top of page


#13: FIVE CITY BIOGRAPHIES. Note the term. Histories of cities I think of as including charts, population statistics, chapters on forms of government and mention of important bankers. A city biography is a term I use for books of more anecdotal history, accounts of interesting people, all the best buildings: a book you’d read for pleasure. John Russell has written two of the best: Paris and London, both published by Abrams, both beauteously illustrated. Finding that he could write so exactly and evocatively about two cities so different in their appeal reminded me of my amazement at discovering that Bernstein could conduct both Beethoven and Mahler equally well, which would seem to me to require two different autonomic nervous systems. For further pleasures of urbanity, read Adam Gopnik’s splendid Paris to the Moon, an account of living in Paris for five years after the birth of his first child, and Letters from London, by Julian Barnes, a splendid collection of essays written for the New Yorker. High intelligence is only rarely this much fun. Alastair Horne’s Seven Ages of Paris (Vintage, 2002) is a full, absorbingly written history that makes even its most familiar scenes vivid and is a sobering reminder of how much tragedy, violence and political bitterness the city has survived. Of the various observers of Paris, none are more fun to read than the immortal Janet Flanner, who, as “Genet,” wrote the "Letters from Paris" for the New Yorker after the second world war until 1971. She caught whatever was going on, from fashion to politics to literature, and brought the tang of her own personality to every page. Read the two volumes of Paris Journal, edited by William Shawn and published by Harcourt Brace.

For one of the funkiest, most endlessly interesting cities of Europe, read Robert Hughes’s Barcelona (Knopf, 1992), a book every bit the equal of Hughes’s art criticism; Hughes skates absorbingly and clearly through the city’s complex social/linguistic/religious history, and ends with a great account of Barcelona’s presiding spirit, Antoni Gaudi. His shorter, more recent book Barcelona: The Great Enchantress (National Geographic, 2004) is a personal tribute after Hughes’s long years of residence, and pretty enchanting itself. (Hughes’s Nothing If Not Critical, by the way, is the most fun you’ll ever have reading art criticism.)

In Jan Morris’s Oxford, the dreaming spires turn out not to be dreamy at all, but positively swarming, with great projects, lovely architecture, a fractious history, and a very full catalogue of that unique lifeform, the Oxford eccentric—than whom no one is more eccentric or amusing. (Morris also edited the highly entertaining anthology Oxford Book of Oxford.) For more on that Oxford life form, read The Dons, by Noel Annan (University of Chicago). In all of these books is the common high spirit of urbanity—the pleasure in the crowd of human foible and accomplishment. If you can read these books and not want to be in the cities they describe, you have tired of life.

And if you have indeed tired of life, London and Paris will entertain you even then. There are innumerable guidebooks to the cities’ attractions (my favorites are the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Guides, which are handsome, informative and portable) but none are more amusingly specialized than Permanent Parisians and Permanent Londoners, by Judi Culbertson and Tom Randall (Chelsea Green), illustrated guides to the cemeteries of the two great capitals. You’re either a cemetery buff—a woman I knew in Cambridge had a photo album entirely of Parisian tombstones—or you’re not; I am one, and will go a considerable distance for a good graveyard. (A Tourist Board worker in Salisbury once, helping me hunt up George Herbert, phoned a local verger and said, “I’ve got a gent here looking for the church with the dead poet in it.” The respondent knew exactly what—and where—she meant.) In the bookshop at Westminster Abbey on my first visit I was amused to find a book called Who's Buried Where in England, and I knew I was not alone. Culbertson and Randall are amused as well. The London volume concentrates more on the known and noble; the Parisian volume takes the prize for baroque weirdness, with pelicans, mummies, a Victorian four-poster bed and an emasculated sphinx figuring among the funerary sculpture. Two of the more unbelievable stories—about the graves of Allen Kardec and of the philandering Victor Noir—I can attest by eyewitness experience to be true. Nightlife? Expensive restaurants?

Boat trips? Who needs those when you’ve got graveyards? And very much worth seeing is Heddy Honigmann’s moving documentary “Forever” (2006), in which she interviews visitors to Pere Lachaise, the cemetery in Paris, in a film about “the importance of art in our lives.”

Postscript to Barcelona and Antoni Gaudi. Perhaps no other city is as dominated by a single architect as Barcelona is by the work of Gaudi. The flowing line of modernisme, his family heritage in metalworking, the delight in lowly and discarded materials that he shares with that other trickster of Spanish art, Picasso, his deeply felt, even obsessive Catholicism: all these combined with Gaudi’s technical ingenuity and sense of natural form to produce the magical oddity and liveliness of his buildings. Iron strips become a dragon; balconies become masks, rooftop chimneys an army of helmeted centurions; spires bloom into cypress trees. The iridescent surfaces, the sinuous lines—Gaudi’s buildings are all motion and becoming, as if the right angle had yet to be discovered. Gaudi was, as his biographer says, “revered and reviled”; Orwell thought the Sagrada Familia hideous and its spires reminded him of hock bottles. But Gaudi has taken his place, and his polychrome facades, so suited to the light of Barcelona, are entrancing and alive.

