Report from the Interior.

That’s the title of Michael Wood’s LRB review of Fredric Jameson’s The Antinomies Of Realism, and a good review it is, both in making me want to read the book (I don’t read many books of criticism and I probably won’t get around to this one, but still, the desire is there) and in making me think about his main topic, free indirect discourse. He starts off with an analysis of this paragraph from Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale (the translation is by Douglas Parmée, slightly modified):

Des nues sombres couraient sur la face de la lune. Il la contempla, en rêvant à la grandeur des espaces, à la misère de la vie, au néant de tout. Le jour parut; ses dents claquaient; et, à moitié endormi, mouillé par le brouillard et tout plein de larmes, il se demanda pourquoi n’en pas finir? Rien qu’un mouvement à faire! Le poids de son front l’entraînait, il voyait son cadavre flottant sur l’eau; Frédéric se pencha. Le parapet était un peu large, et ce fut par lassitude qu’il n’essaya pas de le franchir.

Dark clouds ran across the face of the moon. He gazed up at it, meditating on the immensity of space, the wretchedness of life, the emptiness of everything. Day broke. His teeth were chattering; and half asleep, wet from the fog and his eyes full of tears, he asked himself: Why not put an end to it all? One leap would do it! The weight inside his forehead was sweeping him away, he could see his corpse floating on the water. Frédéric bent forward; the parapet was a trifle wide and sheer weariness stopped him from climbing over.

Wood explains that for a long time he “thought this wonderful paragraph was an instance of Flaubert’s impeccable cruelty towards his characters. ‘A trifle wide’ was a sneer in Flaubert’s own voice, or his narrator’s, and meant that any width would have been wide enough”; now he feels that this is “a shortsighted reading and it misses the chief technical achievement of the paragraph, indeed one of Flaubert’s great technical achievements generally, his masterly deployment of style indirect libre“:

In our paragraph, prompted by the interlude in Frédéric’s mind, we ought to be ready for it, or at least ready to entertain the thought of its presence. Then we can read, if I may crudely transpose the process: ‘Frédéric bent forward; the parapet seemed a trifle wide to him and the thought of his own sheer weariness stopped him from climbing over.’ The psychology is not all that different. Frédéric is still not serious about suicide and his weariness still seems to be a name for something else. But Flaubert has disappeared, and with him all trace of moralising. And there is the possibility now that Frédéric is not merely deluded or copping out, but fully aware of the romantic charade he has designed. ‘A trifle wide’ is his own joke. [...]

But then none of this is signalled in the prose. All we are told is that the parapet was a trifle wide. There are effects very close to this in Austen, where the characters or the social world occupy, so to speak, the language of the narrator: ‘About 30 years ago, Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton.’ In that sentence ‘only’, ‘good luck’ and ‘captivate’ seem to have crept in from neighbourhood chatter, and if ‘captivate’ means something other than ‘be married to’, it’s slightly at odds with good luck. But we see the occupation and we smile at it, and style indirect libre turns into irony. That’s not quite what libre means in later practice – this is why we need the word ‘free’ in English and why the German term erlebte Rede, ‘animated speech’, isn’t quite right. The important effect is not the animation but the apparent neutrality of the narrative pose. In Flaubert we aren’t even sure the occupation is happening. If it is and we miss it, we have fallen stupidly short as readers, as I did for so long with the width of the parapet; if it’s not there and we find it, we have added free association to our (perhaps) more ordinary style of reading. But even this formulation muffles the deep interest of the device, which is to make us wonder what ‘there’ means in relation to any text.

I’m sure some of you will be impatient with what may seem to be nitpicking, but I find it extremely helpful to think in this way about what effects a writer is trying to achieve. Wood says later on that Jameson’s account of “Zola’s France, the streets, the shops, the light, the crowds, the objects and animals, and his amazing examples – dead fish in a market, an array of cheeses, an ocean of white cloths in a department store – made me feel that Zola was a great writer I hadn’t even started to read,” and that feeling of excited curiosity, the desire to read or reread a book or an author, is one of the things I look for in criticism. Here’s another thought-provoking paragraph, from which Wood (or more likely an LRB editor) draws the title of the review:

Jameson says Flaubert is ‘rightly’ regarded as the inventor of style indirect libre and realism. Stendhal and Balzac would be more conventional candidates for the honour, at least in the case of realism, but Stendhal is too quirky and Balzac, in Jameson’s view, is too dedicated to meaning and story. Too dedicated, that is, not for his own good or our pleasure but to be fully invested in realism as Jameson understands it. Paul de Man once said that Georg Lukács wrote about the novel as if he was the novel. Jameson doesn’t do that, but he does write about the novel in terms of a long-standing intimacy with the form, as if it were a roommate, say. This is a report from the interior.

