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.