The Fever of Urbicande: A French Masterpiece You Probably Haven’t Read
More than any other, this is the the book for which The Obscure Cities is famous.
In his afterword to The Walls of Samaris, Benoît Peeters writes that his main criticism of that initial volume in the series was that it wasn’t long enough and consequently didn’t give him and artist François Schuiten enough space to flesh out their ideas. He calls the book “skeletal” and blames “the narrow confines of the forty-four pages to which we had chosen to conform.”
That length wasn’t an arbitrary choice on the part of Schuiten and Peeters. It’s the customary length of story in a French hardcover albums, which traditionally contain 48 pages, about 44 of which are story pages. In the early 1980s, this tradition was so strong that breaking it constituted a major experimentation in form.
Yet that’s exactly what Schuiten and Peeters decided to do for their follow-up album, which would originally come to 68 pages of story, or about 50% longer. And the difference, in terms of pacing, is profound. The story is still concise and ambiguous, but it has the room to explore its own implications that The Walls of Samaris did not. The end result seems much more deliberate, much more controlled, and not at all indulgent in the way one might suspect would accompany added length.
And it is largely this combination, of concision and room to breathe, that makes The Fever of Urbicande surpass its predecessor. Both are beautifully illustrated and organized around evocative, interesting ideas. But The Walls of Samaris rushes towards its conclusion, invoking images and ideas without fully exploring them, and the result is that its original, ambiguous central idea acquires a whole series of unintended ambiguities. In contrast, The Fever of Urbicande succeeds precisely because of its intricate exploration of its original, ambiguous central idea. It thus remains ambiguous but in a controlled and careful way. Achieving this, exploring the implications of an idea, requires space.
How refreshing, particularly to American eyes, to see additional space used to explore intellectual, cultural, and aesthetic matters, instead of to add another fight scene. Such a consideration couldn’t be more foreign to The Fever of Urbicande.
But Schuiten and Peeters also decided to break the traditional form of French comics in a second way: they decided that The Fever of Urbicande would be in black and white. There’s never been any indication that this was a commercial consideration, although the decision in favor of black and white might have seemed appealing, at least in part, as a way of compensating for the story’s greater length, thus preventing the inevitable album collection from becoming too expensive. Even so, the decision was certainly also artistic: Schuiten and Peeters wanted to evoke the history of engraving, which they felt synchronized with the themes of their story.
And there’s no denying that, as enjoyable as Schuiten’s detailed artwork is in color, it shines even more in black and white. Even for those who privilege color (as most readers do, in both France and America), one never feels that color is missing.
The 68-page story itself was serialized, in (À Suivre) #68-73, in six chapters. The first collected edition, in 1985, added a 7-page prologue, consisting of illustrated text. Regrettably, it’s never been translated or included in any English editions.
The prologue is ostensibly a letter by Eugen Robick, the protagonist of the tome, to his city’s High Commission, or ruling council. It’s a welcome addition, because it fleshes out the status quo at the beginning of the story — a status quo that’s quickly upset, in the first chapter. Yet everything that follows flows from this status quo, at least thematically, and several interpretations of the overall story depend on this status quo.
But as a prologue, the sequence isn’t completely satisfying, because it’s a letter by someone we haven’t met yet, about a city we only see abstractly, in illustrations of city buildings that accompany the letter. Those illustrations are essential to break up the prose, which is otherwise adorned only by Robick’s letterhead. But it’s not altogether clear why, if we’re supposed to interpret this as prologue as the literal reproduction of a letter, Robick would include those illustrations.
It’s worth taking a moment to examine that letterhead. There’s actually a great tradition of architects having interesting letterheads. But Eugen Robick isn’t a mere architect: he’s an “urbatect,” as his letterhead points out. Because of this, it’s the first thing we learn about the character. Readers will soon deduce the term’s meaning: as a combination of “urban” and “architect,” it signals an architect who designs entire cities, not merely buildings. And Robick’s letterhead is appropriately large and flamboyant, signalling the pompousness of such a position.
Indeed, it’s amazing how much thought seems to have gone into this letterhead design, despite being a mere decoration to make a prose feature more visual. The use of a skyscraper image immediately suggests Robick’s profession, helping us to figure out what “urbatecte” means, before we even begin to read the letter or the following comic-book story. The size of the term, completely overshadowing Robick’s own name, reflects not only the grandiose ambition of the urbatect profession but Robick’s single-minded professionalism: he apparently thinks his status as an urbatect defines him more than his name.
