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Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel

Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel

by Robert Alter

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Jed Perl
In rapid-fire succession, Alter looks at the work of a half-dozen novelists, including Flaubert, Dickens, Bely, Woolf, Joyce and Kafka. He brings an easygoing feeling for the quickening importance of the metropolitan pageant. Alter's book is a work of scholarly criticism that is informed by immediate experience; when he writes that Woolf, in Mrs. Dalloway, presents ''the city as a theater of vitality and transience,'' you sense behind the remark Alter's own love affair with the city, his conviction that the pressures of urban life can, paradoxically, help a person define his individuality.
— The New York Times
From the Publisher

“The topic of the city remains one of the most enduring and important ones for literary study. Robert Alter’s Imagined Cities makes a fresh and always interesting contribution to this topic.”—Philip Fisher, Harvard University
Douglas Rae
“Those who think Mumford and LeCorbusier are our great urban visionaries have another think coming. As Robert Alter’s Imagined Cities demonstrates so compellingly, the great 19th century novelists—Flaubert, Dickens, Joyce—saw and imagined our cities with a brilliance few others can approach.”—Douglas Rae, author of City: Urbanism and its End
Philip Fisher
“The topic of the city remains one of the most enduring and important ones for literary study. Robert Alter’s Imagined Cities makes a fresh and always interesting contribution to this topic.”—Philip Fisher, Harvard University

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Yale University Press
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Imagined Cities

Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2005 Robert Alter
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10802-6

Chapter One

Flaubert The Demise of the Spectator

Of all the terms invoked to register what the novel does with reality-represent it, reflect it, distort it, invent it, evade it, depending on the critic's approach-the most indispensable and also the most slippery is language. We know well enough what is meant when we say that French and Italian are different languages, but it is not self-evident whether "the language of fiction" is more than a loose metaphorical application of the term to literature. The role of language for the twentieth-century theorist who has most powerfully shown its centrality to our cultural experience, M. M. Bakhtin, is symptomatic of the prevailing terminological confusion. Very occasionally, when Bakhtin says "language" he actually means something unambiguous like Russian or French. Far more often, he uses the term to indicate what a linguist would call a sociolect-the particular version of an approximately shared language that reflects the values, interests, and ideology of one class, subgroup, or political or even vocational solidarity withinthe general society. This fluidity of usage is compounded by Bakhtin's tendency to employ word, voice, and language as rough equivalents, and he is not alone in such looseness.

In some rudimentary sense, the everyday discourse of a culture, whether spoken or written, and its fiction obviously manifest the same language, and some novelists have taken pains to stress the sameness, as famously illustrated by Stendhal's declaration that his novels were written in the style of the civil code. No one would dispute that The Charterhouse of Parma and the government directives of the July Monarchy are equally written in French, and Louis Philippe's functionaries would have needed no special dictionary to decipher the novels of Stendhal. This obvious continuity between the language of literature and language in its ordinary usage must be granted, and yet there is a whole set of distinctive practices in the novelistic deployment of language that become increasingly refined in the course of the nineteenth century in an effort, I shall argue, to make the novel a more adequate vehicle for representing what is largely perceived as a new kind of reality. These technical refinements, in turn, will be assimilated and boldly extended by the modernists during the first quarter of the twentieth century.

The disjunction between the language of fiction and the language of quotidian communication has been rigorously defined in technical linguistic terms by Ann Banfield in her memorably titled study Unspeakable Sentences. She painstakingly demonstrates that there are sentence-types that can occur only in narrative fiction, not in ordinary discourse, that narrative fiction adapts the tense system of the general language in a specialized way to constitute a wholly different order of temporality, which also involves a set of deictics, or "pointing words," that function quite differently from the way they would in extrafictional usage. Her analysis leads to the conclusion that the language of fiction develops its own grammar and syntax, in certain respects only superficially resembling the grammar and syntax of ordinary discourse, and that it lacks the practical communicative function of extraliterary language. As a Chomskian linguist, Banfield believes that the distinctive features of language which property of language generated by the differing potentials of speech and writing. My own focus will be on elements of the watershed experience of nineteenth-century European history that may have driven this collective experiment in the reshaping of language in the novel. I shall make no pretense to technical linguistic analysis, and because most of the great novelists are, after all, people with an acute and original aesthetic sense manifesting itself in the medium of words, I shall be especially concerned with how the language of the novel is embodied in the style of particular novels.

