Wednesday, February 23, 2011

this dear vast dead city of mine - smashed cities

I’m reading H. G. Wells because of Gustave Flaubert.  Salammbô ends with the siege and near-destruction of Carthage.  Any number of details evoked the horrific 1870 Siege of Paris, but since Flaubert’s novel was published in 1862 that event was probably not a source for the book.  Probably.  The siege of Sevastopol, though, during the Crimean War, now that’s a possibility.  Don’t miss young officer Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches (1855-6).

So I began casting about for other fiction about the destruction of cities.  Thus, London-as-toxic-waste site in After London (1885).  Or, London eroded by the passage of eons in The Time Machine (1895).  Or, London pulverized by Martians a few years later.  I’m pretty sure Wells levels London at least once more, in The World Set Free / The Last War (1914), this time with atomic weapons – or so I guess, since I have just glanced through it at the library.

Then there’s a related path, books leading to more books, exploring exotic North African cities and satirical Utopias, but set that aside.  What smashed up 19th century cities am I forgetting?  Great fires, perhaps?  Plagues?  We are so used to our cities and monuments being demolished by cinematic aliens and tidal waves and so on now.  Ho hum.  I'm trying to recapture the excitement.

Parts of 19th century London, the poorer, cholera-ridden sections, may not have literally been poisonous swamps, but the metaphor was close enough.  As economic specialization spread, as wealth concentrated in cities, and as the urban populations exploded, I am guessing that European writers began to see how cities were not just the centers of civilization, but in some ways the weakest parts.  No cities, no civilization – I know, an etymological tautology, but I wonder if disasters like the bombardments of Paris and Sevastopol made the fragility of cities more obvious.

London actually comes off fairly well in The War of the Worlds.  It’s the suburb of Woking that really gets the business, although they seem to have forgiven their enemies (do click, oh, do).  Wells does not destroy London, but instead indulges in the “empty city” fantasy, allowing the hero to wander through an abandoned metropolis.  I saw part of a recent Will Smith movie that did the same thing.  The idea stretches back to Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), at least.  Leafing through the book, looking at chapter II.8., “Dead London,” I see that the scene where the narrator explores a silent, empty London is only a couple of pages long.  Too bad – it’s good, but Wells has a story to wind up.  And ending in London allows this:

The dome of St. Paul's was dark against the sunrise, and injured, I saw for the first time, by a huge gaping cavity on its western side.

And as I looked at this wide expanse of houses and factories and churches, silent and abandoned; as I thought of the multitudinous hopes and efforts, the innumerable hosts of lives that had gone to build this human reef, and of the swift and ruthless destruction that had hung over it all; when I realised that the shadow had been rolled back, and that men might still live in the streets, and this dear vast dead city of mine be once more alive and powerful, I felt a wave of emotion that was near akin to tears.


  1. There's also plague-ridden Europe in Mary Shelley's The Last Man. Lots of skipping back and forth between London, Italy, and Greece.

  2. Ooh, thanks. I just read a description of Shelley's novel - really wild. It's also proto-invasion literature!

    I had thought about Thomas Hood's "The Last Man," but it's not at all about cities. I did not know that there was an entire Romantic "last man" literature, French as well as English.

  3. I could easily follow you down this reading path. I'm afraid I can't add anything to your 19th century reading list.

    I've been thinking about World War II literatures. Olivia Manning's depiction of the retreat from Greece in the third of her Balkan Trilogy novel's is very good. She depicts the chaos of the civilian evacuation very well. I also like Hemingway's short story "On the Key at Symrna" which I hope I'm spelling correctly.

    And, of course, there's an explosion of empty cities in 20th century science fiction.

    I also thought of Pliny the Younger's (I think) letter about the evacuation of Pompeii. It's still compelling reading 2000 years later.

  4. I've been to Smyrna - it's called Izmir now. Had one of the two or three best meals of my life there.

    Thanks for the Manning and Hemingway recommendations. I know, in 20th century science fiction the empty and ruined cities are everywhere.

    I have not read Pliny, but Bulwer-Lytton did - The Last Days of Pompeii belongs on the "destroyed cities in 19th century fiction" list. Not that I'm reading that one. There are limits.

  5. “empty city” fantasy as wish fullfilment or as realization of one's worst nightmare?

    i wonder.


  6. Another plague ridden city is Milan in Manzoni's "The Betrothed". That is actually set in the 17th century, but written in the 19th.

  7. Kevin - very different for different readers and viewers. I'm in the worst nightmare camp.

    Speaking of nightmare camps, there's one in The Betrothed, a quarantined plague camp. The reason I didn't mention Manzoni's novel is that I don't really remember an idea of Milan itself being in peril. This may be a meaningless distinction, and I might well be remembering wrong.

    So, yes, Manzoni goes on the list. Thanks.

  8. I have to admit that Bulwer-Lytton is on my guilty pleasures TBR list. Anyone who is brilliant (or mad) enough to create the "It was a dark and stormy night" cliche deserves a chance in my book.

  9. Anna - is it a guilty pleasure, or a professional obligation? An amateur, I can skip him, and will.

    I have read the first paragraph of Paul Clifford, looking for that opening. Bulwer-Lytton is unfairly maligned, blamed for the excesses of Snoopy.

    Bulwer-Lytton created the line, not the cliché!

  10. There are two very good novels set in the Philippines during WWII that deserve a wider readership-
    Barefoot in the Fire:A Manila WWII and Childhood by Barbara Gamboa Lewis-these stories are set in Manila which had a very high rate of civilian casualties and show the spirit of the people surviving through barbaric cruelty.

    Also many of the better short stories of Elizabeth Bowen are set in and were written during the Blitz in London-when they were written there was in the early stories no way of predicting who would win

  11. When I noticed you mentioned cities destroyed by fire I was brought to mind the great section of the Diary of Samuel Pepys devoted to the fire of London-as exciting as any fiction even if we do know what will happen-

  12. Once we get into the 20th century - world wars, the maturation of science fiction - there are a million possibilities.

    But I certainly had not heard of Barbara-Ann Gamboa Lewis. Thanks for that recommendation.

  13. I should waited a minute to post!

    I think that's about the only part of Pepys I have read - yes, that's good stuff.

  14. The journals of Boswell and the Diary of Pepys are among the great reading experiences of my life-