Tag Archives: writing cities

Eavan Boland’s Dublin

I did not know Eavan Boland before this, did not know Paula Meehan. I did know the exquisiteness of words, the occasional poet that tells my heart, spells my heart, rips rebuilds reweaves renews and changes the world for me. Gift-givers. Both of these women are such poets.

Instead I bought this book because they were writing cities.

I bought this book because I love Dublin, too. This post focuses on words and writers and cities, but I loved every word, every poem, the so-much-more, the different-for-all-of-us that lies in every line. Paula Meehan at the ends says ‘The way a poem lets you hold so much in mind’. Which is why each poem will forever be so much more than what I write here. This is an apology for narrowing them down really, for making too obvious how much this blog is to mark and capture things I hope to weave together sometime in the futures. Not tell how things are. I’d have to write poetry for that.

The intro is from editor Jody Allen Randolph, and situates everything nicely — there is so much to think about here:

What gives cities their unique identities? As this book will suggest, a city gets its identity not just from its buildings, its industries, its history, its public events, and its notable citizens. It also finds its identity from being imagined. The years, decades, centuries in which a city shapes its inhabitants add up to a rich life and afterlife of meaning and memory. Those meanings and memories requires language and expression (9).

She writes ‘We also understood that poets both find and give identity to the city…As editors, we imagined this book as a topography of the city with the poet…’ Thus poems arranged topographically not chronologically, in sections of river, city, suburb.

And this, a paradigm…I am never sure I like those, but this works better than most:

But we wanted to do more that just suggest the ways in which a poet has imagined a city over a span of four or five decades. We wanted to sketch out a paradigm for how a city is imagined. To this end, we envisioned a series of suggestive dialogues between text and image, and between poet and poet. (11)

And so a skimming of poetry, pulling bits and pieces that speak to the city and hopefully not damaging the whole and damn but you should go read them all anyway.

From City of Shadows, a reclaiming of the ordinary for poetry, so much of her work is about that.

I absorbed the sense that poetry was safe here in this city at twilight, with its violet sky and constant drizzle, within this circle of libraries and pubs and talks about stanzas and cadences. Beyond it was the ordinariness which could only dissipate it; beyond it was a life for which no visionary claim could be made. (13)

Except Boland makes this claim, scatters it in beauty and pain across the page.

Once in Dublin (my city of white pepper):

Small things
make the past.
Make the present seem out of place.

Unheroic

How do I know my country? Let me tell you
it has been difficult to do. And when I do
go back to difficult knowledge, it is not
to that street or those men raised
high above the certainties they stood on —
Ireland hero history — but how

I went behind the linen room and up
the stone stairs and climbed to the top.
And stood for a moment there, concealed
by shadows. In a hiding place.
Waiting to see. Wanting to look again.
Into the patient face of the unhealed. (19)

The Huguenot Graveyard at the Heart of the City

This city with its colours of sky and day —
and which is dear to us and particular —
was not a place to them: merely
the one witty step ahead of hate which

is all they could keep. Or stay. (21)

Migrations, our city through the eyes of others, an empathy with the plight of strangers. Everything our world lacks now.

Tree of Life

Wait
for dawn to make us clear to one another

Let the sun
inch above the roof-tops,

Let love
be the light that shows again

the blossom to the root. (27)

An Elegy For My Mother in Which She Scarcely Appears

as is my mother, on this Dublin evening of
fog crystals and frost as she reached out to test
one corner of a cloth for dryness as the prewar
Irish twilight closes in and down on the room
and the curtains are drawn and here am I,
not even born and already a conservationist,
with nothing to assist me but the last
and most fabulous of beasts — language, language —
which knows, as I do, that it’s too late
to record the loss of these things but does so anyway,
and anxiously, in case it shares their fate. (33)

Language, over and over it is language in many of the same ways other colonised people experience its loss, its erasure, the way it shapes experience and meaning. Much here reminded of Assia Djebar among others.

And Eavan Boland loves rivers too, and their complex relationship with the city, here a generative one.

Gifts of the River

I begin with the Liffey because a river is not a place: it is a maker of places. Without the river there would be no city. Every day, turning its narrow circle, endlessly absorbing and re-absorbing the shapes and reflections of the city, it mirrors what it created. With the river, the city every day has to throw itself again into those surfaces, those depths, those reflections which have served as the source of all its fictions. (43)

The Scar

Dawn on the River.
Dublin arises out of what reflects it.

Anna Liffey
looks to the east, to the sea, (45)

And here, I don’t know why I was surprised, happily, but so I was. Empire. Its complexities.

The Harbour

City of shadows and of the gradual
capitulations to the last invader
this is the final one: signed in water
and witnessed in granite and ugly bronze and gun-metal.

And by me. I am your citizen: composed of
your fictions, your compromise, I am
a part of your story and its outcome.
And ready to record its its contradictions. (55)

The Mother Tongue

The old pale ditch can still be seen
less than half a mile from my house–

its ancient barrier of mud and brambles
which mireth next unto Irishmen
is now a mere rise of coarse grass,
a rowan tree and some thinned-out spruce,
where a child is playing at twilight.

I stand in the shadows. I find it
hard to believe now that once
this was a source of our division:

Dug. Drained. Shored up and left
to keep out and keep in. That here
the essence of a colony’s defence
was the substance of the quarrel with its purpose:

Land. Ground. A line drawn in rain
and clay and the roots of wild broom–
behind it the makings of a city,
beyond it rumours of a nation–
by Dalkey and Kilternan and Balally
through two ways of saying their names.

***

I was born on this side of the Pale.
I speak with the forked tongue of colony.
But I stand in the first dark and frost
of a winter night in Dublin and imagine

my pure sound, my undivided speech
travelling to the edge of this silence.
As if to find me. And I listen: I hear
what I am safe from. What I have lost. (77)

The segregated spaces created by power, created for domination, the damage they do to hearts and lives:

Witness

Here is the city—
its worn-down mountains,
its grass and iron,
its smoky coast
seen from the high roads
on the Wicklow side.

From Dalkey Island
to the North Wall,
to the blue distance seizing its perimeter,
its old divisions are deep within it.

And in me also.
And always will be.

Out of my mouth they come:
The spurred and booted garrisons.
The men and women
they dispossessed.

What is a colony
if not the brutal truth
that when we speak
the graves open.

And the dead walk?

I am awe-struck by these poems. I sat, and then dragged myself back to the register of prose.

