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Impressionism in Literature: Background information when reading The Sunken Cathedral

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The Sunken Cathedral

by Kate Walbert

The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert X
The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2015, 224 pages
    Mar 2016, 224 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Davida Chazan
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About this Book

Impressionism in Literature

This article relates to The Sunken Cathedral

Print Review

Kate Walbert's The Sunken Cathedral is an impressionistic novel. But what does that mean?

Monet's HaystackWhen we hear the word impressionism, the first things that come to mind are the names Monet, Degas, Cezanne and other artists who were part of this movement of painting and sculpture during the late 19th century. Their unique use of color and style, combined with their ability to express their impression of how they saw the world through their art, was a break from the realistic, practically photographic pieces of the Realism period that preceeded and overlapped with Impressionism.

Claude Debussy title=At about the same time, this movement also spilled over into the world of music. Most people believe that composers Ravel and Debussy were at its forefront (although some align Debussy more with the symbolist movement of music.) According to the Norton A History of Western Music, what the impressionist and symbolist movements have in common is "a sense of detached observation: rather than expressing deeply felt emotion or telling a story … [it] typically evokes a mood, feeling, atmosphere, or scene." A prime example of this is Debussy's piano prelude "The Sunken Cathedral", which was the composer's impression of the story of the Breton legend of the City of Ys. While Debussy and Ravel's names are well known, their connection to the impressionist movement is less familiar.

Virginia WoolfeBut the link between impressionism and literature is even more obscure. Here, too, impressionist writers seem to have quite a bit in common with those writers categorized as symbolists, and names such as Baudelaire, Henry James, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce pop up for either or both movements. One aspect of this type of writing is the unconventional use of time and space; the reader absorbing the past, present and even future all mixed up together. Impressionist writers also include references to all of the senses. For example, one line might refer to a thought a character is having today, while in the middle of a conversation, and then the next line might refer to that character's memory of something he saw somewhere else 20 years prior – a memory triggered by a gesture or sound or smell or any other sensory detail. In this way, we get an overall impression of the characters, including what is in their minds and lives, without the need for exacting realities spelled out in long, chronological, descriptive passages.

This reminded me of the climax passage from Henry Roth's novel Call it Sleep, where the young boy David touches the electrified third rail. Roth's description of what goes on in David's head - what he feels and what he thinks he is seeing - is both surreal and realistic, with both tactile and visceral elements. Although most categorize this book as a modernist novel, this particular section of the book is highly impressionistic, and so powerful it has remained vivid to me, even after reading it only once, and several decades ago. That is the way it is with impressionistic art – just as many of us remember the feeling we had when we saw our first impressionistic painting, listening to impressionistic music and reading impressionistic literature are experiences that will also stay with you for many years to come.

Listen to Debussy's "The Sunken Cathedral":

Haystacks by Claude Monet, courtesy of Rlbberlin
Claude Debussy, courtesy of Bloom6132
Virginia Woolfe, courtesy of Adam Cuerden

Article by Davida Chazan

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Sunken Cathedral. It originally ran in June 2015 and has been updated for the March 2016 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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