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The City and the Writer: In London with Jay Parini

By Nathalie Handal

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 is really the only city that lies deep within my mind, that’s as much a dreamscape as a cityscape. I’ve been visiting London for fifty years. And have lived there—once for a whole year. But rarely a year goes by when I don’t visit at least twice. Its mood, for me, is one of bright intelligent conversation. It’s as much the people as the place; but these go together, and I just feel good in London, as it lifts me. Even in its dark somber places, I find myself interested and able to appreciate what happens there.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city? 

I once said goodbye to a young woman at the Sloane Square tube station in Belgravia. This was almost fifty years ago. She was a student, and I had no relationship with her, although I wished I had. I was miserable, and sat on a park bench in the square and felt sorry for myself for a long time. I never pass through Sloane Square without recalling that strange afternoon.


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

There is a life above street level. The eye fixes on the street level, but this isn’t half the story of London. Look up. Endless layers of architecture, much of it very old, all of it interesting. The storefronts are ephemeral. The larger structures are not.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

London is the most literary city in the world. Who to name? Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Johnson, Dickens, and so forth. I often think of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair: a gorgeous sad novel of London during World War II. 


Is there a place here you return to often?

I would be unhappy without a visit to Primrose Hill, without a coffee at one of the cafés on Regent’s Park Road. I also love the little street called England’s Lane in Belsize Park: a ten-minute walk from Primrose Hill. I could live in the cafés found in these places.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know? 

Dickens’s house at 48 Doughty Street is something everyone should visit.


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

I think of Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. It’s a place I associate with great writers like T. S. Eliot, Henry James, Somerset Maugham. Even Ian Fleming lived there at one point. 


Where does passion live here? 

In the theater, which in London is endless, diverse, unpredictable, often breathtakingly brilliant. Not the West End especially but lesser-known theaters, such as the Almeida in Islington or the Orange Tree in Richmond—two great little theaters.


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

I never wrote a book about London. I just love the city.

Oliver Twist by Dickens is a great London novel, an early work by the great author that takes us back to poverty and tenderness, a beautiful sad book that is obviously based on the writer’s terrifying period working in a blacking factory as a child. The scenes with the Artful Dodger and Fagin are unforgettable. Dickens looks at the criminal treatment of children at this time, but the book seems always relevant, as children everywhere in the world are suffering from poverty and homelessness. 


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

I think that London is a self-enclosed world that contains all worlds, especially now, since it’s full of immigrants from everywhere. The world is here, and a simple ride on the Underground will reveal everything, or a few moments standing in Piccadilly Circus.

Jay Parini is an American poet, novelist, and biographer. His most recent book, Borges and Me, is a memoir of his travels in the highlands of Scotland in 1971 with the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. Parini has recently published his New and Collected Poems 1975–2015. He has written eight novels, including The Last Station, which was made into an Academy Award–nominated film in 2009.  He has written biographies of Gore Vidal, John Steinbeck, Robert Frost, and William Faulkner.

Related Reading:

London, Seen through Its Libraries

The City and the Writer: In Brighton, England, with Colin Grant

The City and the Writer: In Paris with Marilyn Hacker

Published Sep 17, 2020   Copyright 2020 Nathalie Handal

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