Zadie Smith / Novelists never tired of lighting up the Smoke
Zadie Smith: Novelists never tired of lighting up the Smoke
There are endless songs about Paris, endless films about New York, but London is the city, above all, of fiction
By Philip Hensher
THE TELEGRAPH, 01 Sep 2012
Some cities lend themselves to mythology and homage. Others just get on with it. There are endless songs about Paris; endless films which are about, rather than simply set in, New York. But London? Who ever thought of writing a song called “I love London in the springtime”? Who ever thought of starting a movie with a long shot of the London skyline as a jazz classic kicks off on the soundtrack, like Woody Allen’s Manhattan?
But when we get to the question of novels about London, the result is different. Novelists have been constantly drawn to the great city, with the intention not of presenting a spectacle – it won’t work like that – but of explaining the workings and secret relationships of a vast whole.
The London novel is currently enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Zadie Smith’s wonderful new novel, NW, is a dense rendering of the social bonds and ruptures of a very particular corner of the city. John Lanchester’s Capital is a substantial example of a growing sub-genre, the survey of a socially mixed group loosely connected, or not connected at all. It follows on from Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December and Blake Morrison’s excellent South of the River. In a quieter, but much-admired vein, Janet Davey’s lovely By Battersea Bridge gave us a very particular social setting in a very particular corner of the city.
The London novel has been going as long as the novel has. Defoe is soaked in the atmosphere of the city. The 19th-century novel thrives on a contrast between the vast, untrustworthy, unknowable scale of the metropolis and the more secure air of country life – David Copperfield, Vanity Fair, The Way We Live Now, Daniel Deronda, even Pride and Prejudice contrast the awesome moral maze of London with the safety of the rural. Dickens is the great novelist of London, and his novels set up a range of ideas about the place which have persisted to this day. It is confusing; it contains the whole range of humanity; it is rich with food, money, excitements and spectacle; it is dirty, excessive, humorous, ugly and fascinating. And, most of all, anyone may meet anyone else there.
Other nations have written about their major cities in a compelling way, but very few have been able to talk about them as places where everyone, from every point on the scale, mixes. The encounters between beggars and countesses in Bleak House, or the daughters of the indigent, schoolmasters, clerks, intellectuals, society figures and millionaires living on dust-heaps in Our Mutual Friend are quite natural, and lead to compelling consequences. It goes on – the meeting between Leonard Bast and the Schlegel girls in E M Forster’s Howards End, one of the great London novels, is plausible in detail and compelling in consequence.
Compare Proust or Thomas Mann, near-contemporaries of Forster’s: in their works, people from different social classes only meet after much effort, and as a result of special dispensation, through sex, employment or social climbing. The meetings between different classes in the New York novel are often disastrous, as if it were never meant to be, as in Tom Wolfe or J D Salinger. Only in the London novel do such different people rub along with successful or disastrous consequences, or just the ordinary consequences of social encounters.
This has gone on unchecked to the present day. Zadie Smith’s novel is about the sheer mix of people who emanate from the same social and geographical point, from barristers to crack addicts to trustafarians to charity workers. Lanchester’s is about what happens to a single London street when what used to be unremarkable suburban property is suddenly valued at millions, and hedge fund traders glance moodily at state pensioners next door.
The sense of social mix is not a new one, and is perhaps fed by the fact that London novelists don’t form a recognisable enclave. Unlike New York, where every novelist sometimes seems to live within the same square mile in Brooklyn, London novelists are scattered and only sometimes congregate. There are the Hampstead novelists, and where I live between Battersea and Clapham, there is a particular south London gathering of a dozen or two. But celebrated novelists live anywhere, from Hackney to Richmond, and no one thinks it odd.
The London novel is specific about details – you will hear how much a London house is worth, and what the meanings of a particular street are. In Waugh, when Mrs Beaver, in A Handful of Dust, is said to live in Sussex Gardens, or Pennyfeather’s guardian in Decline and Fall in Onslow Square, we are meant to understand very specific things about the way they live, and the way they are regarded. We are often meant to follow characters on particular journeys, and we are expected to know the geography of the city the world came to – you can retrace the exact last journey of Ferdinand Lopez in Trollope’s The Prime Minister, or Clarissa’s morning walk in Mrs Dalloway.
The London imagination feeds on particulars, and however extravagant the London novel grows, however addicted to secrecy and conspiracy, it is always rooted in the known public facts: the confidential offices in John le Carré, or a group of churches in Peter Ackroyd, the arrangement of streets, rivers and open spaces in Iain Sinclair and the “psychogeographers” who followed him. It can specify, too, a very limited and perhaps even overlooked social group: the much-maligned novel of “adultery in Hampstead”, now a very rare beast, or in recent years the novel of immigrant life which began with Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners and V S Naipaul’s great The Mimic Men. There are novels of Clapham life, and novels of events in Wimbledon and Putney, and novels of London Transport, both bus and Tube, by Magnus Mills and Ruth Rendell.
Has there ever been “The Great London Novel”? No: there is too much there to cover. After thousands of years of London, and hundreds of years of the novel, books like Zadie Smith’s and Janet Davey’s show that there is always one more thing to say. I don’t think we’ll ever get to the end of it.