John Banville's 6 favorite books about cities

The Man Booker Prize winner recommends works by James Joyce, Raymond Chandler, and more

John Banville.
(Image credit: Michael Lionstar)

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell (Faber & Faber, $24).

As fiction, these four novels — Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea — are post-Romantic piffle, but as a celebration of a city and a distillation of the "spirit of place" they are without peer, with some of the richest, most beautiful prose written in the 20th century.

Venice by Jan Morris (Faber & Faber, $16).

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This travel writer's work may seem a little too much on the chatty side for some readers, but her lovingly detailed portrait of La Serenissima is as appealing as it is encyclopedic. Although the book was published nearly 60 years ago, it is still as fresh as a breeze over the lagoon on a spring morning.

Dubliners by James Joyce (Dover, $5).

Everyone, including Joyce, considered Ulysses the definitive literary guide to Ireland's capital, but the volume of short stories that preceded it catches convincingly the louse-gray hue of the place around the start of the 20th century, the time of its final decline as the second city of the British Empire.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (Vintage, $16).

Only a blow-in to Los Angeles — the author was born in Chicago and educated in London — could portray the place with such bittersweet accuracy. The Big Sleep is a jewel of a classic crime novel.

Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon (NYRB Classics, $10 as an e-book).

This is one of the hardest of what Simenon described as his "hard novels," which followed the hundreds of pulpy thrillers he wrote in the 1920s and '30s. It is set during the Second World War among a nasty cast of petty crooks and Nazi collaborators, and although the city is not named, it is unmistakably Liège, the Belgian author's birthplace.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (Vintage, $16).

This modern masterpiece has for setting not a city but a continent, as it is a Russian émigré's declaration of undying love — "I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art" — to America in the middle of the 20th century.

John Banville, who won a Man Booker Prize for The Sea, has written 18 novels under his own name and 10 more as crime novelist Benjamin Black. His latest novel, Mrs. Osmond, will be followed late this month by Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir.

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