Deakin University

Tess Brady

An exegesis concerning the novel
Fragments of a Map


Section 3 - Research and the Vinland Map


Types of research for the novelist

For the purpose of this discussion let us assume that there are at least three types of research the novelist is likely to have to undertake.

The first I will call reflective research. Here the novelist needs to explore their own opinions and emotions, thoughts and feelings, and in that exploration struggle with developing appropriate descriptions and metaphors. It is important to note here that such exploration needs to avoid the superficial, for this level of reflection is in danger of generating clichés.

For example, when looking at the idea of sadness it was important that I not only read the literature available on this emotion, as well as how other writers had utilised it, but I also needed to reflect on my own understanding of it. I needed to ask myself what exactly sadness was, what exactly did it feel like and what caused it. I also needed to know what kind of behaviour it might generate. But to know sadness in this way is not to know it objectively, on the contrary I needed to swim in the experience of sadness, and to know that experience.

I do not find it easy coming to my desk in the morning knowing that I have to allow myself, nay, encourage myself, to slip into the depths of sadness, or for that matter joy or fulfilment or hunger or loss. This particular type of research is the hardest for me and the most time consuming. It requires a distressing level of self-honesty and it also produces high levels of doubt. The doubt can be crippling and the self-honesty is difficult to live with on a daily basis. After all, there are good reasons why we protect ourselves with clichés, or numb the doubt with chemicals.

And working in this area also requires a certain arrogance. The novelist needs to adopt a belief that what they say on an emotion or a concept is of interest to their reader. There were days when I just couldn't take myself that seriously, when I just couldn't believe that what I had to say would be of interest to anyone else. Writing the section in Chapter 3 where Meridian talks about her feminism was an instance of this. I see- sawed backwards and forwards between an arrogance that what I had to say was intensely interesting, and total disbelief in the value of anything I had to say on the matter. I worked and re-worked the chapter, expanding and contracting the text depending upon the day and the balance of self- deception and self-honesty.

The second type of research is that which is informed by ethnography. As I pointed out in Section 1, I employ a method which requires that I place myself into the situation as a reflective participant, and not simply as an observer (Ball:1992; Fraser:1989; Spelman:1988).

As I mentioned above I interviewed a large number of women. I listened to their stories and told them mine.

Many of these interviews were casual. For the novelist a casual conversation with a stranger can sometimes offer more than any formally constructed interview. But why is this the case? Why can I often discover more about the human condition from a casual conversation than from a researched and well-conducted interview? Perhaps it is an instance of the human trait to want to confess to a trusted stranger, to want to tell that stranger the story you carry with your shopping bag, or in your brief case. The novelist becomes the trusted stranger. And yet the concept of a trusted stranger is close to an oxymoron. What kind of trust can we place in a stranger? Is it simply that the stranger is trusted to remain aloof? Talkback radio virtually survives on this phenomenon, on this human desire to tell the stranger, to confess to the stranger. There is possibly something else here - is the desire to tell the story partly motivated by the hope that it will be re-told, the re-telling somehow giving the person an importance, a form of immortality? Does this make the novelists a particularly useful trusted stranger because they are also trusted to re-tell the story? The novelist then, in order to carry out successfully this form of research, needs to become the stranger.

Visiting locations, gaining new experiences, such as the handling of medieval manuscripts, and the tasting of foods all come into this type of research. An example of this was the careful research I needed to conduct on sherry.

Sherry was not a drink I knew much about and yet it was of great concern to my character Francisco. I had never looked on it with any sophistication, it was something I occasionally used in cooking. I didn't know enough about sherry to write Francisco's passion for the drink. One afternoon I brought two small and elegant bottles of very fine sherry to the office of my colleague and local supervisor, Nigel Krauth. With, at least initially, great seriousness, we sipped and smelt and talked, searching for the words and metaphors to describe the drink. We searched for the drink's language, for the words of sherry. After that, whenever I worked on a part of the novel that mentioned, or played with, the drink, I'd pour myself a small glass of this very fine sherry and let it sit next to my computer, filling my senses and my words with its aroma.

The third type of research is that scholarly type traditionally carried out in the library - the searching through books and journals for information and argument. I have written elsewhere that the novelist needs to embroider the reflective and ethnographically informed research with this form of knowledge gathering (Brady & Bourke, 1998).

For this particular novel I needed to spend a great deal of time in the library. Interested as I was in the tension between history and fiction, I needed to acquire enough history to make that tension viable.

