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Violeta Sotirova. Consciousness in Modernist Fiction: A Stylistic Study. New York: Palgrave, 2013. xi + 216 pp.

Narrative fragmentation and free indirect style are traditionally hailed as hallmarks of modernist literary technique and remain topics of particular interest within modernist studies. Violeta Sotirova’s Consciousness in Modernist Fiction proposes an in-depth stylistic exploration, providing a linguistic examination of the ways modernist writers engage the ideas of self and other. At the center of her project is dialogicity, the Baktinian idea of the continual multiplicity of communicative acts. For Sotirova, a systematic analysis of the linguistic and narrative techniques modernists used to present consciousness reveals evidence not of alienated, fragmented isolation but of juxtaposed, connected dialogicity. As she states, “the implications of such practices far exceed the attempt to simply juxtapose different characters’ viewpoints and thereby interpret the narrative world through different perspectives” (ix). In so doing, Sotirova argues for a modernist emphasis on dialogue and intersubjective connection rather than fragmentation and isolated interiority.

Chapter 1 provides a detailed survey of current conceptual trends in modernism, what Sotirova terms “the critical commonplace” that frames the history of modernist studies (8). She articulates a tension between what is traditionally viewed as high modernist ahistorical concern with form and an understanding of modernism as socially engaged and critically subversive—historical in the sense of holding up a mirror to the fragmented reality of modern life. Sotirova asserts that this binary is reductive and argues, “a systematic linguistic analysis of Modernist literary form can counter the reductions of both these arguments” (19). The next chapter looks at how modernism staged a [End Page 179] break from realism in the representation of character consciousness, demonstrating how modernist writers transformed free indirect style to foreground “certain linguistic markers of subjectivity at the expense of others” (36). Sotirova demonstrates historical shifts in form by comparing the opening passages of James Joyce’s Portrait and the beginning of Jane Austen’s Emma, noting the historical contexts and transformation of free indirect style.

The middle chapters are primarily case studies of three canonical modernist novelists—D. H. Lawrence, Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. Sotirova’s prior work on Lawrence in D.H. Lawrence and Narrative Viewpoint invigorates her close readings and textual examples. Sotirova links the technique of both Lawrence and Woolf in their rapidly shifting character viewpoints, noting how both authors create an overlap of consciousness in a dialogic space. Joyce offers a nuanced counterpoint to her argument, employing instead “linguistic ellipticalness” to connect his technique to spoken discourse, a move that “implicates the reader in the construction of meaning” (x–xi). According to Sotirova, these figures were selected in order to “allow claims made about literary style in the Modernist period as a whole to be tested by the evidence of language conceived as narrative practice” (53).

Close stylistic readings, buoyed by narratology and linguistics, demonstrate how the viewpoints of characters in these various works are in repeated juxtaposition as opposed to sequential isolation. This observation has the potential to shift the discourse surrounding modernist narrative techniques precisely because, while many critics make statements about the implications of modernist technique, few systematically ground these claims in specific linguistic analysis. As Sotirova herself points out, “while critics are very keen to point to a revolution in form, there are very few instances of actual thorough engagement with specific linguistic structures” (9). Stream of consciousness, often hailed as the modernist technique par excellence, is unpacked at the linguistic level in a thorough and thought provoking way to reveal specific distinctions between free indirect style, interior monologue, and quoted thought. The author’s use of wide-ranging examples, including Hemingway, Mansfield, and other writers in addition to the three main novelists, works to demonstrate dialogicity as a viable interpretation of modernist technique. This acuity for close reading, drawing out the linguistic nuance occurring on the sentence level (and sometimes from word to word), builds by the end of the book into a compelling and convincing case. The final chapter widens the scope and stakes of her argument, connecting the dialogic techniques of these writers to European philosophy in the early twentieth century, specifically issues of intersubjectivity and [End Page 180] consciousness in the work of Martin Heidegger, Henri Bergson, and Martin Buber. Much of the book draws heavily on Sylvia Adamson’s previous linguistic analysis of modernism and empathetic narrative, and the inclusion of these philosophers is a necessary intervention.

Sotirova’s decision to situate the book at the interstices of formal style and cultural history affords readers the opportunity to learn more about both. The specialized focus on linguistic forms, rather than deterring nonexperts, succeeds in teaching readers a great deal about linguistics and stylistics through the use of examples and close readings of particular passages. Sotirova connects claims long made in modernist studies with concrete narratological concepts, increasing readers’ understanding of both specialties. This technique builds a compelling case for her argument that one must look simultaneously at both the politics and the mechanics of modernism because “it is precisely in the writing of consciousness, then, that we must explore the philosophical and cultural underpinnings of Modernism if we are also to address the problem of its essential historicity” (52). Sotirova shifts the discussion away from an emphasis on why modernist works focused on fragmentation, multiplicity, and repetition to expose not only how these artists achieved specific narrative techniques but also what the accumulated effect of these techniques has on readers.

Seasoned scholars of both modernism and linguistics (as well as students of each) will find food for thought in the clear explanations of the linguistic complexities at work in modernist literary technique found in Consciousness in Modernist Fiction. The main strength and value of the book lies in the author’s linguistically savvy and precise close readings, which serve at their best to flip well-known modernist passages over like a canvas to reveal the system of knots and threads the authors used to create the complicated finished tapestry, showing all of us something new about the deliberately crafted formal underpinnings of modernist literature. Consciousness in Modernist Fiction makes a solid contribution to critical understanding of the underexplored field of modernist representations of consciousness. [End Page 181]

Rebecca Nicholson-Weir
East Central University