Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Athanassia Williamson reviews Free Indirect

Timothy Bewes. Free Indirect: The Novel in a Postfictional Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2022. 336 pp.

Review by Athanassia Williamson

2 March 2023

Timothy Bewes’s Free Indirect is a theory of the novel that renews its thought at the borders of aesthetic theory. It threads together the parting suggestions of an essay by Bakhtin, a line of thought left undeveloped by Lukács, the refutation (which is, counterintuitively, a confirmation) by Jacques Rancière of Gilles Deleuze’s thesis on cinema’s break with subjective apprehension. Forging a theory of the novel negatively, the book contests internally the very possibility of its theory. Free Indirect is polemic in its resistance to the ideas of formal unity that have undergirded theories of the novel. Further, it rejects categorically recent criticism’s normative calls to form. Yet Bewes’s subtitle hints at a central ambivalence and daring contention of his book: that a theory of the contemporary novel modifies the idea of the novel as such.

What is “free indirect”? Drawing on the work of the literary critic Ann Banfield, Bewes theorizes “free indirect” as an incipient tendency in the novel to relativize all its narrative utterances. Some narrative sentences seem to claim epistemic certainty: in free indirect style, characters’ minds are purportedly rendered transparent to the narrator. Yet such sentences deauthorize themselves by their evacuation of narrative perspective, the characters’ minds acquiring a quality of opacity. These “views from nowhere” are “narratorless,” and by them the domains of narrative and experience are made impassable (pp. 75, 106). At once the indeterminate product of narrative technology, and designating a thought to which it is singular, “free indirect” is comparable to the life of a character beyond narrative fiction. This is something that the novel undeniably invents, even as it survives beyond its margins.

Bewes’s book challenges literary criticism with its insistence that even a careful exposition of the problems or questions that a novel raises, interpretively, remains at the level of ideological form. This latter, vague territory equates "'nonreferentiality'" and "'greater referentiality'" (here Bewes quotes Catherine Gallagher), which is the novel’s ideological operation (pp. 25, 26). Bewes calls this the “instantiation relation,” arguing that this claim to reality is what literary criticism makes legible for the novel in procedures that are parasitic on an assumed fictive autonomy (p. 5). This book seeks after a “different order” of relation, however, and in turn, after a form of criticism that would make legible the contemporary novel’s illegibility to criticism (p. 13). If Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) is the paradigmatic case for Rancière, with its proliferation of details as “‘mute things’” proclaiming the real, for Bewes, it is J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello (2003) (p. 103). Elizabeth Costello dissolves the separation of novelistic from critical (or ordinary) discourse that Madame Bovary makes theorizable, universalizing “free indirect,” which comes to describe a post-fictional condition in which narrative and critical utterance have become indistinguishable. In passing, there is an important reminder here that novels invent the ways we read them.

What would be a form of criticism that makes the beyond of the novel intelligible? What is the relationship of the novel’s beyond to the tactful irony that Lukács had theorized in his Theory of the Novel (1916), a key text for Bewes? What is this irony beyond novelistic (say, Flaubertian) irony, this criticism beyond criticism? On Bewes’s account, a criticism that comprehends this utopian dimension of the novel cannot take form. Any attempt at its theorization courts the risk of failure: an arrest of the “absolute dialogicality” that Bewes defines (via Bakhtin) as the immanent logic of the novel (p. 14). “Dialogicality” defines the novel’s ability to be thought beyond or against any unified, authorial, or some other composite point of view. The use of this concept further marks Free Indirect as a theoretical intervention in Marxist literary criticism, as Bewes turns the social, historical indexicality of the novel (its Marxist horizon, with Jameson or Lukács) into a skeptical relation, reinterpreting the novel’s epistemic relation to the historical real as an endless horizon of questioning. In its forging of disconnection, the contemporary novel constantly opens up a questioning space. To this reader, Bewes’s idea of the (contemporary) novel is one of immense critical and pedagogic significance, showing how novelistic thought finds its proper expression in critical disjunctures (indeed, in the disjunctures that Bewes repeatedly stages in relation to novel criticism). Yet this also suggests a greater availability of the novel’s utopian thought than Bewes seems to allow. In critical disagreements, in dialogue, perhaps, in the classroom, the difficulty of treating the novel as a fixed object, equal to its redescription or paraphrase, is registered. Why read a novel in the classroom, sometimes against itself, as much as for itself, but for its arena of questions, never equal to one’s grasping of it? Persuasively, Bewes urges that one fails to think the novel when such questioning is arrested.

Elements of Free Indirect resist the attempt to locate its argument historically. While Bewes sometimes refers to the “periodizing argument” of his book, it is difficult not to see the problems of separating fictional worlds, of defining a space of meaning, as problems of the novel since its rise (p. 13). Bewes knows this, and his notion of the universalization of “free indirect” demands it: “The relation of disconnection that [Coetzee] brings into existence . . . functions retroactively” (p. 100). If one pursues this claim, perhaps a longer historical view becomes appropriate, at points. The case of Sterne suggests itself, mentioned only briefly in the course of a discussion of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2005) and that novel’s indebtedness to a tradition of English cynical satire. Samuel Beckett’s is another case, cited in Free Indirect for his criticism of Bram van Velde. Beckett was an exemplary figure, too, for Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (1970), a text that rarely rises to the surface in Bewes’s book, yet which would stand very close to it in the Marxist theoretical canon. These works share in a conviction about the necessary failure of aesthetic theory that theory must, knowing itself, betray.

Inhabiting the utopian thought of Free Indirect (or rather, one’s subjective resistance to it) makes for rewarding reading. Bewes’s readings of literary criticism (Dorothy Hale, Wayne Booth, Caroline Levine) are as incisive as his readings of contemporary fiction (Zadie Smith, W. G. Sebald, Jesse Ball). Prominent are those moments in the book when literary criticism gets conscripted by characterological utterance, as in Bewes’s reading of Mark McGurl. Here as elsewhere, Bewes teaches us how to read novelistically, where the lines between insight and experiment are blurred. As Bewes shows, pushing these limits is what keeps thought alive, and perhaps, free.