William Firebrace

William Firebrace is an architect and writer in London. He is the author of a trilogy of books: Marseille Mix, Memo for Nemo, and Zickzack.

  • Zickzack

    William Firebrace

    Zigzagging through six locations on the edges of the German-speaking world, exploring them through politics, architecture, literature, film, art, music, food, and history.

    “Zickzack” is the German word for “zigzag”: hopping around, moving back and forth, never following a straight line, avoiding the monotony of one thing following another. Zickzack is William Firebrace's zigzagging exploration of six places on the edges of the German-speaking world. Deploying essays, narration, conversations, descriptions, and lists, Firebrace celebrates locations on defined and undefined borders, where cultures, languages, and histories mix. In his nonlinear wandering, he touches on ethnicity, topography, history, film, literature, myth, languages, and gastronomy.

    These locales are not the famous cities of Berlin, Vienna, and Zurich, but areas that straddle countries, geographies, and influences. Two are within Germany itself, one lies on (and over) the border with Poland, and three were once within the loose German cultural zone but now belong to other countries. Firebrace explores Strasbourg, capital of Alsace and part of a long-running territorial dispute between France and Germany; Königsberg, which spent some of the twentieth century as Kaliningrad; and Görlitz and Zgorcelec, twin cities on either side of a river. He plays hopscotch with churches in Backstein and takes a train trip past cities with double names—Sterzing-Vipiteno, Brixen-Bressanone, Klausen-Chiusa, signs of the double culture, where everything happens twice but in a slightly different way. In the zigzags of the German-speaking world, the original culture sometimes survives, sometimes is deliberately destroyed, sometimes merges with other cultures, and often, if submerged, resurfaces in a different form.

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  • Marseille Mix

    William Firebrace

    A journey through the history, cultures, and societies of Marseille.

    There are many Marseilles, or at least many versions of Marseille: seaside village, haven of gangsters, gateway to the East, city of immigrants and outcasts. It is by turns the dull bourgeois provincial town where nothing ever happens and the mysterious unknowable city of the Mediterranean. In Marseille Mix, William Firebrace explores the many Marseilles, the invented and the actual. Leading readers down narrow streets, through undulating terrain that seems at once, or serially, Italian, Greek, Levantine, and North African, Firebrace traces the history and culture of Marseille through landscapes, buildings, food, films, literature, and criminology.

    In seven chapters, in writing that is by turns essay, narrative, description, list, recipe, glossary, and conversation, Firebrace investigates the city's defining mix. He tells stories of famous Marseillais, including Marcel Pagnol and Antonin Artaud, and famous visitors, including the dying Arthur Rimbaud and Walter Benjamin (who wrote about one visit in “Hashish in Marseille”). He describes the brief period when Marseille was the point of departure for European refugees fleeing the Nazis and the city's mixture of desperation and decadence during the Vichy regime. He visits the basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde and gazes down from its terrace at the panoramic view: an agglomeration of neighborhoods and landscapes that became a city.

    • Paperback $34.95
  • Memo for Nemo

    William Firebrace

    A cultural history of living in the undersea, both fictional and real, from Jules Verne's Captain Nemo to NASA's ECC02 project.

    In Memo for Nemo, William Firebrace investigates human inhabitation of the undersea, both fictional and real. Beginning with Jules Verne's Captain Nemo—an undersea Renaissance man with a library of 12,000 volumes on his submarine—and proceeding through aquariums, undersea photography, artificial seas on land, nuclear-powered submarines, undersea film epics, giant squid, and NASA satellites, Firebrace examines the undersea as a zone created by exploration and invention. Throughout, the history of undersea life is accompanied by an imagined undersea, envisioned by cultural figures ranging from Verne and Herman Melville to Orson Welles and Jimi Hendrix.

    Firebrace takes readers though the enormous sequence of rooms (impossible in real life) in Nemo's submarine, recounts the competition among nineteenth-century cities to build the most spectacular aquatic world, and explains the workings of the bathysphere—an early underwater vessel modeled on a hot-air balloon. He considers the aquarium's function in films as a sort of viewing lens, describes the chlorine-proof artificial sea life seen by passengers on the submarine ride at Disneyland, and reports that Jacques Cousteau's famous underwater documentaries were in fact highly staged.

    The oceans of today are not those imagined by Verne; they are changing from both natural processes and human influence. Memo for Nemo documents the power of the undersea in both art and life.

    • Paperback $34.95