Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Five novels on the spirit and history of London

Iain Sinclair, the author of London: City of Disappearances, discussed "five novels that capture the spirit and rich history of London" with Emma Mustich at The Browser, including:
The Secret Agent
by Joseph Conrad

Your last choice, The Secret Agent, is a book I read in high school in the States, before I had really spent any time in London. At the time, I didn’t think about the way it was describing the city – but as soon as I saw it on your list, vivid images started recurring to me. Why did you choose it?

There are lots of reasons I’m very fond of Conrad as a writer. I like visions of London that come translated or diffused or refracted through other cultures. In that way, I suppose, I like this book in the same way I like my first choice, the CĂ©line. Coming here out of his Polish background, Conrad picked up on the elements you were talking about in terms of Dickens -- the city as a labyrinth of conspiracies and overloads. In The Secret Agent, you go from a shop in Soho into a space like Greenwich Park, where the bomb incident takes place – quite an interesting journey in itself – and then, at the end, there’s an extraordinary marching-away into the suburbs of one of the characters who walks through endless anonymous, curious areas. So it’s another navigation of London, but this time it’s the London of conspiracy and paranoia, the London of imported terror groups or anarchist groups who come from other places but enact their dramas here.

I like the way the doubling-up of the protagonist’s shop – with its almost Dickensian sense of eccentricity, a shop selling porn in a sort of mild way, as a secret – relates to things like Jekyll and Hyde, where you get a single house with a respectable doctor living in front, and a savage underworld out the back door. This splitting, the idea of two things coexisting in one city, has always been one of London’s major themes. All London writing, or at least the best kind, has had this conceit of the double place -- the respectable and the savage.
Read about the other books Sinclair tagged.

The Secret Agent
also appears among Dan Vyleta's top ten books in second languages, Jessica Stern's five best books on who terrorists are, Adam Thorpe's top ten satires, and on John Mullan's list of ten of the best professors in literature.

--Marshal Zeringue