 

The novelist and the bowerbird

Writing a novel for a degree required that I kept a bibliography of my reading. The bibliography included in this exegesis makes quite interesting reading in itself because it illustrates the unusualness of the novelist's library research. Unlike my colleagues in other disciplines I needed to acquire a working rather than specialist knowledge, not in one area but in a range of areas and disciplines. I needed to function a little like a bowerbird that picks out the blue things and leaves all the other colours. Similarly I needed to pick out the dark blue pieces of ecclesiastical history, the azure lines of cartography, the sapphire decorations of medieval manuscripts and the Nile blue theories of archaeology. I needed to be able to write on a range of issues and yet I knew I was not an authority in any of them.

This bowerbird researching requires its own skill. The skill to locate quickly, sort through and accurately select all the blue pieces. It is also the skill of knowing where to look, where to find the blue pieces in the first place. It may sound easy, but to be able to accurately and quickly isolate the turquoise from the aquamarine at one end of the spectrum, and the indigo from the purple at the other, requires nerve, a great eye and a lot of knowhow. With so much information to gather, the novelist needs to be able to work quickly, to know the questions to ask and to be able to isolate the essence.

For example, I did not need to become an archaeologist in order to make use of the Ingstad (1970) research. I had to know where to find the article, and then I had to take time to read it, navigating my way through the discipline's jargon. But the real time was spent thinking about archaeology. Once I had comprehended the article and its issues I needed to isolate a particular aspect that in an isolated way could represent the whole. Further, this single item needed to be one which could be retold, or worked into a novel. I chose the hunt and discovery of the anvil stone because it was a single incident which could be retold in a dramatic manner. I also chose the importance of the design of the Norse houses, because this reinforced a thematic concern pertaining to the cultural and historical nature of perception. These were my blue bits. And in selecting them I rejected several other excavation sites and a list of artefacts that were discovered at the dig.

 

The Map

As I mentioned in Section 2, serendipity led me to the Vinland Map and since the Vinland Map was central to the narrative it became a veritable minefield of 'blue pieces'. I needed to investigate not only the literature associated with the map's rediscovery and the various papers on its authenticity or lack thereof, but also the Vinland sagas, the myth and history associated with this time, and the relevant archaeology. The story of the map also directed me to Spain and in particular to Saragossa. It further required that I became familiar with aspects of medieval church history.

The reproduction of the map, below, has been reduced, as the original was drawn on two leaves of vellum joined at the centre which reproduces snugly to an A3 size page.


The Vinland Map


Reading the map can be difficult for our 20th century eyes which are so used to a particular projection and version of the world. To read the map, locate the Mediterranean Sea in its centre. Notice how Africa has been shortened to exaggerate the curved symmetry of the map. The island group at the top right is the earliest depiction of Japan. To the far left the large island, thought to be part of the Canadian coastline, is the Norse lands of Helluland, Markland and, the furthest south, Vinland. The three different lands are dived by deep gulfs which almost sever the island. Greenland, in its appropriate place on the map, north and between American and Europe, is for the first time drawn as an island, and next to it is a very enlarged Iceland. Ireland is also enlarged. The famous wormholes can be seen as the shaded circles, two in the Atlantic and one in Asia Minor.

The map is a simple drawing without decoration and it does not contain a compass rose.

By carefully looking at the map it becomes obvious that it is more than a map of the known world, a mappa mundi, it is also a picture of medieval thought. It is the latter which most interested me. In this way I used the map to talk about the way representations and evaluations of knowledge have changed over time, and in particular, the changes associated with the Enlightenment period.

The actualities of the map are less interesting to me, although they have their place in the narrative. The map does exist, it has been written about and it can be viewed in the Yale University Library Map Room. But all of this is unimportant to me. I am comfortable with a reading of my text where the map is seen as another fiction.

It might be of interest to also note that just as the map actually exists in the world so too do other aspects of the narrative. Enrico Ferrajoli did sell the map to an American called Laurence Witten. Ferrajoli had previously shown the map to the London dealer Davis, and had sold to Davis a section of the Speculum that Davis put in his international catalogue. Ferrajoli was arrested by the Spanish police for the theft of manuscripts from a cathedral at Saragossa. He served a prison sentence and died in jail revealing to no one the true identity of the original owner of the Vinland Map. Witten did show his purchase to his friend Thomas Marston, curator of maps at Yale University Library. Thomas Marston did purchase from Davis' international catalogue a segment of the Speculum. Witten did recognise the wormholes and Marston assisted him in putting the three manuscripts, the Vinland Map, the Tartar Relations and the Speculum together. All of this can be found in the documented story associated with the map's rediscovery.

That I used so much of a so-called 'real' story in a fiction, twisting it upon itself and playing out the improbabilities until the division between fact and fiction blurred, is a reflection of my concerns about the way the historical and fictional narratives collide.

