Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros52Historical confluence(s)‘Urban Palimpsests’: When novelis...

Historical confluence(s)

Urban Palimpsests’: When novelistic and architectural languages merge in Penelope Lively’s City of the Mind

« Des palimpsestes urbains » : Quand les langages architecturaux et romanesques se rencontrent dans City of the Mind de Penelope Lively
Christian Gutleben


Tel qu’il est conçu par Andreas Huyssen, le concept de palimpseste urbain convoque les techniques littéraires pour comprendre l’espace urbain et en faire un tissu autant topographique que mental. Une telle lecture de la ville, qui mêle outils architecturaux et littéraires, voilà précisément ce qu’entreprend Penelope Lively dans City of the Mind (1991) où s’opère à merveille la confluence entre ville et esprit, espace et imagination, structure urbaine et structure romanesque. Dans le pluralisme historique et esthétique inhérent à la métaphore du palimpseste urbain se trouve l’aspect le plus manifeste de la ville postmoderne, espace ontologiquement pluriel. Mettre en récit plusieurs strates du passé peut donc représenter un travail mnésique indispensable, mais, comme Madhu Dubey le signale fort judicieusement, lire la ville métaphoriquement comme palimpseste, kaléidoscope, collage ou pastiche comporte le danger d’un décodage ludique qui passerait sous silence les enjeux idéologiques de toute politique ou de toute poétique urbaine. En se concentrant sur le projet thatchérien des Docklands et en privilégiant les perspectives de témoins variés et inattendus, City of the Mind, au contraire, souligne les dimensions politiques et éthiques de la métropole de l’esprit, d’une géographie postmoderne indissociable d’une vision éthique de la vie sociale.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1In the very first pages of Penelope Lively’s City of the Mind, London is perceived by its main focaliser, the architect Matthew Halland, as ‘a kaleidoscope of time and mood’, a ‘babble’ made of ‘the talk of everytime and everywhere’, a ‘jigsaw of time and reference’ (Lively 3-4). Such a juxtaposition of metaphors immediately signals distinct textual priorities and invites certain hermeneutic possibilities. From a formal point of view first, the images, mental representations and constant disruptions of perception created by the extensive use of metaphors seem to point to an aesthetic or even poetic type of novelistic undertaking. If one now looks at the semantic aspect of the metaphors, the kaleidoscope, the babble and the jigsaw all convey the idea of plurality (of images, of sounds or of fragments) as if to self-reflexively proclaim the postmodernist emphasis on syncretism and multifariousness. In addition, the insistence on the plurality of ‘time and mood’, on ‘everytime and everywhere’, and on a ‘jigsaw of time and reference’, respectively reflect the importance of intermingled historicities and literary modalities, of a globalised chronotope and of intertextual and intermedial networks, so much so that these opening metaphors might appear like the typical or stereotypical markers of a postmodernist exercise in globalised aesthetics and intertextual ludism, the perfect illustrations of ‘the pluralizing rhetoric of postmodernism’ (Hutcheon 66). The eclecticism implicit in this postmodernist pluralism has been famously criticised as ‘the degree zero of contemporary general culture’ (Lyotard 80) and as ‘largely apolitical’ (Newman 172). It is this potential lack of a political dimension in the metaphorical depiction of the metropolis in City of the Mind that this paper will address and seek to disprove, trying on the contrary to show that Lively’s literary city subtly updates the social and political agenda of a progressive urbanist.

  • 1 ‘Matthew ne peut appréhender la ville que comme un palimpseste, ne cesse de lire, par métonymie, d’ (...)
  • 2 It is Patrick O’Neil’s contention that entropy constitutes postmodernism’s working metaphor in them (...)

