A book about novels

The-novel-reader
The Novel Reader by Vincent Van Gogh http://www.vincent-van-gogh-gallery.org

David Lodge The Art of Fiction:
illustrated from classic and modern texts

Penguin 1992

The cover of this collection of essays features a striking image by Van Gogh of a woman reading a novel. Her surroundings are strongly lit by a bright light, while she herself, her face especially, is in shadow (you can still see the anxiety in her face); the only blemish for me is the clumsily rendered fingers of her left hand.

In a way this perfectly captures the impact of this non-fiction study: a lot of light is thrown on how British and American writers achieve the effects that are found in their works, but we are mainly in the dark as to how ordinary readers themselves may react. (The critics however lapped it up, if the cover quotes are typical.) All that we can be sure of is what the essayist thinks of the extracts he discusses: it is up to each reader to make up their minds whether that works for them individually.

Reader, would you like to know what this individual felt? Then read on.

Some of these pieces were written for the Independent on Sunday as early as 1991, and my worry was that after much ink has flowed from pens and printers over the intervening quarter-century some of his observations might be a little dated. Not a bit of it. Fifty pieces cover the lifetime of the English novel, from Laurence Sterne to Fay Weldon, Jane Austen to Anthony Burgess, Thomas Carlyle to Milan Kundera; fifty article-length discussions revolve around topics as various as Suspense and Interior Monologue, Teenage Skaz and Magic Realism, the  Unreliable Narrator and the Non-Fiction Novel, the Epistolary Novel and the Telephone.

Lodge’s approach is to quote a passage or two from one or more books, each of which is designed to illustrate the technique he’s introducing, before going on to analyse and comment on how each extract works. Along the way he slips in specific literary terms like synecdoche or metafiction, defamiliarization or aporia,all without losing the novice reader because he shows those terms working in context. Whether it’s how to structure a novel (Chapters or Narrative Structure), or genre (Suspense, Imagining the Future, Allegory, Surrealism), or style (Showing and Telling, Point of View, Irony), Lodge is always knowledgeable, discursive and entertaining.

I enjoyed this book about novels immensely, often reading two or three sections at a time without a sense of overload. Fittingly the first topic is Beginning and the last — for which I felt a pang of regret that all was nearly over — is Ending; Austen is the principal author bookending the collection. Penguin continued to publish this as recently as 2011 so clearly felt that The Art of Fiction was still relevant twenty years later.

You won’t feel embarrassed caught reading this, not perhaps like Van Gogh’s young female reader. As Vincent himself writes in a little note accompanying a sketch of his 1888 painting, “in her hand she holds a yellow book”. In the late 19th century illicit French novels sported yellow covers, a fact that led to a famous British magazine saucily calling itself The Yellow Book from 1894 to 1897, even though its contents dealt with high art and literature. Still, it did achieve a posthumous kind of notoriety from the fact that both Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley contributed to it.

"J'ai maintenant peint aussi une liseuse de romans": I've now also painted a female novel reader
“J’ai maintenant peint aussi une liseuse de romans”: I’ve now also painted a female novel reader

Alphabet author L

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4 thoughts on “A book about novels

  1. earthbalm

    Another great post. I like the idea of this book. It would be interesting to read the author’s (and other people’s) take on the passages in 2016. The swift march of culture and language can have a marked effect on some narratives.

    1. Thanks, Dale, I suspect you might like it too! I also suspect — as I suggest in the post — that most if not all of the analyses are as valid now as then; certainly I, despite my limited knowledge, found nothing to quibble with — after all, a metaphor or a stream of consciousness remain the same whatever literary period we’re considering.

      And I enjoyed the very varied extracts quoted (even Joyce!), enough to even contemplate reading most of them, which must be some sort of a compliment to Lodge’s presentation and elucidations!

  2. What a fascinating concept. It is interesting to read reviews of books throughout the decades and centuries. Tastes and concepts change, more information may be known about a writer’s intent years after the book was written.

    Thank you for this. I may have to check it out.

    1. Glad you’re intrigued, Laurie — the book in its most recent edition should still be available.

      Rather than just reviewing books what Lodge does is fasten on a particular writing technique, choosing one or two extracts to illustrate it and then discussing how the writers employ that technique and why it’s effective.

      I agree that often hindsight years later illuminates author intentions more strongly than an immediate evaluation, but Lodge is often incisive about books written by his contemporaries in the 80s and even early 90s. I really enjoyed this.

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