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Lost in the American City: Dickens, James, Kafka.

Lost in the American City : Dickens, James, Kafka. By JEREMY TAMBLING. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave. 2001. xvii + 229 pp. 32.50 [pounds sterling]. ISBN: 0-312-23840-1.

One of the most pleasing aspects of this very interesting study is attributable to Jeremy Tambling 'adding my own itinerary' to those of his diverse authors, revelling in 'the pleasure of walking the streets, my only way of seeing cities', but at the same time registering that he cuts a somewhat unusual figure in using James's The American Scene (1905) 'as guide book' (p. xv). If this seems a bit literalist for these more theorized times, it proves far less so than relying on, say, a contemporary Baedeker (there were four editions of United States of America, the last dating from 1909), in large part because Tambling is tracing impressions rather than facts, and because he remains adept at maintaining his focus upon a given book even when he needs to broaden the context, either by reference to another interpreter or by historical reconstruction. This is all the more necessary, and all the more welcome, as there cannot be very many readers--as Tambling obviously realizes--who, familiar with any one of his chosen texts (Dickens's American Notes For General Circulation, James's The American Scene, and Kafka's Amerika / Der Verschollene), will have more than a nodding acquaintance with, or indeed any actual experience of, either of the others. Thus challenged, Tambling adopts the eminently sensible strategy of letting his texts speak as far as they can for themselves by way of sensitively chosen quotations (often of single words or short phrases, where necessary using longer passages), though much of his argument is designed to disclose where, and why, each of his authors is more or less wittingly 'lost', or at the mercy of an unacknowledged prejudice, or too preoccupied with themselves to see as much as they might have done with the doors of perception truly open for reception. All three--Dickens, James, and Kafka--are here precisely not the masters of achievement they so obviously are at their best. But in going a little beyond what for most readers would be the canonical texts in this connection, Tambling is not so much asking us to see these texts seriously threatening the canon as demonstrating how very worthwhile each in its different way can be. There remain powerfully good reasons for preferring David Copperfield, The Ambassadors, The Trial; but by the end of this book we have come to know Dickens, James, and Kafka better than they knew themselves, and it will be an odd reader who will not be grateful to Jeremy Tambling for making it happen.

Tambling begins as if determined to ride his thesis to death, or to be ridden by it; the motif of 'the man who was never heard of again' or variants of it come to seem a mere reflex, or a way of flexing the muscular intellect for the next zone of action. The chapter 'Dickens: Tales of Several Cities' takes on more than its lead title proposes, and indeed more than can comfortably fit into the space allotted it (twenty-three pages). But once focused, as in Chapters 2 and 3, on specifics (American Notes, followed by Martin Chuzzlewit) Tambling opens up intriguing lines of enquiry, and exhibits an almost narrative skill in doing so. The twenty-plus pages on the Notes are surely the most telling estimate that they have thus far received, and the more familiar territory of Chuzzlewit is given a new lease of life by way of Tambling's investigation of spatial values, architecture, and ornamentation. Far from being perturbed on registering that the novel 'seems almost plotless', Tambling shows that 'it works in a perpetual present with a continuing power of exfoliation and detail', and by blurring 'distinctions between inside and outside' (p. 61). The idea that the 'substance' of the novel is 'gaps, discontinuity, folds within folds and space that moves about' (p. 75) sounds as if it might better be applied to Mallarme, but it comes at the end of a chapter as a kind of summary gesture (not, on this evidence, Tambling's forte), and the readings which precede it are a truer example of the 'power of exfoliation' under control.

What might almost have been called an 'interchapter' ('Writing in Reaction: Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope') follows. In this company the Dickens who has earlier seemed uncertain of his footing is praised for a 'doubleness' and 'ambiguity' (p. 89) uniquely his, though the concluding subsection 'Dickens in 1867' suggests that 'his inability to read America [...] pointed up his own constituted subjectivity as split, showing the subject as not in control, and aware of that as a source of danger' (p. 99) as a preparation for eighty pages on Henry James. The existing literature on James's 'obscure hurt' is taken as read, or at least not referred to, but it is as a text written out of, and against, hurt, 'a text implicitly aware of trauma' (p. 101), that Tambling reads The American Scene. This is more of a 'loose baggy monster' than its (happily now more numerous) admirers usually like to admit, but by a judicious use of The Ivory Tower (pp. 122-27) and of the short story 'Crapy Cornelia', and by threading H. G. Wells's The Future in America (1906) through the sometimes rather dense cluster of specifics, Tambling sustains the thrust of his argument up to and indeed beyond the point where James ends in 'quiet desolation' (p. 174) in Florida, leaving his 'California' chapter unwritten and so, in a sense, his book unfinished. The Kafka text which occupies the last sixteen pages of Lost in America--Der Verschollene (The Man Who Was Never Heard Of Again)--looked to have been left unfinished (as the story 'The Stoker') on its author's death, only to emerge posthumously as rather more finished than The Castle or The Trial, though Tambling shows that 'nothing in the text can be reduced to a thesis' and that 'the novel plots other labyrinths than [Karl Rossman, the stoker] wanders in'. The fact that Kafka never actually knew an America other than the one that either fiction or the emigre members of his family could offer him underpins the point that 'to be lost without trace is possible anywhere' (p. 197), which prompts Tambling to end his book wondering whether the American city may be 'a place for subjects without power, who have had [...] a sense of their subjectivity mauled' (p. 198), though he poses, and leaves, this issue as an unanswered question.

In what is not a long book it has nevertheless been a long trip from the unforgettable opening to Bleak House (pp. 16-23; Tambling deals sensitively with this old chestnut) to the Karl Rossman who is forgotten, and forgets himself, in 'The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma'. The details which are such a crucial part of Tambling's argument are always fascinating, but they come thick and fast and leave the final impression that some of the dust stirred up is taking its time to settle. But anyone interested in these authors and in the idea of the city will find Lost in the American City rewarding and revealing.


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Author:Pilling, John
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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