Glad I did. It is a wonderful conversation between the wonderful Paula Meehan, who crosses class boundaries and tells Eavan Boland:

I realised that an accent is not a politics…then it was, suddenly, both a political and a literary argument. About who writes the city. I began to see that the city you were writing into your poems was not a scenic backdrop for the working out of the drama of the self, that, in fact, your relationship was with the polis, with the power structures of the state as manifest in architecture, in statuary, in the suffered histories of the excluded as much as in the commemorated and sanctioned official histories. (98)

She responds:

…I was interested in looking at a city as a place where the ghosts of power are remembered and tested. For me these ghosts are often colonial. But sometimes they’re just the spirits of place. (98)

Paula:

I always puzzled at being told Irish poets have a great ‘sense of place‘. I suspected that underneath was an unstated ‘and you should stay in your place’. It felt like a simplification…It has become such a cliche that it masks, possibly drains of power, one of the most vital and crucial acts of the poet, the compact between the non-human and the human. Between the locale and its creatures, what waters and nourishes, as well as what threatens, what grows there. You mention ‘spirit of place’ and this rings truer to me than ‘sense of place’. We can trace this aspect of our work back to the Dinnseanchas, the responsibility we once had to enshrine, possibly encode, in language the lore and etymology of place. (98)

and again Paula on language:

And now consider the other games that are being played, when you sit down to work with a poem: with the language itself, English and its imperial nature, our resistant version of it, the beautiful words with their own histories, their ghosts; the play with the shape of the poem…The way a poem lets you hold so much in mind. That excites me. It’s the hit I get from making a poem. Why I go back again and again, craving the making.
Aren’t we always making the city up? The cities? (101)

and again

To walk the streets of the city was, is, to stroll at will through the layers of its making and its peopling, to learn to place a particular building withing its era…all that, and always the lives lived there.

But, I have a sense also of something else at work — a kind of dream city or dreaming city. It doesn’t exactly map on to any known verifiable place. It’s the private sonic Dublin each poet makes — the individual song of the self in place, the free self in the given place. Maybe that’s our true city? (104)

They talk of Joyce, Akhmatova, Flann O’Brien and The Charwoman’s daughter by James Stephens which I too loved with a great love. Paula is more like me, writes of poverty and housing, being put in place, always fighting. Which makes this conversation between two such different voices so rich.

Final words from Boland responding to Meehan’s raising of the power of words and voice, of poems as communal:

The adjective ‘communal’ has a related verb — an old-fashioned one — which is ‘communing’. A word I’ve always loved. And one, when you look at it, that’s quite a bit removed from the adjective that seems close to it. For me, even when a poem is not apparently communal, even when it seems to be private, it can still commune. In fact it may make a particularly strong community with a reader, and still not be communal, just by speaking to and of solitude…truly one of the great possibilities for the poem. (107)

Victor Hugo’s Paris in Les Miserables

It is hard nowadays to picture to one’s self what a pleasure-trip of students and grisettes to the country was like, forty-five years ago.

But Victor Hugo will do his best to picture it for us.

The suburbs of Paris are no longer the same; the physiognomy of what may be called circumparisian life has changed completely in the last half-century; where there was the cuckoo, there is the railway car; where there was a tender-boat, there is now the steamboat; people speak of Fecamp nowadays as they spoke of Saint-Cloud in those days. The Paris of 1862 is a city which has France for its outskirts.

Hugo writes to inscribe Paris in the memory, to immortalize it as it was, to make sure that generations never forget. This has an immense weight to it, a ponderous feeling as though an ancient uncle were pressing your hand and whispering truths about things you will never see but he expects you to hold dear. In this case, the setting of the Gorbeau house, where Jean Valjean flees with Cosette.

Gorbeau-house-largeThe barrier was close at hand. In 1823 the city wall was still in existence.

This barrier itself evoked gloomy fancies in the mind. It was the road to Bicêtre. It was through it that, under the Empire and the Restoration, prisoners condemned to death re-entered Paris on the day of their execution. It was there, that, about 1829, was committed that mysterious assassination, called “The assassination of the Fontainebleau barrier,” … Take a few steps, and you come upon that fatal Rue Croulebarbe, where Ulbach stabbed the goat-girl of Ivry to the sound of thunder, as in the melodramas. A few paces more, and you arrive at the abominable pollarded elms of the Barrière Saint-Jacques, that expedient of the philanthropist to conceal the scaffold, that miserable and shameful Place de Grève of a shop-keeping and bourgeois society, which recoiled before the death penalty, neither daring to abolish it with grandeur, nor to uphold it with authority.

Leaving aside this Place Saint-Jacques, which was, as it were, predestined, and which has always been horrible …

Bourgeois houses only began to spring up there twenty-five years later. The place was unpleasant. In addition to the gloomy thoughts which assailed one there, one was conscious of being between the Salpêtrière, a glimpse of whose dome could be seen, and Bicêtre, whose outskirts one was fairly touching; that is to say, between the madness of women and the madness of men. As far as the eye could see, one could perceive nothing but the abattoirs, the city wall, and the fronts of a few factories, resembling barracks or monasteries; everywhere about stood hovels, rubbish, ancient walls blackened like cerecloths, new white walls like winding-sheets; everywhere parallel rows of trees, buildings erected on a line, flat constructions, long, cold rows, and the melancholy sadness of right angles. Not an unevenness of the ground, not a caprice in the architecture, not a fold. The ensemble was glacial, regular, hideous. Nothing oppresses the heart like symmetry. It is because symmetry is ennui, and ennui is at the very foundation of grief. Despair yawns. Something more terrible than a hell where one suffers may be imagined, and that is a hell where one is bored. If such a hell existed, that bit of the Boulevard de l’Hôpital might have formed the entrance to it.

Nevertheless, at nightfall, at the moment when the daylight is vanishing, especially in winter, at the hour when the twilight breeze tears from the elms their last russet leaves, when the darkness is deep and starless, or when the moon and the wind are making openings in the clouds and losing themselves in the shadows, this boulevard suddenly becomes frightful.

Only suddenly. Only at night.

