Write on: Occasional Essays ’65-’85 
by David Lodge.
Secker, 211 pp., £12.95, September 1986, 0 436 25665 7
Show More
Show More

This is a gathering of David Lodge’s easy pieces: they are footnotes, shouldernotes and headnotes to the formal work in fiction and literary criticism he has published in the past twenty years. The book is in two parts. The first, ‘Personal and Descriptive’, includes a memoir of his first year in America, mostly a travel-year, 1964-65; his report on the turbulence at Berkeley in 1969; a trip to Poland in 1981; memories of a Catholic childhood; how he came to read Joyce; an introduction to his novel Small World; and his account of going to a Shakin’ Stevens concert in Birmingham. The second part is mostly reviews: of Norman Mailer’s The Prisoner of Sex, The Complete Uncollected Short Stories of J.D. Salinger, a book about the ‘Catholic sensibility’ of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Blake Morrison’s The Movement, Martin Amis’s Success, Tony Tanner’s Adultery in the Novel, Graham Greene’s Ways of Escape, Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, Truman Capote’s Music for Chameleons, the Oxford American Dictionary, two books – by Dan Jacobson and Robert Alter – on Biblical narrative, Robertson Davies’s The Rebel Angels, William Golding’s The Paper Men, Peter Brooks’s Reading for the Plot, and John Updike’s Hugging the Shore. There are also essays on Ring Lardner, on D.H. Lawrence, and on Structuralism, which Lodge as late as 1980 regarded as ‘the most significant intellectual movement of our time’.

Such a collection is bound to be of uneven quality. Lodge is capable of writing a routine sentence – ‘In the meantime, the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover gave a great impetus to the onset of the Permissive Society’ – and of dropping a critical issue just when it gets difficult. He says, for instance, that it’s ‘very important to decide whether Capote’s “Handcarved Coffins” is, as it claims to be, a work of non-fiction, because as a work of fiction it would not rate very high.’ The subtitle of ‘Handcarved Coffins’ is ‘A Non-Fiction Account of an American Crime’. Lodge argues that ‘it is not a true story of actual crime, but a work of literary fiction.’ Dismissing the work, he says that ‘we may be interested by the spectacle of life imitating bad art, but not by bad art (i.e. over-familiar, exhausted conventions) proposing to imitate life.’ But his review of the matter confounds virtually every critical issue raised by ‘fiction’, ‘non-fiction’, ‘actual’, ‘true’, ‘story’, ‘literature’, ‘imitation’, ‘art’, ‘bad’ and ‘life’. Lodge could deal with these issues, given enough time and space, but there is no merit in a quick shot at them.

Some of the best things in Write on arise from the conjunction of a book-to-be-reviewed and a reviewing style deliberately alien to it. It was a brilliant editorial decision – Ian Hamilton’s, I assume – to have Success reviewed not by the novelist David Lodge but by Professor D. Lodge of the University of Birmingham. The novelist might have spotted that Amis’s Gregory Riding, to describe his sensations on being fellated – ‘for a few seconds every cell in my body shakes with ravenous applause’ – fell back exhausted upon the prose style of Kurt Vonnegut, who describes his starving POW licking a spoonful of malt syrup: ‘A moment went by, and then every cell in Billy’s body shook him with ravenous gratitude and applause.’ But only a professor could end his lecture on Success with a tone of discourse which subdues to an academic norm the loud-mouthed thing he has just been reading: ‘The novel’s technical accomplishment does not, however, entirely disguise the fact that the chief characters, and their doomed, incestuous relationships, offer little variation on familiar stereotypes, and it is difficult, therefore, to care about them quite as much as one seems to be expected to. Engrossing to read, Success does not resonate in the mind once one has put it down. It leaves open the question of which direction its author’s considerable talent will take in the future: spleen or sensibility?’ Very good, I wish I could write like that about Amis. I should report that Lodge has added a postscript to those sentences: ‘I suppose that, eight years later, one would have to answer, “spleen”; but really the question seems inadequate to define the imaginative energies of Amis’s latest, and most impressive novel, Money (1984).’

In some essays and reviews, Lodge’s tone wavers and goes slumming. Someone he alludes to keeps a low profile, someone does his thing, other people are upwardly mobile, a strategy is counter-productive, and something I’ve now forgotten is upmarket. But generally he keeps his distance. A little vanity shows from time to time: ‘Writing is the only thing I am really good at, and it is too late now to become really good at anything else.’ Really, I think he should wait for his readers and critics to say how good he is. But his general discursive writing is excellent, highly intelligent, and as vigorous as the subject deserves.

One short piece puzzled me, and I want to explain why. The report of the Shakin’ Stevens concert is so conceited, the jokes so much a matter of Senior Common Room wit – ‘They are a kind of parody of Bill Haley and the Comets (so were Bill Haley and the Comets, as Oscar Wilde might have said)’ – that I looked for a more respectable cause. I think it’s in his formal criticism.

In Working with Structuralism (1981) and The Modes of Modern Writing (1977) Lodge worked mainly with the version of Structuralism which he derived from Roman Jakobson’s distinction between metaphor and metonymy. The distinction was already fairly clear in Vico’s The New Science (1725), but Jakobson developed it much further in considering the symptoms of aphasia, a brain disorder that affects the patient’s speech. Normal power of speech includes the capacity of selecting and relating things on the basis of a perceived likeness or difference (metaphor) and on the basis of perceived association or continuity (metonymy). Roland Barthes, in ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives’, thought it necessary to add a third type of discourse, which he called enthymematic, to account for intellectual discourse, but few critics have followed him in this. Jakobson’s distinction has pleased Lodge so much that he adds a subtitle to The Modes of Modern Writing: ‘Metaphor, Metonymy and the Typology of Modern Literature’. In the original work on aphasia, Jakobson merely said that metaphorical power is fundamental to lyric poetry, and is typically found in Romanticism and Symbolism, while metonymy is fundamental in prose, especially in the consecutive prose of the realistic novel.

