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What Proust Heard: Novels and the Ethnography of Talk by Michael Lucey

Two men talking
What Proust Heard: Novels and the Ethnography of Talk. Michael Lucey. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2022. Pp. 346. $105.00 (cloth); $35.00 (paper); $34.99 (PDF).

In literary texts, speech is often taken for granted as simply dialogue delivered by characters. But this assumption belies what occurs in speech between people in everyday life — we interpret speech, we try to see what the speaker really means, beyond what they are saying in a strict sense. Michael Lucey’s intervention with What Proust Heard is to turn a closer eye (and ear) to speech in texts (“language-in-use,” as he calls it) in order to investigate not only what particular speakers might really mean, but how their speech consistently draws upon, and draws together, the aesthetic and cultural valences of language and life, whether it is intended or not.

Drawing from Bourdieu and other key figures in linguistic anthropology, the main literary focus of this book is Proust’s Recherche, whose moments of speech in large part concern how characters position themselves in relation to works of art and aesthetic experience. In particular, though Proust’s hero positions himself as a listener and interpreter of others’ speech as data as if he were standing outside of or beyond any social scenario, he himself turns out to be constantly offering “data, not only for the narrator at other moments, but also, we might say, for the novel itself, for its own larger project (which takes place in a frame that exceeds any instance of the narrator’s consciousness) of exploring language-in-use” (37-38). Lucey’s reading of Proust proceeds with this paradox in mind, and through careful readings of several passages representing and problematizing speech and its interpretation he shows how, “right up to the end,” the narrator speaks and, furthermore, speaks about speaking (295).

Lucey also examines passages from Dostoevsky, Balzac, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Nathalie Sarraute, and Rachel Cusk. In a third “Interlude” dealing with Sarraute and Cusk in particular, he tackles the question of tone, which leads to a consideration of the dialectical relation between textual intention, in terms of the indexical signs a novel emits, and the reader’s sensitivity to those signs. In short, What Proust Heard is a nuanced call for readers to better hear what is said in, and by, literature.