He explains the importance later, of these long descriptions of the city that of all his many long digressions I did really appreciate:

The author of this book, who regrets the necessity of mentioning himself, has been absent from Paris for many years. Paris has been transformed since he quitted it. A new city has arisen, which is, after a fashion, unknown to him. There is no need for him to say that he loves Paris: Paris is his mind’s natal city. In consequence of demolitions and reconstructions, the Paris of his youth, that Paris which he bore away religiously in his memory, is now a Paris of days gone by. He must be permitted to speak of that Paris as though it still existed. It is possible that when the author conducts his readers to a spot and says, “In such a street there stands such and such a house,” neither street nor house will any longer exist in that locality. Readers may verify the facts if they care to take the trouble. For his own part, he is unacquainted with the new Paris, and he writes with the old Paris before his eyes in an illusion which is precious to him. It is a delight to him to dream that there still lingers behind him something of that which he beheld when he was in his own country, and that all has not vanished. So long as you go and come in your native land, you imagine that those streets are a matter of indifference to you; that those windows, those roofs, and those doors are nothing to you; that those walls are strangers to you; that those trees are merely the first encountered haphazard; that those houses, which you do not enter, are useless to you; that the pavements which you tread are merely stones. Later on, when you are no longer there, you perceive that the streets are dear to you; that you miss those roofs, those doors; and that those walls are necessary to you, those trees are well beloved by you; that you entered those houses which you never entered, every day, and that you have left a part of your heart, of your blood, of your soul, in those pavements. All those places which you no longer behold, which you may never behold again, perchance, and whose memory you have cherished, take on a melancholy charm, recur to your mind with the melancholy of an apparition, make the holy land visible to you, and are, so to speak, the very form of France, and you love them; and you call them up as they are, as they were, and you persist in this, and you will submit to no change: for you are attached to the figure of your fatherland as to the face of your mother.

I’m just throwing this sentence in because I loved it:

Every flight should be an imperceptible slipping away.

I also love that we arrive here at Saint-Sulpice, the church I know from Georges Perec’s study of a Paris square, and one of the more touching stories between father and son:

While he was growing up in this fashion, the colonel slipped away every two or three months, came to Paris on the sly, like a criminal breaking his ban, and went and posted himself at Saint-Sulpice, at the hour when Aunt Gillenormand led Marius to the mass. There, trembling lest the aunt should turn round, concealed behind a pillar, motionless, not daring to breathe, he gazed at his child. The scarred veteran was afraid of that old spinster.

Everyone, it seems, writes about the Fauberg San-Antoine, again here is Hugo in phrases eminently quotable:

The Faubourg Saint-Antoine had also other causes to tremble; for it received the counter-shock of commercial crises, of failures, strikes, slack seasons, all inherent to great political disturbances. In times of revolution misery is both cause and effect. The blow which it deals rebounds upon it. This population full of proud virtue, capable to the highest degree of latent heat, always ready to fly to arms, prompt to explode, irritated, deep, undermined, seemed to be only awaiting the fall of a spark. Whenever certain sparks float on the horizon chased by the wind of events, it is impossible not to think of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine and of the formidable chance which has placed at the very gates of Paris that powder-house of suffering and ideas.

And in ever more precise geographies:

“I am capable of descending the Rue de Grès, of crossing the Place Saint-Michel, of sloping through the Rue Monsieur-le-Prince, of taking the Rue de Vaugirard, of passing the Carmelites, of turning into the Rue d’Assas, of reaching the Rue du Cherche-Midi, of leaving behind me the Conseil de Guerre, of pacing the Rue des Vielles Tuileries, of striding across the boulevard, of following the Chaussée du Maine, of passing the barrier, and entering Richefeu’s. I am capable of that. My shoes are capable of that.”

Prisons play such a key role in US economies, cities, communities — I am always rather fascinated to see where they have come from:

The New Building, which was the most cracked and decrepit thing to be seen anywhere in the world, was the weak point in the prison. The walls were eaten by saltpetre to such an extent that the authorities had been obliged to line the vaults of the dormitories with a sheathing of wood, because stones were in the habit of becoming detached and falling on the prisoners in their beds. In spite of this antiquity, the authorities committed the error of confining in the New Building the most troublesome prisoners, of placing there “the hard cases,” as they say in prison parlance.

The New Building contained four dormitories, one above the other, and a top story which was called the Bel-Air (Fine-Air). A large chimney-flue, probably from some ancient kitchen of the Dukes de la Force, started from the groundfloor, traversed all four stories, cut the dormitories, where it figured as a flattened pillar, into two portions, and finally pierced the roof.

And of course Hugo does not forget Les Halles, that working-class district later studied by Abdelhafid Khatib of the situationists, celeberated by Baldwin and more. But it doesn’t look like this any longer — I am glad Hugo had this project of inscribing streets in literature so that they would never be forgotten:

Otherwise the riot was conducted after the most scientific military tactics. The narrow, uneven, sinuous streets, full of angles and turns, were admirably chosen; the neighborhood of the Halles, in particular, a network of streets more intricate than a forest.

and during the uprising

All that old quarter of the Halles, which is like a city within a city, through which run the Rues Saint-Denis and Saint-Martin, where a thousand lanes cross, and of which the insurgents had made their redoubt and their stronghold, would have appeared to him like a dark and enormous cavity hollowed out in the centre of Paris. There the glance fell into an abyss. Thanks to the broken lanterns, thanks to the closed windows, there all radiance, all life, all sound, all movement ceased. The invisible police of the insurrection were on the watch everywhere, and maintained order, that is to say, night.

Les Halles old view, Paris. Created by Girardet, published on Magasin Pittoresque, Paris, 184
Les Halles old view, Paris. Created by Girardet, published on Magasin Pittoresque, Paris, 184

I’ll write more about the barricades I think, I did love them. But here they are placed at their precise locations:

The Parisians who nowadays on entering on the Rue Rambuteau at the end near the Halles, notice on their right, opposite the Rue Mondétour, a basket-maker’s shop having for its sign a basket in the form of Napoleon the Great with this inscription:—

                    NAPOLEON IS MADE
                    WHOLLY OF WILLOW,

have no suspicion of the terrible scenes which this very spot witnessed hardly thirty years ago.

It was there that lay the Rue de la Chanvrerie, which ancient deeds spell Chanverrerie, and the celebrated public-house called Corinthe.

corinth-189x300It is quite a Public House. And it is no more, this is all we have of it.

The Mondétour labyrinth was disembowelled and widely opened in 1847, and probably no longer exists at the present moment. The Rue de la Chanvrerie and Corinthe have disappeared beneath the pavement of the Rue Rambuteau.

As we have already said, Corinthe was the meeting-place if not the rallying-point, of Courfeyrac and his friends.

Then back for a brief moment to more bourgeois streets — on the Marais

Everyone in the house was asleep. People go to bed betimes in the Marais, especially on days when there is a revolt. This good, old quarter, terrified at the Revolution, takes refuge in slumber, as children, when they hear the Bugaboo coming, hide their heads hastily under their coverlet.

