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The City and the Writer: In London with Hisham Matar

By Nathalie Handal

Special City Series / London


If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                              —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of London as you feel/see it?

London has infinite moods and guises, but present in the background always is its reticence. Like all things worthy of time, it is a city that conceals more than it reveals. 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Sleeping on the floor of Waterloo Station for several nights. 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most,  of the city?

Its shyness. 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

I am less than a twenty-minute walk away from where Ford Madox Ford, T.S. Elliot, Henry James, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Robert Louis Stevenson once lived. Since university days I have been a member of a club where all of those men used to dine. The library of the place was set up by Stevenson. London is so gluttonously rich in literary history that it invites desecration. One must exist within it and against it. 

Is there a place here you return to often?

Several. 1. The Temple Church. My friend, the violinist Ruth Palmer, gave a concert there recently, and it teased out the acoustic space of this impeccable building, which, when silent, alters the thinking- or the being-space. 2. The Wigmore Hall. It sounds better than any other chamber music concert hall I have ever been to. And the audience are knowledgeable and encouraging—which is a rare mix. 3. The British Museum. Very few places excite such fond memories. 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The Reading Room in the British Museum. Bram Stoker and Karl Marx worked there. It is both obscene and beautiful. Several times I contemplated urinating there, right in the middle. 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

London is obsessed with secrets. It is an expression of its pathetic lack of social grace, but also its exquisite unease in the world.  

Where does passion live here?

Passion exists most exuberantly in the music halls. You can go to two and sometimes three superb concerts every week. It wasn't always this way, but London is going through a musical heyday. 

What is the title of one of your stories about London and what inspired it exactly?

Not a story, but a passage in Anatomy of a Disappearance, my latest novel. A father and son walk together through Green Park. Something about the light, the rain and the quality of the silence alters what is possible between them. The moment passes, but its effects last through out the book. 

Inspired by Levi, “Outside London does an outside exist?”

London is anti-provincial in the way New York or Paris, for example, is not. Although London is, arguably, a stronger contender for the pompous title of a world capital than most cities, it is deeply uncertain and uneasy about such a status. I am, though, speaking about London the cultural city. The economic one is far less subtle. 


Hisham Matar was born in New York City to Libyan parents and spent his childhood first in Tripoli and then in Cairo.  His first novel, In the Country of Men, was published in 2006 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Guardian First Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the U.S. It won six international literary awards, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Best First Book award for Europe and South Asia, the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize and the inaugural Arab American Book Award. It has been translated into twenty-eight languages. Matar has lived in London since the mid 1980s.


NH’s Discovery of the Month: Exciting young writers in the United Kingdom—Helen Oyeyemi, Rana Dasgupta, Jackie Kay, Adam Foulds, Mohsin Hamid, Anjali Joseph, China Miéville, Kamila Shamsie, Evie Wyld, and Lemn Sissay.

Some cool bookshops—Hatchards, London Review Bookshop, Foyles, Joe Sandoe Books, Primrose Hill Books, Waterstone’s Piccadilly and Daunt Books.

More from The City and the Writer’s Special City Series / London:

In London with Esther Freud  

In London with Owen Hatherley 

Published Apr 26, 2012   Copyright 2012 Nathalie Handal

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