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A City's Life: London

Canaletto, St. Paul's from the Thames, National Gallery LondonAs readers may know from my obsession with Paris, I find the artistic lives of cities, real and imagined, interesting. Now I have been reading reviews of Peter Ackroyd's book London: The Biography. The book has recently been translated into French, which is why I got on this thread, from the review (Ici Londres, un Anglais parle aux Français, September 11) by Christophe Mercier in Le Figaro. See also the materials related to the book as covered on WBUR's show The Connection; the review by Chris Hall, Growing Capital, in Spike magazine; the review in the New York Review of Books; and the review by Patrick McGrath, A City Much Like Hell, in the New York Times. You can also read the book's first chapter.

I can't quote from it here (see the very strict copyright notice at the bottom of the excerpt), but I can say that the first chapter drew me in. Ackroyd describes the city's prehistory, places where one can see evidence that London was once underneath the ocean. Into that scientific narrative he weaves quotations from writers observing sealike qualities of the city of London, and the effect is quite beautiful. As Christophe Mercier observed in his review, "The image we have of London comes most often from writers." The list of writers Ackroyd covers, Mercier notes, includes obvious British choices (Pepys, Defoe, Dickens, Thackeray, Conrad, Martin Amis) but also French authors (Hugo, Dumas, Féval, Vallès, and Céline). I don't have any idea how much Ackroyd comments on art about London, but works by Turner, Monet, and Canaletto (see image at left) are only the start of the list. I'll be looking for a second-hand copy of the book (now on Amazon for about $10) at some point.

Ackroyd has continued on the theme of London in his new book The Clerkenwell Tales (reviewed recently by Phil Baker, London Calling, August 16, in The Guardian, and not yet available in the U.S., I think).

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