- The Syllables of Time: Proust and the History of Reading
Teresa Whitington seeks to account for the narrative function of representations of reading in Proust's À la recherche while also — taking her cue from James Smith Allen's In the Public Eye: A History of Reading in Modern France, 1800-1940 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991) — treating Proust's book 'as a resource for the history of reading in the period covered by the novel' (p. 3). These are ambitious goals, and in such a short study Whitington's coverage, both literary-critical and cultural-historical, feels scant. She focuses successive chapters on the sorts of reading depicted (such as reading in bed or being read to) and on the different material supports of reading that feature prominently. There is a chapter on 'Posters and Presents', which are revelatory of different sorts of readerly seduction: the forces of commercial advertising and of erotically charged gifts and loans of carefully chosen texts. There is also a chapter on the French press in À la recherche, which scrutinizes Proust's attitudes to different sorts of journalistic writing and their various manifestations in his novel. The chapter on 'Letters and Telegrams' shows interestingly how these old (hand-) [End Page 499] written and new electrical modes of communication are revelatory of the relationships in which they feature. They allow Proust to explore the social circumstances of such acts of communication as well as the psychological processes involved in their interpretation. The book's final chapter treats 'The Imagery of Reading' (that is, figural uses of verbs such as lire and déchiffrer). Whitington observes that Proust's images 'frequently involve micro-dramatizations of the reading lives of imaginary characters' (p. 80), but, with little persuasive analysis to bind it together, the chapter reads like a list of somewhat disparate examples. Whitington's prose is marked throughout by repetitions and redundant reformulations. At times she lards her sentences with single words or phrases from Proust's French (for example, 'he also makes the suggestion [. . .] that she go instead "au Trocadéro"', p. 45), which raise our expectations but remain largely unjustified; at other times valuable space is wasted on unnecessary glosses (for instance, 'Baudelaire asserts that one can become intoxicated on wine, poetry or virtue, "De vin, de poésie ou de vertu"', p. 107). These contradictory and distracting habits suggest an uncertainty on the author's part as to the book's intended audience. In her Conclusion Whitington returns to Allen's In the Public Eye, citing it as 'seminal', yet twice mistaking its author's first name (pp. 99-100); there is a substantial number of typographical errors ('madeleine' is misspelt in the book's opening sentence, and, glaringly in a work on book culture, we find 'Bible, Le [sic]' (p. 110) among other glitches in the bibliography). Proust's novel undoubtedly has its contribution to make to our understanding of the history of reading in France, but Whitington's book does little more than point towards some of the forms this contribution might take.