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Aug 8, 2012

CONSCIOUSNESS AND THE NOVEL

“CONSCIOUSNESS AND THE NOVEL” David Lodge (first published 2002)

It’s one thing for me to voice some misgivings about the reductive tendencies of postmodern criticism, but it’s quite another to direct you towards the type of criticism I find more congenial. So, after a postmodern Something New, allow me to acquaint you with a book of fine criticism as this week’s Something Old.

First published nine years ago, David Lodge’s Consciousness and the Novel is not the work of somebody who is ignorant of current critical modes. As well as being a prolific novelist - and therefore somebody who knows the craft of writing from the inside – Lodge is a formidable critic who has, among other books, produced a tome on structuralism. He is not a reactionary. But, unlike too many postmodernists, he does know how to write limpid and lucid prose. His criticism is eminently understandable. 
  
Cognitive neuro-scientists and researchers into artificial intelligence are very concerned with the problem of human consciousness. Do we actually know what consciousness is? Can we describe it in scientific terms? And could it some day be replicated artificially?

As one scientist quoted by Lodge said “virtually nothing worth reading has been written about consciousness” by scientists. Insights into consciousness tend to be the province of imaginative literature.

It’s this interface of science and the craft of fiction that is the starting point for David Lodge’s 90-page essay that give this volume its title. It was originally delivered as a series of lectures on an American campus The essay concerns the way consciousness is presented in the modern novel. By examining different styles of narration in modernist and postmodernist works, Lodge comes to grips with how novelists imagine, conceive and describe consciousness.

It is an illuminating and very accessible piece of criticism and has the distinct merit of condensing, for non-specialist readers, some of the more abstruse current literary theory.

The other 200 pages of this book are taken up with ten reprints of pieces Lodge originally wrote for the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement etc. Lodge is always a fair, well-informed and commonsensical critic, and there are insights in every piece.

The best of the reprints is a longish essay on movie adaptations of Henry James’ novels. It is a model of precise, pointed criticism. Lodge’s main contention is the fairly obvious one that, no matter how careful the adaptation may be, movies trade in surfaces and have difficulty accessing the psychological layers of a densely written novel. (This come close to my crack, in an earlier blog, of movie adaptations of classics being akin to Classics Illustrated comics). Regrettably, in discussing Jane Campion’s film version of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, Lodge identifies her as an “Australian” director, but I don’t think this compromises his very sensible argument.

I do not want to talk this book up too much. Sometimes, in the reprints, the strain of the jobbing critic peeps through. In Lodge’s piece on Philip Roth, there’s a tension between his admiration for Roth’s technique and his distaste for Roth’s world view. His admiring account of Evelyn Waugh’s early comic novels is little more than a set of annotated plot summaries. I’m not sure his efficient review of Jane Smiley’s brief biography of Dickens was really worth reprinting, although it does say some tart things about the cult of author-as-celebrity. The book ends with a magazine interview with Lodge himself about one of his own novels.

Yet, despite the perishable topicality of some pieces, this is still vivid and informed criticism which respects the form, respects the canon, and does allow the work to be overwhelmed by its context.

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