The Quote Hanger

"If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance."
- George Bernard Shaw

Saturday, June 30, 2012

'A place that has to be believed to be seen'

A few months ago, I read A Moveable Feast, Hemingway's memoir about his first few years in Paris. It is the first book that I have read by him, and I was instantly struck by the immediacy of his descriptions. He talks about sitting in cafes, scribbling away with a pencil in his notebook. That sustained urgency of instantly capturing what you encounter does reflect in the book, too. There are no passages of lingering beauty, as there are, for instance, in Proust or Fitzgerald's works, but there is a very distinctive allure to his writing, too. Hemingway proceeds from one meticulous description to the next, almost as though he is presenting a disinterested, purely informative report of his days in the city.  However, when you least expect it, right in the middle of, say, a systematic recreation of an innocuous lunch that consisted of oysters and wine, he abruptly interjects a pithy, yet often immensely moving, observation. All of a sudden, without any anticipatory flourish, he seems to unveil the very heart of the subject that he was talking about. This recurring feature in his style of writing seemed very apt, to me, for a book which is an ode, of sorts, to a city. 

Even though his book is about Paris, which is a highly unique city that has served as a muse for many, the approach he adopted while writing about it seems ideal for writing about almost any large city (I will eventually arrive at the reason after providing a long-winded, non-Hemingwayesque context). Lately, I have had several similar conversations about the nature of cities with different people. I have noticed that cities frequently tend to be misunderstood, especially the "fast-paced", "relentless" cosmopolitan ones. People seem to have the strangest expectations of cities, and, perhaps because I have spent a large part of my life in cities, I don't quite comprehend why. 

Although it might sound slightly kooky, places, 
like people, have specific temperaments, too. If you know only too well that Ms. XYZ is inherently self-sufficient, it would be a tad unreasonable to be disappointed when she does not wholeheartedly empathise with you for feeling desolate about having to go grocery shopping alone. Similarly, when I hear well-informed, city-dwelling people berate gargantuan cities due to the absence of a "sense of community", and the general "lost in a crowd" sensation that they exude,  it seems slightly off-kilter and paradoxical to me. Skewed expectations exist for smaller towns, too, of course, and I find them equally strange, but with cities in particular, I find that one requires an especially acute sense of wonder to be able to spot the beauty amid the chaos. Hemingway seems to have achieved precisely that effect. He spots the magnificent in the mundane, and derives wisdom from the banal. The landscape and standard of living in cities is such that we usually overlook the absolutely spectacular aspects of the place, and eventually stop expecting them, too; that is why I think urban beauty is one of the most unique kinds, because it takes you by surprise, and leaves you all the more awe-inspired by it. Cities, like any other place, or like most people, too, need to be recognised for what they are to be truly seen, understood, and appreciated.

'I've never seen you there.'

'You must not have been looking.'
500 Days of Summer