A fascinating review by Michael Wood of Fredric Jameson’s The Antinomies of Realism* touches on one of Gert’s bugbears, the dreaded “point of view”, the subject of much advice in creative writing courses.
What a joy it was to read:
‘The beauty of style indirect libre, or free indirect discourse, is that it seems to tell the truth without equivocation, to have all the certainty we could wish any third-person narrative to have, and then strand us in complicated doubt.’
Jameson defines style indirect libre as ‘an unusual synthesis of third and first person' and nominates Flaubert as its inventor. He writes of the possibilities for irony, the possibility of ‘doing several things at once’ in this style, the possibilities of seeing things now from the subject’s point of view, now from the apparently omniscient narrator’s, now from some generalised point of reality with which the reader unthinkingly associates himself. Wood muses on Jameson’s thesis via a wonderfully subtle reading of a very short passage from Flaubert’s L’education sentimentale in which the histrionics of the hero Frédéric, who is, it seems, contemplating suicide but not really contemplating it, are summed up in the phrase ‘the parapet was a trifle wide.’ ‘a trifle wide’ – the calculation of a man looking for an excuse not to jump.
Wood speaks of the same effect in Jane Austen. The important effect, he says is ‘the apparent neutrality of the prose’. If we miss the subtext, ‘we have fallen stupidly short as readers.’
It is a demanding task to read with Wood’s attention and sensitivity, and maybe something we have to set about learning. We did it when we were studying novels as part of a literature course. I think we do it when we read poetry, if we are true poetry readers. And there’s a lot here for a writer to muse on.
‘Style indirect libre itself,’ Wood concludes, ‘will not tell us anything – its job is not to tell us anything – but if we know how to read it, to detect it, let it go and put it back, we shall be better equipped to deal with the very idea of alternatives, with pretend certainties and real disappointments.’
*London Review of Books vol. 36 no 1. January 2014, pp 29-30