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Author: Andrew Crumey

Cover design: Marie Lane   Cover illustration: Lise Weisgerber  

Two centuries ago, a certain Prince sought immortality in a manner unusual even by the standards of his age. Whereas others might choose to fight glorious battles, raise monuments, or pass far-reaching laws, our Prince decided instead to devote himself to a lifelong career as the author of fantastic cities.

It began with Margaretenburg. This cherished work of his early years - the outpouring of a broken-hearted youth - was created and named in honour of the woman to whom he had been betrothed, until smallpox robbed him of her. The idea came to him as she lay on her death-bed, and within six months of her passing, all of the initial plans had been laid for her memorial. A map of the city had been constructed, displaying the perfect geometry of his conception (his reaction to the meaningless cruelty of the world), and a competition had brought forth architectural designs of the utmost splendour. Every street and building, every park and fountain would be named in memory of the woman he had lost.

Still unsure of the finer details of the proposed city, the Prince ordered a further set of charts which would show individual areas on a larger scale, and he also ordered the rendering of the intended buildings in a series of fine engravings. Landscape painters were brought from all over Europe to make illustrations of the city seen from the surrounding hills (which were themselves already being mapped, by a sub-committee of the cartographical division). At the end of this second stage (which lasted about eighteen months), the Prince felt he had come to know the city of Margaretenburg much better - to the extent that he could visit it now in his imagination, and discuss his walks with his courtiers. Nevertheless there remained many things during these hypothetical visits which were intangible and uncertain (and the Prince would not dream of commissioning any construction over which there hung the slightest uncertainty). How, for example, would the gardens smell? (a horticultural committee was formed). And would the smoke from the houses interfere with the air of the Royal Residence? (a team of eminent scientists was assembled).

This period of consultation went on for another three years. The memory of Margarete still lay heavy in the heart of the Prince, and his determination to carry on with her memorial city was undiminished; however, the cost of planning had by now placed a considerable strain on the Treasury, and it began to seem unlikely that there would be enough money left with which to begin building. A committee for finance ruled that the project could no longer remain in a state of expensive conjecture.

And yet there was still so much that was undecided. A catalogue of street plans had been compiled, and engravings of the main buildings and their interiors - but of their furnishings, there was still no more than the vaguest notion.

The roads had all been named, and allocated their neat borders of trees and shrubs - but how would the fallen leaves be dealt with in autumn? And when the rains came, could anyone be sure that the drains would operate effectively? Despite all the work which had been done, the city still seemed elusive and slippery; a thing which could not yet be relied upon to come forth into the world exactly according to plan.

After much deliberation, the Prince made his decision. The city of Margaretenburg would remain a dream - a conceptual city, consisting not of streets and buildings, but of maps and illustrations. It would be a city of ideas, and as such would be a memorial more lasting than any heap of stone, since ideas alone can lay claim to immortality. All of the paperwork, in which the great city was described, was deposited in Margarete's mausoleum. And then the Prince declared that his period of mourning was over.

So it was that he completed his first work. It was now nearly five years since the tragic event which had initially inspired him, and with the closing of this chapter of his life, he felt at last a release from the long burden of his grief. Looking back, he would one day see signs of youthful impulse (even immaturity) in some aspects of the city of Margaretenburg. The mixture of styles creates clashes, dissonances (the juxtaposition of florid stucco above severe classical lines, for example, on the Lischitzky Palace). And the clock face pattern of the streets is a conceit which would be considered unworthy of his later manner. Nevertheless, this first city showed all the signs of that irrepressible originality which one could call genius. If the strokes of inspiration were still spasmodic, then this was only through lack of practice and the skill which arises after long trial and error. All of this would come later.

The Prince became once more involved in affairs of state. He married and had three children, and it seemed that the city of Margaretenburg might be little more than a youthful folly. But during this middle phase of his career, there were to be three more conceptual cities.

Already he had created the City as Memorial. His next venture would be the City as Fantasy. Shortly after the birth of his second child, the Prince found himself in a state of malaise and dissatisfaction with life which manifested itself as a boredom with his wife, and an interest in one of the young ladies at court. He found himself dreaming of a city where he could indulge his passions to the full. Once more he assembled his team of architects and cartographers, and together they set about designing Herzchen. Things proceeded much more quickly this time - a town was conceived which had as its basis not the good order of an industrious populace (as was the case with Margaretenburg), but rather the wholehearted pursuit of pleasure. At the centre lay a great park, which was itself based on the map of the world. Its continents were lands of amusement - the Americas, where exotic caged birds gave delight and fascination; Asia, in which exquisite sweetmeats were served in the fabulous glass pagoda; Africa, which housed a wonderful menagerie; and Europe, where the well-ordered lawns would resound to constant music from a resident orchestra. Around this garden of hedonism, the remainder of the city would orbit as a mere place of rest; on the map, the great green centre bore on its periphery the yellow streets and houses like parasites on some huge lethargic animal.

