Building peace in the minds of men and women

Wide Angle

The city, a circus under a starlit tent


The ephemeral world of fairgrounds, as seen by French artist Cyrille Weiner. Untitled No. 9, from the Jour de Fêtes (Holiday) series, 2016 (detail).

The French writer Thomas B. Reverdy has almost always chosen urban spaces as the setting for his novels. Obsessed by the "unbearable presence of absence" in our dehumanized cities, he imagines the emergence of tiny resistances.

Thomas B. Reverdy

“These are cities!” The words, famous, are from Rimbaud. This is the sentence that opens one of the Illuminations, in which the poet describes not a city, but a circus tent, its machines and its inhabitants-acrobats, the myriad spaces, acts, routes and noises that populate it, chaotic, blind to each other, and yet regulated like a music score. Around 1872, three years after the posthumous publication of Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris [Paris Spleen], the city had thus become an image. It could be used as a metaphor, and this metaphor did not say what a city is, but what it evokes. Not the production, the commerce, but already the displacements, the anonymity, the trades being lost and the poverty that is suddenly noticeable in the cracks of apparent wealth. Since the island of Thomas More, most utopias are urban. All dystopias are. The city is an imaginary place. A show. A circus.

Travelling places

I have almost always placed the setting of my plots in the city. I should say I have moved it to the city. Cities make it possible to be everywhere, both at home and abroad, and this displacement is fundamental. It is the step sideways, the oblique vision, it is the gap in reality, the displacement that suddenly creates space for the deployment of fiction. When, in my second novel, I moved part of my plot to Brooklyn, opposite Manhattan, I was obeying this need to ward off my subject. I distanced it twice: first to New York, which I knew well from going there frequently, but where I did not live; and then to Brooklyn, which is not the New York we imagine, from France. This decentring was certainly fundamental for me, it gradually tipped me towards the novel – before that, my first story was very autobiographical.

But this shift had an unexpected effect: it imposed a space on me. As I intentionally moved away from more familiar territories, I suddenly had to increase my documentation, verifying details, the effects of reality, images. I discovered, at the heart of fiction, at the heart of its fabrication, a complex entanglement of reality and words: I needed the displacement that the foreign city offered me, but as soon as the story was situated, I needed reality to feed it. Not brute reality – otherwise I would have remained in Paris, at home – but mediatized reality, images, symbols, fragments, words. Starting from memories, but also from testimonies, photos, stories, novels and films, maps, I had to recompose a space, make it “real”, give back this city its circus life.

Blind to each other

I have the greatest admiration for writers whose imaginations unfold in the great natural spaces, like Cormac McCarthy, but I had other reasons, for myself, to prefer the space of the city to move my novels in. This is because I also had the idea that modern fiction must account for our blind journeys and our anonymity. Today in Paris, I live in a building where people greet each other by lowering their heads when they meet in the elevator. In the Metro, most of the time, they scarcely dare to look each other in the face.

It is rare to be able to make an entire trip around the city without coming across at least one person who is talking to himself in a disturbing way, one or two beggars, a visibly sociopathic and perhaps psychotic individual, and at some stations, a drug addict at the end of the platform, smoking crack. Sometimes, someone you’ve seen before. A person we may have come across in the neighbourhood or on the subway at the same time. But we’ll never know what her name is, or what she does for a living, or why she looks happy that day. This beggar who speaks loudly and chooses his words, with his slight foreign accent, where does he come from and how did he find his way here? These young people who appear disguised, are they going to a party? To a concert? What are they studying? Who do they dream of becoming and will they make it? These are the modern fictions. We are an anonymous people, advancing in our miniscule lives, blind to each other. Our existences timed by the schedules of the suburban trains, still resist a little, deep in our hearts, the city-machine, but we must admit that a simple encounter has become a miracle. We can no longer write the lives of Julien Sorel, Frédéric Moreau or Bel-Ami1 today.

There were the terrorist attacks, too. It may perhaps be because of that. September 112. All the names engraved since in black stone, to give a name to the nameless. Today's heroes are anonymous.

Fragile, like a human memory

I returned to New York in 2008 to write L'Envers du monde (Towards the World). The action is set in the crater of Ground Zero, in 2003. A racist murder is committed, at least it is assumed that it is racist. We follow the characters who revolve around this story as if around an empty centre, an incomprehensible absence, and it is obviously the shadow of the twin towers that looms. The city here offers another of its characteristics, which could be called its geology: the city is made up of strata. It forgets them in its use, but the places bear the traces.

The city makes History part of our daily lives. 2003 was the time when the United States was transitioning from the punitive war in Afghanistan to the preventive war in Iraq. It was also the year that Daniel Libeskind's magnificent project was accepted. The Ground Zero crater, historic and symbolic, where the towers of the World Trade Center had turned inside out like a glove in the ground, this place laden with meaning became a strange and transient place – it was no longer the esplanade of the Twin Towers and it was not yet the Freedom Tower. A place of memory as fragile as a human memory. It seemed to me it was the work of art today, to establish this kind of place that is also a moment. The work of Libeskind, admirable in its intelligence, also says this in its own way by digging, at the site of the vanished towers, those endless shafts of shadows that imprint, in the space, the place of the absent towers.

Because that’s what mourning is, like memory, like ruin, and the cursed material of the writer, or of any artist, this is what it is: the unbearable presence of absence.

