Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Myra Jehlen reviews Reading Through the Night

Jane TompkinsReading Through the Night. Charlottesville, Va.: The University of Virgina Press, 2018. 248 pp.

Review by Myra Jehlen

9 October 2019

In this, the epoch of the self, the nonfiction first-person narrator "I" is often telling a tale called "me." 

But the first sentence of Jane Tompkins's new book, Reading Through the Night––"Not long ago, I couldn't sleep because of a book I was reading before I went to bed,"––announces a companionate tale and invokes the model of historical, social, political Proust. At the end of the first paragraph, Tompkins summons her own madeleine, remembering the blissful bite of a "fat, round, beautiful, juicy, and delicious" peach while sitting with friends long ago in a Naples café. 

Which is to say that Reading Through the Night is not what its jacket announces, and I fear some readers will expect, an "inner journey" down "a path of self-discovery." Tompkins has struck a path of book discovery.

The book is Sir Vidia's Shadow, Paul Theroux's account of a long uneasy friendship with V. S. Naipaul. Theroux's fascination with Naipaul fascinates Tompkins, but, against the current, her interest in the Theroux-Naipaul literary connection, rather than biographical, is literary. Not just literary, but stylistic.  

On first reading Sir Vidia's Shadow, "I was hooked immediately." As she might about having caught a cold, she wonders, "what had made me susceptible?" "The first thing I thought of was the style" (p. 24). She represents Theroux's style as a  vis vitae: "every word is held in place by one magnetic force, an invisible current that charges every scene. The current, the lifeblood, controls the narrative structure as well as the shapes of sentences and paragraphs; its energy is tremendous" (p. 25).

She pays the same textual attention as to his style to Theroux's stories, for instance the story of a dinner party at Sir Vidia's house. At the end of the evening, Vidia pleads with Theroux not to leave, he'll be lonely, while Vidia's wife tells him he'll be all right. Theroux describes a tearful Naipaul, a worried wife and himself hesitant. Tompkins is moved: "I love this moment for what it shows about the underside of the relationship, Vidia, ostensibly the strong one, is in fact forlorn, hungry for appreciation and support. His wife helplessly tries to appease his longing, and the darkness closing in foreshadows a more final separation between the friends" (p. 85).

She's begun the sentence in a personal mode, "I love this moment," but she continues it as the generic informed reader, reflecting that she might have sought out "biographical material, but instead I went to [Theroux's and Naipaul's] work for answers" (p. 34). She wanted to see them directly and besides she believes the saying "The style is the man" (p. 34). Winking at the cliché, she stands by it: about the man, the thing is the book. Tompkins is celebrating a distinction both essential and endangered.  

The title Reading Through the Night alludes to the sleepless hours that accompany the chronic fatigue from which Tompkins has long suffered, and also calls up for me the iconic image of the desolate David Copperfield, "sitting on my bed, reading as if for life.” There's no "as if" about it: you read for life.