But I will end with a paragraph I loved best:

There are soothing spots which act in some sort mechanically on the mind. An obscure street, peaceable inhabitants. Jean Valjean experienced an indescribable contagion of tranquillity in that alley of ancient Paris, which is so narrow that it is barred against carriages by a transverse beam placed on two posts, which is deaf and dumb in the midst of the clamorous city, dimly lighted at mid-day, and is, so to speak, incapable of emotions between two rows of lofty houses centuries old, which hold their peace like ancients as they are. There was a touch of stagnant oblivion in that street. Jean Valjean drew his breath once more there. How could he be found there?

 

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Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock

Graham Greene - Brighton RockI somehow forgot how stunning Graham Greene’s writing is, this quickly reminded me. Both thriller and glorious words. Besides, it contains descriptions like this, one of the bits of London I love, and is no longer like this at all:

Ida came up from Charing Cross Station, into the hot and windy light in the Strand flickering on the carburetors; in an upper room of Stanley Gibbons a man with a long grey Edwardian moustache sat in a window examining a postage stamp through a magnifying glass; a great dray laden with barrels stamped by, and the fountains played in Trafalgar Square, a cool translucent flower blooming and dropping into the drab sooty basins…. In Seven Dials the negroes were hanging round the public house doors in tight natty suitings and old school ties, and Ida recognized one of them and passed the time of day. (37-38)

I loved too, the main protagonist, Ida. She was the one pushing the action forward, investigating and uncovering the truth. She’s usually the woman seen regularly (but not too regularly) who helps the noir private eye hold it all together, the loose woman who likes a drink, enjoys every sensual minute of life, and has a heart of gold beneath what some might consider a bit of a rough exterior. Here she gets centre stage, she stands for life and decency in contrast to the death all around her. She stands a bit outside that limiting equation of poverty vs wealth, misery vs content. She moves between worlds, between peoples, between cities. She is not trapped, either in her circumstances or in her own head.

It makes her a bit terrifying to those who are. She gets her way too, her version of justice for a man she only briefly met, but who recognised her worth.

There’s this too, not something you associate with Brighton, but poverty is there as well as here. Poverty that can only be fled from but can never be fully left behind:

The Boy crossed over towards the Old Steyne walking slowly. The streets narrowed uphill above the Steyne: the shabby secret behind the bright corsage, the deformed breast. Every step was a retreat. He thought he had escaped for ever by the whole length of the parade, and now extreme poverty too him back: a shop where a shingle could be had for two shillings in the same building as a coffin-maker’s who worked in oak, elm or lead: no window-dressing but one child’s coffin dusty with disuse and the list of hairdressing prices. The Salvation Army citadel marked with its battlements the very border of his home. He began to fear recognition and feel an obscure shame as if it were his native streets which had the right to forgive and not he to reproach them with the dreary and dingy past. (140)

How many colons and semi-colons! How much sad and petty violence, a world that cannot be broken out of. A world created within the confines of misery and a single room shared by a family and a burden of fear and shame. A world lived in parallel to holiday crowds as much as to the higher echelons of underworld life able to take a slightly larger view. You are glad it is being torn down, aware that the new building will probably just recreate it.

Outside is life, outside is Ida, implacably looking for what is fair and just. And enjoying it.

Still, the undertones of heredity and environmental determinism are rather disturbing and so this is no simple triumph of life. The Boy’s unfortunate wife of only a few days, unsuccessfully fleeing the same inescapable world that he was and as unable to see the true horizon, is possibly pregnant, and the last line of the book is this:

She walked rapidly in the thin June sunlight towards the worst horror of all. (247)

[Graham Greene (1938, 1971) Brighton Rock. St Ives: Clay Ltd.]

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Gustav Meyrink: The Golem in Prague

6741330Prague is a city that lingers long in the mind and heart. Today though, it feels to me a triply divided city — the older sections jammed full of tourists and shops and mummified and tidied and meant for display, the newer suburbs that everyday vibrant life and imaginings have now been pushed into, and the awe and wonder of what Prague once was as experienced through the words of its authors. There are no hard and fast boundaries between them, geographical or otherwise, they are rather layered (even if found more in one place than another).

Meyrink’s The Golem is brilliant, taking you backwards to a Prague that I think perhaps is now only very rarely visible in shadows and courtyards. The Prague once visible through such windows in the Jewish ghetto:

If I turned my head a little I could see my window on the fourth floor across the street; with the rain trickling down, the panes looked like isinglass, opaque and lumpy, as if the glass were soggy. (41)

Meyrink writes in 1914, already the streets he described are mostly gone, lost in the 1895 sweep of renewal that cleaned and tamed it. But many of the themes explored in the Kafka museum about the relationship between author and city, words and experience, are here connected. I quote at length, because this is one of the most awesome passages where the city becomes what is real and sentient. More real, more human, more purposeful in many ways than the lives held within it, who become the phantoms:

I turned my attention away from him to the discoloured houses squatting side by side before me in the rain like a row of morose animals. How eerie and run-down they all looked! Plumped down without thought, they stood there like weeds that had shot up from the ground. They had been propped against a low, yellow, stone wall — the only surviving remains of an earlier, extensive building — two or three hundred tears ago, anyhow, taking no account of the other buildings. There was a half house, crooked, with a receding forehead, and beside it was one that stuck out like a tusk. Beneath the dreary sky, they looks as if they were asleep, and you could feel none of the malevolent, hostile life that sometimes emanates from them when the mist fills the street on an autumn evening, partly concealing the changing expressions that flit across their faces.

I have lived here for a generation and in that time I have formed the impression, which I cannot shake off, that there are certain hours of the night, or in the first light of day, when they confer together, in a mysterious, noiseless agitation. And sometimes a faint, inexplicable quiver goes through their walls, noises scurry across the roof and drop into the gutter, and with our dulled sense we accept them heedlessly, without looking for what caused them.

Often I dreamt I had eavesdropped on these houses in their spectral communion and discovered to my horrified surprise that in secret they are the true masters of the street, that they can divest themselves of their vital force, and suck it back in again at will, lending it to the inhabitants during the day to demand it back at extortionate interest as night returns.

And when I review in my mind all the strange people who live in them, like phantoms, like people not born of woman who, in all their being and doing, seems to have been put together haphazardly, out of odds and ends, then I am more than ever inclined to believe that such dreams carry within them dark truths which, when I am awake, glimmer faintly in the depths of my soul like the after-images of brightly coloured fairy-tales (41-42)

It is the houses that control us, not the other way round…we built them but they have taken lives of their own, darkly connected to our own which they give and then take away. It is another play, another layer amongst many layers, on reality and on life. On the golem created of mud, the golem dead and the inert become living, the golem held within walls where sits no door but yet not contained. A thing of the past invented and created and now perhaps gone, but that still stays with us, still has power. Like the ghetto, like memory, like everything we build as communities and as peoples.

