Guest Guide to City Literature...
This week's guide offers a flash tour of some of the best fiction written about a few of Europe's biggest cities, courtesy of the folks behind the fantastic City-Lit series...
Malcolm Burgess and Heather Reyes run Oxygen Books and are the publishers of the city-lit titles, a series of books offering selections of the finest writing on their favourite world cities; a sort of literary travel guide, if you will. Taking in Woolf's Westminster, Christopher Isherwood's sordid Berlin underworld and Joyce's Dublin odyssey, they talk us through the impetus behind the series and their favourite books from their first five titles.
Words: Malcolm Burgess & Heather Reyes
We were on the slopes of the Acropolis in the blazing heat three years ago and desperate to read a selection of contemporary writing about Athens. We had the heavy and slightly out-of-date guide books but there was nothing in them, or, we discovered later, in Athens' bookshops. There wasn't anything in London bookshops either. And so Oxygen Books and our city-pick series began, finding some of the best writing on cities we love, from fiction and non-fiction to journalism and blogs. Current titles include Berlin, Paris, London, Venice, Amsterdam and Dublin with New York out on 20 October and Istanbul and St Petersburg appearing next year.
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925)
No matter how many times I read Mrs Dalloway, I enjoy it and find some new detail to wallow in. Finding oneself in London on a lovely summer's morning, the whole novel floods back and increases the pleasure of it all.
When we step out into the London streets on a brilliant June morning with Clarissa Dalloway, we begin a rich day (like Ulysses, the novel observes the classical 'unity of time' rule) that draws many aspects of the city and its people into the narrative. While it is a wonderful – and often very funny – celebration of the capital, Woolf doesn't ignore its darker side. Set in 1923, the aftermath of the First World War casts a shadow both in the character of the shell-shocked Septimus Warren Smith and in Mrs Dalloway's own state of health. The sound of Big Ben haunts the novel, suggesting human mortality but also a kind of joyous pride in London. The party at the novel's close feels like a celebration of city life and brings together the characters we have met or whose minds we have entered during the course of the day. Tragedy arrives in the midst of it all, but the overwhelming impression is of a deep appreciation of people in all their failings and complexities, and of the city itself, which is equally complex but elicits love too.
Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin (1939)
No matter how well you know the film Cabaret, going back to the book on which it was based is essential if you really want to get into those pre-Second World War years in Berlin. On the first page, Isherwood declares himself to be "a camera", and while this suggests a cool, objective take on events, one mustn't forget that a camera is selective and able to make us 'feel' through focusing on particular details. For me, it is this balance between the objective and subjective that makes the book work so well. Who can forget, once we have met her, the landlady of 'Herr Issyvoo', Fraulein Schroeder. While poking gentle fun, Isherwood treats her with an underlying generosity of spirit which he also applies to the "hopeless" Sally Bowles (not quite as striking and energetic as Liza Minelli in the film). Yes, there's plenty of good fiction set in Berlin, but I always go back to Isherwood when I want that satisfying blend of truth and pleasure.
H. M. van den Brink, On the Water translated by Paul Vincent (1998)
This is a short but truly memorable novel and reflects Amsterdam's deceptively quiet, considered nature, which conceals turbulence beneath. It is the story of two adolescent boys from very different backgrounds who find a deep friendship partly through their shared passion for being "on the water" during an ideal summer before the war. With the rise of fascism and the occupation, their world is destroyed and the more fortunate of the two boys, David, disappears. The focus on water helps one appreciate the various manifestations of this essential element of Amsterdam, but the historical setting reminds one of just what was lost to Europe as a whole through the spread of the Nazi regime. It's a quiet but powerful read that deserves to be better known – as do many Dutch writers of whom we remain shamefully ignorant.
James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
No, I'm really not being pretentious when I say this is my favourite book on Dublin. I had made several (unsuccessful) attempts to get through it, but then came across the most marvellous Naxos recording (22 CDs), read by Jim Norton with Marcella Riordan as Molly Bloom, which simply made it work. And it really is one of the funniest, most touching, tragic, wide-ranging, thoroughly enjoyable books ever. But you have to hear it in an Irish voice. It deserves its reputation as one the great books of all time not only for its close observation of early 20th-century Dublin, but of human relationships of many kinds, and the great joys and sorrows that shape our lives. Yes, there's a brilliant (and often referred to) description of Leopold Bloom on the loo, but details often not mentioned include the fact that he and Molly lost their only child, little Rudi, as a baby. The subtle anti-semitism of Dublin society is also something Bloom has to deal with continually. And Joyce isn't just good on people: the description of the Bloom's cat is just brilliant.
Emile Zola, Ladies' Delight (1883)
Ladies' Delight (Au Bonheur des Dames), published in 1883, tells of the rise of Octave Mouret, and a new kind of Paris department store, based on the Left Bank's Le Bon Marche. But at its loudly throbbing heart – and this is the real story – is the rise of modern capitalism and consumerism on a scale never seen before. Although a man of the Left, Zola is able to give us the visceral feel of seemingly unlimited products and materials there for our delight, delectation and moral ruin, and our moral approbation if we can remember it. Think Selfridges on a Saturday afternoon a week before Christmas and you'll get the picture.
Read more on the City-Lit series and order titles at www.oxygenbooks.co.uk.
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