One minor point of pronunciation: the word antinomy (used in Jameson’s title) has always bothered me, because its pronunciation (an-TIN-ə-mee) conflicts so confusingly with that of its anagram antimony (AN-ti-mo-nee). Fortunately, I almost never have occasion to use either.

Comments

  1. antimony/antinomy: this curious-looking pair of words caught my eye at a relatively early age, but in all the decades since then it has never occurred to me that the latter might be pronounced other than AN-ti-no-mee.

  2. John Cowan says:

    Personally I prefer the form “third-person limited point of view” to “free indirect style”. But then I prefer “involved narrator” to “omniscient narrator”, a term which I think contains a sneer.

  3. First, how Mr. Jameson can be sure whose thought it is that “the parapet was a trifle wide”? It is not at all clear from the text. If anything, contrast with direct speech right before it makes it more probable to be the Flaubert’s comment.

    Second, mildly amusing fact. Russians use the word “антимония” (probably has to be translated “antimony”, what else?) with transposed letters to make fun of the fake high-brow philosophical antinomy, but also for any kind of lengthy and useless talk.

  4. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I’ve needed to say “antimony” a lot more often than “antinomy” (I’m a chemist, after all), but, like Ø, I’ve always thought of both as stressed on the first syllable.

    Incidentally, did clouds run across the face of the moon (as in the English), or nudes (as in the French)? I imagine an “ag” got lost somewhere.

  5. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    “This curious-looking pair of words” reminds me of another curious pair, eschatology and scatology, which are exactly the same in Spanish: escatología.

  6. Athel:
    As it happens, I blogged on that very pair of words five months ago, along with a couple of less-amusing pairs.

  7. Incidentally, did clouds run across the face of the moon (as in the English), or nudes (as in the French)? I imagine an “ag” got lost somewhere.

    Petit Robert:

    nue [ny] n. f.

    • XIIe; lat. pop. °nuba, class. nubes 

    1¨ Vx ou littér. Nuages. => nuée. « Le soleil dissipe la nue » (La Fontaine). — Par ext. Le ciel, l’espace nuageux ou non. « Sa prière étant faite, il entend dans la nue une voix » (La Fontaine).

    2¨ Mod. Loc. Porter, élever, mettre aux nues : admirer, louer avec enthousiasme. — Tomber des nues : être extrêmement surpris, décontenancé par un événement inopiné (cf. Tomber de la lune, de haut). « Je tombais des nues, j’étais ébahi, je ne savais que dire » (Rousseau).

     HOM. Nu.

  8. Sir JCass says:

    Incidentally, did clouds run across the face of the moon (as in the English), or nudes (as in the French)?

    Flaubert was one of the great prophets of modernity, so it’s no surprise he should have predicted this.

  9. BerlinBrian says:

    I’m surprised that no one has picked up Jameson’s peculiar translation of ‘erlebte Rede’ as ‘animated speech’. Surely it would be ‘experienced speech’.

  10. First, how Mr. Jameson can be sure whose thought it is that “the parapet was a trifle wide”?

    He can’t. Nobody can. That’s his point (assuming you’re talking about Wood, the author of the review).

    It is not at all clear from the text.

    Just as he says: “But then none of this is signalled in the prose.”

  11. antimony/antinomy: this curious-looking pair of words caught my eye at a relatively early age, but in all the decades since then it has never occurred to me that the latter might be pronounced other than AN-ti-no-mee.

    You did not waste your youth, as I did, looking everything up in dictionaries.

    Incidentally, did clouds run across the face of the moon (as in the English), or nudes (as in the French)?

    As Stu points out, nue is a perfectly standard poetic equivalent of nuage.

    I’m surprised that no one has picked up Jameson’s peculiar translation of ‘erlebte Rede’ as ‘animated speech’. Surely it would be ‘experienced speech’.

    Excellent catch; alas, my German is apparently no better than Wood’s (again, Wood is the author of the review of Jameson’s book), or I would have noticed it myself.

  12. As a technical term, erlebte Rede corresponds to the English “free indirect discourse”, as the man said. It’s of no account that he thinks it can be analysed as meaning “animated speech”. “Experienced speech” is no better, because it is not the technical term for the narrative technique in question.

    “Experienced speech” doesn’t mean much anyway – it sounds as vague as “perceived needs”. Wood’s idea here is, I think, to give readers a little German 101 lesson: “remember, folks: erlebt means animated, Rede means speech !”.

    But this is gratuitous, in addition to being wrong, and Wood goes off on a wild goose chase with “… ‘animated speech’, isn’t quite right. The important effect is not the animation but the apparent neutrality of the narrative pose.” [does he mean "prose" ?]

