“Ever since Gutenberg,” Robert Alter writes, “the conditions of mechanical reproduction made it necessary for the individual artist to swim against a vast floodtide of trash out of all proportion to anything that had existed before in cultural history….” And when the furnace of time has digested the trash-heap of twentieth-century literary criticism, one hopes that Robert Alter’s brilliant oeuvre will endure and stand forth for its clarity of vision and purity of heart. Finishing a book by Robert Alter is like bench-pressing 500 pounds, the same way I feel when I finish wrestling with a classic. At the end of the book, I feel I’m standing atop a mountain. I feel the climb in my legs but I see the heavens and the earth from my new vantage point. Alter seems to have read every book and to speak every language, and yet he’s immune to pretense and to fads. His often beautiful prose elevates criticism to art and his evidence-based analysis of texts is as scientific in its method as writing on literature can be.
This study of self-consciousness in the novel from Don Quixote to Claude Mauriac’s 1961 The Marquise Went Out at Five contains indispensable help in understanding the Cervantes masterpiece, as well as Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, and Nabokov’s Pale Fire. As in any Alter text, he shines plenty of light on many other books in passing. He situates modernism between 19th-century realism and the more self-conscious works that followed in a helpful way, and draws a very useful distinction between self-conscious novels which concern themselves with reality and those novels of “flaunted artifice” that are card tricks for the sake of the trick. (Alter refers to some of John Barth’s work as an example of such fictions that don’t heed the complexities of reality.) Self-conscious novels that pursue realism do so, according to Alter, by charting the dynamics by which imagination acts on the raw material of reality. Self-conscious novels that lose themselves in artifice demonstrate a sort of avoidant pathology–and it’s precisely that pathology which is the focus of good self-conscious works about the imagination. There is only one reply to a novel that takes seriously the notion that ‘reality is a dream.’ And that is: you wish.