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Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel, and: Writing the City: Urban Visions and Literary Modernism (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 2, Winter 2007
pp. 370-376 | 10.1353/jjq.2007.0046

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Robert Alter's book originated as a series of lectures on the European novel delivered to university audiences in New York and Oxford in 2002-2003. As such, it has both the limitations and the advantages of the lecture-hall mode: although it adds little that is new to its subject, it manifests a lively attention to novelistic style, while it also manages to convey concisely how Gustave Flaubert, Charles Dickens, Andrei Bely, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Franz Kafka responded in their distinctive ways to the pressures imposed on the novelistic genre by modern urban experience. Alter's book will be of use primarily as an introduction for students. For those willing to examine the premises of this kind of literary history, however, it might also serve as an occasion for re-opening the vexed question of novelistic "representation."

Before addressing this question, and before turning to his reading of Joyce, let me review the ground that Alter has covered in his exposition of what he terms "the experiential realism of the novel as a searching response to the felt new reality of the European city" (xi). By concentrating on one novel by each of the authors cited above, Alter surveys the various novelistic techniques by means of which these works attempt to incorporate or mediate the city's material reality. These techniques are generally related to, and often identified with, the modes of perception exercised by the novel's principal characters. Thus in Flaubert's L'Education Sentimentale (The Sentimental Education), the Paris of 1848 appears to Frédéric Moreau as an incoherent world of fragmented sensory perception, typified by the masked ball where Moreau meets his future mistress. Alter points out that this "confused theatre of disjunct shocks" (27) is nonetheless supported on the narrative level by a certain stylistic coherence and temporal unity, even if the certainty of "realistic representation" is not guaranteed.

In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens portrays London as a "theatre of chaos and dissolution" (55), particularly in the material sense, with its mounds of rubbish heaps, omnipresent litter, and pollution. For Alter, Dickens is a modern version of a Biblical prophet, predicting apocalypse in the form of ecological disaster. Bely's Petersburg is a "Phantasmatic City," of which the fragmented vision is that of the narrator, not that of a fictional personage, thereby suggesting that "there is something intrinsically resistant to comprehensive observation in the nature of the city" (83, 91). In contrast to Bely but more pointedly to Dickens, Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway renders London in the mode of an "Urban Pastoral," meaning that the heterogeneous sources of sensory stimuli in the city are (re)constructed in the consciousness of the main character as an exuberant celebration of "the engaging multifariousness of modern life itself" (103, 119). The city here is what the mind actively makes of it, rather than, as in Flaubert, a bewildering welter of sense-impressions. Kafka's The Trial shows us "the dark side of the modern city" (159), a place of suspicion and individual isolation.

If much of this is standard fare for Comp Lit 101, there are other sources of dissatisfaction here for any serious student of the novel, including the fact that Alter's approach is more descriptive than analytical and more analytical than theoretical. Perhaps the most potentially interesting chapter is that on Bely, but even there Alter's work lacks a sufficient historical sense of how the phantasmatic elements of this novel reflect the trauma of a modern subjectivity emerging from the conflicting experiences of the real and the unintelligible, a conflict accentuated by the new dimensions of experience created by the urban, industrialized city. At issue is not only Walter Benjamin's theory of a change in the structure of experience but also his notion of allegory, the figure that, by exposing the fundamental ontological difference between the object and its meaning, conveys history, including the history of the present, as ruin. Equally symptomatic of the limitations of Alter's approach is his chapter on Kafka, which sees The Trial as an intensified articulation of "a sense of isolation in the individual" (142). But can one really speak of the individual...



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