- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 20, 2002

British author David Lodge is widely known for his fiction: "Small World" (1984) and "Nice Work" (1988), which were short-listed for the Booker Prize and then made into television serials, and half a dozen other novels including "How Far Can You Go" which was the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1980. He also has won the British Writer's Guild Award for his television adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Martin Chuzzlewit," broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1994.
These achievements have upstaged Mr. Lodge's contributions to literary criticism and theory. In books such as "Language of Fiction" (1966) and "After Bakhtin" (1990), he has used his experiences as a reader and writer to illuminate the process of understanding fiction. "Consciousness and the Novel" marks the return of the critic after a 10-year leave of absence.
In the 1990s, while doing research for his novel "Thinks," Mr. Lodge discovered the interdisciplinary field called "consciousness studies." He had not known that "consciousness had become a hot topic in the sciences, with challenging consequences for those whose assumptions about human nature have been formed by religious, humanist and literary traditions."
The current debate began with Gilbert Ryle's book "The Concept of Mind," with its famous phrase "the Ghost in the Machine." Mr. Ryle argued that, "The human body, including the human brain which produces the phenomenon of mind, is a machine, there is no ghost, no soul or spirit, to be found in it." To distinguish between body and soul "is to commit the fallacy of dualism, which runs deep through the history of western culture, but is now dead and buried," writes Mr. Lodge, paraphrasing Mr. Ryle. Then Mr. Lodge adds, with an interlinear chuckle, "Or it ought to be."
Indeed the idea of the soul seems to be unkillable. In consciousness studies the term "Qualia" refers to the curiously specific nature of our subjective experience: the magic of fireflies in the twilight, the fragrance of Marcel Proust's madeleine. Materialist models of mind cannot explain the resonance of such phenomena. Even the researchers in A.I. (artificial intelligence) armed with sophisticated "neural networks" have failed to account for the mysterious subjective particularity of these "Qualia."
Mr. Lodge is too polite to say that higher education , where students once explored the mind-body problem in reading Plato, Rene Descartes, Emmanuel Kant and William James, has fallen into such putrescence that many neuroscientists think they are broaching a frontier. But in fact, the effort to locate or disprove the individual soul, or consciousness, is as old and frustrating as the search for the boundaries of the universe and the indivisible particle.
The novelist cannot pretend to rise above this debate. "If the self is a fiction," Mr. Lodge declares, "it may perhaps be the supreme fiction, the greatest achievement of human consciousness, the one that makes us human." And the novel is our chief source of data about consciousness.
In the first half of this book, Mr. Lodge undertakes a technical review of the debate over consciousness, and the history of the novel. The author is a painstaking teacher. He has no thesis, and his survey of consciousness studies is not polemical. Mr. Lodge has beliefs rather than opinions: He believes that the novel is indispensable to understanding ourselves and one another.
His knowledge of the history of the English novel is thorough, and his discussion draws upon well chosen illustrations from novels that reveal individual perception in various forms, Eighteenth-century novelists like Samuel Richardson and Daniel Defoe created fictitious autobiographies that appeared to unveil the thought processes of characters like Clarissa and Moll Flanders. Jane Austen was the first novelist to fully exploit the potentiality of the "free indirect style," which employs the third-person narrator to create authorial irony.
Henry James emerges as the key transitional figure from classic to modern fiction. "The Wings of the Dove" illustrates James' skillful use of the "free indirect style," which offers us an objective view of Kate Croy's subjective experience. Under Sigmund Freud's influence, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf made the novel more subjective by creating the "Stream of consciousness" method. The next generation of novelists Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell reacted to Joyce and Woolf, using direct dialogue to create an illusion of objectivity.
So Mr. Lodge charts the dialectic of the novel's progress into the present most novels are now written in the first person. Many of the best novelists, however, such as Philip Roth, prefer to create a character as a narrator; others, like Ian McEwan in "Atonement," combine first-person with third-person narration.
After the title essay, and a discourse on literary criticism, essays on Charles Dickens, E.M. Forster, Waugh, the Amises (father and son), James, John Updike and Philip Roth continue to illustrate points made in the first half of the book. "Dickens Our Contemporary" is an engaging thumbnail biography, in which Mr. Lodge argues that this author was our first true celebrity, and considers how Dickens' ambivalence about his fame affected his authorial voice.
In "Henry James and the Movies," Mr. Lodge explores the irony that James, "supremely a novelist of consciousness," became a magnet for filmmakers in the 1990s. "Self-consciousness is precisely what film as a medium finds most difficult to represent, because it is not visible." After comparing passages from the original novels with the movie dialogue to show the cinema's failings, Mr. Lodge concludes that the producer's choice is mostly a matter of costumes and dollars.
Period drama is popular with audiences. And James' work, like Austen's, is in the public domain, so they come royalty-free. But there is another, artistic reason: James' novels have rudimentary plots, without complications or subplotting. "The Wings of the Dove" can be summarized, or "pitched" as they say in the movie industry, in a couple of sentences.
In the essay "Sick With Desire: Philip Roth's Libertine Professor" Mr. Lodge grapples magnificently with Mr. Roth's latest book, "The Dying Animal." After writing perhaps the greatest trilogy of novels in American literature, Mr. Roth returns to the theme of erotic obsession, with mixed results.
Of Mr. Roth's work in his seventh decade, Mr. Lodge writes: It has been … a spectacle to marvel at, an awe-inspiring display of energy, like the sustained eruption of a volcano that many observers supposed to be not extinct, certainly, but past the peak of its active life." But in the trilogy, Mr. Lodge observes "sex is still vitally important to the characters, but not all-important. Tactfully, he calls the new book "a small, disturbing masterpiece."
David Lodge is ever tactful, the gentleman-as-critic. His responses to differing theories of art and consciousness are respectful, and his interest in novelists is unfailingly generous. In an age when the novel has been pronounced dead by more than one cultural observer, Mr. Lodge stands as the novelist's greatest advocate. He gives to his fellow writer Ian McEwan the most moving line in the book.
After September 11, Mr. McEwan wrote: "If the hijackers had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers, they would have been unable to proceed … Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality."

Poet and biographer Daniel Mark Epstein will be reading from his new book of poems "The Traveler's Calendar" at the Library of Congress on November 7.


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