In addition, the letterhead reflects and extremely ordered worldview. The skyscraper design is defined almost entirely by vertical lines, while long, bold, horizontal lines function as the skyscraper’s base and the framework in which Robick’s name and profession sits. This strong sense of the vertical and the horizontal, with almost nothing in between, suggests an extremely ordered, even anal-retentive mind. The sides of Robick’s name are even flush with the skyscraper’s edges, and the large “urbatect” may be interpreted as representing a firm foundation for the building atop.
This tells us a great deal about Robick’s mentality, before he’s even introduced. But it also tells us about his preferred architectural style. Nowhere in his letterhead is there any indication of the curving Art Nouveau flourishes that defined Xhystos in The Walls of Samaris. Nor the mélange of styles that defined Samaris. One could not conceive of the Robick having designed those cities.
At the same time, the idea of the urbatect reflects the unseen builders of Samaris, who designed an entire city but were never seen in that story. Now, there’s no doubt that Robick didn’t design Samaris — one only has to look at his letterhead to see that. But it’s a thematic link that unites the two volumes.
One of the first things the reader notices, as the letter begins, is the absence of a year. Robick dates the letter only as “XVIII June.” This lack of a year will persist throughout the story proper, which begins on 24 June, six days after this letter was written. No such dates appeared in The Walls of Samaris, which used only general references to the passage of time. This fit well with that story’s haze-like sense of being lost, both in one’s own city and abroad. But the careful observation of the passage of time is important to The Fever of Urbicande, which is organized according to Robick’s dated journal entries.
The lack of a year, however, can be attributed to the fact that the world and timeline of The Obscure Cities was still vague at this point. In fact, when The Fever of Urbicande was first published, nothing connected the two volumes, outside of their setting in unreal cities that expanded upon real-world elements from the past. It wasn’t until the 1988 second edition of The Walls of Samaris that a cameo of Robick was added to that story, helping to cement the two volumes together. Later volumes would increasingly bind this world together, first commenting upon the fact that years seemed to be missing in this world’s documents, then offering a dating system.
Similarly, the letter will go on to reference both fictional cities and real-world cultures. In addition to Xhystos, it will reference Tharo and the Alaxians, neither of which we’ve met. But it will also reference several ancient real-world cultures, including the Greeks, the Egyptians, Delphi, and Rome, all with specific architectural references that correspond to those cultures as we know them. No such references occurred in The Walls of Samaris, although it does include architectural borrowings from our world. How such combinations of fictional cities and real-world ones could occur isn’t addressed in this volume, although later volumes would do so.
As the letter begins, it’s immediately characterized by its formality. And while the French are still known for their bureaucratic formality, there’s no mistaking that the same ordered mentality, evident in that letterhead, is on display here. At the same time, it’s important to understand that Robick is writing his city’s High Commission, so bureaucratic formality is certainly called for.
Moreover, it will soon become clear that he’s doing so to ask that commission to change its mind about something. For this reason, Robick not only begins his letter formally but by praising “our city” in general, hoping to establish a rapport with his fictional readers.
And as an urbatect, Robick’s praise for “our city” quickly turns to his real subject: architecture. “Its large avenues, its harmonious façades, its majestic gardens perfectly reflect the [city's] peaceful grandeur.” He contrasts the with the “old state” of the city, presumably before he reconstructed it, saying the city was “hideous,” with “edifices of absurd modernism jutting out from the middle of incoherent slums.” Here, if it hasn’t been obvious before, we see that Robick’s penchant for order informs his architectural design.
Robick continues this line of thought: “In my youth, fooled by the fallacious theories of the architects of Xhystos and Tharo, I succumbed a moment to the clouded charms of the arabesques.” But he “discovered” that “simplicity is preferable to affectation.” He believes in “the single effect, developed consistently,” visible in “the Greek temples and the Egyptian pyramids.” The accompanying art, presumably of buildings he’s erected in the city, demonstrates these principles.
“Thanks to your generous support,” he writes, “to the confidence you have lavished upon me, my ideal could be realized in stone.” As it has been, throughout Urbicande.
Robick’s letter thus provides important exposition, occasioned by the rhetorical demands of addressing the High Commission. It’s important for him to praise the city — specifically, what the commission has allowed him to do to the city — in order to set the stage of his appeal. And it’s now, at the bottom of page three, that he turns to this, his real agenda.
