Archive for category The City

Pierre Alechinsky et les plans de Paris

LES LIGNES DU MONDE - géographie & littérature(s)

Comme je me renseigne sur Alechinsky, sa vie son œuvre, je finis par trouver des dessins sur plans – de Paris (ça me revient : “tu sais Alechinsky, il a utilisé des cartes comme support, ça devrait t’intéresser”). Je sélectionne ici les arrondissements que je connais mieux.

L’arrondissement de ma naissance.


L’arrondissement du Lycée.


L’arrondissement de l’université.



Je trouve aussi ces impressions de Cherbourg. Petit résumé en 7 vignettes.


View original post


Leave a comment

Butor and Sebald – brief further thoughts

I’ve written previously about the relationship between Bleston and Manchester, and about the links between Butor and Sebald, and I’ve just been exploring the fascinating collection of essays on Sebald in Melilah, the Manchester Journal of Jewish Studies, alerted by Helen Finch’s recent blog about Sebald’s Manchester.  It’s good to see the link with Butor explored a bit more, but I would have to  take issue in some respects with Janet Wolff’s article, ‘Max Ferber and the Persistence of Pre-Memory in Mancunian Exile’, which I think fails to fully identify the deeper connections between the two writers.

I would agree that Passing Time is not about Manchester in a straightforward way but I think Wolff takes that too far when she says that ‘none of this is about an actual city’, and that Revel’s diatribes against Bleston are ‘the ravings of a neurasthenic, whose debilitated psychological state produces monsters in the environment’. (p. 52)  This is not a new charge – reviewers have in the past diagnosed Revel with depression or schizophrenia. But I’d argue that rather than alerting us to an unreliable narrator, the mismatch reminds us that Bleston is not just Manchester, not just any particular city.  It contains many cities, real and fantastical.

But it is based more upon Manchester in its physical reality than on any other city, and contrary to Wolff’s statement that ‘there are no physical descriptions at all (quite unlike the Manchester of ‘Max Ferber’)’, there are many descriptions of Manchester landmarks, as J B Howitt has shown (in his article ‘Michel Butor and Manchester’, even though Butor takes and uses those features which are relevant to him, and changes or ignores those that are not.

What interests me most, however, is Wolff’s argument that the Manchester of The Emigrants fades into insignificance in relation to ‘another geographical, phantasmic and persistent presence’.

My studies of Butor are concerned precisely with identifying that presence in Passing Time.  More anon.


1 Comment

Engaging with the city’s past


A number of the discussions we’ve had about the city over the last two years have touched on how we engage with its past. We’ve discussed post-traumatic urbanism through the lens of Lebbeus Woods’ War and Architecture(see also the fascinating exhibition of Woods’ early drawings) and have also begun to think through our engagement with (or perhaps literal and/or conceptual avoidance of) recent sites of trauma in the city. We’ve walked around Kelham Island, considering the ways in which a city’s history becomes heritage, but also how certain narratives become dominant and survive, while others are minorised and erased.

Our current project engages with figures and movements from Sheffield’s past: Ebenezer Elliott, the Sheffield Socialist Society, Edward Carpenter, the Chartists… And we would like to invite people to contribute their thoughts, memories and expertise to an archive that will be accessible through our new interactive…

View original post 1,072 more words

Leave a comment

The Impossibility of Maps

Michel de Certeau‘s famous description of looking down from the World Trade Centre illustrates the opposition which he explores through ‘Walking in the City’ between the ‘ville-concept’ and the real, organic city as experienced at ground level, by those who live and walk in it.  From such a vantage point, the cartographer can map on to the constant motion, the indistinct sea and fog of the city, a ‘terra cognita’ of recognisable taxonomies (see White, on Zola’s Paris).  Even the most complex maze or labyrinth seems straightforward when one can see the whole.  But once we’re walking in the city, rather than gazing at it from on high, all of the means we have to make sense of it rapidly reveal their limitations.  Maps sooner or later are  ‘interrupted by an encounter with the unmappable’  (Hillis Miller).

An early review of Michel Butor’s L’Emploi du temps claims that ‘if [its] explicit geography … does not make that story an excellent guide to the back as well as main streets of Manchester I should be very much surprised’ (Frohock).  One hopes he did not make the attempt to navigate the Manchester streets armed only with the book, and a map which marks those streets and landmarks encountered by the novel’s hero (and not all of those).   The frontispiece map was prepared by Butor to guide him through the cityscape he was creating.  It indicates the relative positions of the key locations as anchorage points – the stations, the homes of the various characters, the cathedrals, restaurants etc, but there are gaps where streets and buildings must be but are not recorded.   Resemblances to the layout of Manchester’s city centre seem pretty much random and coincidental – for example, as noted elsewhere, the star shape of the prison is replicated on the map, but it does not sit in relation to the river, the University or any other features of the city as it does in reality.   So we can dispose of the frontispiece map as a lightly disguised map of Manchester.

