As a literary critic, the prolific Robert Alter, author of seventeen books of criticism and biblical translation, has been an outspoken advocate of what some might regard as an old-fashioned approach to literature. In The Pleasure of Reading in an Ideological Age (1989) he contends that much contemporary criticism is more concerned with advancing a political agenda than it is with the pleasure inherent in the act of reading (that is, interpretation) itself. Alter, however, is no strict formalist. He is acutely aware of the powerful currents of historical change and how novelists register such change at the subtlest levels of perspective and figuration.
In Imagined Cities Alter is concerned with the phenomenal growth of European cities during the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth. He argues, as many others have, that the “runaway growth” of the city brought about radical changes in the day-to-day experience of urban dwellers. The experience of a new and crushing urban density, of new modes of transportation, of the vastly quickened pace of daily life, of altered patterns of consumption and financial exchange, of cityscapes poisoned by industrial waste, Alter suggests, brought about a new awareness of the categories of time and space, of “the boundaries of the self and the autonomy of the individual.”
What may surprise some readers is that Alter does not include in his study writers such as Émile Zola or Honoré de Balzac, whose novels abound in realistic or naturalistic portrayals of nineteenth century urban life. Alter is more attracted to what he calls the experimental realism of modernists such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Franz Kafka, writers who are more attuned to “the shifting pulse of experience felt by the individual, how the mind and the senses take in the world, construct it, or on occasion are confounded by it.”
The first four chapters of Imagined Cities focus on two writers whom Alter perceives as significant forerunners of the modernists: Gustave Flaubert and Charles Dickens. Flaubert’s Paris was in many ways the paradigm of explosive growth and change in the nineteenth century. In the first half of the century the city’s population doubled; by 1860 it had incorporated the surrounding suburbs, and its population had increased by another third. In addition, Paris was, as Alter notes, “the crucible for historical transformation in nineteenth century Europe,” having undergone revolutionary upheaval in 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1871. As a result Paris became “increasingly a theater of perplexity, defying summation, lacking social, political, and therefore thematic coherence.” In Alter’s view, it was Flaubert who first came to terms with this perplexed new urban reality and its impact upon the individual by abandoning the narrative omniscience of his predecessors and replacing it with what Alter calls “narrated monologue”a variant of limited omniscience in which the unvoiced speech of a character (usually the protagonist) is fused with the voice of the narrator.
According to Alter, “Flaubert’s . . . perception is that the individual, caught in the shower of exciting and conflicting stimuli of the urban milieu, can see them only through the distorting medium of his private preoccupations.” Thus in Flaubert’s great Parisian novel The Sentimental Education (1869), the tumultuous and confusing life of the city is rendered exclusively through the eyes of the novel’s protagonist, Frederic. As a result, the urban panorama presented so brilliantly by Balzac is here fragmented or dissolved in fleeting perceptions colored by the protagonist’s interior life, his fears, hopes, and fantasies. The urban dweller in Flaubert’s novelistic vision is no longer part of a dynamic whole but an “isolate individual.” His perceptions of time and space become “a maelstrom in which the centrifugal elements of experience are whirled together in dizzying combinations.”
In The Sentimental Education the coherent world of realist fiction begins to break down even at the levels of syntax and metaphor, powerfully influencing the modernist experimentation that would emerge several decades later. Moreover, the modernists’ interest in the nature of consciousness is anticipated in Flaubert. Is consciousness an awareness of thought, or merely the deceptive and superficial awareness of fathomless depths over which the individual has no control? Already in Flaubert’s fiction, the answer to that question is ambiguous.
In turning to the later novels of Dickens, Alter readily admits to what appears to be a regression. By...
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