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Review - Book - The Shape of a City

Julien Gracq's study of Nantes evokes memories of home for Andrew Mead.

The French writer Julien Gracq died just before Christmas at the age of 97. A novelist and poet who fell under the spell of the Surrealists, he’s the author of The Shape of a City, published in France in 1985 but now available in an English edition (Turtle Point Press, £9.95). The place in question is Nantes, where Gracq attended boarding school, but his subject is universal – how a city captures and feeds your imagination. ‘I don’t pretend to paint the true portrait of Nantes – only an account of its presence inside me,’ he says.
So the Nantes he recalls is not one of guidebook itineraries and postcard images. The Passage Pommeraye (pictured below)– one of those split-level, 19th-century arcades that the Surrealists loved, crammed with quirky little shops – takes precedence for Gracq over Nantes’ cathedral, while a ruinous observatory on the city’s outskirts becomes for him the perfect setting for one of Edgar Allan Poe’s
disturbing stories.

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