SEPTEMBER 1, 2019
IN READING THROUGH THE NIGHT, literary scholar Jane Tompkins examines her chronic illness and relationships with her mother and husband by way of close-reading the works of V. S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux. Though fairly modest in scope and low in stakes, Tompkins’s interest in her material is infectious — the best professors seem to share this quality — and the excavations of her past produce sharp observations about the interplay between our internal lives and the books we read.
Diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, Tompkins often struggles to have enough energy for everyday activities like going to the grocery store or to the movies. Even writing, that is to say, anything that requires rigor, whether it’s mental or physical, poses a unique challenge for someone with this condition. What’s left for Tompkins is plenty of bed rest and time to read. But even that is fraught with a sense of guilt — she must learn to embrace and see the value in doing nothing.
These are the sort of biographical details and contextual information dismissed as irrelevant by the new historicist professors she studied under at Yale, and Tompkins’s memoir acts as a de facto repudiation of that mostly defunct school of criticism. One of the book’s main arguments is that the author and the text are funhouse mirrors of one another, both revealing and concealing the other, but so too are the reader and the text. She writes:
[When] a book upsets or troubles you, you need to find out why. It’s a signal that something important is going on and it’s worth taking the time to investigate […] If you stick with the process, the ghost will rise from the text and deliver its message. And should you discover something you’d rather not know, all the better.
That fiction can, and perhaps should more often, act as a dredge, combing the silt- and dust-covered corners of our unconscious minds, not dissimilar from therapy, is a fairly radical concept in a time when people have more and more ways to avoid such deeper introspection. It is for this type of reading that Tompkins’s book offers a blueprint, particularly in her attempts to understand how badly Naipaul and Theroux have treated others.
Tompkins’s interest in Naipaul starts when a friend gives her a copy of Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Theroux’s account of his friendship with Naipaul. Her treatment of both men is often generous, likely more generous than the average reader’s would be. When she quotes Theroux’s retelling of a meeting at a hotel in Kenya where Naipaul tries to reassure his wife Pat of the fate of a Ugandan waiter, it’s three pages before she weighs in on what readers have already recognized as an egregious statement. Theroux writes: “‘Don’t be sad, Patsy,’ Vidia said. ‘He’ll be all right. He’ll go back to his village. He’ll have his bananas and his bongos. He’ll be frightfully happy.’” This is one of the ways Tompkins keeps the reader curious: surely she won’t drop this in without criticizing it. In time she does, but she forces readers to hold their breath until it happens. In one sense, she’s mimicking Theroux’s tactic, assuming the guise of an impartial observer, but she’s smart enough to know a statement like that cannot appear without condemnation.
While she spends a large part late in the book discussing both Naipaul’s and Theroux’s misogyny, she grants them a fair amount of leeway. Throughout the book she seeks out their underlying motivations and their flaws in character. She is rarely judgmental in ways many would consider justifiable. This is one of the more interesting and complicated facets of her memoir: as a noted feminist literary critic it wouldn’t be unexpected of her to offer a stern rebuke not only of Naipaul and Theroux themselves but also of what they represent in the canon. At no point does she make the argument that these men shouldn’t be read or offer up suggestions for women authors we might read in place of them. But Tompkins is diligent in recounting Naipaul’s abysmal treatment of his wife, Pat, and the beatings his mistress, Margaret Gooding, sustained at his hand, and she highlights the agency these women possess, careful to not rebuke them for having stayed close to Naipaul while still acknowledging their choice (conscious or unconscious) to remain with him.
This argument and her suspicion — later confirmed — that Theroux’s mother was abusive and cruel are the starting points she uses to examine her own strained relationship with her mother and her difficulties with ex-husbands, as well as her current husband, Stanley Fish. Here too she is generous, careful not to portray herself as a victim, even in instances where we might agree with her. While this attitude can’t be solely attributed to her privilege (we’re reminded several times that she and Fish have three homes in three states and that she attended a competitive graduate school), one can’t help but wonder how it impacts her perspective on these issues.
Vivian Gornick champions this method in The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, referring to it as “self-implication.” It’s a key reason Reading Through the Night never devolves into a sob story, providing instead propulsive energy and a narrative arc where there might not be one otherwise. Gornick describes several essays that place readers “in the presence […] of a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows, moving from unearned certainty to thoughtful reconsideration to clarified self-knowledge.” She’s discussing essays by Joan Didion, Harry Crews, and Edward Hoagland here, but the description works for Tompkins as well. At times there’s the faintest whiff of formula but it’s what keeps balance throughout, allowing readers to sympathize when Tompkins recounts her troubles as well as share the exuberance she feels when unlocking something new in her subject matter.
In discussing Patrick French’s biography of V. S. Naipaul, Tompkins writes,
A plain acknowledgment of terrible facts is better than expostulations full of self-righteousness and blame. My guess is that the degree of misery Vidia experienced in his life can hardly be calculated. In the second section of Enigma, he talks about having a recurring dream in which his head is about to explode.
It goes unsaid whether we should extend this sort of understanding to others who are both brilliant and flawed, but the implication is that we ought to. In doing so, and perhaps without meaning to, Tompkins has written an argument against canceling these types of writers. She seems to be living proof against it, too: the act of wrestling with Naipaul, when many are understandably content to relegate him to the dustbin, appears to be life-enhancing, for her physical health as well as her writing and introspection.
Near the end, Tompkins argues that close-reading illuminates the inner lives of others as well as our own, similar to the way therapists can help their patients understand themselves. This is certainly true in some cases, but what are we to make of the countless male authors, many of them incredibly well read, who appear to have little understanding of the hurt they cause, and even less understanding of their own emotional landscapes? This is fertile terrain that Tompkins leaves largely unexplored, and perhaps rightly so (there’s enough material there for at least several other books), but the conundrum does call into question the received wisdom that reading itself is a moral act, and presents a missed opportunity for a deeper look at how we read, as well as the problem of what’s to be done with great works of literature written by awful men.
It’s certainly not a central aim of Reading Through the Night to provide answers to these questions, but it does raise them and in doing so reminds us that our inner lives, literature, the political, and the body are all part of the same ecosystem, and that when we forget this we limit the scope of our understanding. Where the book most succeeds is in the somewhat buried story of Tompkins’s accomplishments despite chronic fatigue and the men who have stood in her way (for instance, the ex who got her fired from her teaching position at a university). Her relationship to her career is most apparent in a short section close-reading Swedish crime novelist Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series. She finds that although they share few surface-level similarities, she identifies with the glum workaholic detective. It’s easy to see why: readers and critics are often hoping to get to the bottom of something, whether it’s relatively cut and dried like a murder mystery, or the larger and more befuddling questions that linger with us throughout our lives.