    To learn German, learn German, don’t read English book reviews.

  13. “Experienced speech” doesn’t mean much anyway

    Because speech is always experienced. Or is the expression being contrased with “inexperienced speech” ?

  14. marie-lucie says:

    Athel: des nues

    I see that Stu beat me to it. Merci, Stu! No, there were no nude women running across the moon, only high clouds. For women in the nude, the wording would be des femmes nues ‘naked/nude women’. A picture of a naked woman (or man, but nude men are not so often the subject of paintings), is un nu (which cannot refer to a naked man, un homme nu).

    The French examples of the noun la nue quoted by Stu are all from poetic contexts, some of them ironic (as in La Fontaine). Nowadays the word is used only in the plural and mostly in the older figurative phrase tomber des nues, literally ‘to fall from the cloud’, which is the strong reaction one might have on being told of something not only surprising but shocking, such as the discovery that your spouse is cheating, or your teenager is in police custody (or less drastic but still strongly affecting situations which leave you speechless).

    Les nuées is another, perhaps less archaic but still poetic term for les nues, but une nuée (de …) is in common use to mean a large cloud-like group, as for instance a large flock of birds or a “cloud” of mosquitoes.

    For me, tomber de haut is not the same as tomber des nues, although I am not sure in what way. I have heard it, but I don’t use it.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    le style indirect libre

    Flaubert is renowned for this sort of style, but I don’t see that the quoted paragraph or the sentence under scrutiny (le parapet était un peu large) is an example of it. Direct style means exact quotes, indirect style changes the form of the quote while embedding its elements in a subordinate clause after a verb of saying (or equivalent). Free indirect style omits the preceding verb and subordinator, although there is some contextual indication that words (spoken or unspoken) are being quoted.

    Suppose the hero declares his love. The writer can reports this declaration in three ways:

    1. Direct: Il lui dit: “Je vous aime. Je ne peux pas vivre sans vous.”
    He said to her: “I love you. I can’t live without you.”

    2. Indirect: Il lui dit qu’il l’aimait, qu’il ne pouvait pas vivre sans elle.
    He told her (that) he loved her, (that) he could not live without her.

    3. Indirect libre: (Il réussit à lui parler). Il l’aimait, il ne pouvait pas vivre sans elle.
    (He managed to speak to her). He loved her, he could not live without her.

    Flaubert favours the third option and tends to go seamlessly from subordination in one sentence (or some other indication of speech or thought) to free indirect style in the subsequent one, often continuing with yet more similar sentences as he reports speech or thought. This is not the case in the quoted paragraph above, where the sentence in the imperfect Le parapet était un peu large comes after one in the passé simple (F se pencha), which indicates an action (‘F bent forward’) unrelated to any actual words, whether spoken or unspoken. To me Le parapet était un peu large, literally ‘the parapet was a little wide’ is simply descriptive of what the hero observes. The reader can infer that he thinks the parapet (made of very large stones) is too wide for him to climb over it and jump, but that is not what the sentence itself says.

    The commenter makes much of “a trifle wide”, and does not seem to realize that he is reading a translation, not Flaubert’s actual words. It is true that a man actually bent on suicide would probably not be held up by just a “trifling” obstacle, but there is no indication in the French text that Flaubert is making a joke at the expense of his hero, much less that the hero is making a joke about his own predicament.

  16. Here‘s a superb essay by Simon Critchley for the NY Times that bears on all this (the question of certainty, or rather its inevitable lack, being at the center of Wood’s review). A sample:

    There is no God’s eye view, Dr. Bronowski insisted, and the people who claim that there is and that they possess it are not just wrong, they are morally pernicious. Errors are inextricably bound up with pursuit of human knowledge, which requires not just mathematical calculation but insight, interpretation and a personal act of judgment for which we are responsible. The emphasis on the moral responsibility of knowledge was essential for all of Dr. Bronowski’s work. The acquisition of knowledge entails a responsibility for the integrity of what we are as ethical creatures.

    If I could inject a single idea into the understanding of all humanity, that would be it.

  17. De Man:

    The Theory of the Novel is by no means easy reading. One is particularly put off by the strange point of view that prevails throughout the essay: the book is written from the point of view of a mind that claims to have reached such an advanced degree of generality that it can speak, as it were, for the novelistic consciousness itself; it is the Novel itself that tells us the history of its own development, …

  18. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Thanks to everyone who pointed out that “nue” is a perfectly good word for “cloud”. I’ll try to remember that in the future.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    la nue

    Athel, It used to be a perfectly good word for ‘cloud’ but it has not been for a few centuries (and then only in poetry). Don’t try to use it in conversing about the weather.

  20. Unless you intend to evoke the naked elements.

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