Friday, February 10, 2012
Imagined London: Review
Atop it [the London Eye, a Ferris wheel], in one of the glass cars in which tourists ride, it is possible to see most of London. The London that was rebuilt after the enemy bombs wrecked it. The London that was rebuilt after plague and fire ripped through. The London of Holmes and Watson and Nancy and Fagin, of bright young things and enemy bombs. London upon London upon London, a city in which the destruction of the Blitz managed to unearth a section of the original Roman walls nearly two millennia after their construction. No novelist would use such a metaphor; reality is often more heavy-handed than we can afford to be. (p. 159)
Imagined London: A Tour of the World's Greatest Fictional City by Anna Quindlen is a sweet little book. But it's not a travel book if that's what you're looking for. It's not a real tour of the city. It won't really introduce you to the highways and byways of Doyle's London (or Dickens's or Austen's or...). It's Anna's love letter to the city of her literary dreams.
I liked it best for the descriptions of Anna as a reader and ardent Anglophile. I enjoyed her excitement at finally setting foot in the city she had loved from afar (and hope one day to share that excitement--I'm an ardent Anglophile as well). She has a lovely way of describing her early reading habits and her first journey through the city. She brings along Austen and Dickens and Heyer and others to help us enjoy the city.
The only disappointment I had in the book was that I expected to feel like I'd been to London too. And I don't. It wasn't nearly descriptive enough and it wasn't the literary travelogue that I'd expected. Perhaps that wasn't her intention in writing the book and the fault is mine for false expectations. Overall, a fun, sweet book that I enjoyed once I accepted it for what it is (rather than being disgruntled that it wasn't what I thought it was). Four stars.
Some quotes I gathered:
Since the age of five I had been one of those people who was an indefatigable reader, more inclined to go off by myself with a book than do any of the dozens of things that children usually do to amuse themselves. I never aged out of it. (p. 7)
I read and reread and recommended and rarely rejected, became one of those readers who will read trashy stories as long as they're not too terrible--well, even perhaps the truly terrible ones--and will reread something she's already read, even if it's something like a detective novel, when you'd suspect that knowing who had really killed the countess would materially detract from the experience. (It doesn't, and besides, I often can't remember who the murderer was in the first place.) (pp. 7-8)
London has the trick of making its past, its long indelible past, always a part of its present. And for that reason it will always have meaning for the future, because of all it can teach about disaster, survival, and redemption. It is all there in the streets. It is all there in the books. (p. 19)
The choice of neighborhood by the Woolfs and their circle makes clear what any reader knows about London: that geography is destiny. It is one of the central tenets of English literature: Where you live tells us who you are, or who you have become. (p. 32)
Round and round the square, peering at the house numbers for 62, where Soames kept her like an especially beautiful painting in a frame of crystal and polished furniture. Round and round again. But there is no number 62. Perhaps the author wanted to protect the actual house from the taint that might attach to the fictional unhappiness in his own creation. Perhaps he chose a number out of the air, without any attention to the house numbers on Montpelier Square itself. Perhaps in a small way he wanted to drive home what is always a valuable lesson, when we insist on learning the world through books: that accuracy and truth are sometimes quite different things. (p. 47)
Each of us has an illusion that we would prefer to maintain intact. (p. 57)
A visitor can take the Tube to London's most notorious neighborhoods, and not see anything that approaches the dingy squalor of Dickens's London. This is either a tribute to urban renewal or literary overstatement. (p. 68)
Behind every door in London there are stories, behind every one ghosts. The greatest writers in the history of the written word have given them substance, given them life. (p. 160)