A Review of “The Art of Fiction” by David Lodge

Literary criticism is often daunting for a novice. I have ploughed through a lot of serious critical tomes in my life (most of them in Malayalam) to enhance my reading experience, but I must confess that I have been only partly successful: many of those erudite essays were way over my head. And when it comes to literary theory, I must shamefacedly say that I have still not understood the difference between “Classicism”, “Modernism” and “Post-Modernism”. Any mention of “Deconstruction” is enough to have me heading for the high hills! And even though I can write a grammatically correct sentence without help, the mention of “synedoche”, “metonymy” and the like makes me go weak in the knees.

However, as an avid reader, I am always interested in knowing what makes great literature work. What magic do these wordsmiths have, which we ordinary mortals lack, which makes us go to them again and again? It has been my dream to find a critic who would explain the tricks of the trade in simple terms for me – a dream which was realised through the above book.

In The Art of Fiction, popular novelist David Lodge explains the tools of the writer’s craft in simple English. It comprises fifty short articles, originally published as pieces in a newspaper column. Instead of quoting theory, Lodge takes one or two novels as example and uses them to illustrate particular aspects of writing good fiction. Fittingly, he begins with “Beginning” and ends with “Ending”!

Some of the aspects Lodge describes are common to all fiction (beginning, ending, point of view, introducing a character, suspense) while some deal with specific techniques writers use (stream of consciousness, interior monologue, repetition, defamiliarisation, time-shift): yet other chapters introduce us to schools of writing (Magical Realism, Surrealism). There are also interesting chapters on titles (I never really pondered on how much authors sweat over these!), the use of lists in stories, and the possibilities of the telephone. I found every one of them fascinating.

The author quotes from the story he is going to discuss at the beginning of each chapter, which passage is then analysed. This analysis is used as a springboard for jumping into wider aspects of the subject. Before one knows, one is engrossed in the analysis; and in the case of the stories one has read, it creates the classic “aha!” reaction – like seeing the secret behind a magic trick. And it also gives one the chance to ruminate on the same technique used by different authors (for example, Lodge’s analysis of the time-shifts in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie immediately had me comparing it with A Visit from the Goon Squad, a novel written entirely based on this technique).

Newton said: “Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” The same can be said of literature. The author’s inspiration, without the proper craft to package it, often falls flat. This book gives us an introduction that hallowed craft of the great writers; it also illustrates the fact that one can’t separate the subject from the form in case of great writing, for the novelist chooses the form of his story based on what he wants to convey. David Lodge introduced me to that craft in a very accessible way – and he has also inspired me to read the greats with a greater appreciation for their technique.

If you are a book-nerd like me without much knowledge of the workings of the great literary machine, this book is for you.

A Review of “Gaudy Night” by Dorothy L. Sayers

Lord Peter Wimsey is not the quintessential sleuth. He has a beginning, middle and presumably an end – by which I mean he develops as a character throughout the novels, unlike Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot who resolutely stay as their eccentric selves from their first story to the last. Of course, there is a chronological progression of events; and Poirot actually dies; however as characters they are static. In contrast, we see Wimsey age and mature from a frivolous youth to an idiosyncratic middle-aged man – in the course of which he manages to woo and win the attractive Harriet Vane, the famous mystery author whom he manages to save from the scaffold.

Wimsey and Harriet’s troubled love affair is an integral part of many of the novels. She keeps on rejecting his suit, because of her indebtedness to him; according to her, it would be like King Cophetua and the beggar-maid. However, Peter does not have such a holier-than-thou attitude, but he finds it difficult to convince Harriet, more so because of the subdued nature of his wooing. Of course, it is very clear to the reader that in her heart of hearts, she loves him.

Dorothy Sayers had to put a satisfying end to this romance, while keeping her mystery stories ticking: she does a masterful job in this novel. As a mystery, I found it much below par than many of her other novels. However, the important thing here is the love story, which is adeptly handled.

The novel, for much of its part, is driven by Harriet. She attends the ‘Gaudy Night’ in her old Alma Mater, the Shrewsbury College for Women in Oxford, where she gets a couple of nasty anonymous letters accusing her of getting away with murder. Since this is not all that uncommon in her life, Harriet does not pay much attention: but things take a serious turn when nasty things begin happening at Shrewsbury. A ‘Poison Pen’ is at work: worse still, the same person is behaving as a poltergeist, destroying property and writing obscene graffiti. The college’s reputation is targeted. The Dean and company do not want to call in the police, being frightened of the scandal it may create. Harriet is roped in as the investigator, later on joined by Wimsey, who as usual does an efficient job. During the course of the investigation, Harriet finally admits her feelings for Peter, and the story ends in a highly satisfying manner with the lovers locked in the traditional kiss.

***

The novel is overlong and rambling: and since there is no murder, tends to get repetitive with the atrocities committed by the miscreant. There are so many characters that one loses track sometimes. However, Sayers has done a fantastic job of creating the atmosphere of academe and the struggles felt by the women of early twentieth century, caught between the pleasures of the intellect and the demands of the flesh. In fact, the mystery itself centres on this dichotomy and the solution of it suddenly provides Harriet with the “Aha!” reaction with regard to her own confused feelings. The underplayed British humour is also there, very enjoyable as with any English novelist (Agatha Christie, P. G. Wodehouse) while describing love-struck youths behaving like imbeciles.

I found that unlike her other mysteries, this one was best if taken at a slow pace, like a lazy Saturday afternoon on the university grounds.