restricted access Bely, Joyce, and Doblin: Peripatetics in the City Novel (review)
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Reviewed by
Peter I. Barta. Bely, Joyce, and Döblin: Peripatetics in the City Novel. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1996. xv + 119 pp.

Today we are lucky to find a city that’s walkable, but in the era of modernity, when big cities first made their appearance in Europe, walking in the city seems to have been a historically definitional activity, and writing about walking in the city quickly became one of the trademarks [End Page 1035] of modernism. But, as Peter Barta points out, this writing had its genres and was mainly confined, in prose, to essayistic forms while, in verse—a perhaps hasty generalization, by the way—the concern was for urban experience in general rather than for the particularities of individual cities. In novelistic writing (say Balzac, Dickens, or Zola), the city, he claims, figures mainly as background or setting (but I would add: also as determinant of character and behavior), and it is only in the twentieth century that a type of novel emerges in which “the figure of the city is in the foreground of the text.” This subgenre is the topic of his study. It has three important members: Bely’s Petersburg, Joyce’s Ulysses and Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. In each of these three novels, protagonists, although they may be paired like Bloom and Dedalus, are lonely and alienated figures, subject to forms of hopelessness. Their wandering consciousnesses fail to find resolution in the fragmentary encounters of a particular city and its streets, so that the text becomes plural—a “chorus of mutually interacting voices” depicting the city from a number of perspectives—and a sense of overall signification eludes the reader as it escapes the characters.

As opposed to the nineteenth-century “flâneur,” these characters thus approach more closely the figure that Walter Benjamin, in his Baudelaire essay, calls the “badaud”—a kind of urban everyman, “no individual any more but part of the masses.” Since Benjamin’s French vocabulary reflects his singling out of Paris as “capital of the nineteenth century,” it is worth pointing out, in my opinion, that these early twentieth-century novels are not set in London or Paris but more on the European periphery (Petersburg, Dublin), or in a city, like Berlin, that grew from an agglomeration of smaller towns. Although Benjamin was willing to attribute a kind of originary centrality to Paris, dispersal thus affects the culture of modernity, and it does not seem accidental that, in distinguishing the “badaud” from the “flâneur,” Benjamin was thinking of the emergence of a mass culture that was to be a crucial object of critical attention for the Frankfurt School in the middle of the century. Even Bely’s still symbolist-oriented novel is, as it happens, about the near-revolution of 1905, and it was published one year before the October Revolution of 1917. Barta applies to it an uncannily prophetic sentence from Crime and Punishment: “Not many places bring to bear such gloomy, harsh and strange influences on the spirit of man as [End Page 1036] Petersburg. Just think of the climate alone! And it’s the administrative center of all Russia, so its character is imprinted on everything.”

Indeed, not the least interest of Barta’s book is that, as a Slavicist, he is able to draw attention both to the primacy of Bely’s Petersburg in the twentieth-century urban novel and to Bely’s debt to a nineteenth-century tradition, that of “Petersburg writing” in Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoievsky. Consistently with this tradition, the mutually canceling divisions, political and social, that torment the individual characters of this novel as they move about the city are attributed to a single, transcendental center of consciousness that the pervasive symbolism suggests but that no single character can grasp: “opposing ideologies, arising from the same center of intelligence, keep reinforcing each other and destroying the people in their respective camps.” Although this nightmarish vision of transcendentally organized futility—in part symbolized by the figure of Peter the Great, Pushkin’s haunting “Bronze Horseman”—disappears in Joyce and Döblin, what survives is a sense of insoluble tensions, of “mobility, colors, and constructive and...