These things all, ultimately originate from us. From our thoughts and our imaginings far more powerful than anything physical:

He believes the unknown figure that haunts the district must be the phantasm that the rabbi in the Middle Ages had first to create in his mind, before he could clothe it in physical form. (61)

And Meyrink plays with all those dreams of fantasy and superstition, our tendency to find meaning in everything and make sense of the world through images.

And just as there are natural phenomena which suggest that lightening is about to strike, so there are certain eerie portents which presage the the irruption of that spectre into the physical world. The plaster flaking off a wall will resemble a person striding along the street; the frost patterns on windows will form into the lines of staring faces; the dust drifting down from the roofs will seem to fall in a different way from usual, suggesting to the observant that it is being scattered by some invisible intelligence lurking hidden in the eaves… (59-60)

The main characters eat at the Old Toll House tavern behind the Tyn Church, this beautiful centre of Old Prague now a heaving mass of tourists pouring across the St Charles Bridge in such numbers that they fill the narrow streets and every square and drive you along at their crawl. This pictures puts off everything but the tops of their heads so I could remember this place without them, remember it as it had once been experienced but may perhaps almost never be again.

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There is pathos added, too, by the loneliness, some of the same helplessness of Kafka…but it seems to me that Meyrink at least knows what it is that his character is needing:

The strange atmosphere of reverent solemnity, in which I had been enveloped since last night, was dissipated in a trice, blown away by the fresh breeze of a new day with its earthly tasks. A new-born destiny, wreathed in auspicious smiles, a veritable child of spring, was coming towards me. A human soul had turned to me for help! To me! What a change it brought about in my room! The worm-eaten cupboard suddenly had a smile on its carved features and the four chairs looked like four old folk sitting round the table, chuckling happily over a game of cards. (89)

And for all the gothic awesomeness, the dark opaqueness of this novel, there are still shafts of light that make their way through. The answer lies within us, to be found by us, it does not lie in our creations nor in our conditions nor in a single static meaning given us by our god.

Each questioner is given the answer best suited to his needs; otherwise humanity would not follow the path of their longings. Do you think there is no rhyme or reason why our Jewish books are written in consonants alone? Each reader has to find for himself the secret vowels that go with them and which reveal a meaning that is for him alone; the living word should not wither into dead dogma. (119)

There is lots to write about golems, about the story itself, its twistings and turnings, its layers and opaque meanings and uncertain events and endings. Lots to write about its serial form (erased through collection into a book). I think when I read it again I will find very new things in it, and write again and think more deeply about it. I recognised the room from which the golem of Kavalier and Clay emerged, the Prague of Kafka and Karels Capek and Zeman and so many others, the Prague that lives in my mind’s eye.

And oh, some of the language:

Mute and motionless, we stared into each other’s eyes, the one a hideous mirror-image of the other. Can he see the moonbeam too, as it sucks its way across the floor as sluggishly as a snail, and crawls up the infinite spaces of the wall like the hand of some invisible clock, growing paler and paler as it rises?

Step by step I wrestled with him for my life…He grew smaller and smaller, and as the day broke he crept back into the playing card. (111)

And how Meyrink battles against his city and his fate like Jacob wrestled the Angel. I do not know who won, nor do I know what it means that these houses are no longer there and can no longer confer in the night.

 

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The Tiger in the Smoke

13497413213_cbb7377327_bI had forgotten just how much I liked Margery Allingham’s writing, though not how much I enjoyed her stories. As always, the class accents trouble me, but Campion is more a mockery of Sayers’ Lord Peter Whimsey (though I confess I enjoy those too) and these books are rather more self-aware of their station.

I am sad that Lugg has been reduced to nanny in this, but Allingham is such a marvelous observer of detail, look at these  descriptions of London in a pea souper:

The fog was like a saffron blanket soaked in ice-water. It had hung over London all day and at last was beginning to descend. the sky was yellow as a duster and the rest was a granular black, overprinted in grey and lightened by occasional slivers of bright fish colour as a policeman turned in his wet cape.

Already the traffic was at an irritable crawl. By dusk it would be stationary. To the west the Park dripped wretchedly and to the north the great railway terminus slammed and banged and exploded hollowly about its affairs. Between lay winding miles of butter-coloured stucco in every conceivable state of repair. (9)

And this, a poem to Paddington Station, so different from the one I know:

The fog was thickening and the glass and iron roof was lost in its greasy drapery. The yellow lights achieved but a shabby brilliance and only the occasional plumes of steam from the locomotives were clean in the gloom. That tremendous air of suppressed excitement which is peculiar to all great railway stations was intensified by the mist, and all the noises were muffled by it and made more hollow-sounding even than usual. (19)

Both geography and a keen eye for the details of the post-war everyday

Meanwhile Crumb Street, never a place of beauty, that afternoon was at its worst. The fog slopped over its low houses like a bucketful of cold soup over a row of dirty stoves. The shops had been mean when they had been built and were designed for small and occasional trade, but since the days of victory, when a million demobilized men had passed through the terminus, each one armed with a parcel of Government-presented garments of varying usefulness, half the establishments had been taken over by opportunists specializing in the purchase and sale of secondhand clothes. Every other window was darkened with festoons of semi-respectable rags based by bundles of grey household linen, soiled suitcases, and an occasional collection of surplus war stores, green, khaki, and air-force blue…As they waited, Mr Campion reflected that the evil smell of fog is a smell of ashes grown cold under hoses, and he heard afresh the distinctive noise of the irritable, half-blinded city, the scream of brakes, the abuse of drivers, the fierce hiss of tyres on the wet road. (25)

This is reflected as well in the gang and their enormous cellar hideout — recalling old rubble films of a London where so much more is possible in the ruins. Not all of it good, as you see, but possible. It seems so distant from the sanitised and impossibly priced London of today.

I liked this too:

Mourning is not forgetting… It is an undoing. Every minute tie has to be untied and something permanent and valuable recovered and assimilated from the knot. (33)

And this — as told by the inspector.

Remember V 2’s? The whole city waiting. Silent. People on edge. More waiting. Waiting for hours. Nothing. Nothing to show. Then, strike a light! Suddenly, no warning, no whistle, wallop! End of the ruddy world! Just a damned great hole and afterwards half the street coming down very slowly, like a woman fainting. (37)

The Tiger in the Smoke — most enjoyable.

