City novels

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These are not simply novels set in a city (though, of course, they are set in a city) but novels where a city plays a key role and, indeed, is often a, if not the main, character in the novel.

Peter Ackroyd: The House of Doctor Dee. Ackroyd’s London is key in several of his novels but here it is the legendary London that prevails
Jorge Amado: Tenda dos milagres (Tent of Miracles). Amado used Bahia as the setting for many of his novels but it is in this one where the life of Bahia is a key to the novel
Arturo Azuela: Manifestación de Silencios (Shadows of Silence). Azuela is telling a story but often loses track of the plot to focus on the main character, Mexico City
Honoré de Balzac: La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy). La Comédie humaine encompasses virtually all of his novels and Paris is clearly a key player in most if not all of them
Andrei Bely: Peterburg (Petersburg). Bely’s novel should be better known as it may well be the best city novel after Ulysses
Michel Butor: L’emploi du temps (Passing Time). Butor’s novel is nominally about the fictitious English town of Bleston, a town that the narrator dislikes and fears, though it is possibly based, at least in part, on Manchester
Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Tres Tristes Tigres (Three Trapped Tigers). Pre-revolutionary Havana is recreated in this great Cuban novel
Camilo José Cela: La colmena (The Hive). Cela’s great post-Civil war novel of 1940s Madrid, featuring over 300 characters
Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent. Conrad’s monstrous city is London, threatening, cruel and dark.
Fernando del Paso: Palinuro de México (Palinuro of Mexico). Ribald fun in Mexico City, with sex, love and death and the 1968 Olympics but it is the city rather than Palinuro who is the hero.
Charles Dickens. As with Balzac and Paris, most of Dickens’ work has London and its denizens as a key character
Alfred Döblin: Berlin Alexanderplatz. Franz Biberkopf and his neighbours take second place to Berlin as a key character
John Dos Passos: Manhattan Transfer. An expressionistic portrait of New York in the 1920s – from the rich to the poor but all with their problems
Fyodor Dostoevsky. St. Petersburg is almost as key to his novels as it will be to Bely’s novel
Lawrence Durrell: The Alexandria Quartet. Alexandria from different perspectives
George Friel: Glasgow Trilogy. The tenements of Glasgow are what give this trilogy its flavour
Carlo Emilio Gadda: Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana (That Awful Mess on Via Merulana). Gadda gives us a part of Rome that the tourist doesn’t see
Neil Gaiman: Neverwhere. It’s underground London, rather than the one we know, but it’s London that dominates this novel
Naguib Mahfouz: Cairo Trilogy. Mahfouz shows us the Cairo the tourist doesn’t see
Robert Musil: Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities). Vienna at its height but just before its collapse takes precedence over the plot and Ulrich, who is looking for the real Austria
Leopoldo Marechal: Adán Buenosayres. As Rosalba Campra said, Marechal turns Buenos Aires into a mythic space
Michael Moorcock: Mother London. Three mental hospital outpatients show us London, with a rich cast of characters
Geoff Nicholson: Bleeding London . One of my favourite London books, Nicholson’s hero (?) uses an A-Z but that’s not how he finds London
Orhan Pamuk: The Black Book. Galip is looking for Jelal and both characters reveal Istanbul as the Turks, rather than the tourists, see it. His later book – Kafamda bir tuhaflik (A Strangeness in My Mind) – is even more of a hymn to Istanbul, telling of the changes to Istanbul as seen through the eyes of the ordinary people.
Vasco Pratolini. Pratolini’s Florence – which is just next to the tourist Florence but could be a thousand miles away in his books – is what forms Metello and other Pratolini characters
Ian Rankin. John Rebus his detective hero, shows us a side of Edinburgh not in the guide books
Georges Rodenbach: Bruges-la-Morte (Bruges-la-Morte). Rodenbach, a Belgian symbolist, pays tribute to a dead wife and a decaying city – with photos
Peter Rosei: Rebus [Rebus]. Nothing to do with Ian Rankin, this is Peter Rosei’s sketches of a city – clearly Vienna
Iain Sinclair. Sinclair gave us psychogeography in the novel and London is his only hero
John Kennedy Toole: A Confederacy of Dunces. The New Orleans novel. Ignatius J. Reilly may be the hero but he shares this role with the city he loves and hates.
Emile Zola. He’s no Balzac but he still portrays the underbelly of Paris in a way that makes Paris more important than his characters