David Lodge writes novels about academics and, also, academic textbooks. Consciousness and the Novel falls delightfully somewhere in the middle. In this collection of essays (drawn largely from reviews and lectures), Lodge brings the joint sensibility of a working academic and that of a major novelist to the work of other writers, from Dickens and Henry James to John Updike and Philip Roth, and to his own work.
In one of the essays here Lodge says of Jane Smiley’s biography of Dickens: “what inspires her book is her ability to identify professionally with Dickens.” The appreciation of a working writer for his peers makes his literary criticism as entertaining as it is perceptive, and of general interest in the manner of D.J. Taylor’s The Prose Factory. Lodge, like Taylor, proves the adage that a good writer is also a good reader, a reader of others’ work (Lodge writes of Evelyn Waugh that writers “borrow and transform the tricks they admire”) and of their own, “most of the time spent nominally writing a creative work is actually spent reading it – reading and rereading the words one has already written.” Lodge is also fascinating on how wider social and cultural influence are worked out into the mechanics of the novel, the plotting and characterisation, from the observation that Dickens “transformed the methods of publishing fiction” to a self-awareness not all academics achieve, “a good critical essay should have a kind of plot.”
The book’s title, Consciousness and the Novel, promises a uniformity that doesn’t exist in the collection. It is the title of the opening essay and is the best thing in the collection, both an intelligent, sweeping analysis of contemporary scientific writing on consciousness and also a succinct, orderly introduction to the history of the novel from Samuel Richardson via George Eliot to Henry James’s influence on Virginia Woolf. Yet, Lodge’s interest in scientific and philosophic perspectives on consciousness serves to ask one question: “why literature exists, why we need it, and why we value it.”
If there is a common theme between these essays then it is Lodge’s interest in how writers read other writers. It is apt that the essay on John Updike focuses on Updike’s Bech stories, a fictional account of a novelist: “a subject he really knows intimately and about which he really cares… Few writers have earned the right to such an easy ride as fully as John Updike.” In describing “the holiday mood in which one intuits they were written,” Lodge finds a new perspective on Updike, while the same mood provides his criticism with rare insight.
The collection ends with an interview between Lodge and Craig Raine discussing Lodge’s novel Thinks in which he says: “novelists don’t want to give away too much of their own thought processes because that may invalidate or make too personal the general truths they try to articulate in their work.” Consciousness and the Novel aims at general truths through an articulation of what Lodge finds to appreciate in the work of others, in doing so he gives fresh perspectives of fellow writers and an enthralling way to read much of the twentieth-century novel.
Any Cop?: An individual history of the novels Lodge is interested in and a generous sharing of a lifetime’s thought.