“I must nonetheless observe,” he begins, “this vast movement of edification” — literally meaning “erecting” but carrying the elite connotation of edifying, as if he’s elevating the city’s culture along with its buildings — “is now slowing down, and certain projects that hold my heart the closest rest inexplicably in suspense, leaving incomprehensible stains on the heart of our city.”
But above all, Robick is concerned with a single construction project that has been halted: “I think first, as you will have guessed, of the question of Bridge Three, indispensable piece of the design, foreseen by the earliest plans, countersigned by you before construction began, now two years ago.” Robick explains that he “understands” the commission’s reasoning and writes, “You know that I accept them,” indicating that this isn’t a new discussion. That reasoning isn’t explained, although the narrative to come will imply that committee’s real reasons are socio-political.
Those aren’t the terms on which Robick makes his appeal, however. Instead, he makes it on the basis of aesthetics and artistic symmetry. Two bridges have already been constructed, over the river that divides Urbicande, but the “harmony” of the design “is today broken” by the missing third bridge. In Robick’s words, this makes “Urbicande resemble a large wounded bird that strains to fly with only one wing.” The result is an “imbalance” he suggests is “frightening.”
Of course, from the accompanying map of the city, it’s easy to see how the missing Bridge Three (which sounds so much better in English than the more literal translation, “the Third Bridge”) does create an obvious imbalance. But one would be forbidden for thinking of the practical considerations before the elite, aesthetic ones that Robick cites. Because it’s quite clear that Bridge Three isn’t simply the third new bridge; it’s the third bridge total. Any preexisting bridges have apparently been removed as part of Robick’s city-wide remodeling effort. This means this residents on the side of the city that would be served by Bridge Three must now go out of their way to use one of the other bridges. That’s simply poor urban development on its face, without Robick’s appeals to symmetry.
Yet Robick ignores this entirely and continues in the same aesthetic vein:
Can one imagine the deplorable effect such a great asymmetry can create in the voyager who approaches Urbicande? For days he walked, filled with the vision of this city, of which he had so often heard spoken. At length he arrives here, and the image that offers itself to him is the saddest tableau, which no painter would consent to hang. It is the death of the soul, convinced of having been duped, that our visitor feels upon his entrance into Urbicande. Perhaps he doesn’t so much as enter, turning away without pause from this city that disappointed him immediately…
Excuse me this sudden passion! I search only to make you feel my sadness and understand the importance of the issue.
Robick obviously recognizes the melodrama of his own language, and his passion for architecture is clear. It’s an uncompromising passion: he says that “our most grand project” of city-wide renewal cannot continue ”until the question of Bridge Three has been resolved.”
One gets the sense of Robick as an artist, pleading with city bureaucrats who do not seem to understand the most basic principles of his art. There’s a desperation to his passion, and it’s certainly no momentary, “sudden” rhetorical move. Rather, it’s quite calculated, a way of illustrating how an architect or a lover of art might see the issue. As further evidence, he continues in the same melodramatic mode, asking if the reader “believe[s] the Romans would construct half the Colosseum” and other, parallel examples. But Robick’s letter is also calculated in the way that it moves from praise for the city and for the High Commission into this passionate critique. So too is his use of the pronoun “our”: Urbicande is “our city,” and Robick never allows his passion to get the better of him. Thus, he doesn’t paint a picture of his own suffering, of an urbatect who’s had his artistic vision abruptly cut. That’s implicit, but Robick knows it won’t garner any sympathy. No, this is never Robick’s project but “our” project, which he’s already pointed out the High Commission approved and deserves credit for.
The letter is virtually a case study in the rhetoric of appeal, deftly mixing flattery and emotion, creating a situation in which the letter’s intended reader will identify with Robick’s plans and wish to see them reach fulfillment. And yet it fails utterly, precisely because Robick doesn’t understand his audience. In pursuing a primarily aesthetic argument, Robick demonstrates that, despite his claims to understand the High Commission’s (at least stated) reasoning, he doesn’t understand the commission’s true reasoning at all.
We find the first clues as to what that reasoning might be as Robick continues and bigger, social issues about Urbicande begin to emerge:
The North Bank is today the canker that eats at our city. The disorder of these buildings from another age, the incredible unsanitary conditions of its little streets, are more than ever the dishonor of our city. If we do not take care, this rot will one day annihilate the entire structure.
