Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, pictured walking
After Kemal Basmacı, the protagonist of Orhan Pamuk’s 2009 novel The Museum of Innocence, has his heart broken, he starts to compulsively wander the streets of Istanbul. At first, he is searching for Füsun, the lover who has abandoned him, but as he strays farther and farther from the comfortable neighbourhoods of his youth and early adulthood, the bourgeois hilltops of Şişli and Nişantaşı, he discovers another world, the down-and-out backstreets of the old city of Fatih, the twisting alleys of Beyoğlu. The act of exploring the city becomes a kind of balm as Kemal comes to associate the deep melancholy of the ancient post-imperial city with his own intractable feeling that the happiest moment of his life has already passed. While the novel is ostensibly about Kemal and Füsun’s tragic love affair, it is really about the city itself at a certain point in the twentieth century.
If walking is an obsession for many of Orhan Pamuk’s protagonists, this may be because Pamuk himself is so steeped in the physical fabric of Istanbul. In one of the most delightfully bizarre writer’s memoirs in recent years, Istanbul: Memories and the City (which includes chapters with names like “Smoke Rising from Ships on the Bosphorus” and “To Be Unhappy Is to Hate Oneself and One’s City”), Pamuk intertwines stories from his own life with essays on writers like Flaubert and Nerval as well as studies in architectural theory. The sense emerges that he sees his own life and the life of his city as being inextricable. The city has made Orhan Pamuk who he is, and at the same time the city is, for him, a product of his own life in it. Street corners, ferry terminals, mosques, and museums are always mediated by personal experience and by artistic precedent.
I mention Orhan Pamuk because he strikes me as being one of the most powerful living writers of the city—although writing this feels strange, because of course “the city” as an abstraction is nonsense, it being impossible to write with any depth or art about “the city” in general. Pamuk’s city is Istanbul, and his knowledge of it and passion for it are apparent on every page. But the truths he captures about what it means to write about a city are, I think, generally applicable: in Pamuk there is an awareness both of the materiality of the city—its smells, the particular ways that light and smoke play over its structures, the exact position of certain buildings and the way moving through them encourages certain kinds of thinking—and of its transience. Cities are constantly reshaping themselves, tearing things down, erecting new structures, changing their own geography by covering over rivers or extending shorelines or flattening hills. As Jason Freure wrote about earlier this month, in the case of Montreal’s Centre-Sud, entire neighbourhoods are sometimes wiped out. To write about a city, then, or to make a city such a prominent setting that it becomes a character in the narrative itself, is to be attentive both to the millions of small details that constitute it and their fundamentally transient nature.
Shawn Micallef thinks you should walk more
Canada, of course, has had its own urban chroniclers—Mordecai Richler probably being the most famous example. But while Canada’s cities have produced some remarkable writing (Glendowyn MacEwan’s Noman paints Toronto with its demons intact, Patrick Friesen’s St. Mary at Main is a kind of Winnipeg Rorschach test, and Heather O’Neill’s fabulous The Girl Who Was Saturday Night presents a Montreal so real you feel like it might punch you), few Canadian cities have really been mythologized in the same way that Orhan Pamuk mythologizes Istanbul. On a critical level, however, this has begun to change. York University professor Amy Lavender Harris’s Imagining Toronto, for example, explores how the city has been represented in literature over the course of its history, and Shawn Micallef’s Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto has encouraged Torontonians to explore their urban landscape, a project he is engaged in on an ongoing basis through his editorship at Spacing. It is significant, I think, that both Micallef and Harris privilege walking as a way of truly getting a sense of a place, and I think that in doing so they point to one of the significant reasons why there has been so little rigorous literary engagement with the material space of the city: our cities, with a couple of notable exceptions, are really not built to be walked.
I wonder if there is not a connection between the comparatively rich body of writing about Montreal as a place and the ease with which Montreal can be navigated on foot. Likewise, I wonder if John K Samson’s comment in his interview with the Town Crier last week about not feeling that Winnipeg is a real place stems at least in part from the fact that it is built around large, multi-lane transportation arteries which often make it more convenient to leave the city and hop onto the perimeter highway than drive through its actual neighbourhoods. While there are certainly Winnipeggers inhabiting the downtown core and getting around using public transit, bicycles, and their feet, the city is not organized to encourage such modes of transportation, and so it does not encourage the kinds of interaction that are created by the kinds of small, walkable neighbourhoods one finds in Montreal and the many East Coast cities that were largely built before the rise of the automobile. To write about a place is to write about the people who live there, and if the people you are writing about all drive cars and commute to work, then that will shape the kinds of narrative that make sense. If they all live within a few blocks of each other and they see each other naturally through the course of the day, another kind of narrative emerges.
If Micallef and Harris’s work is any indication, there is at present a serious interest in engaging with the ways urban spaces work to encourage certain ways of thinking or mythologizing. It will be interesting to see if this leads to writing that is more self-conscious about urbanity.