Herzchen was a mere trifle, but it marked a new phase in the Prince's career as Author of Cities. There was a greater confidence now in his efforts, in contrast to the hesitant progress which he had made with Margaretenburg. When at last the task was completed, he had the book of maps and engravings locked away in a large chest (specially made for the purpose), and then he forgot all about Herzchen - along with the woman who had inspired it.

Two more cities would be founded during this brilliant middle period. Pomonia was the City as Celebration, designed to commemorate a battle which his twelve year old son would have fought and won, had there been a war on at the time. It was a city of fine statues, grand arches and noble barracks, and the engravings of it won fame throughout Europe, so that the Prince's unique vision became a constant subject of conversation among elevated circles. It was in answer to this new-found celebrity that he embarked on Spellensee - the City as Entertainment. Conceived as a picturesque settlement in an attractive lakeside setting, it would have as its major source of income the thousands of visitors who would come to bathe in the clear waters, and enjoy the many theatres, concert-halls and galleries. Everything was geared to satisfying contemporary taste - the most fashionable painters were commissioned to make illustrations of the works they would contribute to the art galleries; operas were similarly made to order. Coffee-houses (such as had recently become popular) would abound.

And yet it was all a disaster. Sales of the richly illustrated guide book to Spellensee did little to cover the vast cost of the operation, and after four years of work the Treasury was almost bankrupted by it. Never again would the Prince neglect his own artistic instincts in favour of the clamouring masses, whose interest could so easily evaporate. Spellensee became an object of loathing for him - abandoned in an incomplete and unsatisfactory state, its plans were destroyed in a fit of rage. The Prince declared that he would never create another city.

And yet, years later, he would embark on what was to be the greatest of all his projects. He was past fifty; a man who could look back on a solid lifetime's achievement which would ensure that his name would be remembered. This however, was not enough for him. The bitter memory of Spellensee still rankled - but there was also Pomonia, and there was Herzchen; and above all, there was Margaretenburg - his first work and in many ways (despite all its flaws) his best, since it was his most sincere. His career, he now could see, had been a gradual process of dilution - an almost imperceptible squandering of his talents. He had produced works which won fame, and yet had no lasting worth.

For many months he was in a state of deep depression. He neglected his duties, and his family, and chose instead to immerse himself once more in the maps and illustrations of his first city, which he retrieved from the mausoleum where they had lain.

After long weeks of solitary study and reflection, the Prince felt at last that he had found the true object for his efforts - the achievement which would validate all his earlier attempts, and provide an appropriate conclusion to his life's work. Margaretenburg had pointed the way, but he had chosen to ignore its signs; he had pursued the worldly, the concrete, the transitory and valueless. He had wasted years of his life on cities of pleasure, of hollow celebration, of facile entertainment. He would now embark on a project which would equal Margaretenburg in the solemnity of its high purpose; but this time no-one would stop him or cause him to compromise his ideals - his task would be by its very nature incapable of completion, and yet he would continue as long as his life and health allowed.

He would design the City as Encyclopaedia; a city which would provide an exposition of the complete range of human knowledge as currently understood. At its centre there would not be royal palaces, or pleasure gardens, or places of low entertainment. Instead, there would be a Museum and Library such as had never before been imagined. This alone would be enough to occupy him for a lifetime, and yet there would be so much more besides, in this great city of the imagination.

To begin with, the Prince put together an entirely new team of planners, architects, cartographers and engravers. He chose people who were young, impressionable, free from the need to preserve any reputation, and therefore willing to go wherever the task might lead. No idea must be rejected as too outrageous; everything would be subjected to equal scrutiny and consideration. And this city, unlike all the others, would be planned down to the very finest detail - nothing would be left incomplete. The cost would be enormous, but this also had been taken into account. The State itself - its entire means and all the energy of its workforce - would be directed to the one labour which would grant every citizen a place in immortality. Their own humble, mundane city (small, imperfect and inconsequential) would devour itself to create another - one which would be topographically perfect, socially harmonious, and in the range of wisdom contained within its boundaries, incapable of further addition.

Everything was sold which could attract a buyer. The Court was dissolved; its members assigned new roles in the work of planning. Only those subjects whose occupation was absolutely essential to the continued well-being of the citizenry (and hence the continuation of the Prince's plans) were spared from the project which henceforth would be the sole industry of the State. A competition was held to name the place, and was won by a Professor of Philology who proposed (for reasons which alone occupied most of the first volume of the Introductory Remarks to the City) the name of Rreinnstadt.

Laying out the streets and designing the buildings was only a smallest part of the whole enterprise. Not only every edifice, but the interior of these constructions also would have to be planned and illustrated; their furnishings and decorations, and moreover their occupants - biographies, memoirs and reminiscences would have to be written (with painstaking attention to consistent cross-referencing). There would be music and paintings for the concert-halls and galleries (not the hollow efforts of Spellensee, but works of profundity and beauty) and in addition, there would be commentaries and analyses of these works and their creators. The weather above Rreinnstadt - the patterns of the clouds, and the duration of sunlight or rainfall - all of these would have to be calculated in an operation which would break new ground in meteorology. But greatest of all, there was the planning of the Museum and Library, and their as-yet undiscovered contents.

