In his 1972 novel “Invisible Cities,” Italo Calvino writes of a building in the mythical city of Fedora with roomfuls of crystal globes, each depicting one of the myriad ideal versions of the city its inhabitants have conjured throughout the ages. Calvino implies that to adequately represent Fedora, the globe cities must be afforded as much weight as the actual city "[n]ot because they are equally real, but because all are only assumptions.”
The cities of Calvino’s novel, like our own cities, are at heart unknowable. The visitor may see what he wants to see or what the city’s inhabitants want him to see, but he will never see the city as it actually is. A city’s residents, too, inhabit their own versions of the city. “Cities, like dreams,” writes Calvino, “are made of desires and fears.” Like dreams, their meaning comes from within the individual: No city means the same thing to more than one person. To blunt this daunting notion, cities--which contain multitudes of tangled and entirely separate stories and lives--are given reductive stock portrayals. “New Yawk” is the bustling Big Apple (make it there and make it anywhere); Chicago, the big-shouldered, windy hog butcher to the world; Los Angeles, the glamorous if vapid “autotopia” where people go either to find the American Dream or, in the apocalyptic view of Nathanael West, to die.
Novelists have long sought to render their own visions of the metropolis; indeed, a similar impulse governs the writing of novels and the planning of cities. Novelists impose an artificial and rational order on events, rustle disparate characters cheek by jowl and give the reader an illusory sense of being part of a self-contained world. The planners of cities employ a novelist’s hand and hubris in inscribing their masterstrokes onto the urban grid, shifting the daily flow of lives and commerce and altering lives with a draftsman’s compass (one may be reminded of a model of New York City that planner Robert Moses had built that allowed one, with the pull of a lever, to make a broad swath of buildings and houses vanish).
Like the novelist’s, their perspective is skewed. For the builder of a highway, the highway is the protagonist, but what of the secondary and tertiary characters who must live in its disruptive wake? Even the architecture critic is akin to a literary critic; Jane Jacobs may have favored more congested and accidental cities and Lewis Mumford more spacious and orderly ones but, as with literary style, it essentially boils down to a matter of taste: Which kind of novel would you rather inhabit?
If cities and novels resemble each other in form, Richard Lehan argues that both can be read as texts. “The City in Literature” is an ambitiously wide-ranging and erudite account of not simply how western novelists have depicted the city in their work but of how the very form of the city has influenced the novel. Lehan, a professor of English at UCLA, displays more affinity for literary theory than for the texture and life of cities, and accordingly the discussion takes place on a fairly abstract plane; following Calvino, however, the city is built as much upon imagination as with concrete and steel, so there is something to be said for Lehan’s approach.
Beginning with the Greek and Roman city-states, Lehan traces the fixed and fluid meanings of the city throughout various stages of history. One enduring dynamic of the city has been the effort to impose culture upon nature, not simply in physical terms but socially as well. Yet the division is often as imaginary as the boundaries drawn on maps; in “Heart of Darkness,” Lehan notes, Joseph Conrad envisions the Thames flowing straight into the Congo. Amid the civil institutions and architectural splendor of democratic Athens, for example, Lehan notes that the “primitive energy” of the Dionysius myth, which represented a human link to nature and chaos, could not be suppressed and flourished in plays, festivals and cults. The Dionysian strand, argues Lehan, has survived in succeeding literary depictions of the city, whether it is Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” in Victorian England or Thomas Pynchon’s mysterious Tristero cult in “The Crying of Lot 49" in 1960s California.
As the city progressed from sacred burial place to trading center to teeming metropolis, it continued to define itself against nature. It also gave rise to new literary forms, which in turn were influenced by the particular economic shape of the city. Thus, Lehan writes, “comic and romantic realism gave us insights into the commercial city; naturalism and modernism into the industrial city; and postmodernism into the postindustrial city.” Or, to put it another way, it may come as little surprise that some of the most celebrated novels set in America in the increasingly mobile 1950s (“On the Road,” “Lolita”) took as their narrative thread not boulevards and streets but highways or that the novels of the 1960s took root in the fertile tracts of suburbia.
This discussion plays out best in the sections where Lehan traces the shift from the literary naturalism of Balzac and Zola, in which the city’s commercial activity is a kind of metaphor for the rhythms of nature that the city has suppressed, to modernism, in which the process of scientific observation is replaced by a kind of mythic immersion in a city that was becoming ever more abstract. In the sprawling novels of Dickens, the panoply of characters (a heroic attempt to catalog the city) drifts in and out of the narrative as if emerging from the storied London fog (or what Dickens called “the leaden canopy of its sky”); yet even for Dickens, the urban center could not hold, Lehan notes, as he abandoned London in his last, unfinished novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” In the modernism that eventually supplanted Dickens’ city, Lehan argues, two things happened: The crowd became the central character, or conversely, the artist internalized the city, and the visions became “more opaque, more mysterious and uncanny.” In “Finnegans Wake,” Lehan notes, Joyce flattens characters to the point of invisibility, while “what is abstractable from the events becomes more important than the events themselves.”
As cities grew, they grew harder to read. Millions of people lived in closer proximity than ever before, but as strangers. Identity became less fixed as new classes arose and immigrants arrived from the provinces in search of new lives. Artists responded by dreaming of ideal cities or plunging into the nightmarish infernos of existing cities. Lehan quotes T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Rock,” which suggests the frailty of the civic fabric:
When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city? “
“Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other? “
For Eliot who, as Lehan notes, was reading Oswald Spengler’s “Decline of the West” as he wrote “The Waste Land,” the city was an entropic closed system, the product of a burnt-out civilization. F. Scott Fitzgerald chronicled the invented souls of the city while mourning the loss of the frontier (embodied by Jay Gatsby’s dream, which had died “in that vast obscurity beyond the city”). For Theodore Dreiser, the city was a machine for processing people. Careening toward the present, we find the characters of Pynchon and Paul Auster lost in a maze of unreadable urban signs.
These varying interpretations point back to Calvino: We each invent our own city. A city imposes a certain reality upon its inhabitants in its fixed structures and rational grid, but there is another metropolis, both subterranean and plain as day. Apart from the hard and fast built environment of the city, there is what Jonathan Raban has termed the “soft city,” the wealth of impressions, stereotypes and personal histories that inform the city as much as its physical landmarks: “The city, our great modern form, is soft, amenable to a dazzling and libidinous variety of lives, dreams, interpretations.” There is a scientific appeal to Lehan’s melding of literary movements and stages of urban history but also a limit.
One fault of “The City in Literature” is its neglect of such quintessentially urban literary experiences as Henry Roth’s “Call It Sleep,” the classic novel of the American immigrant experience, which was certainly as, if not more, expressive of the dynamics of its age as Fitzgerald’s pre-urban nostalgia. Nor is there a discussion of the literature of what Charles Kaiser has called “the gay metropolis” (beginning in Kaiser’s account roughly with Gore Vidal’s near-blacklisted 1948 novel “The City and the Pillar”), in which a generation of “invisible immigrants” left an indelible, if suppressed, stamp on cities such as New York and San Francisco.
Similarly, a word like “postindustrial” does not always capture the reality of a place: Postindustrial New York, for example, is home to sweatshops and coal-burning furnaces virtually unchanged since the turn of the century. Dreiser’s literary style may have been eclipsed, but elements of his city endure.