The introduction of new technologies, and the new arrangements of public and private space and of social relations with which these technologies interacted and which they to some degree engendered, changed the ways Europeans experienced the fundamental categories of time and space, as Wolfgang Schivelbusch has shown in illuminating detail in his study of the effects of the railroad on nineteenth-century imaginations. Let me cite one exemplary instance that he considers, the effect of the radically new glass architecture used for the railway terminals, which imposed on processes of perception a general impression he sums up in the word evanescence:

The uniform quality of the light and the absence of light-shadow contrasts disoriented perceptual faculties used to those contrasts, just as the railroad's increased speed disoriented the traditional perception of space. The motion of the railway, proceeding uniformly and in a straight line, was experienced as abstract, pure motion, dissociated from the space in which it occurred. Analogously, the space of ferro-vitreous architecture appeared as pure and abstract light-space, dissociated from all customary architectural form, a space without qualities and contrasts.

I would like to propose a second step in this sort of analysis by addressing the means through which literature (like painting, photography, and then film) fashions an innovative language to represent this basic shift in modern consciousness. The great locus of historical dynamism in the nineteenth century-both an engine of change and its consequence-was the city. Throughout Europe, there were waves of migration from the provinces to the cities (Paris, London, Petersburg, Vienna), especially on the part of young males seeking new economic and social opportunities. There is evidence that toward the bottom of the social ladder, large numbers of young women as well migrated to the cities, chiefly peasant girls seeking urban jobs as servants. With few exceptions, however, this group remained below the threshold of novelistic representation, which for the most part concentrated on the middle classes. Here the migrants were typically young men, and the demographic movement they constituted was mirrored in a recurrent novelistic plot that Lionel Trilling aptly called the story of the Young Man from the Provinces-one thinks of Balzac's Rastignac and Lucien de Rubempré, Stendhal's Julien Sorel, Dickens's Pip, Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov. Novelists of the period were, of course, also often interested in what George Eliot announced in her subtitle for Middlemarch as "A Study of Provincial Life," but it is the new nineteenth-century city that was the most compelling theater for the playing out of the realist enterprise in the novel.

No setting provided a more powerful stimulus for this enterprise than Paris. In a famous poem, "Le Cygne" (The swan), Baudelaire saw the streets of Paris as the very embodiment of wrenching historical change. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the population of the city doubled. By 1860, a scant few years after Baudelaire's poetic reflection on the disappearance of the remembered city, Paris had incorporated the surrounding suburbs into the municipality, thus increasing its population by another third and doubling the area of the city. To this demographic and geographic expansion one must add the constant pressure of explosive political change. As many commentators have observed, what above all makes Paris the crucible for historical transformation in nineteenth-century Europe is that it is the principal European arena of revolution-in 1789, in 1830, in 1848, and in 1871, with a more or less chronic anxiety at least in some circles about potential upheaval in between those dates.

The overall effect of this mushrooming new urban reality was, as the novels of the period vividly attest, exciting, intoxicating, bewildering, and scary. A youthful immigrant from the provinces trying to make his way in Paris might have a shifting circle of friends but hardly a stable community. (People from the provinces also sometimes moved to the metropolis in family units, but as with the peasant class, groups of this sort were rarely the object of representation in the novel, given its generic commitment to tracing the fate of individuals.) The opportunities of social and economic upward mobility might ignite the new urbanite's imagination, but the competitive ruthlessness of the metropolis could easily daunt and defeat him, and his own daily condition was likely to be the state of deracinated isolation for which the Sorbonne sociologist Emile Durkheim would later coin a name-anomie. The metaphors for Paris characteristically elaborated by the novelists are a vast harem (sexual as well as economic opportunity beckons in it), a brilliant emporium (or alternately, a brawling marketplace), an exotic human and architectural wonderland, a battlefield, an inferno.

But beyond such no doubt extravagant metaphorical gestures, how was a writer to cope with this new reality in the language of fiction? The decisive figure in this story as I see it is not Balzac-who is in fact the preeminent purveyor of most of the metaphors for the city just cited-but Flaubert. His one great Parisian novel, The Sentimental Education (1869), extends the technical innovations of Madame Bovary, but as narrative and as a vision of human value in the context of nineteenth-century history, it is more radical than its predecessor, and in particular its representation of the city anticipates the great modernists who read Flaubert with keen attention.