2Because the protagonist is an architect and because the bulk of the novel follows his thoughts and visions, the presentation of the city constantly reveals an awareness of the multiple pasts in the city, the streets or the buildings. Such a layered perception of time and space cannot but recall the concept of ‘urban palimpsests’ conceived by Andreas Huyssen in order to translate ‘the conviction that literary techniques of reading historically, intertextually, constructively and deconstructively at the same time can be woven into our understanding of urban spaces as lived spaces that shape our collective imaginaries’ (Huyssen 2003, 7). What Huyssen advocates and what Lively illustrates is a dialectical interbreeding, in other terms a confluence, of architectural representation and literary devices, urban planning and fiction planning, space and imagination, city and mind. As Huyssen further explains, ‘the trope of the palimpsest is inherently literary and tied to writing, but it can also be fruitfully used to discuss configurations of urban spaces and their unfolding in time without making architecture and the city simply into text’ (2003, 7). This palimpsestic decoding of the city and encoding of the text, also noted and analysed by Catherine Lanone,1 has primarily structural consequences, the stratified nature of the city’s architecture representing en abyme the narrative layers of the novel. London’s architecture displaying simultaneously ‘Gothic cathedrals, . . . Greek temples, . . . Victorian stucco, twentieth-century concrete, a snatch of Georgian brick’ (3) is then a metaphor or a specular image of the novel itself composed as it is of various narratives from the Elizabethan times to the twentieth century. That the structure of the city reflects or inspires the structure of the novel is also evident in the presentation of the city’s temporal layout according to which ‘centuries and decades rub shoulders in a disorder that denies the sequence of time’ (66). This temporal anarchy, typical of postmodernist structures of entropy,2 is distinctly replicated in the haphazard intermingling of Matthew’s story and scraps of narratives relating Frobisher’s sixteenth-century Arctic exploration, Richard Owen’s palaeontologist’s experiments, the desperate efforts of a World War II air-raid warden and the quest for survival of a child of the timeless slums. The ‘sequence of time’ is then indeed disrupted and replaced by a sense of non-linearity: ‘this is the city, in which everything is simultaneous’ (24); ‘There is no sequence in the city, no then and now, all is continuous’ (210). Not only does this temporal flux coincide with the quintessentially postmodern ‘liquid time’ (Bauman 9) and with Paul Virilio’s thesis that ‘the historic and classic time of succession’ has been overruled by the new concept of ‘instantaneity’ (Virilio 137), but the crucial implication of this deconstructed sequentiality is that the dichotomous opposition between past and present is shattered and the new instantaneity perforce acknowledges, and is even defined by, the presence of various temporal strata.

  • 3 For the intertextual references to Wordsworth and Woolf, see Lanone (54-56) and for the acknowledgm (...)
  • 4 As such, the protean aesthetics can be likened to the concept of ‘proteophilia’ which Clarke deems (...)

3Also deriving from the principle of urban palimpsests, ‘the city’s system of rebirth’ (Lively 109) is treated as an iterative process which triggers off the celebration of ‘how the city lifts again and again from its own decay’ (109). Once more, this thematic phenomenon is matched by a literary phenomenon, for the rebirth of the urban fabric is correlated with the rebirth of the urban novel, City of the Mind being yet another ‘adaptive reuse’, to borrow a phrase often adopted in architectural contexts (Ellin 176), of the London novel. Such a reconsideration of the urban literary tradition might be said to answer the contemporary ‘call to re-everything—rehabilitate, revitalize, restore, renew, redevelop, recycle, renaissance and so forth’ (Ellin 18), it mainly allows Lively to write after or alongside previous London writers such as Wordsworth, Dickens or Woolf,3 thus once again evidencing her novelistic art of integration, accretion or interfusion. Telling or retelling London also means considering the city as a narrative subject and indeed the parallel thematisation of the city and the protagonist suggests an ontological similarity between the spatial and the fictional entities, between the human protagonist and the geographical protagonist. That Matthew and London should be the main two anaphoric subjects manifestly shows that the narrative is (at least) double just as the thematic interest is (at least) double. Quite logically, the narrativisation of the city as protagonist cannot be restricted to a single temporality or a single modality and the multi-faceted nature of the referential subject is mirrored in the formal apparatus comprising it. Probably because the heterogeneity of the city comprises evil and cruelty, it exerts an ‘awful fascination’, an oxymoron repeated twice (71, 129) to refer to the inextricable antitheses at play in the spectacle of the synthetic city. The protean nature of the inexhaustible topic of the metropolis is then the dominant factor which presides over the conception of the novel as a palimpsest of references, a kaleidoscope of images and a babble of languages.4

