road atlas into the hands of our car passengers, and are shocked when they look at it vaguely and say: "Let's just follow the signs." Telly documentaries are regularly ruined by the absence of maps. Richard Hough's biography of Captain Cook contains the scuzziest, most shameful map you ever saw.

Thus an atlas of literature is a very promising idea. In fact it sounds entrancing. We can turn to page 91 of Malcolm Bradbury's beautifully produced new book, for example, find St Petersburg in the mid 19th century,and pinpoint Pushkin's houses, Gogol's apartment and the route taken by the guilty Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment - a route, it seems, which makes an unnecessary and interesting dog-leg detour past Gogol's. Raskolnikov runs down by the canal, turns left (little arrows), etcetera, etcetera, left again, left again. Moreover, Raskolnikov's apartment turns out to be directly opposite Dostoevsky's own! Only a clear, decent map can deliver information in this way.

Dots and squares of different colours are the johnnies to look out for. They helpfully indicate places with literary associations (divided into "still there" and "no longer there") and places which feature in an author's life. Back in St Petersburg, we find 10 Nevskiy Prospekt marked with an arrow for Pushkin's Queen of Spades, while the dark green colour signifies "Real place featured in work, still there" which I only hope is true, because although this coding is helpful, it is too complicated to memorise, and I found myself checking it a hundred times.

The idea is that books fall (literally) into place. You can survey Latin America from a great height and see writers toiling on their allotted spots: Gabriel Garc!a M rquez in Colombia, Isabel Allende in Chile, Carlos Fuentes in Mexico. A map of postwar Germany is instantly striking: authors and poets are scattered and lonely, a culture in visible disarray, an arm's length community. And there are always surprises. Ibsen's Scandinavia shows one end of the "Peer Gynt trail" at Lillehammer, an interesting literary fact never once mentioned during those Winter Olympics the other year.

Quibbles inevitably arise when details matter so much. Some of the maps - such as Dickens' London or the Spanish Civil War - attempt too much information, and the result is a headache. Hardy's Wessex, tinted brown, sports little coloured dots representing each novel - yellow for The Trumpet Major, orange for The Mayor of Casterbridge, and so on down the identifiable colour scale until Desperate Remedies and The Woodlanders are not only the same colour as each other, but ,unfortunately, almost the same colour as the map.

Moreover, heedless of the future consequences, Hardy used locations more than once. Thus the Dorchester dot (the real Casterbridge) appears as half-yellow, half-brown, with no orange on it at all - leaving the reader to recollect independently that The Mayor of Casterbridge is probably set there. The alternative to this 50:50 scheme, presumably, would be some dots divided into six coloured triangles, like the plastic wotsit in Trivial Pursuit. Eyestrain being already a serious peril, I am glad they pushed matters no further.

Aside from ocular overload, however, the real danger of a book of this kind is that it looks scientific and objective when in fact its contributors (38 men, six women) select their chums for attention and wilfully restyle the canon. This is "literature" with a male, Faber-jacketed, Observer-reading world view, which is fine if that's what you like.

Women are under-represented unless they are exotic, and playwrights are overlooked unless they are American. The map of "Divided Ireland" gives us an arrow to Wexford with "Wexford Trilogy, John Banville" - which is a sore blow for fans of Billy Roche's award-winning plays of the same name.

Two more quibbles. "London in the Fifties" is mysteriously innocent of the French House and the Ivy, and Wordsworth is quoted as saying "Bliss it was in that dawn", which he didn't quite. But it's an engaging and interesting book, and from the cartomaniac standpoint it certainly endorses one opinion. More novels should include maps in the first place. If they would only begin with "You are here" and a big black arrow, so much the better.

malcolm bradbury's best teacher, page 28 Lynne Truss' latest book is Tennyson's Gift (Hamish Hamilton)

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