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In the Ditch — a little more on the subject of estates

1407176The Pussy Cat Mansions were built around a large compound. Adah called the open space a compound, remembering Africa. the Family Advisor, whom she met later, used the word courtyard for the open space. It was an open space into which all the front doors opened out. In the centre of the compound were some ill-looking buildings. Adah’s African friends called these little houses ‘Juju man’s house’. When the vicar’s wife visited, she said to Adah, ‘Those houses look like a monastery,’ but the Deaconness said they looked more like a mortuary. Originally the architect had meant them to be used as pram and bicycle sheds…(16)

The stairs are steep in the mansions, and the trash chutes are almost always overflowing.  Small windows and doors. Small impersonal tiles like hospitals and prisons. Thin walls that allow you to hear everything. The smell of urine. Children everywhere.

Ah, yes, the Mansions were a unique place, a separate place individualised for ‘problem families’. Problem families with real problems were placed in a problem place. So even if one lived at the Mansions and had no problems the set-up would create problems – in plenty.  (17)

I love this story exploring life and a council estate and the welfare state intertwined. The deep ambivalence of needed help and its provision with strings and dependency. But it starts with what council housing could be — a way for someone to escape an untenable rental situation, somewhere stable and safe and welcoming to make of their life what they wish. For Adah in her first night in her new flat:

There were three important things she knew she had acquired that night, her independence, her freedom, and peace of mind. (15)

Those things that are so hard to find in private rentals, in shared flats, in uncertain tenancies where you never know what will happen next, when you will be out, what your crazy flatmate might do. Where it is hard to find space of your own.

The terrible thing is that many council flats did not bring such things in the end; this one didn’t. Everyone who knew anything warned her to wait for a flat in a better building. You watch this living situation move Adah further and further from each of these three objectives she prizes so greatly, above all stealing away her independence and drive through the demands and requirements placed on her by the Family Advisor.

God, you want to hit that woman sometimes. Carol, you think, and shake your head. The tenants know as well as the readers that she lives off of ‘helping’ them, and she’s not one to help herself out of a job. The remote possibility remains that she does at bottom have people’s best interests at heart, but she still kills just as dead each possible future but the one in which you just get by through a begrudged kindness from the State, with her help of course.

Despite all of that, the Mansions has its own community, its own support. There is a warmth there, a camaraderie. There is something to miss after everyone is moved along and it is demolished. We always leave a piece of ourselves behind in the places we have lived and the people we have shared our lives with.

While writing this I was comparing the Mansions with Haggerston Estate in my mind, also considered a problem estate for problem people from the very beginning. I was wondering what might have grown in the Mansions if people had been allowed to come together, to do for themselves, to take ownership of the space, to dream and plan and paint.

You see sparks of resistance here and there, of course, it is curious the different extents to which Adah’s fellow tenants have internalised both the rules and the disrespectful attitudes behind them. Curious where they make their stands. But make their stands they do.

We need social housing that does not through its patronising control of the poor create such conditions, that provides the infrastructure instead to support and nurture the human lives within it. That ensures the Carols of the world are employed in jobs they are actually good at where they can do no damage. Estate: A Reverie has some of the answers. Of course, we also have to build more, and better social housing. And stop destroying what we have. Emecheta is showing here both what housing could mean to a mother trying to achieve a better life, and the gap between that wonderful possibility and a controlling reality of rules and requirements that denies that achievement.

It doesn’t seem impossible.

Lanark

2426144I loved this more than I can say, it is massive and labyrinthine and fantastic and grimly inventive, it is pure Glasgow plus so much more. It is cities and class politics and energy and the connections between physical and mental illness and art and obsession and stubbornness. And a dragon.

I confess that while reading I hate to find myself suddenly muttering to myself ‘you stupid cow,‘ and if the book is written by a man I hold it against him,  but that couldn’t stop me here. I generally hate it when books escape into authorial ramblings and discussions of fate and power, yet that didn’t phase me either.  Perhaps he had me when Sludden says ‘Tell me why you use the balcony,’ and Lanark answers:

‘I’m looking for sunlight.’

Perhaps that is all this book really is about.

I felt that way in my time in Glasgow, I loved it so much but always with that corner of yearning for the sun.

I don’t even know how I decided the following things were worth writing down as opposed to other things, but regardless I have shared what those pages contained with their dog-eared corners. in a way it felt all or nothing. I could have shared every footnote and snippet of history in the footnote section, I loved that conceit, as I did the references to so many authors, many of whom I caught and a number I was so happy to see, like James Kellman and Tom Leonard.

I could outline to you how much I loved the ways that cities and worlds and power intertwined. But maybe just the quotes, like this on what working class kids wish and how impossible it all seems, which is just magic.

I had a wish to be an artist. Was that not mad of me? I had this work of art I wanted to make, don’t ask me what it was, I don’t know; something epic, mibby, with the variety of facts and the clarity of fancies and all of it seen in pictures with a queer morbid intense colour of their own, mibby a gigantic mural or illustrated book or even a film. I didn’t know what it would have been, but I knew how to get ready to make it. I had to read poetry and hear music and study philosophy and write and draw and paint. I had to learn how things and people felt and were made and behaved and how the human body worked and its appearance and proportions in different situations. In fact, I had to eat the bloody moon!” (210)

A moment when the girl isn’t being a total cow. Because this is true too:

She pulled a face and went out, saying, “It’s hard to shine without encouragement.” (359)

And ah, Dennistoun public library. I bet that part is real:

The conjuror scratched his hair furiously with both hands and said querulously, “I understand you resentment. When I was sixteen or seventeen I wanted an ending like that. You see, I found Tillyard’s study of the epic in Dennistoun public library, and he said an epic was only written when a new society was giving men a greater chance of liberty. I decided that what the Aeneid had been to the Roman Empire my epic would be to the Scottish Cooperative Wholesale Republic… (492)

There is nothing I don’t love about this:

Perhaps my model world is too compressed and lacks the quiet moments of unconsidered ease which are the sustaining part of the most troubled world. (494)

And a return to my idea to always write down the last sentences of things — perhaps despite the last few disastrous last sentences of the last few books it was a good idea after all — because this made my little geographer’s heart go pitter pat:

He was a slightly worried, ordinary old man but glad to see the light in the sky.

I STARTED MAKING MAPS WHEN I WAS SMALL SHOWING PLACE, RESOURCES, WHERE THE ENEMY AND WHERE LOVE LAY. I DID NOT KNOW TIME ADDS TO LAND. EVENTS DRIFT CONTINUALLY
DOWN,
EFFACING LANDMARKS, RAISING THE LEVEL, LIKE
SNOW.

I HAVE GROWN UP. MY MAPS ARE OUT OF DATE.
THE LAND LIES OVER ME NOW.
I CANNOT MOVE. IT IS TIME TO GO.

GOODBYE

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Georges Perec en Place San-Sulpice

7902560Over a weekend in 1974, Georges Perec sat in the place Saint-Sulpice and observed the world.