4Naturally, the plurality of both theme and structure has also aesthetic consequences, the perception of multiple echoes in the urban web resulting in a celebration of diversity in the textual web: ‘He sees, too, that the city speaks in tongues: Pizza Ciao, King’s Cross Kebab, New Raj Mahal Tandoori, Nepalese Brasserie […] East India Docks, Surrey Docks, Canary Wharf, Millwall’ (3, 13). It is no coincidence that Lively should start with an onomastic inventory since the proper names, which are supposed to epitomise the arbitrariness of the signifier, are here exhibited for the variety and exoticism of the signifiers, the extremely diversified phonemes and the paratactic syntax ending up by performing not a descriptive or a pragmatic function but poetic one. As might be expected, enumerations constitute the privileged device employed to underline the richness of the metropolis, the seemingly endless chain in the linguistic field supposedly suggesting or mimicking the seemingly endless chain in the referential field: ‘The names alone have resonances that range over time and the globe—the spice trade, India tea, rice, copra, jute, clippers, coal and timber’ (13); or else ‘Japanese teapots, Indian dhurries, Tibetan prayer wheels, baskets from Hong Kong, silverware from Mexico, clothing from everywhere’ (33). As can be seen in these catalogues from here and elsewhere the city becomes the world, the world has become the city: ‘the place is not just itself—it is a reflection of the rest of the globe’ (176). The symphony of foreign names and references is then just the most ostentatious sign of a globalised aesthetics according to which the literary borrowings like the architectural influences are, in the text’s very own words, ‘international, multicultural, eclectic’ (33). Such a politics and a poetics of worldwide integration brings us back to the novel’s central metaphors of ‘a medley of styles’, an ‘urban stew’, ‘a cornucopia of image’ (66, 177, 215). What is striking in these urban tropes ‘is the systematic double scope of the metaphoric semantics, applying simultaneously to the city and the text, the referential and the fictional space’. As a consequence, ‘the city is aestheticised and the text is urbanised, and the affinity between the novel of geography and the geography of the novel centres around the distinctly postmodernist principle of amalgamation’ (Kohlke and Gutleben 10). Perhaps the most compelling and most frequent image is that of the ‘cement mixers’ (7, 14, 24, 92, 185, 215) which might be construed as a syllepsis signifying a medley of modes and codes, a mixture of ingredients, the literary equivalent of the architectural pasticcio.

  • 5 ‘De la fin des années 1970 jusqu’aux années 1980, ils [les architectes postmodernes] abandonnèrent (...)
  • 6 ‘[L]a cité de Lively n’est donc pas un tout composé de strates, mais un flux potentiellement anarch (...)
  • 7 ‘L’autre aspect d’un tel postmodernisme est la référence aux racines. . . . Et ce dans un processus (...)

