Tag Archives: writing cities

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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