It’s a fascinating contrast with the very purposeful studies of space carried out by William Whyte in New York or Jan Gehl in Copenhagen, meant to assist planners and architects and city officials to design public spaces.

This is airier. Listier yet more subjective. It makes you breathe the atmosphere of every day. Perec writes:

There are many things in place Saint-Sulpice; for instance: a district council building, a financial building, a police station, three cafés, one of which sells tobacco and stamps, a movie theater, a church on which Le Vau, Gittard, Oppenord, Servandoni, and Chalgrin have all worked, and which is dedicated to a chaplain of Clotaire II, who was bishop of Bourges from 624 to 644 and whom we celebrate on 17 January, a publisher, a funeral parlor, a travel agency, a bus stop, a tailor, a hotel, a fountain decorated with the statues of four great Christian orators (Bossuet, Fénelon, Fléchier, and Masillon), a newsstand, a seller of pious objects, a parking lot, a beauty parlour, and many other things as well.

My intention in the pages that follow is to describe the rest instead: that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars and clouds. (3)

And he does.

He lists:

things;

trajectories;

colours;

differences;

dogs playing;

pigeons;

men in raincoats;

women with cakes;

friends who stop and chat;

friends who don’t see him;

buses;

a typology of umbrellas;

etc.

etc.

We meant to spend time there, but never quite made it there until the end, stopping by between Cafe Tournon (Chester Himes sent us there) and our hotel to pick up luggage and head off home.

It was full of a particularly impenetrable market however, the backs of white tents filling the square, hiding the fountain. Boutiques filled the roads leading to and away. It did not feel like it was supposed to. It’s atmosphere lay buried. Gone. Changed. These things happen in cities. We skirted its sides:

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The red awning belongs to the Café de la Mairie, where Perec spent part of the 18th and 20th (it was closed the 19th) of October, 1974.

He writes:

I’m eating a camembert sandwich.

It is twenty to one.

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He writes:

(Obvious limits to such an undertaking: even when my only goal is just to observe, I don’t see what takes place a few metres from me: I don’t notice, for example, that cars are parking.) (15)

later on

(fatigue)

I have now sat for hours at a time counting and recording people as they pass, and it is entirely fatiguing. Even when you have no camembert.

This little book was oddly evocative of the place and perhaps more of Perec himself.

I like him.

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Balzac: City, Country & Speculation in Le Pere Goriot

I enjoyed Father Goriot more than I thought I would.

Stately Paris ignores the existence of these faces bleached by moral or physical suffering; but, then, Paris is in truth an ocean that no line can plumb. You may survey its surface and describe it; but no matter how numerous and painstaking the toilers in this sea, there will always be lonely and unexplored regions in its depths, caverns unknown, flowers and pearls and monsters of the deep overlooked or forgotten by the divers of literature. The Maison Vauquer is one of these curious monstrosities.

Reading this rush of French literature I realised just how anglocentric I had become when it came to anything written over a hundred years ago — particularly in the 1800s, I was too busy reading Dickens there for a while.

There is so much to explore here, not least exciting (well, actually, to my mind it was the least exciting) being the story itself. It’s a good enough story and after so many depressing and ‘realistic’ novels (I just finished something by Zola, my god), I confess I loved being told up front that everything ended happy ever after, though you never see it all work out. I was rather fascinated that seeing how it all works out had quite a nice amount of dramatic tension. Zola has a dig at melodrama, though this was also published in serial form in 1834-35 (note to self to look more into publishing forms) it has the feel of something written as a whole. This is before The Mysteries of Paris, so he’s not talking about that when he writes:

That word drama has been somewhat discredited of late; it has been overworked and twisted to strange uses in these days of dolorous literature; but it must do service again here, not because this story is dramatic in the restricted sense of the word, but because some tears may perhaps be shed intra et extra muros before it is over.

I feel that this sentence still holds true. Funny that.

Perhaps what I liked most is that, like Dickens, this is a window on a physical world long disappeared, and Paris is revealed in an immensity of detail that engages all of the senses:

Will any one without the walls of Paris understand it? It is open to doubt. The only audience who could appreciate the results of close observation, the careful reproduction of minute detail and local color, are dwellers between the heights of Montrouge and Montmartre, in a vale of crumbling stucco watered by streams of black mud, a vale of sorrows which are real and joys too often hollow; but this audience is so accustomed to terrible sensations, that only some unimaginable and well-neigh impossible woe could produce any lasting impression there.

In a way I think those of us without the walls of Paris might enjoy it more as we an enter another place and another way of life and we are not trapped there like so many of the protagonists. The centre of the story is this boarding house, the lives of those on the edges of most desperate poverty that are still called middle-class — it is descriptions like this that make me realise just how far everyday life for most of us has come, the comforts we take for granted. But this is class and city as prison:

PROCESSION IN FRONT OF SAINTE-GENEVIÈVE Meunier, fecit (Carnavalet Museum)
PROCESSION IN FRONT OF SAINTE-GENEVIÈVE
Meunier, fecit (Carnavalet Museum)

The lodging-house is Mme. Vauquer’s own property. It is still standing in the lower end of the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve, just where the road slopes so sharply down to the Rue de l’Arbalete, that wheeled traffic seldom passes that way, because it is so stony and steep. This position is sufficient to account for the silence prevalent in the streets shut in between the dome of the Pantheon and the dome of the Val-de-Grace, two conspicuous public buildings which give a yellowish tone to the landscape and darken the whole district that lies beneath the shadow of their leaden-hued cupolas.

In that district the pavements are clean and dry, there is neither mud nor water in the gutters, grass grows in the chinks of the walls. The most heedless passer-by feels the depressing influences of a place where the sound of wheels creates a sensation; there is a grim look about the houses, a suggestion of a jail about those high garden walls. A Parisian straying into a suburb apparently composed of lodging-houses and public institutions would see poverty and dullness, old age lying down to die, and joyous youth condemned to drudgery. It is the ugliest quarter of Paris, and, it may be added, the least known. But, before all things, the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve is like a bronze frame for a picture for which the mind cannot be too well prepared by the contemplation of sad hues and sober images. Even so, step by step the daylight decreases, and the cicerone’s droning voice grows hollower as the traveler descends into the Catacombs. The comparison holds good! Who shall say which is more ghastly, the sight of the bleached skulls or of dried-up human hearts?