5The combination of London and fiction, the city and narrativity, architecture and literature, that is, the city of the mind, appears then to amount to a celebration of ‘the dizzying plurality of contemporary urban living’ (Bentley 175). As summarised by Nick Bentley, ‘the complexity of contemporary urban space is thereby rendered in the postmodern novel through a pluralization of space, time and discourse’ (186) and it is precisely such an aesthetics of plurality or eclecticism that much contemporary criticism, be it in the architectural or literary field, finds fault with. Edward Soja most famously denounced ‘a numbing depoliticization of fundamental class and gender relations and conflicts’, adding that postmodern geographies are ‘so fragmented and filled with whimsy and pastiches [that] the hard edges of the capitalist, racist and patriarchal landscape seem to disappear’ (Soja 246). In her study of postmodernist architectures, Diane Ghirardo regrets that the urbanists of the 1980s, that is, the referential time of Lively’s novel, should have given up any hope of social change and that the only dream they entertained was of a financial type.5 And Madhu Dubey, certainly the fiercest critic, vehemently warns that ‘to “read” the city solely at the level of visual forms is to read it fetishistically, to be blind to the coordinates of power that are all the more insidious because they are concealed by the different visual appearances of postmodern cities’ (106-107). When the postmodern city, he goes on, is ‘imaged as matrix, kaleidoscope, collage or bricolage’, and all these metaphors are emphatically present in City of the Mind, then it ‘often prefigures a utopian space of free play’ (Dubey 198), the implication being that tropes and games conceal the social and political scandals of these spectacular spaces. However, as Lively’s novel demonstrates, such a poetics of diversity, such a praise of urban stimuli, such a figurative language, need not necessarily exclude or shun an ethical, social or political duty as can be seen, primarily, in its particular embodiment of historical responsibility. In that respect, it must first of all be stated that the metaphor of the palimpsest is misleading for, as the pervasive actualisation of the concept of liquid time makes clear, and as Lanone has also noted,6 the various tales are not superimposed but intermingled and the link between the embedding narrative of late twentieth-century London and the embedded narratives situated in different historical periods is not one of sequentiality or successiveness but one of continuity. It is Matthew’s architectural mind which establishes the connections between London’s present places and London’s past stories, these micro-narratives of yesterday deriving from, as much as they explain, the urban spaces of today. Like the city itself which ‘streams away into the past’ (76), the past narratives seep into the present account to form a testimonial whole, a multi-voiced archive concretising the symbiotic relation between then and now, thus refusing to privilege any temporal course and shattering any possibility of presentism or nostalgia. And since the same nameless heterodiegetic voice handles all the narratives, it seems that the text itself enacts or performs the temporal mingling and the function of anamnesis which Maffesoli deems intrinsic to postmodernist art.7

  • 8 As such, City of the Mind can be said to steer clear of ‘the infatuation with the past’ which Nan E (...)

6The narrative and historical continuity has a particularly ethical weight when it links Matthew’s privileged and pluralistic world to the world and vision of minor, anonymous and ill-treated actors of history. The narrative fragments concerning a roving timeless slum child, a second World War air-raid warden and a sixteenth-century Inuit bear upon the same geographical spaces crossed by Matthew, they are literally part of the main narrative but they do not work as reflexive or specular passages, rather they provide complementary testimonies, alternative versions of the urban experience. The sum total of these metropolitan accounts constitutes a mnemonic archive that becomes truly historical precisely because it is acutely aware of the erasures of history. The text’s plurality is then not only a celebration of narrative and aesthetic diversity it is also at the service of an ethics of historical truth. When Lively writes: ‘[t]hrough [Matthew …], the city bears witness’ (3), her choice of words reveals a clear determination to signal her ethical mission for ‘to bear witness’, according to specialists Felman and Laub, means expressly ‘to take responsibility for truth’ (Felman and Laub 204). Similarly, the novel’s observation that ‘[t]he ravished landscapes and blighted lives, incapable of testimony, slide into oblivion’ (196) reads like an ironical acclaim of its own achievement since the principle of successive, complementary, embedded testimonies represents a struggle against historical oblivion and a record or a restitution of ‘blighted lives’. Because this memory text is written in the present tense and addressed to a present narratee and because it incorporates the perspectives of various forms of otherness, it ‘readjusts the relationship between reader and text, so that reading is restored as an ethical practice’ (Whitehead 8). According to Ricœur, such an ethics of testimony points out ‘an ethico-political problem because it has to do with the construction of the future: that is, the duty to remember consists not only in having a deep concern for the past, but in transmitting the meaning of past events to the next generation’ (Ricœur 9). City of the mind is thus part of ‘our mnemonic culture’ which, Huyssen perceptively notes, is fundamentally paradoxical insofar as it is of an archival nature but ‘marks its vital difference from the archive by insisting on novelty, the novelty of no longer fetishizing the new’ (Huyssen 6)—and, one wishes to add, of no longer fetishising the past.8

