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Consciousness and the Novel
David Lodge
London: Secker & Warburg, 2002.
£18.99, 320 pages, ISBN 0436210053.

James Friel
Liverpool John Moores University


In his preface to this set of ‘connected essays’ Lodge quotes from Gertrude Stein: ‘What does literature do and how does it do it? And what does English literature do and how does it do it? And what ways does it use to do what it does?’ (ix) It’s an epigraph, he tells us, that could precede all his critical works, and, perhaps, his fiction, too. Increasingly Lodge writes criticism less as the academic he once was and more as a novelist reporting on the present complexities of his craft. He writes now for a non-specialist audience, his reflections arising from his own ‘practice of writing.’

This book is, in every sense, a companion volume to his most recent novel, Thinks, which was not only a thoughtful enquiry into the difficulties of defining and giving adequate expression to human consciousness but also one of his most richly comic and heartfelt fictions. The title essay of Consciousness and the Novel grows out of his research for that novel but is also part of a lifelong desire

[…] to ground the interpretation and evaluation of novels in what I hopefully called a ‘poetics of fiction’—that is, a systematic and comprehensive description of the stylistic devices and narrative methods through which novels communicate their meanings and have the effects they have upon readers. (ix)

Lodge here is specifically interested in the current notion that the mind is a machine and the self an illusion produced by it, an epiphenomenon of brain activity. Our subjective experience of the world—or qualia—is then the mere firing of neurons. We only experience the world as a self because language, which is the only means by which we can report it, makes it seem so. I’m not convinced that those who hold to this theory are quite so reductive in their description of brain activity: the mind remains a miraculous machine and the firing of neurons anything but mere.

In truth this theory is rather astonishing, in the way it turns experience into fiction and our lives into novels, we are compelled to tell ourselves, but Lodge makes nothing of this. He does believe the notion threatens the importance of the novel. How, he doesn’t quite clearly state but what seems to me inarguable is his faith in the novel as the best means of describing experience and depicting consciousness. Lodge looks at how the novel has developed and engaged with the depiction of consciousness and his focus has the effect of making it appear to be the novel’s raison d’être.

The novel’s rise coincides with the supreme role given to the individual consciousness by Descartes as well as the growth of publishing and, with it, the departure from oral story-telling to the privacy of the reading experience. The novel—far more than poetry, which is formed by the demands of speech—takes place within the head and its development as a form is characterized by its increasing interest and greater sophistication in suggesting or depicting a character’s consciousness. In the confines of an essay Lodge’s sketch of this development seems cramped and superficial although it can be very persuasive.

In Lodge’s thumbnail sketch of the history of the novel Henry James is perhaps given too much credit—and Lodge’s interest being English Literature, Flaubert none at all—but he notes succinctly and effectively how James married in his fiction the first person of subjective enquiry with the third person of objective enquiry, developing the mastery of free indirect speech that allows the novelist to locate the narrative in a character’s consciousness and yet move away from it to suggest other realities.

James’s immediate heirs are modernist novelists like Woolf and Joyce who manifest a direct interest in depicting consciousness but—again the thumbnail sketch has it—at the price of narrative cohesion and intelligible story-telling. As a reaction to this Lodge claims that ‘post-modernist’ writers such as Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, George Orwell and Henry Green ‘[…] reverse the modernist privilege of depth over surface. There is a return to objective reporting of the external world, and a focus on what people say and do rather than what they think and feel.’ (64)

Again, it feels too dogmatic. It isn’t untrue but it is unsubtle. How objective is the reporting of the external world in these novelists’ work? The Henry Green of Blindness, Living and Loving can be as subjective as Virginia Woolf and, glimpsed between the slats of dialogue, there is a similar blurring of what is felt, sensed and thought to the blurring we find in The Waves. As Lodge himself observes, Graham Greene’s spiritual interest in his character’s soul offsets the claims of objectivity.

Lodge also asserts that, following these writers, much twentieth century fiction chooses the first person as its dominant mode but Waugh, Greene, Orwell, and Green wrote predominantly in the third person—with interesting exceptions that Lodge could have helpfully explored if the essay had been developed. In truth the essay is far too short to deal with his subject but he is not wrong in finding the first person point of view a feature of contemporary writing and suspecting it as a weakness. In the year he was a judge five of the six Booker nominated novels were written in the first person and he lists a flood of ‘life writing’ from Nick Hornby to Lorna Sage and David Eggers.

Here, rather than in a quick trot through the centuries, Lodge could best find examples of novels and novelists who evade the challenges of depicting consciousness. He could also extend that challenge to a publishing industry which is nervous, dismissive and fearful of innovative fiction, and a reviewing culture that castigates novels for being ‘difficult’—cf. most British reviews of Richard Powers’s extraordinary The Power of Our Singing.

His essay ends abruptly with what seems a confession that the novel is insufficient to the task—only one that is constantly being rewritten could do justice to consciousness’s many shifts, its myriad and non-linear nature. The self is neither fixed nor stable, true, but I am not quite convinced a novel is either, nor that the depiction of consciousness is its aim but rather a trick it must appear to pull off in order to do other things. The end of his essay feels as if it is in need of a clarion call to other writers or a stern reprimand to them but this is unlikely to happen in a Lodge essay. If Lodge has a flaw, it is his very affability as a writer. He never loses his temper. The flaw is, of course, also a strength and that is why reading him is also such an easy pleasure. The ten other essays also deal with consciousness to a greater but more often lesser extent but they do show Lodge on finer form because he is able to look more closely and so write with greater cogency. It’s in these essays and reviews that he comes closer to writing a ‘poetics of fiction.’

There’s an excellent article on Dickens as our first celebrity writer, a warmly appreciative preface to Howard’s End and a familiar but still persuasive defence of Amis and Waugh as comic novelists. There’s a also a survey of recent movies based on James novels in which Lodge strangely lauds James Ivory’s dulling down of The Golden Bowl and does not pay sufficient credit to Ian Hartley’s ravishing and thoughtful noir-ing of The Wings of the Dove. There is also a lecture on Kierkegaard that is wiser and funnier than Therapy, the novel to which it forms a postcode, and two reviews of novels by Roth and Updike. The review of Updike’s Bech at Bay is a wonderful antidote to the way Updike’s recent work is so grudgingly received, and the review of Roth’s The Dying Animal is a clear appreciation of the greatness of late Roth and is also the best example of how patient and meticulous Lodge is as a reviewer, how much stronger he is at closely appraising a text than at following a line of argument. In these reviews we have Lodge at his best, a quiet but passionate enthusiast for fiction that sets our neurons firing.


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