Even in his metaphors, Robick thinks like an architect. What he begins with the medical, bodily language of “the canker” shifts the language of a problem that threatens a building if untreated. And it’s clear that Robick wants to treat the problem, which isn’t solely that the poorer North Bank, so far left without revitalization, is a mish-mash of older architectural styles. The problem is also social, and Robick even refers to the North Bank’s “thorny problem of sunshine.”
In this prologue, it’s hard to tell the cause of this problem. Is it a reference to population density, which crowds the North with tall buildings? Or is this some sort of natural phenomenon? The answer is neither: both banks have tall buildings, although in different styles, while the North is said to have a “perpetual fog.” This might seem to be an odd natural phenomenon, but the art allows us to clearly determine the source of the fog: it’s actually pollution from industrial smokestacks.
Thus, the North Bank is the city’s poorer, industrial sector. And it’s no surprise, therefore, that it’s dirty or lacking sunlight — both are consequences of the combination of poverty and industry.
English-speaking readers might recall the famous, nearly constant “fog” of late 19th-century and early 20th-century London, which was actually largely the result of industrial pollution caused by the burning of coal as fuel. In fact, while called “a London particular” or “a London fog,” it wasn’t limited to London and was common to many U.K. cities at the time. It also wasn’t white but yellow or even brown, and it was famously said to have the consistency of pea soup. Also, we now know that it caused widespread respiratory problems and an unknown number (certainly thousands) of death; in a single incident in London, over five particularly windless days in December 1952, killed an estimated 12,000 people and made at least 100,000 ill. But by then, it was already being called not “fog” but “smog,” and the incident led to new legislation.
The “fog” is referenced in much of English literature from the period, including both The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917) and The Waste Land (1922) by T.S. Eliot. The 1912 Sherlock Holmes short story, “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, disgustingly refers to “a greasy, heavy brown swirl still drifting past us and condensing in oily drops on the windowpane.” The “fog” still persists in most fictional depictions of Victorian London, although it’s quite unfortunately typically depicted as being white and pretty, rather than dirty and disgusting.
Yet it was also, for most of the years with which London was afflicted with it, described as a natural phenomenon, although people usually knew better. Some even imagined London had always been this way, if only because these were the conditions they had known all their lives. And while most saw the “fog” as disgusting, some even romanticized it as part of London life, not only for its fog-like effect but also for its colors. Yet it must be said that pretending this was truly “fog” — or, as Robick puts it, a ”thorny problem of sunshine” — allowed people to treat the phenomenon as natural and unalterable, rather than acknowledging it a deadly side effect of human technology and an environmental crisis.
Words may not change the underlying reality, but they do affect how people perceive this reality. And the results can be both deadly and unjust, as was the case with the so-called “pea soup fog,” which disproportionately affected poor, working-class areas.
And this recognition has everything to do with Robick’s letter, in which rhetoric is so much at issue. Because it’s here that we begin to see the class implications of Robick’s project.
It would seem as if the city’s richer South Bank has been largely redeveloped, eliminating its older, chaotic architecture to give way to the new, built under a single plan and thus able to express a coherence as a totality. But this is a city of haves and have-nots, in which Robick’s new South Bank contrasts starkly with the overpopulated, industrial slums of the North Bank, for which no easy solution presents itself.
This also begins to get at the discrepancy between Robick and the High Commission. The commission seems to be slowing down the revitalization efforts, now that the wealthier South Bank is nearing completion. It’s even balked at building Bridge Three, connecting the two banks. Robick, however, sees the South Bank renovation as part of an even greater whole: a reconstruction that should at least attend to the needs of the poorer North Bank, if not actually reconstruct it, thus uniting the entire city as a unified and contemporary architectural whole.
It’s here that Robick’s rhetorical strategy of seducing the High Commission breaks down. His “sudden passion” earlier is actually a smart rhetorical strategy, however much it fails to address the High Commission’s real concerns. But now, Robick makes a more serious blunder. He might have been successful, focusing solely on Bridge Three and the completion of his original plans. But to him, Bridge Three and those plans are only part of a larger issue: creating a coherent architectural totality out of Urbicande, which naturally should extend beyond those initial plans and into the slums of the North Bank.