7In addition to the ethical, and possibly political, value of the micro-narratives of the past, the extracts dedicated to Rose, the homeless and parentless child of the streets, engraft a markedly social dimension. If one construes her description—‘[s]he is a pair of eyes and ears concentrated upon survival. She is also a yawning belly, ice-cold hands and feet’ (35)—, one cannot but notice that the successive and almost excessive synecdoches reduce her to a physical being, that is, to a fundamentally immanent state. Moreover, the explicit mention of her struggle for survival deliberately recalls a form of social Darwinism thereby hinting at the animal nature of her primitive existence. It is mainly through her position ‘close to the gutter […] down here’ (34) that Rose clashes with Matthew and his panoramic vision. In the gutter, as opposed to the postmodern buildings which Matthew plans or redesigns, one cannot have a bird’s-eye view and indeed Rose cannot perceive the city’s medley of cultural references and historical allusions. For Rose, there is no plurality, no palimpsest, just here and now, just one temporality, just one space: ‘The child does not know of elsewhere’ (35). So, the juxtaposition of Rose’s pragmatic vision and Matthew’s intertextual perception manifestly underscores ‘the undemocratic pattern of urban life’ (Marcuse 245) and confirms Terry Eagleton’s verdict that ‘the rich are global and the poor are local’ (Eagleton 225). For David Clarke, ‘freedom to act’, obviously embodied by Matthew, ‘amounts to the capacity not to remain tied in place, the ability to traverse space at will’, whereas ‘lack of freedom’, manifestly exemplified by Rose, involves the inability to overcome the ‘constraints of space’. His conclusion is strikingly similar to Eagleton’s: ‘The “globals” and the “locals” inhabit increasingly separate worlds, characterized by their differential spatial and temporal opportunities’ (Clarke 193). Lively’s art of inlaid narratives discloses then also social contrasts which amount to an ideological claim for urbanist reformation.

8The most blatant presence of a sociopolitical dimension resides in the description of Matthew’s professional project, that is, at the point of convergence between literary and architectural concerns. In the diegetic present of the novel, Matthew is taking part in the designing and construction of a glass building in Docklands and the site is particularised in the following way: ‘here the profoundly arrogant assumption was being made that you could bulldoze the past, replace it with new constructions and expect the result to be anything other than the semblance of a place’ (90). The phrase ‘the semblance of a place’ inevitably evokes the idea of simulacrum and indeed this architectural signifier imitating other architectural signifiers seems to partake of Baudrillard’s order of simulation, of hyperreality, of ‘an architecture of deception’ (128). What is noteworthy is that the objective markers of internal focalisation disappear in this depiction and Matthew becomes then a potential target of the novel’s warning against oblivion or exclusion. As an architect of historical and cultural connections contributing to the erasure of the past, Matthew would then embody the paradoxical situation of the democratic urbanist of the elite—or even of the novel’s paradoxical aesthetics of plurality reserved for singular groups.

  • 9 For a thorough description of the sociopolitical context of Docklands see Ghirardo (176-194).
  • 10 In another 1991 novel dealing with London’s urban fabric, Iain Sinclair also depicts Docklands in t (...)
  • 11 The ambiguity of Matthew’s actions can be traced in his endeavour to reestablish the building’s con (...)

9But of course it is mainly the site itself which is meaningful since Docklands represents the epitome of a Thatcherite neoliberal megaproject whereby the industrial and popular past is wiped out and replaced by a mercantile and gentrified present.9 In this reinvention of London, in this creation of a new history, the glittering facades and booming denizens de facto exclude ethnic minorities or underprivileged social classes. The project brought to view the liberal conception of politics according to which the state supports private investors and property developers, a system which put the architects in the position of servants of the free market. City of the Mind is aware of these capitalistic premises since it calls Matthew’s Docklands building ‘a temple of commerce’ (124), a traditional metaphor to denounce a form of godless godliness, of the religion of money, and above all since it castigates the inhuman structure financing and profiting from the project: ‘behind the Group was money, pure and simple, flickering in green figures on VDU’s, stacked up in columns on print-outs, assessed and quantified in sheets of newsprint’ (32). The capitalised (and capitalistic) Group is clearly presented as an allegory of Capital, a modern Mammon, anonymous, digitalised and disincarnated and therefore dehumanised. Importantly, this passage seems again independent from Matthew’s point of view and the third-person narrator implies then the inclusion of the architect in the postulate of this undemocratic building, this empty present, this ‘urban wasteland’ (Newland 216).10 The heterodiegetic narrative thus constantly complements the architect’s vision or lack of vision as if the novelistic discourse served to counterbalance the urbanist’s contradictions,11 as if the narrator’s clear-sightedness were used as a foil or a corrective to the postmodernists’ architectural betrayals.

