Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Five novels on the spirit and history of London

Iain Sinclair, the author of London: City of Disappearances, discussed "five novels that capture the spirit and rich history of London" with Emma Mustich at The Browser, including:
Our Mutual Friend
by Charles Dickens

Next, you’ve chosen Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. So many of Dickens’s works deal with London. Why did you choose this one in particular?

This book comes very late in Dickens’s own career, but it has a powerful sense – a sense that’s been crucial to me – of London depending on the river. It begins with this fantastic scene of corpse-fishing: a family that literally gets their living from the drowned. That’s a terrific metaphor for one whole aspect of London fiction, wherein London keeps itself alive by transfusions of the exotic from other countries. In this period, obviously, the idea of the colonial was very vivid – people would disappear into Australia or Canada or New Zealand or South Africa and come back reinvented or richer. This book is the great archaeological articulation of that. And a lot of the characters depart on huge walks, deranged walks where they’re chased by their demons across miles of riverbank. It’s a book that absolutely haunts me, this one.

Dickens himself used to go for long night walks, I believe.

Yes, he did. He had various troubled periods of his life. He used the walks as a form of research – and as a form of de-programming himself from the long hours he spent intensely writing. He would go off for these 15-or-so-mile journeys, often at night – there are very good journalistic accounts he’s done of his nocturnal ramblings. Sometimes he’ll see some building and go into it and investigate it – he weaves it all in. He’s absorbing this material and generally letting it sit in his mind until it forms a fictional form. Often, the resulting work is serially published, almost like a modern television programme, so it has that kind of drama and excitement, but it also always has the deeper reach of his knowledge of the city.

It sometimes strikes me that Dickens’s very sentences – rambling as they can be – resemble the city itself, or someone’s journey across it.

Yes, that’s true. Dickens has a slightly conversational rhythm, an extravagant rhythm. He also has the kind of long rhythm of a person who walks great distances and lets sentences pour out in a rich-tongued kind of way. It’s certainly part of his way of seeing the city. Whereas now, I guess, people would generally be shorter, sharper – and certainly the writing would tend to be very visual. Someone like JG Ballard, say, is almost like a painter. He’s so specific and precise in his physical details, and there’s no excess in the writing, there’s no rhetorical style or flourish. So it’s a pared-down, scientific, technological prose – as is suitable to the kind of buildings and areas he’s describing.
Read about another book Sinclair named.

Our Mutual Friend appears on Richard Francis' list of the top 10 pubs in literature and Sophie Ward's six best books list.

In the season two finale of Lost, the character Desmond says he carries around Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend because he wants that to be the last book he reads before dying.

--Marshal Zeringue