Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel

by Robert Alter
174 pages,
ISBN: 0300108028

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Where Urban Novels Come From
by Olga Stein

Robert Alter takes his readers on a fascinating tour of 19th century's major cities. Alter hopes to give some impression of these centres' bustle and scope. He aims to convince us of the dislocating strangeness of what, historically speaking, is a 'new' entity-the industrial metropolis. With its quickly expanding density of urban dwellers and their ceaseless activity, its new technologies-trains and trams, glass and metal structural fabric, new forms of illumination-but also its slums, industrial smog and garbage, the city's effect on the individual psyche was unprecedented. Alter points out that the vast, pulsating metropolis, parading its many wares of available goods and services, stimulated sense and desire like never before. At the same time, it overwhelmed the perceptual and cognitive faculties and, paradoxically, through its apparent limitlessness, produced an awareness of personal limitation and vulnerability.
All this is not new, though Alter's formulations are always novel-sounding, and beautifully framed. Alter himself helpfully credits Georg Simmel, an early-twentieth-century sociologist, for writing a ground-breaking essay, "The Metropolis and Mental Life", from which Alter quotes several snippets. Simmel describes the consciousness of the new urbanite as altered through "the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli", and by "the rapid crowd of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions."
In Imagined Cities' meticulously beaded exposition it is the illuminating use Alter makes of such insights that is new. His various exegetic strands tie into two principle propositions: First, the radically different environment of 19th century cities like Paris, London, and to a lesser extent Dublin (much smaller in size but growing at a comparable rate) noticeably transformed urban experience and spurred a handful of novelists-Gustave Flaubert and James Joyce among others-to find some literary expression for this change in gestalt. Balzac, whom Alter puts to work as a foil-since he is "more a mythographer of Paris than a realist witness to the experience of the city," employing narrative that is "expository, declarative, abounding in rhetorical balance and antithesis, reveling in inventory-like catalogues, insisting on thematic unities," and because he banks on "weighty aphorisms" and "authoritative declarations"-becomes a giant turned fossil. Successful innovators like Flaubert, asserts Alter, rejected the "magisterial certitude" of the Balzacian narrator, the "super-flGneur -

comprehending all the individual flGneurs in his commanding overview while sharing with them the piquant, untiring curiosity of spectatorship, which at moments comes to seem virtually the rationale for his telling the story of these Parisian lives riven by passions and jealousies and terrible obsessions."

What novels like The Sentimental Education (1869) attest to-besides the jewelled precision of Flaubert's descriptive language-is the "demise of the Spectator" (significantly, the title of Imagined Cities' first chapter) and the "perfecting [of] a technique", le style indirect libre, which Alter refers to as "narrated monologue".
The omnipresent, all-seeing spectator-narrators of old offered broad, schematic, and hence artificial observations of the city and its parts. By contrast, the newly fashioned third-person interior monologue became, in Flaubert's novel about a youngish man's ennuied sojourn in Paris, a means of limning subjective experience. Flaubert's purpose was to describe with accuracy the urban milieu as it appeared, sounded and smelled to a person, from the vantage point of, for example, a certain street corner at a certain hour. Subjective experience is circumscribed by where one stands and what one can realistically see, hear, and mentally process. Flaubert had grasped, according to Alter, that the city had a dizzying effect on the mind, and that the fragmentary and jarring quality of things glimpsed and heard-which could disorient, alarm, or excite-are adequately articulated only by way of narrative that sifts the medley of urban phenomena through the limited, fallible and impressionable apperception of a single consciousness. This is "experiential realism", the life-like encounter of urban sights and sounds with which Flaubert sought to create realistic-albeit idiosyncratically angled-snapshot depictions of Paris.
With reasoning of this kind, Alter gathers sufficient impetus to carry the second, more debatable, portion of his disquisition: Put simply, it is not that Flaubert's "radical interiorisation" of narrative, already employed in Madame Bovary, a novel about small-town life, had simply been perfected in The Sentimental Education; it is not that the simulated vista of consciousness was a fortuitous literary development-more an outgrowth of Flaubert's creative sensibilities than change in his surroundings-that came to influence other writers: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Andrei Bely, Franz Kafka, and William Faulkner. For Alter, it is, rather, that the city was a primary and critical catalyst. It was the city that necessitated the innovations that begun with the "modernist" Sentimental Education, and within five decades, culminated in the literature of High Modernism, with novels like Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Joyce's Ulysses, and Bely's Petersburg. In The Sentimental Education, writes Alter, are found

"the seeds of the stream of consciousness, a narrative technique especially suited for registering response to the multifarious and discontinuous realities of the modern metropolis....It will require just another step in literary evolution and a further shift in historical experience to move the formal precedents set by this novel to Leopold Bloom wandering through the streets of Dublin and Clarissa Dalloway looking out the window at the passing panorama of London. For this beginning point of the story of the novel's response to the modern city, it suffices to say that Flaubert, without overtly rewriting the prevailing conventions of the genre, had succeeded in fashioning an innovative language that could register the compelling, disturbing, and essentially centrifugal character of the new urban realm."

