The city as a subject for literature came into its own at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as great writers turned their attention to these man-made worlds of both monumental architecture and horrendous slums. Here are the first two entries in an on-going series about cities which have inspired great writers, compiled exclusively for HomeExchange.com readers.
Please add your feedback and comments at the bottom of this page to help shape how this series proceeds.
It is customary when writing about literary London to begin with Shakespeare, but let us begin instead with William Blake’s poem “London,” from 1794:
“I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.”
This is the London that produced Charles Dickens, the prolific and influential novelist. Dickens was a world-wide bestseller from the 1830s on, popular with even those who could not read (they would pay someone to read each installment out loud), and his main subject was the fate of the innocent in collision with the reality of the city. For the London atmosphere, one must read Dickens’ Bleak House, a great novel about, of all things, a multi-generational lawsuit involving people of all classes and circumstances. Throughout this novel are wonderful scenes of the city — Covent Garden, the law courts and the Fleet prison that debtors were sent to. Here is a partial quote from that novel about the London fog:
“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats.”
As is often the case, outsiders provide insight, and when that outsider is the great American novelist Henry James, the insights are remarkable. Many of his novels have sections set in late nineteenth-century London, but the best descriptions of London social life are to be found in The Golden Bowl, a story of adultery in an aristocratic setting.
In the twentieth century there is really too much to choose from, since so many great writers lived and wrote in this city. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is one of the founding works of modernism in English and its setting is the London of the early 1920s. Here Eliot uses the famous fog metaphorically:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.”
Virginia Woolf’s heroine in Mrs. Dalloway lives in Westminster, and, among many other things, this novel conveys what it was like to live within range of the sound of Big Ben:
“In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.”
For the other side of London, see George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.
One of the greatest transmitters of the urban atmosphere was Elizabeth Bowen, especially in The Heat of the Day, her novel of a spy moving through World War II London in 1942, as the city is bombed and the characters sense the recently disappeared:
“The wall between the living and the dead thinned. In that September transparency, people became transparent, only to be located by the just darker flicker of their hearts.”
The intense music scene inspired many writers from the late 1950s on, from Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners to Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. Now immigrant Londoners have found their writers in Monica Ali (Brick Lane) and Zadie Smith (White Teeth), whose works have social concerns not so very different from Dickens’ but a cultural environment incalculably richer in diversity.
Istanbul is an enchanter-city hovering over the seam where Europe meets Asia. The geographical setting of the city is incomparable, as is its skyline, especially at night. Its allure is powerful as you sense all the various cultures that have left their mark here, from the north to the south, the east to the west. A magnificent mosque, an equally magnificent church, in a dream-like setting by the Bosphorus with its bridges and ferries — nowhere else are the ruins of the past so powerfully exotic and mysterious. One learns Istanbul through the skin, and it is no surprise that so many mystery and spy novels have been set here: the city is a breathing mystery itself. From Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dmitrios to Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love to the current day’s Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon, this dense atmosphere has been inspiring.
Turkish poets sang their metropolis. Here is a major twentieth-century Turkish poet, Orhan Veli Kanık, “Listening to Istanbul”:
I am listening,
The cool Grand Bazaar,
Full of pigeons,
Its vast courtyard,
Sounds of hammering from the docks,
In the summer breeze far, far away the odor of sweat,
I am listening.
I am listening to Istanbul with my eyes closed
The drunkenness of old times
In the wooden seaside villa with its deserted boat house
The roaring southwestern wind is trapped,
My thoughts are trapped
Listening to Istanbul with my eyes closed.
Novelists knew what they had in this disorderly city, a place in which decay is a form of beauty, and the detritus of the world can be found. Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar published A Mind at Peace in 1949:
“Çadircilar Street was bewildering as always. On the ground before a shop whose grate usually remained shuttered, waiting for who knows what, were a Russian-made samovar spigot, a doorknob, the remnants of a lady’s mother-of-pearl fan so much the fashion thirty years ago, a few random parts belonging perhaps to a largish clock or gramophone …”
There are very few writers who belong to world literature, but Turkey has one of them in Orhan Pamuk. Of his novels the most “Istanbullu” of them all is The Black Book, but he has also written a book about the city itself, Istanbul: Memories and the City. Here is an excerpt:
“It was in Cihangir [a neighborhood of the city] that I first learned Istanbul was not an anonymous multitude of walled-in lives — a jungle of apartments where no one knew who was dead or who was celebrating what — but an archipelago of neighborhoods in which everyone knew each other.”
With that, this first installment of “Literary Cities” concludes. Please share your reactions and input in the comments below, which will shape how this series continues.