The other thing the frontispiece is not, is the map that Revel buys and uses to get his bearings in the city.   It is like a map drawn from memory, where some configurations of streets are recalled in detail and others only vaguely. Thus it mirrors the text which is an act of resistance against the forgetfulness that Bleston’s fogs engender.   Just as the text does not and cannot record everything that happened even to Revel, let alone the things that he did not witness, the map only records his experience and first-hand knowledge, and as such we are aware that it may be partial both in the sense of being incomplete, and in the sense of reflecting subjective perceptions and priorities.   It recalls the famous surrealist map of the world, whose proportions relate to the cartographers’ cultural ideals rather than to geographical reality, as well as the first medieval maps, which were records of journeys taken, rather than attempts to objectively encapsulate space.

Revel’s experience of Bleston begins with him losing his way, and his failure to grasp its geography leads him to see it anthropomorphically as trying to evade him, hiding from examination as if the light burned it, or camouflaging itself  as if in the folds of a cloak.  Purchasing a map is the first of his tactics.  However, it is apparent from the beginning that any one source of information will be insufficient.  The map gives him the aviator’s or bird’s eye view but does not tell him how to make his way around the city.  For that he needs the bus timetable.  Taken together, these tools do not help him to find lodgings – for that he needs the intervention of a fellow exile, using informal local knowledge.   To make sense of the city he needs to engage with its inhabitants, indigenous or otherwise.  (See Annie Lovejoy & Harriet Hawkins‘ project Insites on ‘deep mapping’).  The journal, as it logs street names and bus numbers, weaves together his sources, unreliable or partial as they are, in an attempt to encompass the reality of the city. Revel’s fight back against the city culminates in his burning of the map (one of many fires which punctuate the narrative).  But that ‘profoundly irrational act’ is both negated and emphasised when he has to buy another to replace it.  The map is inadequate and misleading, but essential nonetheless.

Maps imply a knowledge which denies their selectivity.  They make the city readable, or purport to, and so slough off the city’s complexity and freeze its opaque mobility in a falsely transparent text. But the phantasmagoric city, in constant flux, is the antithesis of the guidebook/map representation of the city which fixes locations, connections, distances. It is this city that the text invites us to see, recognising the inadequacy of the map, showing us an inferno, a necropolis, a temple of war, a prison.  It is its own past, and its own potential futures, which we explore as physiognomy, as mythology, as history, as politics, as text – a secret text, which we need to decipher, from signs and symbols, a palimpsest where what has been erased can still be traced.

See my only published paper on line here!

Robert Alter, Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2005)

Jeremy Black, Maps & Politics ( London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 1997)

Gary Bridge, Reason in the City of Difference: Pragmatism, Communicative Action and Contemporary Urbanism (London: Routledge, 2005)

Mary Ann Caws (ed), City Images: Perspectives from Literature, Philosophy and Film (NY: Gordon & Breach, 1991)

Michel de Certeau, L’Invention du quotidien, I (Paris: Gallimard, 1990)

Mike Crang & Nigel Thrift (eds), Thinking Space (London: Routledge, 2000)

Christian Emden, Catherine Keen & David Midgley (eds), Imagining the City, Vol. I (Bern; Oxford: Peter Lang, 2006)

W M Frohock, ‘Introduction to Butor’, Yale French Studies, 24 (1959), 54-61

Graeme Gilloch, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City (Cambridge:  Polity, 1996)

Ben Highmore, Michel de Certeau: Analysing Culture (London : Continuum, 2006)

David Frisby, ‘The Metropolis as Text’, in Neil Leach (ed.), The Hieroglyphics of Space: Reading and Experiencing the Modern Metropolis (London; NY: Routledge, 2002)

J. Hillis Miller, Topographies (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1995)

Nicholas White, ‘Reconstructing the City in Zola’s Paris’, Neophilologus, 8 (1997), 201-14

, , , , ,

1 Comment

Labyrinths and Mazes – finding and losing the thread

The more I attempt to define the labyrinth, the more I lose my way, appropriately enough (or not, depending on one’s understanding of the purpose they serve).  The maze is more straightforward in purpose, if not in navigation.  It’s a puzzle, where the objective is to reach the centre (and then find one’s way out again) but which requires choices to be made, some of which will lead to dead ends, or will take (or appear to take) the walker away from rather than towards the centre.  But the most striking thing about the classical labyrinths is that there are no dead ends, no tricks at all.  There is one route through, no choices to be made, no cause for confusion.

