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Cities that leap from the page

Plenty of books create beautiful evocations of the cities in which they are set. But far fewer succeed in elevating their locations from a backdrop into a central character. CHARLIE CONNELLY selects a few.

On learning of the death of J.P. Donleavy on September 11 at the age of 91 I eschewed the most appropriate marking of his passing – a very large, very strong drink – and instead pulled from the shelf his first and finest novel The Ginger Man. Published in 1955, the story of American Sebastian Dangerfield’s priapic student adventures boozing, blagging and shagging his way around postwar Dublin was so riotously saucy it was banned for obscenity in the US until the 1960s, and in Ireland until the late 1970s. Indeed, so unashamedly explicit was The Ginger Man that it was only when he received his author copies of the book, produced in Paris by the Olympia Press having been rejected by more than 40 publishers, that Donleavy realised with horror that it was part of Olympia’s pornography imprint, alongside such titles as Chariots Of Flesh, Sin For Breakfast, Thrust and White Thighs. This led to 25 years of legal wrangling – so complicated that at one point Donleavy became the owner of Olympia Press and was actually suing himself – but the book went on to sell nearly 50 million copies worldwide, was widely hailed as one of the great novels of the 20th century and had no less an authority than Dorothy Parker endorsing it as, ‘a rigadoon of rascality, a bawled-out comic song of sex’. The Ginger Man is a raucously vivid portrait of Dublin after the Second World War at a time when the first Irish post-independence generation was coming of age. Part autobiographical – Donleavy was born in New York to Irish parents and moved to Dublin to study at Trinity College in 1946 – but mostly based on an American friend, Dangerfield’s Olympian levels of quaffing and seducing disguised a strong undercurrent of frustration with and resistance to the buttoned-up repression of Catholic Ireland. There’s also a tangible veneer of sadness, of young lives already gone awry and astray, a directionless ennui summed up by Booker prizewinning author John Banville in a tribute to Donleavy last week as ‘the desperate melancholy of men in their prime’. I first came to know Dublin through the pages of The Ginger Man. I read it as a student at roughly the same age as Sebastian Dangerfield and immediately aspired to his dissolute lifestyle. I missed every single melancholic nuance first time around – I pretty much read it as a kind of ‘Carry On Withnail’ – but rereading it now I sense not only the depth of characterisation but also the role the city itself plays in The Ginger Man. The book describes a wholly different era (although the recession-hit city of the late 2000s when I lived there did bear some similarities to post-war austerity) but it was still a Dublin I recognised. Dublin in The Ginger Man isn’t just a location, it’s practically a character in its own right. While James Joyce’s Ulysses is widely accepted as the definitive Dublin novel, the city is equally present in The Ginger Man, by turns comforting, rebuking, encouraging and deserting the characters. Donleavy’s Dublin was so well-defined for me that the first time I arrived in the city I felt I was returning. Recalling that feeling while rereading the book made me wonder whether other European cities have been captured so well in fiction that they grow from mere backdrop to the apron of the stage itself. It’s a trickier concept to identify than it might seem: it’s not just about location and setting, it’s also about character, about atmosphere and spirit. It’s about whether a novel has captured the true essence of a city: as well as getting inside the minds of the characters, is it possible for a novel to get inside the mind of a place? Scanning my shelves there were a few instant candidates. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice practically scream Paris and Venice at you. If you’re looking for the ‘real’, these are good places to start: Hugo’s monumental novel sees released convict Jean Valjean seeking redemption on the chaotic streets of early 19th century Paris, while Aschenbach’s obsessive pursuits of the boy Tadzio through the misty, choleric passageways of Venice couldn’t be further from the tourist-choked, gondola-jammed city of common experience. Yet do these books, two of the greatest novels ever written, really capture the spirit of their locations? Mann’s Venice is the more instantly recognisable of the two, largely because architecturally Venice has not changed in centuries, and while Death in Venice captures some of the melancholy that infuses the Venetian air, the sense of recognition remains superficial. Hugo’s Paris is only really present in the short essays the author interlaced into the text about the social issues of the age, a device too literal to bottle the spirit of a city. Dublin aside, I came up with three cities that seemed genuinely familiar when I visited them thanks to literature. When I wandered through Lisbon for the first time it felt familiar to me from Pascal Mercier’s Night Train To Lisbon, in which, during the right-wing Salazar dictatorship, a Swiss schoolteacher ups sticks and heads for the Portuguese capital in search of a doctor whose philosophical notes and letters he found in an antiquarian bookshop.

When you think of literary Iceland, meanwhile, you immediately think of the great legends and sagas that still infuse the landscape. You might also think of the more recent surrealist works of Sjón, or even Hannah Kent’s remarkable Burial Rites, based on the true story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland in the early 19th century. For me, however, one of the most vivid evocations of place was the eponymous Icelandic capital presented by Hallgrimur Helgason in the 1990s slacker novel 101 Reykjavik. Its protagonist Hlynur is in his thirties, sleeps most of the day, goes to bars at night and shows little enthusiasm for much else beyond his mother’s gay lover, a flamenco dancer named Lolla. It is a very funny book indeed but it also conjures an enigmatic character out of Reykjavik itself.

A small city, a relatively young one too, Reykjavik is perhaps an easier place to capture than most, but when I first walked its heated pavements I half expected Hlynur to mooch around a corner lighting a cigarette behind a cupped hand, eyes darting in fear of bumping into Hofy, pregnant with his child. 101 Reykjavik features no volcanoes, trolls, giants, nor even a single kooky elfin pop star, yet somehow Reykjavik shines through Helgason’s story. The European city that came most alive to me via the pages of fiction is Budapest. Confusingly it was down to a novel by the American novelist Arthur Phillips called Prague. Set in the early 1990s shortly after the fall of the Soviet Bloc, Prague gathers together a group of young north Americans in the Hungarian capital, each looking for something and hoping Hungary’s fledgling democracy might provide it. Among them are a venture capitalist looking to make a killing, an all-American girl working at the US embassy and a Canadian man on a postgraduate research project tracing the history of nostalgia. All are on a quest for authenticity of different kinds and their respective adventures bring Budapest vividly to life. Prague – named in recognition of how the Czech capital was always seen as the cooler capital with more glamour and more opportunity, the place where post-communist dreams could come true – is all about conflict; between the internal and the external, the local and the foreign, the sincere and the insincere, the optimistic and the pragmatic, history and nostalgia.

Budapest is itself two separate cities, Buda and Pest, divided by the Danube, and it’s in the skilfully written clashes that pepper Prague that the essence of the city lies. While reading The Ginger Man and then leafing through Prague this week, I realised that the spirit of a city, literary or otherwise, isn’t about the architecture, bars, cafes, parks and rivers that make each one unique. It’s the residue of other people’s pasts and the collation of experience. That’s what I recognised in Lisbon, Reykjavik and Budapest, something that had been captured in Night Train To Lisbon, 101 Reykjavik and Prague: the resonance of stories. In Night Train To Lisbon Pascal Mernier wrote of how, ‘we leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place. We stay there, even though we go away, and there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.’ It takes a great writer to reproduce that feeling and use it to make a place instantly familiar, especially when it’s somewhere we’ve never been. J.P. Donleavy was a master. He will certainly be missed, but as the narrator of Les Misérables says, when you are absent from a place you know well, ‘you have left a part of your heart, of your blood, of your soul, in those pavements’.