Robick even thinks he has a solution for how to succeed in the North Bank’s problem of not getting enough sunshine. And it sounds like a mad scheme:
to place above the highest buildings of our bank gigantic mirrors that would return to the North Bank the light that we receive in abundance, definitively resolving the question of shadow, augmenting the symmetry of our city at the same time that they would crown it with a sort of dazzling diadem.
But Robick isn’t content even to stop there. With this scheme accomplished, he proposes to “undertake a real regularization of these neighborhoods, subjecting them to the principles of grandeur and harmony that built the beauty of our side.”
This has clearly been Robick’s real agenda all along, although he’s tried to hide it. One can see this in his choice of metaphors. Thus, despite that his ostensible rhetorical aim is to convince the High Commission of the need to complete his original plans, most prominently including Bridge Three, he uses metaphors such as a half-completed Colosseum. The fact that he feels his city is only half complete has infected his choice of metaphors.
Despite this desire on his part, Robick clearly identifies with the more elite South Bank, and it’s clear that the High Commission does too, since Robick’s has by now shifted from “our city” to “our side.” This reinforces the sense that the entire city is highly stratified between the two banks, with its rulers living in the South and concerned with the North mostly as an afterthought. Robick may be frustrated with the High Commission, but he’s clearly benefited from its power and is part of the city’s Southern ruling class. And Robick gives no indication that the North should participate in deciding its own destiny, nor even that such an idea would be thinkable; he simply suggests “subjecting” the North to reconstruction.
On the other hand, Robick’s attitude toward the North Bank is more complex. True, his concern for the North seems to be largely aesthetic, revolving around the fact that, as an urbatect, he considers his city a single work of art; as impressive as his renovation of the South is, it’s really only half of the picture. Thus, he decries the “incredible unsanitary conditions” in the North, but one gets the feeling this is at least as much an aesthetic complaint as it is a social one. And when it comes to the North Bank’s social ills, Robick hardly uses compassionate language, calling the North Bank “a canker” that threatens the entire city. He does seem to feel some sense of social responsibility to the North, such as in his proposal to alleviate the North’s sunlight problem, but he approaches it like an engineer and not a social crusader. And of course, he misses the deeper underlying issue of the North’s poverty and industrialization, which have caused its ”thorny problem of sunshine.” The problem isn’t “sunshine” at all. Thus, while Robick does show concern for the North, it’s colored by his privilege. Those “incredible unsanitary conditions” don’t need to be addressed because people are suffering but because they “dishonor” the city.
The letter concludes by returning to the humbler, formal tone with which it starts. Robick implores the commissioners to act, subtly encouraging them to see their power and how easily they could change everything with a single decision.
It’s here, at the end, that he makes his first explicit reference to his own feelings, but it’s smartly in the context of a sentence emphasizing his submission to the commission: “Your servant would like not to die before having seen Urbicande sparkle in all its glory.”
The letter’s humble last sentence is, “Confident in the wisdom of your judgment, I defer to your authority and salute you with respect.” He signs the letter, “Your Urbatect,” which combines a formal show of submission with Robick’s pride in his profession, also evident in the letter’s opening. This same pride is also evident in Robick’s eccentric, flamboyant signature. (Lest anyone think this not intentional, in the context of such deliberate rhetoric, it’s worth pointing out that the French pay a good deal of attention to handwriting, even sometimes analyzing that of job candidates before making hiring decisions.)
The French excel at these formal, even superficially submissive openings and closings to letters, so much so that they follow certain formulas. And indeed, Robick’s final sentence reads like one of these formulas. It indicates less about Robick’s true feelings for the High Commission than it does about the city’s culture, in which such shows of submission are likely requisite in formal letter writing (especially to the High Commission), and about the letter’s rhetorical situation, in which Robick wishes to appeal to that commission.
The prologue is masterfully composed, so much so that it deserves analysis as an exercise in rhetoric. Robick both succeeds and fails rhetorically, but Peeters only succeeds: even the ways in which Robick falters are deliberate and informative of his character. Despite the letter consisting of illustrated prose and not a comic, it succeeds in telling a story, hinting at the city’s past and its society, while never breaking the illusion of the letter as a fictional artifact. The letter also establishes many of the themes of the story to come. Indeed, it’s amazing how much one can infer from this prologue, when one reads carefully — as its delicate rhetoric and mysterious situation invites the reader to do.