Modernist Soundscapes: Auditory Technology and the Novel.
What might it mean to think of reading as a practice of close listening? This is one of the most intriguing questions provoked by Angela Frattarola's Modernist Soundscapes: Auditory Technology and the Novel, which links the modernist novel to twentieth-century sound technologies. Frattarola argues that the increasingly noisy world of the early twentieth century produced a new "technologically driven sound consciousness" (3) that shaped both the stories that modernist authors told about sound and the formal strategies they developed to tell those stories. Frattarola's compelling study spans modernist novels written between 1915 and 1958, with each chapter contextualizing the work of a major author with respect to one specific auditory technology. These pairings include Dorothy Richardson and early film, Virginia Woolf and the phonograph, James Joyce and headphones, Jean Rhys and the gramophone, and Samuel Beckett and the tape recorder.
Frattarola argues that the profound influence of twentieth-century auditory technologies "can be discerned in how these novelists meticulously describe characters listening to one another and the soundscape, as well as the ways in which they experiment with form to make their novels sound out" (3). This willingness to look (or listen) beyond explicit representational content is one of the work's signal strengths, for it enables a more nuanced sense of the ways in which modernist formal innovations might have been shaped by the sounds of the times. A related and equally crucial aspect of Frattarola's intervention involves a sustained focus on the capacity of sound to foster intimacy, community, and cosmopolitan connections. This aspect of the intervention is most effective in those places where it proves most surprising: in the case of headphones, for example, one might expect to encounter a model of insulated privacy, but Frattarola frames "headspace" (94) as a cosmopolitan arena that blends elements of the private and public spheres. Indeed, while this book does not necessarily present itself as a study of sound and ethics, many of the work's more powerful implications involve the ethical possibilities of listening together. That togetherness involves communal acts of listening, the capacity of technology to pipe sounds from faraway times and spaces into the home and ear, and the way that modernist novels appeal directly to the reader's inner ear.
The sounds of modernism reverberate throughout Frattarola's first chapter, which provides a broad introduction to the early twentieth century as an "age of noise." Frattarola suggests that the "modernist soundscape was dramatically altered by technologies that brought voices, noise, and music from distant places into the private spaces of home and head" (29). With new sound technologies came new listening practices, novel pathways for intimacy and connection, and a range of opportunities for writers seeking to subvert ocularcentric models of rationality and subjectivity. This historical scaffolding informs the study's subsequent close reading-intensive chapters, the first of which focuses on Dorothy Richardson's multivolume Pilgrimage (1915-67). Here Frattarola links Richardson's stream of consciousness style and emphasis on prosody to that author's published commentary on early cinema, in which Richardson lauded the power of musical accompaniment and criticized the stilted dialogue of the first talkies. In Pilgrimage, "conventions of dialogue are defamiliarized through attention to prosody over content" (48), and the musicality of everyday speech fosters intimacy and emotional connection. It is worth noting that this second chapter is more effective than some others when it comes to following through on Frattarola's stated desire to avoid simply idealizing audition, as the analysis goes on to probe the ways in which sound can also enforce social prejudices.
Chapter Three links Woolf's use of onomatopoeia to the phonograph. Frattarola argues that "in drawing the public's attention to background sounds that typically go unnoticed and in aestheticizing noise, the phonograph inspired modernists to capture and record real-world sounds in their art" (70-71). In readings of Jacob's Room (1922), The Waves (1931), The Years (1937), and Between the Acts (1941), Frattarola suggests that by snatching and isolating real-world sounds as objects to incorporate directly into her texts, "Woolf makes her novels be something, rather than just describe something" (76). The phonograph and Woolf's sound-rich style have a similar effect on audiences: "Just as the phonograph brought an aesthetic appreciation to sound as such, repeated and fragmenting onomatopoeia draws the reader's attention to the texture, cadence, and acoustics of words as such" (89).
Two subsequent chapters look at interior monologue and voice in connection to headphones in the case of James Joyce and the gramophone in readings of Jean Rhys. While in a certain sense headphones might seem to isolate and close out the world, Frattarola's readings of Joyce's Ulysses (1922) center on what she calls auditory cosmopolitanism: "headphones correlate with stream of consciousness in their shared capacity to bring cosmopolitan sounds from different cultures and classes into one's headspace" (107). Particularly useful here is an understanding of interior monologue that centers not on private interiority or solipsism but on community, connectivity, and a productively blurred sense of interiors and exteriors. Turning to Rhys's inner voice and the technology of the gramophone, Frattarola suggests that, in both cases, the listener/reader eavesdrops on a private bohemian world. As in Joyce, even private headspace is saturated with conflicting public voices. Yet while the interior monologues and overheard voices of Voyage in the Dark (1934) and Good Morning, Midnight (1939) "tapped into the bourgeois desire to purchase an 'authentic' representation of the bohemian down-and-out-life from a respectable distance" (117), Rhys's use of voice was also subversive in critical ways. In Frattarola's reading, the insistent construction of a female character through interior monologue poses a challenge to the objectifying male gaze. Deprived of vivid images--unable to clearly "picture" characters--readers are left only with a voice.
SoundScape's final chapter links Samuel Beckett's use of linguistic repetition to the tape recorder and offers a series of fascinating connections to French radio technician Pierre Schaeffer's historically contemporaneous experiments with looping, splicing, and repeating recordings of everyday sounds. Within this context, one can appreciate the way that Beckett's almost compulsive repetition yanks words from their contexts, divorces language from semantic reference, and breaks down the syntactic flow of his prose. Frattarola suggests that the effect is disorienting and defamiliarizing, but also pleasurable, as the reader's attention is redirected to the sounds of words in and of themselves. In readings of novels from Watt (1953) to the Trilogy, Frattarola shows that while Beckett's repetitive style empties language of referential meaning, it continues to signify in a different way, generating "its own internal effect and meaning" (14). Repetitive language affirms existence--a voice still capable of making a sound--and thus serves as a "means of going on" (159).
At times Frattarola risks overstating the extent of ocularcentric bias in modernist studies--she herself gives ample credit to many crucial studies of modernism and sound--and yet it remains true that many challenges are necessary to topple an entrenched approach. Modernist Soundscapes is at its strongest when Frattarola closely engages the peculiarities of modernist formal and stylistic innovation, while the work is less convincing when trying to make a broader claim about the modernist novel as uniquely or exceptionally auditory. Early on, Frattarola explains that her "study focuses on the modernist novel because its immersion in sound is exceptional for the novel genre" (14) and that "it is not until the modernist period that the novel becomes saturated with sound--both in content and form" (8), but those claims seem neither wholly convincing nor necessary. More convincing are Frattarola's accounts of the role sound plays in modernist defamiliarization. It seems what is new is not that the novel sounds out, but that it sounds different to the reader's ear.
One other quibble involves my impression that Frattarola does not always follow through on her repeated insistence that the work will avoid simply swapping the privileging of one sense for another or idealizing sound. The arguments and the tone of the work at times veer in the direction of setting up a new hierarchy that privileges sound. This tendency undercuts more productive moments in which Frattarola does consider the ways in which various senses interact and collide, or the ways that sound can be alienating as well as communal. A bit more foregrounding and elaboration of the non-hierarchical interplay between sound and other senses would have been welcome.
Overall, Modernist Soundscapes is a wonderful contribution to the latest reevaluations of modernism in relation to sound and technology, and it is a text worth listening to.
ANNA JONES ABRAMSON, Amherst College