Book Review - 'Imagined Cities'

June 6, 2006, 7am PDT | Lainie Herrera
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A comparison of six 19th- and 20th-Century authors shows that the complex character of urban areas can be interpreted in ways beyond physical experience, as exemplified by the language used in fiction to chronicle the "stimuli of the city", writes Lainie Herrera in this review of Robert Alter's Imagined Cities.

Lainie HerreraLiterary Gems: Chronicling the Stimuli of the City
Imagined Cities
Written by Robert Alter (Yale University Press, 2005)
Reviewed by Planetizen Correspondent Lainie Herrera

In Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel, literary scholar Robert Alter provides a tour of the experience of the modern city by examining the work of six 19th and 20th century novelists: Gustave Flaubert, Charles Dickens, Andrey Bely, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Franz Kafka. In this thorough, well-argued book aimed more at urban readers than city planners, Alter introduces the concept of "experiential realism", the technique invoked by these authors to communicate the atmosphere of the city through literature. As its name suggests, the strategy equates personal experience with reality, and cities are often portrayed via the narrator's first-hand perspective.

Before delving into an analysis of the novels' content, Alter examines their use of language, distinguishing the language of the novel from "quotidian" communication outside of fiction. Although fiction attempts to communicate the experience of the commonplace, according to Alter, the examined authors rely on a unique literary dialect to relay their urban experience. Alter defines this "sociolect" as "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 within the general society." Alter makes no attempt to evaluate the city itself, its function, validity, effectiveness, or relationship to its citizens or visitors; he focuses solely on the means by which writers have created an understanding of the experience of the city.

Alter first follows the writings of Flaubert, who centers on Paris's "conflicting stimuli", illustrated by scenes such as a masked ball in The Sentimental Education, where "Frederic was at first dazzled by the lights; he could make out only the silk, the velvet, naked shoulders, a mass of colors that balanced the sounds of an orchestra hidden by greenery, between walls hung in yellow silk, with pastel portraits, here and there, and crystal candelabra in the style of Louis XVI." Explains Alter, "Because the realist novel is to such a large degree about the encounter with new social and moral experience and how it reshapes the protagonist one of the defining novelistic scenes -- a kind of central topos of the novel -- is the entrance of the protagonist into unfamiliar space." The protagonist's new experience generates a sensory overload of literary gems -- aesthetic stimulation in montage. Flaubert's description of the masked ball delves beyond aesthetics to textures and sounds. His language perpetuates the idea of cities as the urban combined seamlessly with the imagination, an "imaginative binge", says Alter, which in turn can evoke a tone of disjunction and loss. At times, the conflicting stimuli of the city can be intoxicating, but they are just as easily disorienting.

After Flaubert, Alter chronicles an evolution in the representation of the city in literature, through a series of works that educe whole new ways of seeing and understanding the city. For example, Dickens uses emotion to express a sense of loss as the city begins to represent a departure from nature and a turn toward technology. Alter notes Dickens's inclusion of pollution, the prevailing ideas of death and darkness, and "a sense of claustral enclosure" settling on London.

The chapter dedicated to Bely, tellingly titled "Phantasmatic City", evaluates Petersburg, one of the first major cities thoroughly planned and constructed on the rectilinear grid. Bely goes beyond visual descriptions of Petersburg, expressing the protagonist's apprehensiveness and uncertainty to create tone, and disjunction to create mystery. Alter concludes that Bely creates "a certain correlation between the modern city as a construct of human design and technology and the modern novel as an inventive assemblage of self-conscious, sometimes iconoclastic, artifices."

Just when, as Alter puts it, "the modern metropolis seems to earn a triple-A rating for angst, alienation, and anomie" from the cynical and at times overwhelming viewpoints of Flaubert, Dickens, and Bely, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway provides relief. "What Woolf actually offers is a long series of poetic meditations", writes Alter, "set in a minimal narrative frame, on the city as a theater of vitality and transience, the city as an image of the human condition." While Alter doesn't reference gender, Woolf's writing is distinctly feminine: "For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh…in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June."

James Joyce's work contrasts Woolf's and the preceding writers, using the stimuli of the city as a source of energy, as opposed to disorientation. "Joyce keenly understands that urban life has a distinctive rhythm, which he registers in the distinctive rhythm of his prose, and that this rhythm defines the urbanite's relationship with the world", says Alter. Alter concludes with Kafka, and tries to steer clear from the cliche of categorizing the "Metamorphosis" author's prose as dreamlike, while creating a fuller understanding of his technique. In fact, Alter contrasts Flaubert's dreamy prose with the shadowy figures, drab aesthetics, and the detachment and suspicion of Kafka's protagonist.

Alter's work in academia and expertise in language help him generate insights beyond what the typical reader would infer. While his own prose can be arduous at times, it is often perfectly succinct. Most importantly, Alter's interpretation of each writer is refreshing and insightful, as few deconstruct fiction in this way -- a function entirely of language and technique, regardless of the tangible context, which, in this case, is the city.

Planners may draw from Imagined Cities a greater understanding of how both language and the design of cities do not have singular outcomes, but naturally result in a variety of experiences and expressions. Alter provides an insight most planners might not pick up normally -- that their work is not just about efficiency, effectiveness, function, and art; it's part of the "quotidian" life of city dwellers, each of whom has every right and intention to do and see things differently than may be anticipated.

Lainie Herrera is a Senior Environmental Planner at Christopher A. Joseph & Associates, an environmental consulting firm specializing in the management and preparation of environmental documents. When not thinking about urban planning or the environment she reads fiction.

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