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In City Codes Hana Wirth-Nesher reads the modern urban novels of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Amos Oz, Theodore Dreiser, Ralph Ellison, Henry James, Henry Roth, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. In addition to her insights about Warsaw, Jerusalem, New York, Chicago, Paris, London, and Dublin, Wirth-Nesher offers the reader critical models that prove useful beyond the wide-ranging novels she analyzes. The richness of her introduction, “Reading Cities,” appears in the epigraphs from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Roland Barthes’s “Semiology and the Urban” as well as in her discussions of Edward Hopper’s Room in Brooklyn and Monet’s The Balcony. Although she deals with the indeterminacy of urban landmarks, absent centers, and empty signifiers, she moves beyond semiotics (most of the time) into the phenomenology of reading and experiencing the cityscape. Walls or windows differ in Singer’s Warsaw and Joyce’s Dublin; tourists or immigrants differ in their interpretations of identical landmarks; and the author carefully measures these differences.
She outlines her method clearly: “my claim has more to do with what is absent than with what is present, more with inventing than with physically constructing the cityscape. Cities promise plenitude, but deliver inaccessibility.” She examines gaps—figures framed in the windows of high-rises, crowds observed from those same windows, partly drawn blinds, taxis transporting strangers, noises from the other side of a wall, closed doors, and vigilant doormen. [End Page 462]
Wirth-Nesher begins with Singer’s The Family Moskat where the Polish countryside becomes so unsafe for Jews that all movement is towards Warsaw, perceived to be a refuge from the outbursts of violent anti-Semitism. This voluntary movement bleakly foreshadows the forced movement toward the ghetto. She investigates train stations, ambiguous courtyards, and janitors who are both servants and jailers.
Delineating various boundaries, City Codes shifts smoothly from Warsaw to Jerusalem, another divided city of stones and barbed wire. In Oz’s Jerusalem the literal walls of political partition also signify the metaphorical walls between material and spiritual homeland. The double, doubled, and doubling city is played off against Danzig and Jericho
—other versions of home in Europe and the Middle East. She then moves on to a consideration of Dreiser’s Chicago and New York, specifically the city as objectification of desires, of the real as a universe of commodity including selves as well as objects. Tracing the history of glass from the Crystal Palace (1851) to the Chicago School of Architecture, she studies Dreiser’s naturalist window watchers as “spectators of spectatorship,” contrasting their commercial associations with windows in Kafka and Woolf which are devoid of economic motifs. Streets, doormen, ocular crossroads, theater, and marketplace—are all features of Wirth-Nesher’s notice, and “notice” itself is a keyword she highlights phenomenologically in Dreiser’s novel. She concludes her chapter on just the right note: “For Dreiser, as for his characters, there is no life apart from the street; the promise of a pastoral alternative is a mockery, the sunset outside the window only another painted window.”
Dreiser’s Sister Carrie offers one view of New York, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, another. The Ellison chapter begins with an epigraph from Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, for another one of the strengths of City Codes is its tracing of sources and urban archetypes from one novel to the next. The underground man hidden from view is a powerful urban trope, the author notes, and goes on to demonstrate her fictional range: “Unlike the European picaro who makes his way into society, like Lazarillo or Oliver Twist, Invisible Man is an American picaro in the spirit of Huck Finn and Ishmael, a character who is last seen adrift, in a frontier of sorts.”
“Distances,” the second part of City Codes, begins with Henry James’s depiction of Paris in The Ambassadors. Wirth-Nesher follows [End Page 463] Strether’s transformation from tourist to ambassador, from tour of...