10In the final analysis, the sociopolitical force of this apparent celebration of urban diversity stems from the choice of the protagonist as an architect of the 1980s. Through his contribution to Docklands’ glitzy architecture for the financiers and the gentry Matthew is clearly introduced as a postmodernist designer and is as such automatically opposed to the modernist architects and their quasi utopian project of an egalitarian and democratic form of urbanism. The novel’s very interest in the apprehension and transformation of London confirms then Dubey’s contention that today ‘urbanism forms the inescapable horizon of any ethical vision of contemporary social life’ (Dubey 230). In City of the Mind, the contemporary architects rewrite the city in a certain way and the contemporary novelist rewrites the city in a radically different way. The convergence or confluence of the two versions and visions of the city generates a warning and a struggle that are both ethical, insofar as they concern the responsibility of the writer and of the reader, and political, insofar as they affect the very organisation and conception of the metropolis. The cautioning element pinpoints exclusive proceedings and loss of connection (with history and with the people) and the fight consists precisely in reestablishing these connections and in practicing an art of inclusiveness. Matthew’s aesthetic vision of an eclectic urban whole and a synthetic present is then taken up by the novel to suggest an additional syncretism, this time in the social field.

Haut de page


Bauman, Zygmunt, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge: Polity, 2000.

Bentley, Nick, ‘Postmodern Cities’, The Cambridge Companion to the City in Literature, ed. Kevin McNamara, Cambridge: CUP, 2014.

Clarke, David B., The Consumer Society and the Postmodern City, New York and London: Routledge, 2003.

Dubey, Madhu, Signs and Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism, Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 2003.

Eagleton, Terry, After Theory, London: Allen Lane, 2003.

Ellin, Nan, Postmodern Urbanism, Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999.

Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, New York and London: Routledge, 1992.

Ghirardo, Diane, Les architectures postmodernes, trans. Christian-Martin Diebold, Paris: Thames & Hudson, 1997.

Harvey, David, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

Hutcheon, Linda, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, New York and London: Routledge, 1988.

Huyssen, Andreas, Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia, New York and London: Routledge, 1995.

Huyssen, Andreas, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory, Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2003.

Kohlke, Marie-Luise, and Christian Gutleben, ‘Troping the Victorian City: Strategies of Reconsidering the Metropolis’, Neo-Victorian Cities: Reassessing Urban Politics and Poetics, eds. Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben, New York and Amsterdam: Brill/Rodopi, 2015, 1-40.

Lanone, Catherine, ‘“And in the sky, the dead and dancing sky, there are a million yesterdays”: l’horizon du passé dans City of the Mind de Penelope Lively’, Études britanniques contemporaines 40 (2010): 53-66.

Lively, Penelope, City of the Mind (1991), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.

Lyotard, Jean-François, Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism?, trans. Regis Durand, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Maffesoli, Michel, Iconologies: Nos idol@tries postmodernes, Paris: Albin Michel, 2008.

Marcuse, Peter, ‘Not Chaos, but Walls: Postmodernism and the Partitioned City’, Postmodern Cities and Spaces, eds. Sophie Watson and Katherine Gibson, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Newland, Paul, The Cultural Construction of London’s East End: Urban Iconography, Modernity and the Spatialisation of Englishness, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008.

Newman, Charles, ‘The Postmodern Aura: The Act of Fiction in the Age of Inflation’, Salmagundi 63/64 (1984): 3-199.

O’Neil, Patrick, The Comedy of Entropy: Humour, Narrative, Reading, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

Ricœur, Paul, ‘Memory and Forgetting’, Questioning Ethics: Contemporary Debates in Philosophy, eds. Richard Kearney and Mark Dooley, New York and London: Routledge, 1999, 5-11.

Sinclair, Iain, Downriver, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991.