 

The characters' knowledge

The characters themselves, since in the novel they existed in the world and had full and interesting lives, had to know certain things. But these characters need to be significantly different from each other and so I had to make sure that I did not rely solely upon my own bank of knowledge to feed their concerns and lives. Consequentially, I had to research what it was that they knew.

It is interesting to list the specific knowledges each character required.

Crete

  • medieval women's life and lore
  • herbal cures and the process of mixing potions
  • the story of the rose
  • medieval church architecture
  • the mass
  • the sun god/earth mother creation story
  • the Crone in contemporary feminism relating to menopause
  • familiarity with medieval manuscripts

Francisco

  • Spanish town of Saragossa and its history
  • poetry of Lord Byron, St John of the Cross and Dylan Thomas
  • anarchy during the Spanish Civil War
  • philosophy of Suarez
  • cathedral libraries
  • ancient manuscripts
  • the influence of the Arabs in Spanish culture
  • ecclesiastical history
  • details on Nicolas of Cusa
  • the trade routes of medieval Europe
  • medieval tapestry
  • the Tartar Relations
  • sherry
  • the Council of Basel

Martha

  • the preservation and discovery of manuscripts
  • the stories of manuscript recovery
  • red wines

Gabbett at least had to have the language and concerns of the documentary filmmaker. Some understanding of ABC/SBS studio practice was needed.

Eric

  • Australian pre-historic animals, notably the paleochestes
  • life on a dig in Newfoundland
  • the details of the Ingstad dig
  • the basic tenets of archaeology to be able to explain to Meridian why
  • carbon dating was unimportant
  • the typical Norse house construction and the placement in any such settlement
  • of the smithy shop
  • the uniped
  • the modern recovery of the Vinland Map
  • Greenland, the indigenous people and their ancestors
  • the Norse sagas associated with Vinland
  • aspects of American modern history in order to be able to construct
  • a conspiracy theory
  • the American Columbus Society

Meridian

  • the basic tenets of historical geography and ancient maps
  • something of modern cartographic craft
  • the Vinland Map and its entire literature and debate
  • details associated with the original production and scribing of medieval manuscripts
  • the chemistry of ink pigments
  • methods of historical map verification
  • wormholes, binding, and an intimate knowledge of old manuscripts
  • stories of forgery in cartographic history
  • nomenclature
  • Prester John
  • the ancient Sumerian myth of Inanna
  • the invention and mechanism of the stump jump plough
  • Greenland, its geography and its contemporary art
  • 17th century watches
  • the persecution of witches in Europe
  • The works of Christine de Pizan
  • the transcendental number P
  • the poetry of Hafiz

To expand, I will take the character of Fancisco. I knew that he and Meridian spoke in his library but I did not know what he would say or, importantly, how he would say it. So, in order to write this old man and his classical concerns, I needed to read the poetry of St John of the Cross, because it is the kind of thing he would use in his conversation. As it happened in the final draft I took out those references, but it is easy to imagine that such a poet might have been discussed on one of those late afternoons.

Martha on the other hand would not bother herself with St John of the Cross's poetry; she would be far more interested in various translations, in various folios. To give her character dimension I needed another solution. I gave her a knowledge of red wine - there is nothing light and fluffy, nothing of champagne or trendy Chardonnay in Martha.

 

The academic and the creative become each other

What I worked with in the text was a deliberate blurring of reality and fiction. Unlike my contemporaries who investigate faction - the conscious and deliberate intrusion into fiction of historical events that are accurately re-told - I wanted to upset the surety of an historical narrative, invading it with fiction rather than supporting it through fiction.

In addition, I was combining in my process both the creative and the academic. I was writing a novel and I was writing a PhD. The academic became the creative; the creative became the academic. My desk was covered with the trappings of the academy, with filing cards, photocopies, Manila folders marked: 'bibliography', 'Vinland references', 'maps, other' and so on. My desk was also covered with the trappings of the novelist - with photographs and pictures, yellow stick-ons, a feather, the smooth black pebble which was never far from the keyboard, a list of characters, a bent and twisted paperclip, red, blue, black pens, marked-up manuscripts. But I could not maintain the division as one slid into the other and the academic and the creative processes blurred. Before long my card index file also contained details on my characters, details of the fiction, and notes on chapters. The Manila folders began to be labelled, 'chapter 4, extra'; the paperclip was bent back into shape and held together notes on the Inanna myth.

And in my working I did not separate the two, I did not for example carrying out academic work on one day and creative work on another. In one breath the novelist moved from one kind of 'work' to the other and back. The two parts became each other, mixing together in swirls of colour. I would read an article on 17th century watches and think of Meridian holding a small watch in her hand, feeling the warmth and weight of four hundred years of women's touch. In Chapter 9 when the women are in the rose garden I knew I wanted a line from an Arabic poem. I didn't know what poem or what line. I left my desk and went to the library borrowing all the books on Arabic verse the library held. Back at my desk I hunted for a line that used roses. There were quite a few. I sat around with some of my colleagues discussing the poems until Hafiz's 'The red rose is open and the nightingale is drunk' stood out from the rest (Kritzeck, 1964). The line became a corridor catch phrase and was written up on the staff noticeboard rubbing shoulders with sober notices of conferences and research opportunities.

