Report from the Interior

Michael Wood

  • The Antinomies of Realism by Fredric Jameson
    Verso, 432 pp, £20.00, October 2013, ISBN 978 1 78168 133 6

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 narration to have, and then strands us in complicated doubt. Dark clouds ran across the face of the moon; day broke; his teeth chattered; Frédéric bent forward; the parapet was a trifle wide. Straightforward enough. But no, the fifth phrase is surely different, because of the ‘trifle’ (‘un peu’), which suggests a mind making judgments rather than a voice reporting events. Who is saying the parapet is too wide?

We are looking at a paragraph from Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale, where Frédéric Moreau, standing on the pont de la Concorde in Paris, very briefly contemplates suicide and even more swiftly decides against it. I’ve slightly modified the translation by Douglas Parmée.

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.

With ‘he asked himself’ we move from declarations about Frédéric and the end of the night to a triple quotation from his mind: why not put an end to it all; one leap would do it; he could see his corpse floating on the water. The intercalated remark about the weight of his forehead might be an authorial enhancement but mainly feels like a more oblique rendering of what Frédéric feels. But then ‘Frédéric bent forward’ is external narration again (he can’t be saying that to himself), and the width of the parapet looks as if it might be a material fact, something you could look up in an architectural guidebook.

For a long time I 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. Frédéric didn’t need an obstacle to prevent him from suicide, since he had no intention of going through with it. And not only was he too trivial to perform this (or pretty much any) act, he was too shallow even to think about it properly, since he allowed himself to blame the structure of the bridge and his own weariness.

I don’t think this reading is entirely wrong, and the last sentence in the paragraph goes some way towards confirming it, since the comment seems both analytical and judgmental. Still, it’s 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. The beauty of this device, as I have suggested, is its apparent lack of equivocation, and we can add the elegance of its grammatical mask: it gives us no sign of whether it is being deployed or not.

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