Books and Arts; London fiction
The best of cities, the worst of cities
The capital as inspiration for novelists
London is a “great cesspool” into which the loungers and idlers of life irresistibly drain, wrote Arthur Conan Doyle in one of his Sherlock Holmes stories. But it has proved to be a fertile dumping ground, an inspiration for each generation of novelist and every genre of fiction.
The capital's most famous and still unparalleled chronicler is Charles Dickens. His template for the London novel has never dated, flinging together characters from every walk of life into dazzling, swarming, state-of-the city narratives. In his London the rich cannot escape the poor, and the do-gooders and swindlers quaff ale elbow-to-elbow. The inanimate actors are as vivid as the living: the miserable workhouse that harboured Oliver Twist is no less legendary than the poor, begging boy himself or his criminal chum, the Artful Dodger; the “sooty spectre” of fog coloured the capital's image long after the industrial pea-soupers had disappeared.
Few novelists have so successfully managed such vast and varied casts. In contrast, Sherlock Holmes rattled “through the silent streets”; his cases invariably depend on a few players. Yet Conan Doyle did almost as much as Dickens to establish another enduring theme of London-lit: that every character conceals a secret. No wonder the capital is such a popular setting for crime fiction, from Margery Allingham to Ruth Rendell.
In the early 20th century the city was the backdrop for despair. Virginia Woolf's London in “Mrs Dalloway” (1925) is mournful, offering little succour after the first world war. J.B. Priestley's “Angel Pavement” (1930) offers a latter-day Dickensian tale of cheats, bankruptcy and failed firms. By the 1960s Muriel Spark guided readers through a new metropolis, where women gushed at the thought of sex and film stars, and penned unanswered letters to famous writers. Yet the delights of works such as “The Girls of Slender Means” are overshadowed by the threat of nuclear war.
Across the decades the capital has inspired potboilers and sizzling romances, but it was not until the 1980s, when London was booming again, that the city itself returned to centre stage. Martin Amis's “London Fields” (1989) was a triumph, a black comedy about lust and low-lifes that fizzed with a rare energy.
As London has grown in all dimensions, authors have chosen to present a segment of it rather than a Dickensian sweep. The most pioneering modern London novel was Hanif Kureishi's “The Buddha of Suburbia” (1990), set amid one of the many ethnic and immigrant communities that fiction—and many Britons—had ignored for decades. It introduced readers to the city's southern outskirts, and threw in sex, drugs and rock'n'roll.
A new genre was born. The multicultural and dysfunctional families of Zadie Smith's “White Teeth” (2000) brought celebrity to London's lesser-known boroughs. Like Dickens's characters, Ms Smith's are preoccupied with roots—yet class and identity had come to mean something quite different.
Monica Ali's “Brick Lane” (2003) brilliantly evokes the Bangladeshi community. When her heroine walks down the famous East End street one step behind her husband, she sets the novel's tone in a single scene. A year later London's gay community was given a new voice with Alan Hollinghurst's “The Line of Beauty”, which won the Man Booker prize.
The novels of London are now coming full circle, bringing a fuller cast into focus through two modern preoccupations: economic crisis and terrorism. Two recent examples, John Lanchester's “Capital” and Sebastian Faulks's “A Week in December”, fail to define their age as Dickens or Conan Doyle did. But they also point to a new cosmopolitan cesspool, where a similar set of worries beset every strata of society, uniting and dividing it along new lines.