“I Am the Real”

I’d like to return
to James Wood’s How Fiction Works for another couple of days to talk about an
issue that has long interested me: free indirect style in realism and modernism.

Wood begins his book
with a discussion of point of view. Curiously, he largely ignores first person
and third person omniscient points of view, concentrating almost exclusively on
free indirect style, that curious hybrid. Why focus so quickly and exclusively
on free indirect style? Because it’s the solution to a problem he hasn’t
acknowledged yet: referentiality.

To understand what makes free indirect style so unique, consider this
sentence: "Ted listened to the orchestra through stupid tears." This
is third person narrative, but why "stupid"? Is this the narrator’s
word, or Ted’s? Well, both. Ted is the one who feels his tears are stupid, but
the narrator provides the word as if Ted has said it aloud.

This linguistic
slide from one consciousness to another may not seem like a big deal, but it
is. It’s only a minor overgeneralization to say that free indirect style is
what distinguishes what we call literary fiction from genre fiction. Free
indirect style is also the solution to a problem that arose during the
nineteenth century.

Wood is a fierce
proponent of literary realism, but as he’s well aware, there’s a fundamental
problem with realism: how can reality–that world around us with all its
sights, sounds, smells and tastes–be rendered in language? How does one
conjure up a cat in a story–or in any other form of writing, for that matter?

Beginning with
Flaubert, novelists made a critical shift from trying to portray the world in
language to trying to portray our thoughts about the world in language. Key to
this transition was free indirect style, which originated well before the
nineteenth century, but didn’t come into widespread use until then. Free
indirect style hovers between objective and subjective points of view. Most of
the time we’re in the phenomenal world, but we also get a sense of how the
character reacts to this world. Reality has its own integrity, but we’re slyly reminded that we’re seeing the world through a particular character’s point of view.

Wood notes that
Flaubert was the first novelist who allowed his characters to walk around
simply observing things. Wood examines a scene from Sentimental Education in
which Frédéric strolls through the Latin Quarter noticing discarded newspapers
and laundry set out to dry. Flaubert carefully chooses the details that enter
into Frédéric’s consciousness. Sometimes the details accumulate into a general
impression, like in the Latin Quarter scene. Other times they’re constructed to
isolate a telling detail that creates what Wood calls thisness, which he
defines as "any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to
kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability." Later in Sentimental
Frédéric takes another of his indolent strolls, this time through the
1848 uprising in Paris. He wanders through the city center moping because his
mistress is standing him up (she can’t meet him because there’s open gunfire in
the streets) when he steps on the severed hand of a soldier. Suddenly the awful
reality of the 1848 rebellion hits home for Frédéric, and for us.

In his definition of
thisness Wood reveals the influence of Roland Barthes in his structuralist phase.
Note the differential (meaning structuralist) logic: a word or phrase isn’t
real because it’s somehow truer to the real, but rather because it’s not abstract.
Barthes argues that certain details exist in a novel not to evoke a certain
time or place (Paris in 1848, say), but the real itself. For instance, in A
Simple Heart
Flaubert places a barometer in a bedroom. The barometer has no
symbolic importance; any number of places can have a barometer in them. Utterly
insignificant, the barometer is present only to tell us, "I am the

Flaubert was the
first novelist to link the selection of detail to the reproduction of
consciousness through free indirect style. In his fiction telling details pop up, but by virtue of a perceiving consciousness. This is why Wood claims that Flaubert originated the modern realistic
novel. Flaubert doesn’t simply pile up details like Balzac or the so-called
hysterical realists of contemporary American fiction. By slipping seamlessly
between the subjective and the objective and creating the real out of the
abstract, Flaubert invented a way of seeing the world that Wood calls
quintessentially realistic.

However, Flaubert’s
innovation could also be construed as one of the sources of modernism. So
tomorrow I’d like to discuss free indirect style as a way out of the crisis of
the novel Walter Benjamin identified in "The Task of the



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