Occasionally there comes a book that leaves very little trace of itself behind as I read it. The arc of the text feels shapeless and I don’t remember what I read the day before, and so I am constantly tempted to put the book aside. But as I pick the book up again I realize that something has compelled me to get as far as page 114 so perhaps I’ll just read a paragraph or two before consigning the book to the purgatory shelf. And then it all comes back like a wave.
It’s the pleasure of the writing – the texture of the words, the way that ideas are interwoven – and I realize I don’t really care at all what the book is about but I just want to keep reading it, reading it.
Julien Gracq’s The Shape of a City is such a book. Ostensibly about cities and about Nantes in particular, a city where Gracq went to boarding school and returned later as an adult, The Shape of a City is really about memory – both the formation of memory and of memory as a form of history. If the book has a structure, I didn’t find it and I didn’t really care. It’s the kind of book that permits you to enter on any page or, as I did, reread a chapter without immediately realizing it.
(Isn’t the typography on the title page wonderful? )The book opens with two unremarkable, overexposed and slightly blurred photographs (the usual cues that “memory” is being invoked), each offering different views of the same set of columns and arches. In one image we look out into the bright daylight, in the other we peer past a seated man who appears to be reading into total darkness.
Whoever travels back in memory to a city he has visited, either as a tourist or as a pilgrim of the arts, usually clings to some landmarks as clearly distinguishable from the mass of buildings as are lighthouses for a sailor approaching a port…
I don’t think of the city as a town dotted by famous sites but populated by places where I like to be, either physically or mentally (feelings so strong that they tend to confuse the past with the present…
For Gracq, cities are natural organisms that are best left alone by planners.
The static electricity created by a city, which feeds that tension particular to city life, is linked to a powerfully contrasting polarization: this polarization, fragile masterpiece created er many centuries, has become the target of the too well intentioned efforts of modern urbanism’s collective unconscious.
Even the forgotten parts of cities, the empty lots and the rough edges, have a purpose.
I’ll never tire of exploring these empty lots, enclaves in the midst of urban developments where the wind blows freely, restored to the wilderness and the flora they sustain, land where it all seems as if salt had been strewn on the ground, as was the custom in cities like Carthage to assure that nothing would ever grown again; the air one breathes at these sites, while walking on land swept clean by the wind of memories’ suffocating alluvial deposits, has more than elsewhere a taste of freedom.
Ultimately, the true city is the mental map one has of it, a map shaped by one’s experiences, a map that eventually comes to resemble the person more than the city.
This road, enhanced by memory with a few mental drawings of adjacent, familiar sights, remains for me the true axis of the city and even more: a sort of initiatory path which became a point of departures, where many perspectives would eventually reveal their secrets, a path where I could feel the city getting closer and closer, slowly taking shape in my mind.
Having lived a much too close symbiotic relationship with Nantes, years during which my mental image of the city became more and more detailed and extensive as I grew from childhood to adulthood, it is not surprising that I have difficulties arriving at a definitive picture. Rather, the city’s image tends to define me: generally speaking, whatever the time frame, I never see myself other than completely immersed, body and soul plunged into a much more solid, more stimulating, and at the same time more restrictive element than what is usually referred to as the milieu.
Julien Gracq. The Shape of a City. NY: Turtle Point Press, 2004. Originally published in 1985 as La Forme d’une Ville.and translated from the French by Ingeborg M. Kohn. I have written about Gracq several times before.