Susana Onega and John A. Stotesbury (eds.) London in Literature: Visionary Mappings of the Metropolis (Heidelberg: University of Heidelberg Press, 2002), 257pp.
This volume is the product of the Fifth Conference of the European Society for the Study of English, held in Helsinki in August 2000, from whence many of the collected papers derive. Onega and Stotesbury question in their lucid, valuable introduction whether yet another volume of essays devoted to literary London is really necessary, yet from the evidence of these diverse and thought-provoking contributions, it seems the topic is hardly exhausted yet. As is inevitable with all edited volumes, individual articles are of variable quality and interest, yet this collection achieves a greater consistency than most.
The book is divided into two sections, ‘Approaching Visionary London’, which deals with a combination of pre-twentieth-century and classic Modernist texts, from Wordsworth and de Quincey to Graham Greene, and ‘Visionary London’, which is concerned solely with contemporary literature. The second of these is rather more coherent than the first: it is hard to see how some of the articles in the first half of the book are particularly concerned with ‘Visionary’ London as averse to a multitude of other kinds of London. Why Wordsworth rather than Blake? Why Graham Greene when Victorian visionaries like James Thomson and Arthur Machen are absent? The rationale provided by the editors is that the writers discussed in ‘Approaching Visionary London’ can be seen ‘as map-makers of the city routes, constructions and green spaces repeatedly redefined, reopened and reoccupied by the writers of the present’. All well and good, but any explicit links with the contemporary ‘visionary’ writers discussed later on in the book are not forthcoming, and as such it seems a rather flimsy excuse to bring together a very diverse set of essays and topics.
The most notable exception is Patrick Parrinder’s effortlessly erudite contextualisation of Ballard’s The Drowned World and The Concrete Island within the tradition of writings on ruins, labyrinths and the trope of the Last Man. Although subtitled ‘Visions of Ruined London from Edmund Spenser to J. G. Ballard’, the exhilarating sweep of Parrinder’s essay actually travels back as far as the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Ruin’. Appearing in print just after the release of Danny Boyle’s London apocalypse film 28 Days Later, this article seems especially fresh and relevant. John Mepham’s article on ‘London as Auditorium’ is also a highlight of this section, cleverly playing off against the book’s title by challenging the visionary with the auditory. Mepham examines the importance of noise, specifically overheard conversation, in metropolitan Modernist works by Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf and Patrick Hamilton. Arguing that too much importance has been placed on the visual in representations of the city, he attempts to redress the balance, coining the suggestive term audiophilia as a counterpart to the more widely-known scopophilia. Mepham’s essay also deserves attention for its sensitive discussion of the greatly underrated Woolf novel The Years. In this section John A. Stotesbury also provides a welcome postcolonial reading of Greene’s The End of the Affair, which nevertheless seems to have very little to do with the visionary; Timothy Webb makes an extensive and detailed reading of Wordsworth’s Bartholomew Fair; and Francesca Cuojati covers all the right bases in her article on de Quincey but fails to add a great deal to existing debate.
The second half of the book, Visionary London, is heavily weighted towards the usual suspects of Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair, who feature in five of the six essays, along with Geoff Nicholson and Jim Crace. The contributions here vary in terms of success. Contributions by Heike Hartung and Mark Rowlinson satisfyingly bring the two giants of contemporary literary London together: Hartung’s ‘Walking and Writing the City: Visions of London in the Works of Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair’ convincingly argues that while Ackroyd approaches the city on the vertical, historical plane, Sinclair does so on a horizontal, geographical one. Rowlinson’s dense, erudite essay ‘Physical Graffiti: The Making of the Representations of Zones One and Two’ returns the two writers to the lived and built environment of London, traversing the South Bank Centre, Whitechapel and the Millennium Dome among other locations. Appropriately, considering the fluid and temporal nature of the city both writers celebrate (and one of Rowlinson’s subheadings, ‘Unreliable London’), some of the geographical references in this article have already become obsolete, the cardboard city near Waterloo having been cleared to make way for the Imax cinema. Rowlinson provides a refreshingly wary attitude to these writers’ visionary responses to the city, warning against the ‘forms of infinite knowledge that occult the city’s banality’, and noting the industries their writings have come to support.
Susana Onega and Jean-Michel Ganteau also contribute stimulating discussions of Ackroyd’s work. Onega’s essay is rather too liberal with the footnotes, Ganteau’s with abbreviations, and both could have been better edited. Onega’s reading of Ackroyd’s The Plato Papers alongside William Blake’s notion of Contraries, however, convincingly links these two important London visionaries, elucidating a difficult novel. Ganteau’s reading of Ackroyd’s London: The Biography provides some illuminating insights into Ackroyd’s all-encompassing London text by reading it alongside Deleuze and Guattari’s discussions of rhizomes and strata, as well as theories of the sublime. While weak in conclusion (the abrupt reference to Catholicism in the last line seems entirely unsupported by and tangential to the rest of the article), the insights gained along the way provide ample compensation.
Articles by Silvia Mergenthal and Doris Teske, on the other hand, are less essential. Mergenthal’s discussion of Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem and Nicholson’s Bleeding London in particular feels somewhat cursory and underdeveloped. While usefully importing ideas from cultural geography, it does so rather hurriedly and schematically (spending almost half its length on summarising the admittedly complex novels) and would have benefited from greater length in order to explore fully the problems of space and exclusion it raises. Teske’s ‘Jim Crace’s Arcadia: Public Culture in the Postmodern City’ is solid and makes some interesting links with earlier traditions of writing space, urban and otherwise, but otherwise fails to stand out.
One question the volume as a whole fails to raise is why its selection of London visionaries should so uniformly be white males, even –- in the case of Ackroyd –- white males fashioning a literary career from exploiting a tradition of visionary white males: Dickens, Blake, Milton, Chatterton, Hawksmoor and so on. Besides Mepham’s valuable discussion of Woolf, and odd references to artist Rachel Lichtenstein’s collaboration with Iain Sinclair, Rodinsky’s Room, women writers and those of non-white ethnicities are glaringly absent. Considering the ‘multi-vocalic’ nature of the articles celebrated by Onega and Stotesbury in the introduction, as well as the vibrant cultural diversity of London itself, it seems surprising this has not translated into any of the articles’ subject-matter. Is envisioning London a strictly white, male prerogative, and if so why? What makes Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem worth discussing as a visionary novel and not Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, only referenced in passing here? If many of London’s foremost black and Asian writers, from Sam Selvon to Hanif Kureishi, seem to work in non-visionary or even anti-visionary forms, the same cannot be said of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. While clearly no volume of essays can be fully comprehensive, the implicit and largely unquestioning construction of visionary London as a white male tradition is disturbing. Further investigation of the politics of vision, of why the tradition of visionary London should so exclusively be a white male one, would have given this otherwise valuable volume additional resonance and texture.
To Cite This Article:
Catherine Spooner, ‘Review – Susana Onega and John A. Stotesbury (eds.) London in Literature: Visionary Mappings of the Metropolis (Heidelberg: University of Heidelberg Press, 2002), 257pp. (Literary London Journal)’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 1 Number 1 (March 2003). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2003/spooner.html. Accessed on [date of access].