Robert Alter's title echoes that of Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities (1983), but the two books are not much alike. Anderson had an idea about the way nations create themselves by imagining themselves, especially through such institutions as the newspaper and the novel. For Alter, imagination is the province of individuals, rather than of [End Page 538] communal self-representation. Alter argues, moreover, that there has been altogether too much emphasis in literary criticism on "the representation of material reality and social institutions" (x). Concerned with using novels to learn about sewers, shopping arcades, slums, fashions, and mechanisms of power, critics have neglected literature as such. Alter resists this trend by concentrating on what he calls "experiential realism," which he defines as a way of conducting narrative through artful stylistic renditions of moment-by-moment experience. He proposes to study the "intersection" between experiential realism and "the emergence of a new order of urban reality" (x).
Alter excludes from his discussion most urban fiction before Modernism: Eugène Sue, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Emile Zola are out. Honore de Balzac is mentioned, but with some distaste—Alter feels that he is too caught up in his own stereotypes of city life. Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Nikolai Gogol make no appearance. That leaves Gustave Flaubert, effectively, the founder of the special line of work on which Alter plans to concentrate. Then Charles Dickens pops up as the other representative of nineteenth-century literature. They make a slightly odd couple: Flaubert is praised for his use of indirect discourse; Dickens is allowed a prominent presence because he is, as Alter repeatedly notes, a powerful stylist, especially in his deployment of metaphor. In Alter's rendering, Flaubert looks like the defining practitioner of experiential realism, Dickens like somebody who's trying to get there and doesn't quite know how. His metaphors show "depth of perception"; his conventional plots don't (67).
Alter writes clearly and succinctly. When he has a novel that fits his theme of experiential realism, he does reasonably well by it; the best chapter is the one on Mrs Dalloway (1925). But most of what's here is routine. The stylistic analyses of Imagined Cities would be appropriate for a beginning undergraduate audience in the casual context of a seminar; they are less telling in their present, more formal and more public, context. It is true that indirect discourse is important to Flaubert and metaphor to Dickens, but couldn't Alter say something fresh about these devices? And couldn't he find a more interesting way to think about discordances in method and approach between the two novelists, as well as about the ways in which they are separate from Modernism as well as harbingers of it?
Occasional authorial disclaimers suggest that Alter himself knows he has a problem. His difficulties are largely self-made; he doesn't, or can't, stick to his announced plan. Experiential realism was going to intersect with a new order of urban reality—that was what we were promised. But to get this new order into his discussion, Alter would have to engage seriously with the realm of social history, which he avowedly doesn't much like, associating it either with nineteenth-century journalism or with twentieth-century Marxist and Foucauldian literary criticism. We are told—and the observation is both hackneyed and accurate—that Dickens "loved exploring London's nooks and crannies, usually on foot, undeterred by the filth and stench and threat of disease of its slums, and he could amaze his friends with his minute knowledge of its most obscure neighborhoods and byways" (46). Nothing like this could be said of Alter. Judging from Imagined Cities, he is not in a good position to amaze his friends with facts about London or any other major metropolis. Although he occasionally mentions artifacts like watches, apartments, or...