Last September I wrote about my increasing attraction to fiction that directly explores characters’ psychology. (That’s not to say I don’t admire other kinds of stories. Muriel Spark’s The Finishing School, for example, is another breed of novel altogether. And it happens to be one of my favorite books of 2004.)
In Consciousness and the Novel, which I’ve been picking up and putting down for over a year now, David Lodge captures many of the things I’ve been thinking about psychological depth in fiction but have been unable to articulate.
Contrasting the work of Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Isherwood, and Ernest Hemingway with Graham Greene’s novels, he points out that Greene, although as influenced by film as his contemporaries, is as devoted to “psychological realism” as “social realism.”
Sorry to get all jargon-y on you. But I think Lodge is onto something.
I’m going to quote a couple of pages from the book here, heedless of copyright protection. And I’m going to suggest that everyone who reads to the end of this post buy Consciousness and the Novel. Although I disagree with some of what Lodge says about third person narration — and that’s just in the first essay — the book is a fascinating exploration of the human penchant for storytelling. More importantly, in showing what the novel can do that film can’t, Lodge offers hope for anyone who’s wrung her hands over the much-touted death of the novel.
The emphasis on dialogue and external appearances in [Waugh, Isherwood and Hemingway], leaving thought and feeling to be implied, was not the only effect of the cinema on the novel. It also brought story back into literary fiction. The novel of consciousness tended to neglect story, or diminish its importance, for obvious reasons. The deeper you go, as a writer, into the minds of your characters — the more details and refined our registration of their thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories, scruples — the slower the narrative tempo becomes, and the less action there is.
Moreover, the machinery of the traditional plot may be seen as a distraction from the true business of the literary novelist, to create the sense of “felt life.” That of course was Henry James’s aim, and his phrase, and he himself was painfully aware that his work suffered in popularity because it was perceived to lack narrative interest…. Even in a writer like Conrad, who actually dealt with “accident … battle … murder and sudden death,” the gratifications of the conventional adventure story are deliberately frustrated, inverted, problematised, by complex time shifts, shifts of point of view, elaborate framing devices, and a densely written, syntactically complicated, metaphorically rich prose style — all of which together retard and obstruct the delivery of simple narrative excitement. In Joyce and Woolf, narrative is pared down to a minimum; the great crises in the lives of the characters are alluded to fragmentarily in memory, while the immediate focus is on the habitual and the quotidian. It is not surprising that the action of the greatest of all stream-of-consciousness novels takes place on one ordinary day.
The cinema, however, was from the beginning a popular narrative medium which told exciting stories of a traditional kind. Far from slowing down the normal tempo of human existence to make room for psychological depth, as the literary novel of consciousness does, the cinema, and especially the early silent cinema, artificially speeded it up, keeping its characters in a continuous state of thrilling or farcical jeopardy. Continual exposure to this kind of material must have had its effect on the writers who came of age in the 1920s, and encouraged them to see no necessary correlation between writing literary fiction and telling a good story.
The fascination of this generation of writers with film, and its influence on their imaginations, did not mean however that their novels always translated successfully to the screen. Graham Greene is an interesting case in point. He too frequented the cinema from an early age; he was for several years in the 1930s a film critic in London, and so saw hundreds of films in the line of professional duty. He wrote numerous screenplays, some original, some adaptations of his own fiction, and almost every one of his novels has been made into a feature film. But in this considerable body of cinematic work, there is only one really great film, The Third Man, which Greene scripted himself and originally conceived as a movie, though he later published a novella based on his film treatment.
The influence of cinema on Greene’s fictional technique has been noted often enough: the fast cutting from scene to scene, his eye for the telling synecdochic detail (the rhetorical equivalent of the close-up shot), his preference for exciting plots derived from popular subgenres — the gangster movie, the spy thriller, the whodunit, the Western. Even his religious novels have these structures. The Power and the Glory is a spiritual Western. The End of the Affair is a detective story with a divine culprit. But unlike the other novelists of his generation I have mentioned, the Catholic Greene did not turn entirely away from depth in order to render the structure of life; he remained interested in representing the consciousness of his characters, partly because he regarded them very literally as having “souls,” capable of salvation and damnation. And he saw no contradiction in aiming at both social and psychological realism.
This combination of social and psychological realism, particularly in The End of the Affair, is precisely what draws me to Greene’s work.
I’d write more about that, but it’s late and I still have to do some writing, so instead I’ll share something my friend Laila said in email last week, when we were discussing the place of psychological detail in contemporary fiction:
The workshop process beat out of me some things I wish it hadn’t. The religious insistence on “show, don’t tell” made me resort to descriptions of characters’ appearance as a way to show what they felt. If someone was happy, she would “smile;” if she was upset, she would “frown;” if she was perplexed, she would “raise an eyebrow.” It became very limiting very quickly. The whole point of fiction is to enable the reader to delve into characters’ consciousness and that can’t be done properly without narrating their thoughts.
These are exactly the kinds of issues I was thinking about last September.
Tangentially related reading, and a Greene self-parody for good measure:
- Greene on writing The Third Man (the film Lodge mentions);
- Greene on the problem of “I”;
- In which Greene attempted to parody himself.