Although London is a central figure in Martin Amis’s ‘London Trilogy’ (Money, London Fields, The Information), the author does not consider cities to be literary characters in themselves. “Locale is more background than character,” he said, speaking at a session titled Once Upon a Town, a panel discussion about cities as literary characters, organised as part of the ongoing Tata Literature Live! festival.
“However, there does seem to be some inter-penetration of an author and a city. Think Rushdie’s Bombay or Saul Bellow’s Chicago,” Amis added.
Also on the panel were novelists Nicholas Shakespeare and Frank Moorhouse, and the three discussed everything from the genesis of the Australian capital Canberra to today’s ‘post-truth’ geopolitics and its effects on world cities.
“Canberra was a model city rather than a reflection of its people,” said Moorhouse, who is best known for his ‘Edith Trilogy’, which is set in that Australian city. “The same grammar dominated city planning from the 1920s to the 1940s in other administrative regions such as New Delhi and Brasilia.”
Britain’s exit of the European Union, and America’s election of Donald Trump as President came up repeatedly. “I was in Oxford during Brexit, and although it was the same trees, cars, and people, it became a city that’d suddenly changed,” Shakespeare said.
Amis added that American cities and post-Brexit London “may become meaner, more vicious”. “It could be the kind of brutishness that can change London and have an impact on future novels set in the city,” he said.
A question from the audience on whether the men thought that women writers portrayed cities differently prompted some debate between the panel members.
“When I was with a girlfriend at a restaurant, she noticed all the contours of the restaurant. I only noticed what was on the table,” joked Nicholas Shakespeare, adding that gender differences can result in different spatial observations.
“This is a generalisation, but I think women’s writing has more song and feeling in it,” Amis concluded. “Men are more dissociated, yet conscious of tradition. Female writers are more instinctive.”