This crucial element of the operation became, from the very outset, shrouded in secrecy and speculation. Even those who worked within the Museum Division were familiar only with those aspects in which they had direct involvement. Whether the Prince himself was able to keep track of the growth of his creation was itself a matter of debate.

The Museum's superficial appearance, on the other hand, was well known to all - a grand building overlooking a spacious square. The internal layout, similarly, would be familiar to anyone who took the trouble to examine the freely available plans - the many maps showing the locations of glass cases, of shelves, of cabinets. In the Museum, one wing was devoted to the Natural World, another to the Human. Each wing was then further divided - the Natural World being split into plant and animal; animal into flying, swimming and crawling; crawling into legless and legged, and so on in a constantly branching hierarchy of classification. Thus every beast in the world had its logical place, preserved in a case situated in the appropriate section. (One may guess that there would be many empty cases awaiting the discovery of the appropriately classified animal; four-winged birds, for example, or feathered fish). The Human World was split according to an initial classification based on the five Senses and the three Faculties (memory, reason and imagination); so that paintings, for example, would be located at the intersection of two fine stairways, one leading from the Vestibule of Sight, the other from the Concourse of Imagination (via a corridor which passes through the Craft Department situated above the Hall of Touch). History, on the other hand, was reached from the Arcade of Memory (whose magnificent marble interior became the subject of a fine suite of engravings). The interconnectedness of all human knowledge and achievement would be reflected in the complexity of the internal architecture of the Museum, which came to be compared to a sponge, a crystal or a veined leaf. The ever-growing ramifications of the network of corridors and passageways soon led to countless redraftings of the interior plans and drawings, as cryptic instructions came from the Museum Division asking for the inclusion of a new route between, say, the Room of Forgotten Skills and the Chamber of Religion; or from the Mezzanine of Ambition to the Alcove of Dexterity. What these pathways may denote or imply, none could guess unless he was privy to the deepest secrets of the Museum's notional curators.

And as for the Library (which was linked to its neighbour by a system of passageways whose subtlety would extend almost beyond the possibility of symbolic representation), here there lay mysteries which were greater still. The same classification was used as in the Museum - the two buildings forming mirror images each of the other (in the engravings of the facades, the beauty of this symmetry is particularly evident). Each object in the Museum (it has been generally believed) would have been associated with a book (or several books) in the Library. However, there would also be many books which could not correspond with any exhibit (the natural history of unicorns, for example, or the geometry of round squares). The fact that these books greatly outnumber those whose function is to catalogue the exhibits next door means that the overall size of the Library (despite the density of its shelving) is equal to that of its neighbour (thus ensuring the preservation of that symmetry which was deemed so desirable by its original team of architects).

One had then (or would have had) a perfectly balanced edifice, in which everything which the human mind is capable of inventing or understanding has its place. A symmetrical complex in two halves, linked by corridors and passageways, in which knowledge can be transferred or relocated, reclassified and synthesized, simply by wandering through its richly decorated interior. One would have, in marble, glass and wood, a kind of brain, whose source of activity would be the endless perambulations of its curators, attendants and visitors. So that the city of Rreinnstadt would be not only the City as Encyclopaedia, but the City as Organism also; its central brain-like structure linked by grand roads to the watch towers on the city walls, and the observatory in the hills beyond. An organism which would moreover have awareness of itself - for would not all those maps and plans, those biographies and engravings be included somewhere within the Library? Would the Museum not contain itself as the grandest of its exhibits?

It was a vision which makes the mind dizzy with wonder - a vision of which only our noble Prince could have been capable. It was his life's work, and also that of all his subjects, working now towards the sublime goal which he had set for them. Their own neglected houses soon fell into ruin, the roads into disrepair; food became scarce, but not paper and ink (for supplies of these most precious commodities were always ensured). Famine and epidemic could not be held back indefinitely, but their threat held no terror. For the Prince's subjects, their ultimate reward would be that great Cenotaph, erected on the central square opposite the Museum and Library, on which would be carved the name of the Prince, above those of every one of his subjects, and at the foot would be inscribed the words: "To the memory of those who gave everything, that Rreinnstadt may live forever."


RRP: £8.99

No. of pages: 164

Publication date: 30.11.2013

ISBN numbers:
978 1 909232 80 8
978 1 907650 38 3

Rights sold: US (Picador),
France (Calmann-Levy trade, Serpent a Plume pocket book and after rights reverted Editions de l'Arbre vengeur),
Germany (Insel),
Netherlands (Atlas),
Spain (Siruela),
Portugal (Temas e Debate),
Greece (Polis),
Russia (Symposium),
Italy (Ponte Alle Grazie),
Romania (Univers).