Yet still, for all this value-laden description, this place is still far more closely tied to the country than any city I know of today. This too I find fascinating, thinking not just about food chains and how we sustain ourselves, but also perceptions of things:

The central space between the walls is filled with artichokes and rows of pyramid fruit-trees, and surrounded by a border of lettuce, pot-herbs, and parsley. Under the lime-trees there are a few green-painted garden seats and a wooden table, and hither, during the dog-days, such of the lodgers as are rich enough to indulge in a cup of coffee come to take their pleasure, though it is hot enough to roast eggs even in the shade.

Imagine this written today, in terms of celebration of fresh, organic and local produce, self-sufficiency, lowered carbon footprints. But wait, there’s more:

Behind the house a yard extends for some twenty feet, a space inhabited by a happy family of pigs, poultry, and rabbits; the wood-shed is situated on the further side, and on the wall between the wood-shed and the kitchen window hangs the meat-safe, just above the place where the sink discharges its greasy streams. The cook sweeps all the refuse out through a little door into the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve, and frequently cleanses the yard with copious supplies of water, under pain of pestilence.

It’s like a little city farm, this lodging house. In comparison with my own lodging it seems potentially idyllic once I strip Balzac’s adjectives away. Though I suppose it might have been fairly ripe, especially in the summer.

I cease to feel that so strongly when we venture inside — I love this description of smell, always so evocative of a kind of place, joining different buildings together in the imagination:

The first room exhales an odor for which there is no name in the language, and which should be called the odeur de pension. The damp atmosphere sends a chill through you as you breathe it; it has a stuffy, musty, and rancid quality; it permeates your clothing; after-dinner scents seem to be mingled in it with smells from the kitchen and scullery and the reek of a hospital.

In short, there is no illusory grace left to the poverty that reigns here; it is dire, parsimonious, concentrated, threadbare poverty; as yet it has not sunk into the mire, it is only splashed by it, and though not in rags as yet, its clothing is ready to drop to pieces.

Meet it’s owner — and the brilliance of this disagreeable little description:

She is an oldish woman, with a bloated countenance, and a nose like a parrot’s beak set in the middle of it; her fat little hands (she is as sleek as a church rat) and her shapeless, slouching figure are in keeping with the room that reeks of misfortune, where hope is reduced to speculate for the meanest stakes.

This is the world inhabited by those trying to emerge from poverty into the world up above, and those on the opposite trajectory, sinking tragically down. The world of the renter, at the mercy of others and unsupported by property. Perhaps that is the defining sadness of this place, the flow of transience, hopes, more often illness and despair. This is a place though, where I’d love to be able to jump back in time, experience, decide for myself.

I’d like also to meet the cat Mistigris.

It’s a fictional road of course, but there is a whole website dedicated to finding Balzac’s Paris I’d like to return to.

Apart from the relationship between home and food and renting and owning and sustainability, there is a later fascinating section in here about the forces moving to destroy places just such as this and reshape the whole of the city. Here is Madame Nucingen explaining the nature of her vile husband’s work:

Do you know what he means by speculations? He buys up land in his own name, then he finds men of straw to run up houses upon it. These men make a bargain with a contractor to build the houses, paying them by bills at long dates; then in consideration of a small sum they leave my husband in possession of the houses, and finally slip through the fingers of the deluded contractors by going into bankruptcy. The name of the firm of Nucingen has been used to dazzle the poor contractors. I saw that. I noticed, too, that Nucingen had sent bills for large amounts to Amsterdam, London, Naples, and Vienna, in order to prove if necessary that large sums had been paid away by the firm. How could we get possession of those bills?

What a novel this is for an urbanist, though I know I am among many to mine its treasures as David Harvey’s book on Paris has a whole chapter on Balzac. Still, for my own pleasure there is more to come.

For more on writing cities…

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Misgivings of Invisible Cities

236219And Polo said: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”

“When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear about them. And about Venice when I ask you about Venice.”

“To distinguish other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice.” (78)

This is all about Venice, so says the back and so says the passage above. So why is it European traveler Marco Polo expounding upon, explaining cities to emperor Kublai Khan? Why are these cities all set in the East, reimagined with camels and goats and that fantastical but fairly boring and predictable menagerie of dwarves and bearded women and other familiar sideshow freaks, or naked women of astounding beauty? Why do all the fabled cities seem to have the names of women, are referred to as female and lie there fairly inert for male gazes, male discoveries, male nudges and winks? Perhaps Khan captures it all when he says to Polo:

…So then, yours is truly a journey through memory!…It was to slough off a burden of nostalgia that you went so far away!” (88)

But how boring that this is once more a novel of ennui, however unusual. How predictable, how everything-Said-wrote about orientalism and it being nothing more than European fears and desires on display, picked and mixed in the furtherance of domination. It may be meant as an immensely clever and witty exploration of just such a phenomenon, but I don’t think it escapes it.

The short vignettes of Invisible Cities, labeled things such as ‘Thin Cities’, ‘Trading Cities’, ‘Cities & Desire’, ‘Cities & Signs’, one could almost believe them intellectual exercises if they did not also seem to be named after former lovers. Perhaps those are not mutually exclusive. Each describes a city and ends in a paragraph of lofty metaphor that perhaps has something to do with its category. Perhaps not.

Some of these are lovely. Yet for me they could not escape my distaste with this form, they seemed forced somehow, like the intellectual boys in university trying to one-up one another over dinner. This has been on my list to read for ages, pushed forward by a quote I loved in Nabeel Hamdi’s book on development, Small Change, he quoted this:

However, it is pointless to try to decide whether Zenobia is to be classified among happy cities or among the unhappy. It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into a different two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give form to their desires and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.

It is so true we are both shaped by and shape our cities, and this reminded me of the rallying call around building the city of our heart’s desire (I knew it from Harvey, but I just read it somewhere else and quite remember where but was surprised…).

So alone I rather like some of these thoughts, they deserve more attention perhaps. but I wonder if they are not just empty cleverness. I have copied a few last sentences that I think could be either…

Desires are already memories (7)

…you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave. (10)

The earth has forgotten her. (13)

Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes; and so the camel driver and the sailor see Despina, a border city between two deserts. (15)

Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist. (19)

The one contains what is accepted as necessary when it is not yet so; the others, what is imagined as possible and, a moment later, is possible no longer. (28)

There are more, but I tire. I think for a few aphorisms to illustrate an intellectual point this is a good place to go, but I was sad I did not love it as others seem to.

I did, however, love the city (the city of Cecilia? Really?) that grew to encompass the goatherder. He recognized countryside and landmarks of vegetation but became lost in cities, still his goats remembered the grass after the suburbs spread. They recognised the grass on the traffic island. I never imagine Venice having extensive suburbs that blend seamlessly into the neighboring city eating up the country, so perhaps it is not entirely about Venice after all.

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