From STREETS OF DESIRE
Rootlessness and displacement are at the heart of the city novel. The classic narrative of the city as a new beginning, a stage embarked upon in early adult life, has specific features for women, in that the very notion of female self-invention defies the nature-culture divide; women being traditionally the stable, fixed point in the universe whose spaces wait to be explored by men, so that woman endures while man transcends. In some of Toni Morrison’s novels (notably Tar Baby and Jazz), besides being all these things, the city is also a historical stage in the story of black Americans, the place where rural migrants converge and where women come into their own: the voice that articulates historical experience as urban.
It is in fictions of the city that collectivities of race and class assume a subjective viewpoint. Claire Etcherelli’s Elise or Real Life brings these together at a crucial point in French history: the Algerian War; ‘real life’ begins as Elise boards the train that will take her to Paris, where, like Etcherelli herself, she will work on a car assembly line. She begins a love affair with an Algerian worker in the same factory, and comes to know the contradictions of black-white class solidarity, and painfully to feel the city’s racist hatred in the abuse and brutal policing of Arab workers. Yet the city streets, though hazardous for such a couple, are also a refuge – ‘Paris was an enormous ambush through which we moved with ludicrous precautions… our happiness transformed Paris’ – a lover’s city for all that. Through the tragedies of love and politics, Paris teaches Elise what real life is really about.
In Elise the progress of self-knowledge is synonymous with claiming the city. The novel ends with a drive through Paris – ‘Here’s Paris’, where Elise’s commentary on the streets traversed is also a commentary on everyday life and everyday oppression, conveying a sense of her own new-learned knowledge of the city. Likewise, in Carmen Laforet’s Nada, the streets of Barcelona become a territory whose step-by-step mapping in the course of one year corresponds to Andrea’s coming of age and passage into a sense of self. ‘My dear, a big town is a sink of iniquity, and of all the cities in Spain Barcelona is the most wicked’, her aunt warns her on arrival, and the warning serves to tantalise. Andrea’s wanderings allow her escape from a fraught and claustrophobic house whose family tensions could well be seen as allegorical in this post-civil-war Spain.
There’s a similar sense of movement from hopeful ignorance to a state of knowing self-possession in a very different novel, Olivia Manning’s The Doves of Venus. The eighteen-year-old Ellie Parsons has arrived in London as an escapee from Eastsea. At the novel’s start Ellie is entranced by the city at night and tries to imagine what its mysteries might have in store for, who she might become: ‘Would she ever rap on doorknockers with the urgency of important emotions? And run round a corner wearing a fur coat? And lifting a hand to an approaching taxi, impress some other girl named Ellie and fill her with envy and ambition?’ It ends as she boards a bus ‘journeying westwards into the transformed city where Ellie has her home’.
Manning wrote very much within the mainstream of English fiction, whose distinguishing feature is a very middle-class, character-based realism, and many of whose women writers rarely escape the confines of the domestic. Manning’s adventurousness as a writer lay in her relation to the life of elsewhere. In The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy she described wartime Bucharest, Athens and Cairo with the vivid rapture of discovery, but London was her own first city and here it communicates a special kind of rapture, that of the young girl who has just embarked upon womanhood – with a job and a bedsit of her own. Ellie’s elated first step is to fall in love and discard her virginity. The city and the economic independence it affords her are prerequisites for this sexual freedom.
Rapture is the state that most characterises Miriam Henderson’s experience of the city. Pilgrimage, written entirely as a stream-of-consciousness narrative of Miriam’s perceptions, thoughts and feelings, situates most of its thirteen-book cycle in London. Miriam’s extravagantly voiced consciousness merges oceanically with the city as she loses herself in ‘her beloved London night-streets’, surrendering to the reverie and intoxication they inspire (‘I am always drunk in the West End’). To her the city offers scope for consciousness to be in a perpetual movement of discovery, to be plunged into life’s fullness. Because of ‘the vast spread of London’, it can contain the world’s mysteries, and therefore their potential revelation: ‘… She saw upon the end wall the subdued reflection of London light, signalling the vast quiet movement of light about the world. It held a secret for whose full revelation she could wait for ever, knowing that it would come.’
Miriam, the New Woman perpetually in rebellion against the ‘addlepated masculine complacency’ that fails to allow women the authority of their own experience, find transcendence of identity in the city: ‘she would be again, soon… not a woman… a Londoner.’ If her wanderings through London’s streets arouse incomprehension and sometimes disapproval, the city itself is benign in its indifference.