“In an age when the big city is becoming less popular than ever, this is a passionate and imaginative defense of city life, its ‘unique plasticity, its privacy and freedom.'”

Jonathan Raban’s Soft City (London, Harvill Press. 1974.), is part philosophical treatise, paean, nonfiction, fiction (!) and is also a bustling bibliography of the literature of the city for anglophiles and urbanists alike.  Raban discourses on urban planning, subculture, architecture, space (psychological as well as physical), the immigrant experience, and what precisely and uniquely defines the life of a city.

From the titanic figure of Dickens, writing in Industrial Revolution fog, Raban unravels a thread that connects the urban experience to densely plotted and populated literature.  The resulting web is strange, with the fervor and unpredictability of one of those spider-on-LSD experiments from the ’60s–this might not sound flattering, but the result is really impressive to behold–catching up such figures as Saint Augustine, George Gissing, Lewis Mumford, Georg Simmel, Boswell, Pierce Egan, Courbusier, Max Weber, Roland Barthes, Orwell.  He recounts the exploits of gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray, twins who dominated the London underworld with a ruthlessness and impeccability of dress that mimicked Chicago gangsterdom, equates the profession of Freelance Writer with that of quartorzieme, and is, above all, obsessive over the chimerical subjectivity and transience, the absurd juxtapositions and contradictions of city life.  Whether more similar to a drugged spider or to Rodin’s Gates of Hell, it’s all the more bewildering when you consider that Raban is writing pro the city, is totally in love with the urban experience despite the seriously scary loneliness and isolation he often evokes as part of life among masses.  After much consideration, Raban went on to make Seattle his adopted city, and continues to observe urban living. -Ed Scripsi

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Published in: on September 11, 2008 at 4:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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