Before we look into Flaubert, I should like to register a conviction of critical methodology. Many recent discussions of the novel, whether inflected by the New Historicism, specifically by Foucault, or by Marxism, or by feminism, stress the key role of historical contexts in determining what is sometimes referred to in marxisant language as "literary production." We of course need to know about contexts, and no sane critic will imagine that the achievements of literature miraculously spring out of a vacuum. What I shall resist in my own procedure is the notion that literature is fundamentally a reflex of ideology; or that it is primarily a manifestation of formal potentials inherent in language, as Ann Banfield seems to suggest; or that it is to be understood in collective terms as an evolution of literary codes, as Margaret Cohen has argued in her sedulously researched, though in some respects not altogether convincing, The Sentimental Education of the Novel. To concentrate on the peak achievements of individual writers is sometimes referred to pejoratively as a "monumentalizing" of literary history. Granted, it enlarges our sense of what literature is about to have some overview of the whole literary marketplace such as Cohen provides in considering nineteenth-century sentimental fiction written by women, but one hardly needs reference to, let us say, Barbara Cartland, author of several hundred vastly popular and completely formulaic romances, in order to see that Margaret Atwood at her best is a fresh and original novelist working in a wholly different order of imaginative art. I suppose that by this late moment in the era of suspicion, genius may be an altogether taboo term for critical discourse, but some equivalent of it seems necessary to describe the breakthrough Flaubert effected in perfecting a technique, le style indirect libre (following Dorrit Cohn, I shall call it narrated monologue), that had been intermittently deployed by others-in the early nineteenth century, sometimes by Jane Austen and Stendhal. Allied with other equally important techniques for representing a character's point of view, narrated monologue in Flaubert became the instrument for expressing a new sense of reality.

Why does this story begin with Flaubert rather than with Balzac? Balzac patently set himself the task of becoming the bard of the new metropolis, and the standard surveys of "the city in literature" quite properly devote considerable attention to him. But Balzac represents the city from a standpoint of assumed authority that does not do full justice to the kinetic and disorienting reality of the new nineteenth-century urban scene. To begin with, for all his attention to the observable details of the Parisian cityscape, from the new shopping arcades to the run-down quartiers that harbored crime and prostitution, Balzac is more a mythographer of Paris than a realist witness to the experience of the city. He loves to invoke the imagery of traditional mythology in order to suggest the grandeur, the intensity, the conjunction of extremes that he sees in Paris. The terms in which he represents the city are insistently hyperbolic and reflect a fondness for extravagant and symmetrical antitheses. Balzac self-consciously "does" Paris in a series of rhetorical set pieces of varying length scattered through his novels. An exemplary instance is the long introductory section of The Girl with the Golden Eyes, in which he conjures up for the reader a kind of three-sided apartment building that allows him to exhibit the tenants transparently in ascending social order, from the proletarians on the ground floor to the petty bourgeois above them and upward through the legal professions and the artists to the aristocrats on top. As mythographer of Paris, he invites us to see it through one metaphorical lens after another-sinister masquerade, steamship, battlefield, and, above all, inferno. This fondness for metaphor, always linked with an eagerness to proclaim moral meanings, leads to an allegorization of the city. Here is a characteristic passage (which I offer in Carol Cosman's recent, wonderfully apt English version):

The city, then, can have no greater morality, friendly feeling, or cleanliness than the boiler engines of those magnificent steamships that you admire as they cut through the waves! Paris is indeed a superb vessel laden with intelligence. Yes, her coat of arms is one of the oracles sometimes allowed by fate. The CITY OF PARIS has her tall bronze mast engraved with victories and with Napoleon at the helm. This craft may pitch and roll, but she plows through the world of men, fires through the hundred mouths of her tribunes, furrows the seas of science full steam ahead, cries through the voices of her scholars and artists: "Forward, march! Follow me!"

At moments such as this, one feels that Balzac's literary myth of Paris is less a representation of the city than impassioned promotional material for it. What matters above all is the idea that Paris, whatever its outrageous contradictions and its hellish faces (or rather because of them), is the place where things happen, the place to which all the world turns. The odd insertion here of Napoleon and the motif of victories a decade and a half after the debacle of Waterloo is an instructive symptom of this impulse to set Paris at the vanguard of history, even in defiance of its actual political fortunes.


Excerpted from Imagined Cities by ROBERT ALTER Copyright © 2005 by Robert Alter. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Robert Alter is the Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He has published widely on the modern European and American novel, on modern Hebrew literature, and on literary aspects of the Bible. He is the author of Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture, published by Yale University Press.

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