Soja, Edward W., Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory, London: Verso, 1989.

Virilio, Paul, Open Sky, trans. Julie Rose, London: Verso: 2008.

Whitehead, Anne, Trauma Fiction, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2004.

Haut de page


1 ‘Matthew ne peut appréhender la ville que comme un palimpseste, ne cesse de lire, par métonymie, d’autres façades qui s’agencent et se recomposent à partir de fragments préservés et enchâssés dans d’autres structures’ (Lanone 56). The conception of the city as palimpsest has almost become a staple of postmodernist criticism as can be seen in David Harvey’s definition of postmodern urbanism as ‘a conception of the urban fabric as necessarily fragmented, a “palimpsest” of past forms superimposed upon each other’ (Harvey 66).

2 It is Patrick O’Neil’s contention that entropy constitutes postmodernism’s working metaphor in thematic as well as structural terms (O’Neil 1990).

3 For the intertextual references to Wordsworth and Woolf, see Lanone (54-56) and for the acknowledgment of Dickens the explicit mention of ‘hard times’ (Lively 208) seems telling enough.

4 As such, the protean aesthetics can be likened to the concept of ‘proteophilia’ which Clarke deems inseparable from the flâneur and which is defined as the love of ‘multiform, allotropic phenomena’ (Clarke 83).

5 ‘De la fin des années 1970 jusqu’aux années 1980, ils [les architectes postmodernes] abandonnèrent toute aspiration au changement social, non seulement par la forme, mais complètement. . . . Un trop grand nombre d’architectes impétueusement postmodernes des années 1980 semblaient n’incarner aucun rêve, hormis celui de la richesse et de la puissance’ (Ghirardo 26-27).

6 ‘[L]a cité de Lively n’est donc pas un tout composé de strates, mais un flux potentiellement anarchique’ (Lanone 64).

7 ‘L’autre aspect d’un tel postmodernisme est la référence aux racines. . . . Et ce dans un processus d’anamnèse : Souviens-toi d’où tu viens, d’où tu tires ta force. En quelque sorte le rappel qu’il n’y a de dynamique, de croissances possibles, qu’à partir des racines’ (Maffesoli 166, original italics).

8 As such, City of the Mind can be said to steer clear of ‘the infatuation with the past’ which Nan Ellin associates to ‘the postmodern reflex’ arguing that ‘[i]n its collective manifestation, the nostalgic impulse might be understood as a response to rapid change’ (124).

9 For a thorough description of the sociopolitical context of Docklands see Ghirardo (176-194).

10 In another 1991 novel dealing with London’s urban fabric, Iain Sinclair also depicts Docklands in terms of loss, lifelessness and marketisation: ‘No beggars, no children, no queues, no buses. The city of the future, this swampland Manhattan, this crystal synthesis of capital, is already posthumous: a memorial to its own lack of nerve’ (Sinclair 276-277).

11 The ambiguity of Matthew’s actions can be traced in his endeavour to reestablish the building’s connection with the past. However, far from celebrating the manufactural roots of Docklands, the architect chooses the model of Frobisher’s boat as a decorative emblem for his construction, thus indeed creating a link with history, but a link with England’s imperial history, almost as an echo to his Thatcherite nationalistic present.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Christian Gutleben, « Urban Palimpsests’: When novelistic and architectural languages merge in Penelope Lively’s City of the Mind »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 52 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2017, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Christian Gutleben

Christian Gutleben is currently Professor of English Literature at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis where he has been General Editor of the journal Cycnos since 2010. He has published numerous articles on Victorian and contemporary literature, edited or co-edited several volumes (on Love’s Labour’s lost, Jane Eyre, Thomas Hardy, The Power and the Glory, Dylan Thomas…) and written three monographs (on the English campus novel, on Graham Greene and on the neo-Victorian movement). He is co-editor of Neo-Victorian Series, a series published by Rodopi/Brill, and is in charge, with Marie-Luise Kohlke, of a collection of six volumes on neo-Victorianism, four volumes being already published, the fifth being due in early 2017 and the last volume being scheduled for late 2017.

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search