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Imagined Cities

Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel

Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Imagined Cities
    Book Description:

    InImagined 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12707-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. 1 Flaubert: The Demise of the Spectator
    (pp. 1-22)

    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 islanguage. We know well enough what is meant when we say that French and Italian are different languages, but it is not selfevident 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...

  5. 2 Flaubert: Urban Poetics
    (pp. 23-42)

    One of the central expressions of the uncompromising modernism ofThe Sentimental Educationis that it is a novel in which nothing really happens. The short-circuiting of traditional plot is obviously before all else the consequence of Frédéric’s character. He is a person who can sustain concentration only on his own daydreams, and, unlike Emma Bovary, he never goes so far as to commit himself to the catastrophic course of seriously trying to enact the dreams. He turns round and round the woman he loves and will never possess; he has misdirected affairs with women he ultimately does not care...

  6. 3 Dickens: The Realism of Metaphor
    (pp. 43-62)

    In tracing a line from Flaubert’s extraordinary innovations in rendering the city through the protagonist’s perspective to the interior monologues of the modernist novel, one runs the risk of assuming a kind of evolutionary model for the history of the novel. In such a view, the fussiness of high-profile omniscient narration and the confidence of an objective report of external reality are sloughed off as the novel fully realizes its vocation of persuasively representing subjective experience. There is, however, only a partial and therefore misleading truth in such a linear account. Sundry modes of authoritative narration have continued to appeal...

  7. 4 Dickens: Intimations of Apocalypse
    (pp. 63-82)

    The treatment of the city in the novels of Dickens evolves through time, not in an entirely consistent chronological trajectory but nevertheless with a noticeable difference in emphasis after he reaches the height of his powers. It is that evolution which justifies for our purposes concentrating on the later Dickens and in particular on his last completed novel. He was, of course, fascinated with London from the start, but in the earlier novels the fascination manifests itself chiefly in an activity of scrupulous observation intertwined with lively, sometimes fantastic caricature. This makes his narrator roughly analogous to Balzac’s curious and...

  8. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  9. 5 Bely: Phantasmatic City
    (pp. 83-102)

    If the great capitals of Western Europe become “new” cities during the nineteenth century because their exponential growth and the intervention of modern technology transform the underlying nature of urban experience, Petersburg is a new city in a stricter and more radical sense of the term. Created by an edict of Peter the Great in 1703, it is the one European capital that is a through-and-through planned city, an act of political will imposed on the marshlands along the Neva River not far from the Finnish border by a tsar intent on westernizing and “rationalizing” his nation. (Though the original...

  10. 6 Woolf: Urban Pastoral
    (pp. 103-120)

    To judge by the novels we have considered so far, the modern metropolis seems to earn a triple-A rating for angst, alienation, and anomie, with a certain appropriateness in the trilingualism of the alliterative triplet if one thinks of the pan-European scope of these urban pathologies. This somber view of the city is not merely the reflection of the writers’ private obsessions (although of course it is often also that), for there is abundant evidence that the unprecedented demographic mushrooming within urban space throughout the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth was rarely matched by a collective ability to...

  11. 7 Joyce: Metropolitan Shuttle
    (pp. 121-140)

    Joyce’sUlyssesoffers a more variously ample imagining of the city than any other modern novel. The distinctive aspects of the representation of urban experience that we have been following from Flaubert onward are all present here in a stepped-up version, whirling around in wild and often extravagant circulation. The imprint on the mind of the flotsam and jetsam of the bustling city streets is intensified in this novel, with the sense of disjunctive perception heightened by the stream-of-consciousness technique, which is arguably the ultimate fulfillment of Flaubert’s narrative practice of showing everything through the character’s eyes. The stream of...

  12. 8 Kafka: Suspicion and the City
    (pp. 141-160)

    It may seem at first an eccentric choice to conclude these considerations of the city and the language of the novel with Kafka. He, it might be objected, is by no means a realist, and so what possible bearing could his fiction have on representations of the modern European city? In fact, the focus of my analysis throughout has been not on an objective entity called the modern city which is somehow “reflected” in the novel but rather on a certain range of experience, much of it quite distinctive in nature, that is generated by the new metropolises and for...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 161-164)
  14. Index
    (pp. 165-175)