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New Left Review 86, March-April 2014

Christopher Prendergast


The Bourgeois and Distant Reading were published in tandem last year, a coupling planned by their author and suggesting that, for all their differences, they are to be seen as belonging to a common project. [1] Franco Moretti, The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature, Verso: London and New York 2013, £14.99, hardback 224 pp, 978 1 78168 085 8; Franco Moretti, Distant Reading, Verso: London and New York 2013, £16.99, paperback 244 pp, 978 1 78168 084 1 Distant Reading is a collection of previously published essays interleaved with post-factum commentary, all arguing for an expansion of the field of literary study out from the confines of the canon and the practices of close reading. If their terminus is the computer and the database, these studies proceed by way of allopatric speciation (analogously applied to the formal inventiveness of European literature), world-systems concepts, cartography and network theory. The Bourgeois is the outcome of overlapping but longer-standing interests. It unfolds on basically three levels: a literary phenomenology where historical changes, social experiences and cultural values are held and staged in the very sinews of language and ‘style’; a narrative history running through and across the literary descriptions and centred on the fate of the ‘bourgeoisie’ from the early eighteenth century to the nineteenth-century fin de siècle; and a (non-systematic and sporadic) statement and illustration of Moretti’s method, glimpses of which are provided by the essays reprinted in Distant Reading. All three levels converge on a twilight zone, an in-between space, specifically ‘between history and literature’ (the subtitle of The Bourgeois), two monumental pillars seen as porous, permeable each to the other, as both realities on the ground and as the disciplines studying those realities. The nub of the project lies with that bridging preposition, ‘between’, and any assessment of how successfully passage across it has been negotiated turns crucially on the engineering methodology used for the bridge’s construction.

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Christopher Prendergast, ‘Across the ‘Between’’, NLR 86: £3

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