For his life, see Gaudi: A Biography by Gijs van Hensbergen (Harper Perennial, 2001). For his work, the best book I’ve seen is Gaudi: Complete Buildings by Rainer Zerbst (Taschen, 2005), although I’m fond of the compact little album Gaudi: An Introduction to his Architecture (Barcelona, Triangle, 2001), full of terrific photos and some breathtakingly bad translation English. Park Guell, by Conrad Kent and Dennis Prindle (Princeton Architectural Press, 1993) is skint on pictures but conveys admirably how the Park evolved from the artistic and social currents of the day as well as from Gaudi’s technicolor imagination. The Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, on the other hand, has pictures galore and glorious, along with another translation-machine text, revealing the boggling richness of the decoration and explaining the symbolic programs of the sculpture and such-like (Dos Arte Editions, 2013, photos by Carlos Giordano Rodriguez and Nicolas Palmisano Sosa). Barcelona, A City and Its Architecture: An Essay by Josep Maria Montaner (Taschen, 1997), Barcelona 1900, edited by Teresa M. Sala (Van Gogh Museum, 2007) and Barcelona and Modernity: Picasso, Gaudi, Miro, Dali, edited by Wiliam H. Robinson, Jordi Falgas and Carmen Belen Lord (Cleveland Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 2007) are perceptive and sumptuously illustrated books which show that Gaudi was far from alone in his imagination and accomplishment.

And finally, to Varanasi—or Benares, as it’s been called, or Avimukta, or Muhammabad, or, most anciently, Kashi—“The Luminous City”. It is the most sacred of all Hindu cities, set on the most sacred stretch of the Ganges, where to bathe wipes away all sin and to be cremated results in union with Brahma. It is consecrated to and occupied by the multifarious Shiva, who himself bears many names—one Sanskrit work, the Siva Sahasranama Stotram, consists entirely of 1008 of his titles and epithets. The teem and crush of Varanasi is hard to describe: in the narrow lanes of the old neighborhood markets or during the ecstatic clamor of evening prayer on the ghats, you may swear you have just seen as many people as ever existed in history. But beneath this—visible to the imagination’s eye from the fishers’ skiffs on the river at dawn, when the sun lights up the western banks—is the ancient city of Kashi, whose temples and prayers are its real life, and history mere commotion and rumor. Diana L. Eck, in her Banaras: City of Light (Princeton, 1982) has brought forth that city, in a book very unlike the others I’ve described above—imagine a history of New York written by Walt Whitman, or of London by William Blake. Its particulars are the particulars of myth; she has scoured the Puranas, those great digests, talked with pandits and beggars, and produced, in the guise of a city history, one of the most moving and accessible accounts of the depths of the Hindu mind available in English: a great commingling of gods and hymns, tides and temples, and men and women, like Varanasi itself.

The Siva Sahasranama Stotram, a chapter from the vast epic Mahabharata, has been rendered in English by Swami Chidbhavananda and published by Sri Ramakrishna Taponvanam (try reading that sentence out loud); it shows up in the ninth volume of Bibek Debroy’s complete rendering of the Mahabharata, published by Penguin India; if you want to go the whole route, look to, where you can find the names rendered in Sanskrit and transliteration. (I’m sorry. I love this stuff.) Of the vast library of the mahatmya—the Hindu praise literature—one piece at least is available in English: the Ganga Lahari, a hymn in praise of Mother Ganga: The Flow of the Ganges, by Panditaraja Jagannatha, with a Sanskrit text and translated into Hindi and English by Boris Marjanovic (Varanasi, Indica Books, 2007). Diana L. Eck’s Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India (Anima Publishing, 1985) is a brilliant short monograph on the importance of the visual experience in Hinduism—75 pages and bang on the mark. In her later work India: A Sacred Geography (Harmony Books, 2012), Eck expands her inspection of the mythic landscape to the whole of the subcontinent. It’s a more apt and telling version of Indian history than the usual welter of dates and names; she is also nobody’s fool when it comes to how this mythic vision can be (and has been) degraded to the nastier uses of Hindu nationalism.

Recent Posts

See All


#235: GRAVEN IMAGES.   Surely it’s a face: the outline in the shape of an inverted teardrop; two deeply carved hollows for eyes, without pupils; a long center-split line descending for a nose and some


#234: NOT SO ORDINARY AFTER ALL.    No contemporary American poet has made his work from the details of everyday life with less apology and greater and more precise attention than Ted Kooser.  In Spli


#233: A CUP OF GREAT HAPPINESS TEA.  It’s fun sometimes to sit down to a completely unfamiliar movie—haven’t seen the preview, haven’t read the reviews, don’t know the director—and that was exactly my

bottom of page