We are living in strange times, restricted to the four walls of our homes as the cities we live in undergo changes, unnoticed by us. Literature has always given space to cities, making them the protagonist and the backdrop. But there have been some novels which have gone one step ahead: they blended the spirit and character of the city with their story till they couldn’t be told apart.
Here are some examples. Read or revisit them and perceive your own city in a new way in the limitless expanse of your imagination.
Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me
Bill Hayes’ affecting chronicling of his partner of many years, Oliver Sacks, also serves as the perfect love story to New York, seeped in longing, loneliness and isolation. Told through his prose and snapshots, Insomniac City looks at how New York appears at night, replete with dimly-lit windows, grieving partners and love.
The Jhumpa Lahiri novel, which was later adapted by Mira Nair, has Kolkata in the background and foreground. The principal characters, Ashok and Ashima, carry the city around in their little pockets even when they settle down in New York and it is the city that breaks and mends their ties.
The City of Joy
New York and Kolkata might be miles apart but Dominique Lapierre, with his novel very similar to Hayes, never showed the obvious. He traces the life of a young Polish priest, Father Stephan Kovalski, and merges it with other lives: a rickshaw puller called Hasari Pal in Kolkata and a young American doctor, Max Loeb. It does not encompass the life of the city as much as it imbibes its never-dying spirit.
Cities often make for interesting characters as they mean different things to different people. For instance, in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which is essentially about one day in the life of its protagonist, London finds shape in unexpected ways. For both Clarissa Dalloway and war veteran Septimus Warren Smith, the city means different things, but probe deeper and the disparate images in their mind seem similar.
Sally Rooney’s second offering, a modern-day classic romance between a popular jock and a friendless girl in school, spans across years and when not tugging at your heartstrings, reminds you of the people you have left behind. It also provides a picture of Dublin, its culture, and parties clanging with broken hearts.
The Lonely City
One can be lonely in a city but who knew cities can be lonely too? Well, it takes one to know one. This profound personal account by Olivia Laing is a definitive commentary on New York, on the loneliness it withholds behind the glossy veneer. Laing does not compare her loneliness with the city, rather uses her condition to be more empathetic, all the while writing about various artistes who were notorious loners.
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