Like marbling on paper. Into a bed of water oil paints are applied, raw colours, one after another. By running a comb through the water the oil paints are swirled together to form a marble pattern. There are blues and reds and purples where the colours have combined. There are dark shades and lighter hues folding into each other. Paper is applied and takes up the colour so that the whole, the marbling on the page is the thing we remember, not the tubes of paint containing the separate raw colours.

So too with the novel. The academic and the creative slid into one another, nestled side by side so that one fed on the other, one became the other.

I became playful with the combination and decided to take risks. I invented the Literary Executor.

 

The Literary Executor

Faced with this interweaving of the academic and the creative I began to play with the connection, seeing it as mirroring the game already being played out in the text between history and fiction. I developed the last of my characters, the Literary Executor, known by my formal initials M.N.B.

The Literary Executor played with the idea that the novel is a piecing together of fragments from a range of knowledges.

Completing the novel I knew I was not the same person who began it, I had been on my own journey of discovery. My job, my housing, my personal domestic arrangements, even the city in which I lived had changed. I had moved across the continent from the plains to the mountains, from the Mediterranean climate to the sub tropical. My fingers that tapped at the keyboard were older, much more wrinkled now. And there was something inside of me which had changed as well. The woman who began this process was not the woman who ended it. The Literary Executor then came from a playfulness with the idea of the death of the author and a realisation that indeed the author, as she appeared at the beginning of the process, was part of my history rather than my present. The Literary Executor offered a place at the table I did not mind taking.

I gave the Literary Executor a Foreword and from time to time let her make a comment in the footnotes of the text. But like my other characters she demanded more. I then realised that I could invent references for the text just as easily as I could insert genuine sources. I began to do this, taking care that one was not distinguishable from the other.

Going even further, I inserted fiction onto the factual, not as an elaboration or writerly device, but simply to playfully corrupt the factual. An example of this kind of intrusion can be seen in a footnote in Chapter 5 which discussed a possible confusion in the text over the first name of the historical cartographer Thomas Marston. The largest intrusion was however in the invention of Saint Beneface the Bold, the monk, who according to Meridian, might well have been the originator of the Vinland Map.

The Literary Executor works quietly in the background of the text. She is named in the shadows, having only initials for her name. She lives in the footnotes chipping away at the cracks, disturbing the historical narrative. She is mischievous with the canon. She is finding spaces. She is letting our shrill voices into the academy. She is letting our lore into the libraries. She is opening up language.

In summary, through these and other devices, Fragments of a Map engages with, and playfully disturbs, the ways in which we transpose knowledge. It plays with historical account, citation, interpretation, invention and translation. It skips between the academic and creative in such a way that both inform the other, both become the other.

 

The novelist protects herself

In writing and editing this exegesis I have struggled with selection, with what to include and what to leave unsaid. And, as I claimed at the very beginning, it is not possible to unpack all the concerns and processes of my novel into this space. To do that would be to make an ugly and awkward clone of the novel.

Two factors directed my selection process. Firstly, I was concerned with the difficult issue of autobiography. To what extent is the creative work autobiographical?

In producing a public creative work I need to call on a very large number of my skills and resources; some of which will be private, and others will live more comfortably in the public domain. And unlike my colleagues in other disciplines I do not have the safety glass of objectivity to hide behind. When the work is reviewed, criticised, lauded or torn apart I need to try and remove myself as a human being from that activity. I need to try and step back from the work so that I am no longer attached to it, sever the umbilical cord and let it make its own way in the world. This is a large ask and it may not be possible to separate myself from the work in this way, but in order to survive as a human being in the daily action of living I need to make some effort at it.

For these reasons I do not wish to reveal, perhaps even to myself, the level of autobiography contained within the text.

Secondly, my selection of topics to discuss in this exegesis was also governed by the emotional connection I still feel for ideas expressed in the novel. Some are still too immediate for me to want to address in any kind of analytical manner.

Besides, I enjoy the incompleteness, the thought that a completely different companion document might have been written at another time or by another writer. I enjoy the thought that the process or business of the novel cannot be documented in this space. All that I can offer here is a hastily drawn mappa mundi, one without decoration and without provenance; but one with a well worked interest in the oceans of fiction, the islands of history, and the old navigation myths. Perhaps in its own right a fascinating piece of vellum.

 

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