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  • Victims of the Book. Reading and Masculinity in Fin-de-Siècle France by François Proulx
  • Diana Holmes
François Proulx. Victims of the Book. Reading and Masculinity in Fin-de-Siècle France. The University of Toronto Press, 2019, 390 pp.

The moral and social dangers of reading, especially novel reading, have most commonly been raised in relation to women: bovarysme was a familiar male anxiety in (and well beyond) the patriarchal culture of nineteenth-century France. The originality of this book is to identify and study a different, if not unrelated, set of fears about the effects of reading on gendered identity. As the Third Republic sought to establish itself as a modernising, productive and stable regime after France's humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the socially conservative majority of France's new ruling class soon began to fear new dangers to the nation's moral and political health. Free, compulsory State education produced mass literacy, which led to an economically buoyant publishing industry, but also to an increase in social mobility that threatened the stability of the class system. The birth rate was declining, suggesting that young people were failing in their duty to form families and reproduce. Anxiety crystallised in part around the effects on young men of excessive reading, and François Proulx uncovers the paradoxical sub-genre of [End Page 257] cautionary texts about reading itself, or in other words novels that invite their (male) readers not to read fiction.

Proulx's methodology is interesting and effective. His corpus extends beyond even marginally canonical works to novels long out of print and forgotten: to these in particular he applies a combination of the "distant reading" recommended by Franco Moretti to gain a broad overview of a period's literary output and the close textual reading more commonly applied to canonical texts. Thus, he makes a persuasive case for the extensive presence of what he calls the "novel of formation" within fin-de-siècle publishing, but also finds illuminating contradictions, cases of self-irony, and queer sub-texts not only in texts by well-known authors but also in those whose shelf-life was decidedly ephemeral. Queerness is entirely relevant to his argument, for if demographic decline triggered such concern, this was in part because it seemed to throw doubt on the virility perceived as essential to national defence, and indeed to national identity. Indulging in solitary reading rather than manly pursuits was implicitly likened to masturbation and seen as leading to other "unnatural" desires. The artistic fashion for Decadence, with its provocative disdain for all things "natural" including the heterosexual family, no doubt fuelled the pervasive sense that reading posed a threat to the nation's advancement.

The more prominent authors of "novels of formation" are thus seen to form part of a wider current of literary production, and of a pervasive unease about reading and male sexuality equally evident in press debates and causes célèbres. Novelists Bourget, Barrès, Vallès, the early Martin du Gard are all shown to have contributed to the era's admonitory discourse on the perils of reading (especially) novels. Proulx traces Bourget's strategic trajectory from the bestselling author of novels of adultery set among the upper classes to the conservative, Catholic author who lambasted the influence of excessive reading in Le Disciple (1889). A friend of Oscar Wilde in the 1880s, and very possibly homo-or bi-sexual himself, Bourget's conversion to right-wing respectability took him to the Academy in the same year that Wilde was tried and jailed for gross indecency. Both Bourget and Barrès were profoundly influenced by Balzac and Stendhal, but presented these authors' most memorable fictional heroes (notably Rastignac and Julien Sorel) as harmful influences on fin-de-siècle youth. In line with the underlying premise of all the "novels of formation," these influential writers diagnosed the dangers of reading for young men: energy spent on the imaginary world detracted from the sum of energy available for productive, patriotic endeavours; fiction came to seem superior to mere reality and thus induced demoralisation, the fashionable malaise of neurasthenia, and...