The Art of Fiction

David Lodge, Author Viking Books $22 (256p) ISBN 978-0-670-84848-5

British novelist Lodge ( Paradise News ) retired in 1987 from Birmingham University's English faculty and swore off academic prose, but in 1991 he consented to contribute a series of columns ``of interest to a more general reading public'' to the London Independent . Each of these 50 essays begins with a brief fiction passage, addressed and interpreted topically by Lodge, who discusses point of view, the unreliable narrator, ``the uncanny,'' ``weather'' and other aspects of writing. For example, in Chapter 19, ``Repetition,'' he observes that while Hemingway is famous for the ``charged simplicity'' of his reiterated words or phrases, repetition brings a special flavor to the work of writers as various as Dickens, Lawrence and Martin Amis--and he proves it. The selections are varied, although perhaps slanted to favor gentility (Austen and Nabokov, not Meredith or Dreiser), and tend to verify the opinion that ``the novel has always been centrally concerned with erotic attraction and desire.'' Lodge may be working a bit below full capacity here, but apart from serving as a genial companion, he defines terms of the novelist's craft so deftly and concisely that this pleasurable browse could rescue (or replace) many a college syllabus. (July)