Strange Likeness: Description and the Modernist Novel

Strange Likeness: Description and the Modernist Novel

by Dora Zhang

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The modern novel, so the story goes, thinks poorly of mere description—what Virginia Woolf called “that ugly, that clumsy, that incongruous tool.” As a result, critics have largely neglected description as a feature of novelistic innovation during the twentieth century. Dora Zhang argues that descriptive practices were in fact a crucial site of attention and experimentation for a number of early modernist writers, centrally Woolf, Henry James, and Marcel Proust.

Description is the novelistic technique charged with establishing a common world, but in the early twentieth century, there was little agreement about how a common world could be known and represented. Zhang argues that the protagonists in her study responded by shifting description away from visualizing objects to revealing relations—social, formal, and experiential—between disparate phenomena. In addition to shedding new light on some of the best-known works of modernism, Zhang opens up new ways of thinking about description more broadly. She moves us beyond the classic binary of narrate-or-describe and reinvigorates our thinking about the novel. Strange Likeness will enliven conversations around narrative theory, affect theory, philosophy and literature, and reading practices in the academy.

Editorial Reviews

Stanford University Mark McGurl

"For so long description has seemed the simplest part of what the novel does, the inert counterpart to narrated action and reflection. In overturning that assumption, Zhang gives us a whole new modernism and, in a way, a whole new novel, since the light cast by her utterly convincing readings of James, Proust and Woolf reflects both backward and forward across the entirety of its history. Strange Likeness models a form of criticism in which intensity and precision in the analysis of literary texts is what opens them anew to the most far-reaching questions of our relation to each other and to the physical world."

University of Virginia Michael Levenson

A shrewd and splendid study, elegantly conceived, timely, and persuasive. Strange Likeness is at once an incisively close study of James, Proust, and Woolf, and a far-reaching account of the overlooked descriptive vocation of twentieth-century fiction. With unbroken lucidity and verve, Zhang offers a powerful revisionary reading of the modernist novel.

Rutgers University David Kurnick

Strange Likeness rearranges what we think we know about modernism’s relation to realism—and to questions of objectivity, psychology, social convention, and collective life. Zhang is a gifted critic, beautifully attentive to details and large patterns, precise in her analytic vocabulary, and admirably thorough in her range of theoretical and historical reference. Her lucid, ambitious book deserves to be widely read and debated.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226722528
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/22/2020
Series: Thinking Literature Series
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

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