And yet Daedalus, at  least according to Ovid, constructed his labyrinth so cunningly that he barely managed to escape it himself after completion.   Indeed, its purpose was to imprison the minotaur, and to make its slaying a feat of legendary heroism.  So, with only one path through, how could Daedalus have risked losing his way, why did Theseus need Ariadne’s thread to guide him out, and how did it keep the minotaur in?

Looking at the classical designs, whilst all one has to do to reach the centre is to keep going, the effect of the complex looping of the path is to take the walker closer to and then further from the goal, such that they start to doubt, to feel as if they must have made a wrong choice even though no choice was in fact possible, and to turn back, so ending up back at the beginning.  So, if Daedalus’s labyrinth was indeed the unicursal classical design, Ariadne’s thread did not so much lead Theseus out of the labyrinth as reassure him that he was on the right route, whatever his instincts told him.  It is this aspect that has encouraged the use of labyrinths for meditative purposes – one has to put aside doubt and go where the path leads.    Guillermo del Toro has said that ‘unlike a maze, a labyrinth is actually a constant transit of finding, not getting lost. It’s about finding, not losing, your way…I can ascribe two concrete meanings of the labyrinth in the movie. One is the transit of the girl towards her own center, and towards her own, inside reality, which is real’.

The association between labyrinth and city is of long standing (Roman mosaic labyrinths represent fortified cities), but contributes to the confusion about terminology.  The damp dark labyrinth of streets to which de Tocqueville refers was a product not of design but of its absence, and thus the disorienting effect was accidental rather than deliberate.  But the personification of these great cities attributes to them the intent that the builders lacked – the distinction between the physical qualities of the cities and the texts and thoughts they engender is blurred (Faris, 1991).   It’s also clear that urban labyrinths involve choices, which potentially can result in losing one’s way, finding dead ends, returning inadvertently to where one started.  Being in the metropolis feels like losing control, composure, the sense of self.    Lynch says that ‘there is some value in mystification, labyrinth or surprise in the environment’ but that there must be no danger of the form of the city being lost, or that one might never get out of it.  There must be the possibility that the mystery can be comprehended, the form explored and in time grasped.  Otherwise, the labyrinthine city becomes a trap, closing on the newcomer, the isolated wanderer.

The labyrinth is one of the key motifs of L’Emploi du temps (see Pierre Brunel for the definitive treatment of the theme), fittingly for a writer of whom it has been said that the fundamental question in his work is always ‘where am I?’. It’s a labyrinth in space, but also in time and memory.   The narrative starts simply enough, with two time frames, the time of writing and the time that is written about.  But as the diary continues, one memory triggers another, events in the ‘present’ require a reference back to the past outside of the linear chronology of the journal.   The writing which explores the labyrinth becomes labyrinthine as memory endlessly circles.   ‘The rope of words that uncoils down through the sheaf of papers and connects me directly with that moment on the first of May when I began to plait it, that rope of words is like Ariadne’s thread, because I am in a labyrinth, because I am writing in order to find my way about in it, all these lines being the marks with which I blaze the trail: the labyrinth of my days in Bleston, incomparably more bewildering than that of the Cretan palace, since it grows and alters even while I explore it’ (p. 183).

But what’s at the centre of the labyrinth?   Perhaps Revel never reached it.   Butor’s work is characterised by openness and mobility, and the narrative cannot be self-contained.  So the book ends as Revel tells us of the pages he didn’t write, the places he didn’t visit, and of ‘something that happened on the evening of February 29th, something that seemed very important and that I shall forget as I move farther away from you, Bleston’.

Pierre Brunel, Butor: ‘L’Emploi du temps’: le texte et le labyrinthe (Paris: PUF, 1995)

Mark Crinson (ed), Urban Memory: History and Amnesia in the Modern City (London: NY: Routledge, 2005)

Wendy B Faris, Labyrinths of Language: Symbolic Landscape and Narrative Design in Modern Fiction (Baltimore; London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988)

Wendy Faris, ‘Cognitive Mapping: Labyrinths, Libraries and Crossroads’, City Images: Perspectives from Literature, Philosophy, and Film (NY: Gordon & Breach, 1991)

Marilyn Thomas Faulkenburg, Church, City and Labyrinth in Bronte, Dickens, Hardy, and Butor (NY; San Francisco; Bern; Baltimore; Frankfurt am Main; Berlin; Wien; Paris: Peter Lang, 1993)

Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge, Mass.; London:  MIT Press, 1960)

Guillermo del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

, , ,