I started tracking it. In Japan, post-Fukushima3, where I lived to write Les Evaporés (The Evaporated), in which a man who deliberately disappears crosses the path of the damned uprooted by the disaster. I tracked it down to Detroit, Michigan, where an entire metropolis was sinking into bankruptcy, two-thirds of its inhabitants fleeing, swept away by the economic and financial crisis of 2008.  Detroit, the machine city, the city of Ford and General Motors (GM), the Metropolis4 of the American dream that devoured its children. Detroit that was suffocating without inhabitants, the first city of this size to experience this, like the canary in the coal mine, warned those who accused banks and the business community of being irresponsible. Detroit, whose ruins, like those of another distant civilization, of factories, supermarkets, schools and theatres, invaded by vegetation, resembled a sort of tragic Planet of the Apes5. The anguished and prophetic dream of a planet rid of us.

I didn’t go to Detroit while I was writing the novel. There were countless photos, stories by journalists like Charlie LeDuff of the Detroit Free Press, and others. Getting information, knowing what was happening, where to place things, was not a problem. On the contrary, Detroit was documented to saturation. The problem was getting out.

Resisting the charm of the Pied Piper

One of my ideas was the analogy of this automobile crisis with the German medieval tale of The Pied Piper of Hamelin – a village in the throes of the plague calls in a magic flute player, who takes the rats far away from the village and drowns them in the river. But when he comes back, they refuse to pay him: they don’t have the money. The ruthless Pied Piper then casts a spell on all the children of the village and takes them away with him. He drowns them in the river.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Pied Piper of industrial capitalism attracted all the poor workers in the rural south of the US, many of them blacks, to Detroit, with the promise of a bright future. At that time, the Pied Piper sold houses and cars on credit. But when people did not want to pay the price, when they rebelled during the 1967 Detroit riots, the Pied Piper was offended. He left for China with the jobs, and in Detroit people fell back into poverty little by little. In spite of its cruelty, this tale appealed to a child’s imagination. One of the stories in the novel, therefore, is about a group of runaway children who take advantage of the disorganization of public transport and schools in the city, to live a kind of adventure, in a vacant lot, an abandoned school. Something that was a little bit like Treasure Island6.

But I had a problem with reality. My story was set between two bankruptcies: that of Lehman Brothers, 15 September 2008, and that of General Motors7, 1 June 2009. These were historical and objective milestones. However, the kids couldn’t survive all that time. I started following them on the eve of All Saints' Day, on Devil's Night8: they were setting fire to an abandoned house. A few days later, they run away. It's early November. I finally decide they can hold on until Christmas. It's a reasonable maximum. But that forces me to twist the whole reality.

In the novel, GM is no longer GM, it becomes “the Company”. The chronology is disrupted. I have all my documentation in two months. And suddenly, everything is clear. The logic of fiction imposes itself on reality. If my story of dystopia, bankruptcy and urban jungle runs until Christmas, then I go into the winter. It's cold in Detroit in the winter. And suddenly, this city of which I had seen a thousand images becomes a bit more than a backdrop. It comes alive in an organic way. I mentally observe the snow falling on the lawns, muffling the sound of footsteps. I see the wind rushing through the empty windows of vacant buildings, whistling as it turns around the abandoned houses. I can feel the cold with its metallic taste creeping into humid clothes that nothing can warm up again. I see the halos of street lighting go out, replaced by the mysterious glitter of the snow under the silvery moon. And this Detroit of phantasmagoria, of fiction, is no more real than the real one – in the real Detroit at that time, people were dying every day. But it becomes communicable, representable. In the machine city, we can once again imagine human destinies. Tiny resistances. If the story runs until Christmas, it’s because it’s a tale, which doesn’t have to be cruel. Maybe the kids will make it.

And the city becomes a circus once again, where the destinies of anonymous acrobats play out, without a net, sliding from trapeze to trapeze, brushing each other without seeing each other, catching each other in flight, in the hope of a rest, of an encounter, like a miracle at the height of man, under the starlit tent.  


Names mentioned

• Baudelaire, Charles (1821-1867), French poet

• LeDuff, Charlie (1966-), American journalist

• Libeskind, Daniel (1946-), Polish-American architect

• McCarthy, Cormac (1933-), American writer

• More, Thomas (1478-1535), English philosopher, theologian, jurist and politician, author of Utopia

• Rimbaud, Arthur (1854-1891), French poet


1. Names of the protagonists of French novels: Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black (1830) by Stendhal; Frédéric Moreau in Sentimental Education (1869) by Gustave Flaubert; Bel-Ami is the nickname of the main character of Guy de Maupassant's  novel of the same name (1885).

2. Reference to the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 that targeted symbolic buildings in the United States.

3. Reference to the catastrophic nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, in March 2011.

4. Metropolis is a sci-fi film by Austrian-born German-American director Fritz Lang, made in 1927 and inscribed on UNESCO's Memory of the World register. A dystopian vision of the twenty-first-century city.

5. The Planet of the Apes is a science-fiction novel (1963) by the French writer Pierre Boulle, which inspired American director Tim Burton's film of the same name in 2001, and also series of films produced by Twentieth Century Fox, the US film studio. The American media franchise also covers television series, books, comics, and video games.

6. Treasure Island (1883) is an adventure novel by the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson.

7. Lehman Brothers was a multinational investment bank that collapsed, in its 158th year, in September 2008, triggering a global financial crisis. General Motors is a US carmaker, which was placed under US bankruptcy protection in June 2009.

8. Devil's Night, 30 October, is the night before Halloween.

Photo: Cyrille Weiner

Thomas B. Reverdy

French author Thomas B. Reverdy has received numerous awards for his novels, notably for Les Derniers Feux (The Last Fires, 2008), L’Envers du monde (Towards the World, 2010), Les Évaporés (The Evaporated, 2013), Il était une ville (There was a City, 2015) and L’Hiver du mécontentement (The Winter of Discontent, 2018).