A reader's guide, unstructured and companionable

September 12, 1993|By Merrill Leffler

Despite the title, this book is less "The Art of Fiction" than the arts of fiction. This is not a backhanded compliment for a collection that, in its parts, is considerably more than the whole.

For a year, in 1991-1992, Mr. Lodge wrote a weekly newspaper column on elements of the novel for England's the Independent on Sunday and the Washington Post Book World. He began each installment with a brief excerpt or "brace of excerpts" as a starting place for conversations about a particular topic. As Mr. Lodge writes, he had no structure in mind, other than knowing he would open the series with thoughts on beginning a novel and would conclude with ruminations on the ending of one.

He took on traditional aspects of fiction, moving in and around such concerns as introducing a character, point of view, narrative structure, showing and telling, symbolism, chapters, book titles. Drawing on such novelists as Charles Dickens, Evelyn Waugh, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Samuel Beckett, he also discussed other topics that are not ordinarily singled out -- weather, the telephone, lists and aporia, "a favourite device of narrators to arouse curiosity in their audience, or to emphasize the extraordinary nature of the story they are telling." (Aporia, Mr. Lodge observes, is often combined with aposiopesis, the incomplete or unfinished utterance.)

With some revision and expansion, "The Art of Fiction" collects his columns. Mr. Lodge is a fine guide to reading fiction. Centered around the excerpts he begins with and other novels he refers to, his chapters give us informal analysis, simple definitions -- from dramatic irony, metonymy and synecdoche to teen-age skaz (i.e., Holden Caulfield's colloquial narration in "The Catcher in the Rye"), defamiliarization and intertextuality -- occasional close readings and often quick insights. He can toss off a passing aside such as this: "in epiphanies, prose fiction comes closest to the verbal intensity of lyric poetry (most modern lyrics are in fact nothing but epiphanies)."

Mr. Lodge's observations about the novel are both an insider's and outsider's; he has written nine novels, two of them short-listed for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize, and is the author of several critical books, including "The Language of Fiction" and "The Modes of Modern Writing," a work of exceptional scholarship. While he is a close reader and can carry off detailed textual analysis as in a few paragraphs of Nabokov's "Lolita," the pen is easy in his hand -- he can speak of poststructuralism and deconstruction as though he were having an informal luncheon conversation. His is an engaging, lightly worn erudition.

While most of the novels he calls upon are British, he also culls excerpts from American writers, among them John Updike, Donald Barthelme, John Barth and Paul Auster. As for female novelists, the Literary Correct Police would probably raise a stink -- he refers to a handful of novels by 20th century women; they are Fay Weldon, Muriel Spark, Lorrie Moore, Margaret Drabble. What difference does that make to his insights? Little, I think. It is more an indication of novelists he has not been reading over the last 10 years. What he has to say is often informative and helpful, whether you are a writer or reader.

Take one example. In a famous episode from "Women in Love," when Gerald Critch forces his terrorized horse to remain near the railroad tracks, while a screaming locomotive and its freight cars are "striking like horrible cymbals, clashing nearer and nearer," Mr. Lodge navigates us through the vocabulary of symbolism there:

It is worth noting that symbolism is generated in two different ways in this passage. The Nature/Culture symbolism is modeled on the rhetorical figures of speech known as metonymy and synecdoche. Metonymy substitutes cause for effect or vice versa (the locomotive stands for Industry because it is an effect of the Industrial Revolution) and synecdoche substitutes part for whole or vice versa (the horse stands for Nature because it is part of nature).

In the chapter on choosing names for characters, he refers to his novel "How Far Can You Go?"

"I was looking for names that would seem 'natural' enough to mask their symbolic appropriateness," he writes. He named a character Vic Wilcox "to suggest, beneath the ordinariness and Englishness of the name, a rather aggressive, even coarse masculinity (by association with victor, will and cock), and I soon settled on Penrose for the surname of my heroine for its contrasting connotations of literature and beauty (pen and rose)."

In all of this ranging over the elements of fiction, Mr. Lodge is a companionable guide, sometimes a teacher, showing us over and over again the subtleties of the text.

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