How do we know Alter isn't moving in reverse-that is, putting the city before the foundation of narrative representations of consciousness? We know because Alter isn't forging links of a single kind; while the refinement of "narrated monologue" into stream of consciousness as a literary tool is a fact that is worthy of analysis, it is telling that the chapters on Woolf's Ms. Dalloway and Joyce's Ulysseus are preceded by two superb chapters on Dickens, who "adhere[s] quite unswervingly to an external and omniscient point of view." In other words, Dickens, a traditionalist, is nevertheless included in Alter's survey because of what his novels are about: apart from being exquisitely rendered morality plays, they dramatise with great vitality different and unavoidably overlapping strata of life in the new urban habitat.
Dickens's London, Alter informs us, was ten times larger than Paris. It's population had increased from one million in 1800 to almost six and half million by 1900. The growth in population wasn't complemented by government-level planning designed to ease the desperate conditions of the urban poor or to remove the by-products of compacted existence. In addition, Londoners were burning soft coal to stay warm. The city became "a wilderness of smokestacks and chimney pots"-a giant, filthy beast, to use a Dickensian touch-that the author both loved and despised.
The ill-logic of London-the helter skelter construction, dearth of infrastructure, miserable conditions and disease in the slums-is something the socially conscious Dickens strove to describe for his readers. Like Flaubert, he realized that the city had a certain effect on the psyche, overwhelming the individual with its scale, grime, and its callous, one-track preoccupations with industry and capital. Alter writes:

"...[Dickens] has no concern with, and indeed no technical access to, that essentially disorienting shower of multifarious stimuli which is the hallmark of urban experience in Flaubert. Nevertheless, Dickens shares with Flaubert an imaginative intuition that the rapidly expanding metropolis. . .was running out of control. Both writers have a sense that the very dimensions of the modern city dwarf the individual, threaten to subvert the exercise of human agency. Flaubert. . . registers this predicament as a perceptual problem, a confusion of individual consciousness. Dickens, deploying with great virtuosity a series of panoramic views of he city...raises questions about its viability as an embodiment of human civilization, that interrogate it not from the point of view of the individual but from that of humankind collectively."

Dickens, no less than Flaubert, intended to create a vivid portrait of London. But his methods were strikingly different, though no less original when compared to other 19th-century realist writing. In the chapter entitled "The Realism of Metaphor", Alter illustrates how Dickens wrapped accounts of ordinary portions of the cityscape in metaphors and similes that were intended to elicit specific, yet universal emotional responses, and that imparted, as a result, heightened 'visual' definition to such scenes:

"Dickens repeatedly exercises a faculty of archaic vision in which what meets the eye in the contemporary scene triggers certain primal fears and fantasies, archaic visions becoming the medium through which we are led to see the troubling meanings of the new urban reality."

The Dublin of James Joyce's Ulysses is far smaller in size and population than Dickens's London. It's also part of the 20th century-modern, technologically updated, and cleaner. This is perhaps why Joyce's literary response to the urban experience is positive, even celebratory. Flaubert's innovative emphasis on discontinuous and disjointed visual data is adapted to keep pace with a Dublin now equipped with electricity and trams; for instance, Bloom catches a fleeting glimpse of a woman, or more precisely, of her disembodied elegantly gloved hand and "the laceflare of her hat in the sun," as a tram speeds her "flicker, flick" out of sight. And the clanging of the trams, their regular back-and-forth movement, contributes to the polyphony of impressions, which sets off in Bloom's mind chain reactions of thought, recollections, anxieties and longings.
The city is more than ever a source of distraction and beguilement, and in Ulysses, it is rivaled by Bloom's receptive and fecund intellect and imagination. Bloom's inner world is tumultuous; his mind collects, converts and amplifies all manner of transmissions, but it is the nature of these manifold transmissions that both reinforces Alter's thesis and demonstrates why this novel continues to enthrall readers and influence writers today. Commenting on a passage from Ulysses, Alter underscores its essential urbaneness:

"Joyce understood more knowingly than any other modern writer that a culture-and a city as the capital of a culture-is a vast palimpsest in which one language is written, or indeed scribbled, on top of another. To put this in the terms that M.M. Bakhtin has vigorously set forth, the city is a prime arena for the clash and interchange of languages, each reflecting the values of the social, professional, or ideological subgroup from which it derives. . . Joyce's Dublin, like modern cities elsewhere, is a city papered over with texts. Just in this panoramic episode, we have: the advertisement on the sandwich boards, the crumpled throwaway announcing the coming of Elijah (text turned into garbage, as in Dickens). . .the fragments of Milton and Blake floating in Stephen's stream of consciousness, the specimen here of erotic fiction, an actual quotation (collage is part of Joyce's technique) of the Freeman's Journal for June 16, 1904, regarding a lunacy case involving a certain Potterton, and much, much more."
Imagined Cities is a guide to canonical works of literature of the last century and half. It offers excellent analyses of narrative technique and key stylistic attributes, and convincingly proposes cross-national currents of literary influence. It also prompts the reader to look afresh at novels like Saturday by Ian McEwan, Don Coles's Dr. Bloom's Story, and even Ray Robertson's Gently Down the Stream and contemplate the extent to which they are creatures of their environment.

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