Ian Nairn and the Art of Seeing a City

January 16, 2018 | 4 books mentioned 5 min read

coverIt’s not easy to pigeonhole the late English writer Ian Nairn. But after reading his work—and I’ll be focusing here on Nairn’s Paris, originally published in 1968 and just reissued by Notting Hill Editions—you might rightly decide that there’s no need to do so. His rubric doesn’t matter because, whatever kind of writer he is, he follows his own meandering counsel, and the results are consistently brilliant.

We can say this much for Nairn: He’s a classic flaneur, walking through cities, observing finely grained details, taking witty notes; he’s also a sharp architecture critic, slinging the lingo of flying buttresses and the ha-ha with an easy fluency; and he’s even part art historian, or at least a dedicated acolyte, encountering portraits in the Jeu de Pomme that make him “want to sit down and howl.”

These charming qualities, in addition to a breezy cultural disposition that allows him to describe a region’s cafes and restaurants as “less split up into caff and toff,” left me feeling that I had, at least from my across-the-pond perspective, discovered some hidden old-world sage that, in addition to offering a totally pleasant reading experience, might help me see (not really understand but, even better, see) American cities—perhaps even my own—with more generosity and clarity.

covercoverThe best writing about the urban landscape—from Georg Simmell’s 1903 essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” to Walter Benjamin’s reflections on Marseille, to Lewis Mumford’s The City in History to Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities—are functional tracts. They mostly tend toward the sociological and, as such, can be intellectually fulfilling—but also a bit dry.

covercoverNext to them are those rambunctious travelogues undertaken by writers from Patrick Leigh Fermor to Paul Theroux. Fermor’s account of his peregrinations from Rotterdam to Istanbul in A Time of Giftsmuch like Theroux’s most recent Deep South, are so fun they almost qualify as guilty pleasures. But, in the end, they titillate without really asking us to do more than experience the titillation and tell our friends. Not dry, but not hugely fulfilling either.

Nairn manages to both inspire and divert. His immediate allure is his unique interplay of language and observation. The Boulevard Saint-Germain “is full of intellectuals and their audience.” L’Opera is “a declamatory roulade of allegory that would pump a sense of occasion into the limpest libretto.” The Bassin de la Villette—a humble canal basin on the East End of town—elicits the reaction that, “Like many things in France, it looks battered but works well.” An archway on the Rue des Ecoles “is embroidered with posters, inches thick, concert upon manifesto like a cream sauce of the intellect.” And at the Bibliotheque Saint Genevieve, “The roof itself resembles nothing so much as a salad of that spiky kind of French lettuce that discharges all other tastes without imposition and without losing its own identity.” Fun and uncannily accurate, these sort of descriptions offer the perfect lure to the deeper fare within.

Nairn arranges Nairn’s Paris as if it were a guidebook, with hundreds of discrete entries on the city’s landmarks. What qualifies as a worthy landmark, though, is broadly conceived, and tenderly reflective of Nairn’s larger ambition to experience and present the city as a cohesive, living and breathing space. The Louvre, Notre Dame, Versailles, the Eiffel Tower all get begrudging entries, but this is a “guidebook” that deigns to include reflections on squatter communities, suburbs, sewers, camping sites, launderettes, and, my favorite, an electricity substation. More often than not, Nairn, through the sharpness and generosity of his observation, exposes the hidden elegance in these obligatory features of urban space, ones that surround all of us all the time.

He finds one patch of bidonvilles (squatter neighborhoods) to be “a ramshackle muddle of sheds and shacks, roofed with felt and packed with sacking—one even has ‘a vendre’ [for sale] on it.” He notes (thankfully without a hint of irony) that “it does have a basic sense of identity.” As for the substation, he concludes, after a fastidious description of its layout, “the effect, in the hedgeless flat landscape, is overpowering.” Before leaving the scene he observes, “each grid line crackles away softy and the combined chorus of these electric mice is unnerving.” Just as unnerving, you realize, is the sad fact that you have walked through cities for a lifetime and never once stopped to consider such structures as having anything except utilitarian value.

Nairn’s refusal to dice up and single out polished parts of the battered whole leads to a vision of urban space that is democratic, fluid, and, as a result, accommodating to anyone willing to slow down and observe. If you have ever felt the current of a city lure you into its ebb and flow, you were probably not contemplating the major landmarks and browsing the art museum gift shop. Instead, you were, in whatever unassuming way, allowing the city to just be itself as you participated in the quotidian.

Nairn discovers this organic, off-the-center-stage disposition in unexpected places. Say, a passing cop: “The Parisian gendarme is involved, not detached—and I don’t doubt this may mean a readier resort to beating up. But, on the right side of the law and particularly in traffic control, it implies a human experience, not an imperfect imitation of robots.” My favorite entry in the book is about an “Object, corner of rue des Archives and rue des Haudriettes.” He calls it, “the perfect mot juste, humanizing the city, making bearable the worrying fact that seven million people are living in such a very small space.” Of Square Rene Viviani he writes: “This is a marvelous place. No keep-off the-grass…and all that the absence of keep-off-grass implies: children using the place as if it were an adventure rather than an ‘adventure playground.’”

Behind the Viviani, Nairn mentions, almost as an afterthought, the “implacable Gothic artillery” of Notre-Dame lurking beyond.  Avoid it, he seems to suggest, as well as Vincennes, “one of the most bad-tempered collection of buildings in the world,” and Versailles, “an unwanted ugly ducking,” and Fontainebleu, where “even the most hardened traveller may wilt before this limp collection of authoritarian clichés,” and Place du Marche-Notre Dame“that great lummox at the top of the hill,” and Saint Denis, with an “abbey that growls out at the gloomy little town,” and the staircase at Maisons-Lafitte, which has “an authentic academic chill on it,” and…well, you get the picture. His bitterness is sweet.

Nairn seems happiest when Paris (and its environs) isn’t trying so hard. And so he admires “the slow-spoken honesty” of a suburban church, calls the zoo “one of the best things in Paris, and advises going to Parc Saint Maur and “watching gently and sympathetically.” A small footbridge that no tourist has ever made a special trip to see “is elevated by sheer atmosphere into being one of the most precious bridges in the world.” The Jardin du Luxembourg is not a success because of the formal designs—“the formal parts are disappointing”—but because of the areas interspersed between them: “go anywhere under the trees and the magician city’s trick works again: the space apparently endless, everyone doing what they want and leaving you to do the same, the outside world not shut out but brought to heel, presented in tamed vignettes.”

Imagine being able to derive so much meaning from the space under the trees at a public park. The most remarkable thing about Nairn’s writing is that you realize, after only a few pages, that, in fact, you don’t have to do. You can do it. And then—voila!—the world you see everyday is transformed.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

is a writer and historian living in Austin, Texas. His articles and essays have appeared in Harper's, the Paris Review online, The New York Times Book Review, The American Scholar, the Virginia Quarterly Review, The New Yorker online, Pacific Standard, Salon, and Slate. He is writing a book about art and expression in the American South called The Wild Beautiful Poets We Grow From The Road.