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Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel (2005)

af Robert Alter

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421462,753 (5)5
In Imagined Cities, Robert Alter traces the arc of literary development triggered by the runaway growth of urban centers from the early nineteenth century through the first two decades of the twentieth. As new technologies and arrangements of public and private space changed the ways people experienced time and space, the urban panorama became less coherent--a metropolis defying traditional representation and definition, a vast jumble of shifting fragments and glimpses--and writers were compelled to create new methods for conveying the experience of the city. In a series of subtle and convincing interpretations of novels by Flaubert, Dickens, Bely, Woolf, Joyce, and Kafka, Alter reveals the ways the city entered the literary imagination. He shows how writers of diverse imaginative temperaments developed innovative techniques to represent shifts in modern consciousness. Writers sought more than a journalistic representation of city living, he argues, and to convey meaningfully the reality of the metropolis, the city had to be re-created or reimagined. His book probes the literary response to changing realities of the period and contributes significantly to our understanding of the history of the Western imagination.… (mere)

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From the demise of the flaneur to the "savagery of isolation in the urban crowd," Robert Alter explains how urbanization during the 19th century affected certain modernist writers and in turn was interpreted by those writers in their novels. He points out that "Traditional narrative—epic, biblical narrative, romance and the earlier phases of the novel—works on an organizing premise of purposeful continuity." But writers like Balzac, Flaubert and Dickens began to describe how the mass movement into large cities like Paris and London was in itself creating conditions that would ultimately interfere with this "purposeful continuity" for ordinary people, and it began to influence the way novels were written in order to convey the disjuncture that was characteristic of urban life. In short, the modernist tendency to eschew traditional narrative techniques, which reached the outer limits in writers like James Joyce, were at least in part a function of the changes in daily urban life that were being described by these early modernist writers.

Imagined Cities is a thin volume containing only eight chapters, but it is packed with interesting insights about selected writings of six major modernist writers — two chapters each on Gustave Flaubert and Charles Dickens, one chapter each on Andrei Bely, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Franz Kafka. The focus, of course, is upon the way these particular writers convey the details of urban life.

In talking about Flaubert's novel The Sentimental Education, Alter begins with the flaneur, who he described variously as an "idling pedestrian, curious, perhaps disinterested, the purposeless observer of teeming urban variety, the spectator connoisseur," who in the late 19th century is becoming "no longer a vehicle of observation but an object of satiric attention." Through the eyes of the flaneur, the city experience devolves into "confusion, fantasy and fragmentation." This is a metaphor of Flaubert's observations of the transformation of city life, how "the urban world is never represented in and of itself but always through the sensibility, the preoccupations and the limited visual or auditory vantage point of the protagonist." In this novel, Flaubert develops an innovative diction that reveals the disturbing nature of the new urban reality. Alter's discussion is so compelling that one is driven to immediately go out and acquire The Sentimental Education!

Dickens' sometimes extravagant descriptions of the underbelly of 19th century London are legendary, and Alter compares and contrasts Dickens and Flaubert and their very different approaches to writing about the city milieu.

Less well known is the work of Andrei Bely, a Russian novelist who wrote Petersburg , the focus of Alter's discussion. St. Petersburg was perhaps the first planned city — and possibly the only one — in Europe. Yet for all the foresight that went into it, urban crowding and the accretion of slums on the outskirts could not be avoided: "the swarm" — a key word in this novel — "threatens the planned city as an embodiment of the actual, uncontainable nature of the urban world." Bely contrasts the mathematical precision of the city's grid with the "antigeometric figure of the swarm" to highlight the contradictions between urban fantasy and reality.

Alter tells us that "Bely's St. Petersburg, like Flaubert's Paris, is represented as a place more of streets than of houses, and, even more notably, of opening and shutting doors." Here is an entrancing passage from Petersburg:

"From time to time, while passing from the outer door to the inner door of the entryway, a certain strange, very strange state came over him, as if everything that was beyond the door was not what it was, but something else. Beyond the door there was nothing. If the door were to be flung open it would be flung open onto the measureless immensity of the cosmos, and the only thing left was to . . . plunge into it headfirst and fly past stars and planetary spheres, in an atmosphere of two hundred and seventy-three degrees below zero."

Bely represents the dark side of modernism in his view that "the overweening urban project cannot hold together." And as Alter points out, there seems to be a correspondence between "the modern city as a construct of human design . . . and the modern novel as an inventive assemblage of self-conscious, sometimes iconoclastic artifices."

Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway — by contrast almost an urban pastoral — presents a pleasant change from all this "angst, alienation and anomie." Here we see that cities are also places of excitement and beauty. This idea and others are developed more fully in the book.

Joyce and Kafka present still different pictures of urban life. Joyce's Dublin is a small town compared to Paris or London, yet in Ulysses Joyce puts us right there on the tram in front of Nelson's Pillar. Kafka, on the other hand, in The Trial sees the city as a place of instability pervaded by a climate of suspicion.

Robert Alter has a wonderful ability to focus on an idea — in this case the fictional presentation of urban life — and cause one to look at writing not merely as storytelling but as a multilayered communication. He brings one into the mind of the author to show how a particular passage is not merely a brilliant piece of descriptive writing, but it may demonstrate the very essence of the milieu in which characters operate without devolving into symbolism. His discussion of novelistic technique brings the reader right to the writer's desk and you can really see how the writing is done. In this context, the book is similar to Pen of Iron, which also looks in detail at writing style in the context of conveying and presenting more than the bare bones of a story. And like Pen of Iron, this is another five-star read. ( )
10 stem Poquette | Jun 8, 2012 |
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In Imagined Cities, Robert Alter traces the arc of literary development triggered by the runaway growth of urban centers from the early nineteenth century through the first two decades of the twentieth. As new technologies and arrangements of public and private space changed the ways people experienced time and space, the urban panorama became less coherent--a metropolis defying traditional representation and definition, a vast jumble of shifting fragments and glimpses--and writers were compelled to create new methods for conveying the experience of the city. In a series of subtle and convincing interpretations of novels by Flaubert, Dickens, Bely, Woolf, Joyce, and Kafka, Alter reveals the ways the city entered the literary imagination. He shows how writers of diverse imaginative temperaments developed innovative techniques to represent shifts in modern consciousness. Writers sought more than a journalistic representation of city living, he argues, and to convey meaningfully the reality of the metropolis, the city had to be re-created or reimagined. His book probes the literary response to changing realities of the period and contributes significantly to our understanding of the history of the Western imagination.

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