The distinction is useful, but not as endlessly fruitful as Lodge and other critics have tried to demonstrate. I’ve been looking at A Passage to India, a realistic novel if a category is required for it, but some of the most memorable episodes are metaphorical – the business with the wasp, for instance, which links Mrs Moore and Professor Godbole across most of the novel. In the finest novels, a distinction between metonymy and metaphor arises only if you want to name transitions which are clear anyway. However, Lodge’s own novels are realistic, linear, metonymic, on the whole. But his literary criticism is strikingly metaphoric. The most telling moments in his essays and reviews are productions of likeness and difference. Perhaps the best of these is his comparison of The Executioner’s Song with Boswell’s account of his dealings with his client John Reid, sentenced to death in 1774 for stealing sheep. The evidence of Boswell’s relation to Reid is in the volume of the Yale edition called Boswell for the Defence. Lodge’s metaphoric sense of likeness between Mailer and Boswell is unerring, and brilliantly managed.

But the metaphoric mode in criticism is risky. Lodge and ‘a party of young teenagers’ went to the Shakin’ Stevens concert. He was struck by ‘the Christian symbolism permeating the entire event’. The concert started, as usual, with a support group – ‘its function is that of John the Baptist: to herald the star.’ The support group for Stevens was the Stargazers, ‘which perhaps suggests the Magi’. After a long interval, Stevens appears: ‘The star’s first appearance has Old Testament overtones: a shadowy figure stalks down the central ramp, to the accompaniment of portentous chords and drumbeats, and amid flashes and explosions and clouds of smoke. But then the lights come on, flickering in rainbow colours to the beat of the music, and Shakin’ Stevens – “Shaky”, as he is affectionately known – comes down to the front of the stage, smiling, youthful, friendly, to receive a delirious welcome. The Father transformed into the Son.’ The performance itself ‘combines features of both Ministry and Passion’. Girls throw bouquets, teddy bears, knickers and paper hearts onto the stage – ‘these votive offerings’. ‘Some girls proffer handkerchiefs and scarves with which the star dabs the sweat from his brow before handing them back to these diminutive Veronicas.’ A more mature young woman ‘in a red dress manages to get up onto the stage and throws herself enthusiastically upon Shaky, but this Mary Magdalen is quickly collared by the uniformed disciples and hustled away.’ ‘Two tiny tots are allowed up onto the stage and Shaky crouches to let them sing with him into the mike.’ (‘Suffer little children ... ’) The star is gyrating and sometimes ‘throws himself tragically to the ground’. (‘And he fell for the first time ... ’) For an encore, the stage is darkened, and ‘out of the darkness and the dazzle comes ... Shaky! He is risen!’ After the Resurrection ‘comes the Ascension’.

The ramp is lowered again and Shaky slowly climbs it to a platform at the back of the stage, where the backdrop suddenly acquires a mirrored surface, reflecting back to the audience their own image, but at a higher level, so that it seems as if Shaky is returning to a heavenly host, their arms raised in hallelujahs.

  At last he is really, finally gone. But in the foyer on the way out you can buy a long white scarf with his image imprinted on it.

The essay, too, is over, thank God.

The piece is nonsense. Every variety concert keeps the star to the end. Sinatra doesn’t play to a cold audience in Radio City, he has them warmed up by minor performers. Employees and bouncers are not disciples. Mary Magdalen didn’t throw herself upon Jesus; nor did Jesus gyrate. He fell, he didn’t throw himself down. And so on. The easiest remark to make is that Lodge’s report is in extraordinarily bad taste. Much metaphor is in bad taste, too – think of Donne and Crashaw. But in the poets bad taste works mostly to let the speaker’s devotional passion ride over it. In Lodge’s piece there is no passion, which explains why I have far more time for the teenagers who went to the concert to have a good time than for Lodge, his hands already feeling for the typewriter. But this, too, isn’t decisive. The trouble with metaphoric writing, in criticism, is that there is no producible criterion which corresponds to that of plausibility or probability in metonymic writing. If a realistic novel fails the probability test, it fails. But I’ve never seen an account of metaphor which explains why one metaphor works and another doesn’t: nobody knows, in metaphoric writing, how far you can go.

I haven’t a theory, but I have a preference. The best review-essay in Write on seems to me the one on Tanner’s Adultery in the Novel. Of the three novels examined in that book – Rousseau’s Julie, Goethe’s Elective Affinities and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary – Lodge had read only the last when he took on the assignment, so he had to do his homework. The three novels were fresh in his mind, then, when he read Tanner’s book and found his own sense of the fiction sharpened at every point. His review is splendid, independently suggestive as well as dependently informative. Near the end, Lodge makes a point of saying that ‘the richness of the commentary gradually overwhelms the original thesis, and cannot in the end be contained within it.’ I would take this as a good sign, not as a defect. Tanner’s book, Lodge says, ‘does not in the end convince one that there is some kind of homology between the system of bourgeois marriage and the system of the bourgeois novel.’ ‘Homology’ is a structuralist word, introduced by Lucien Goldmann in The Hidden God and Sociology of the Novel to mean a structural similarity between apparently different social and cultural forms. The word has been responsible for many loose comparisons and much invidious sociology, but Fredric Jameson’s pages on it in The Political Unconscious should help to make critics stricter in their use of it. Lodge isn’t strict enough with it in his review of Tanner; or rather, he leaves it unquestioned. But it marks a minor blemish in an otherwise first-rate piece of Lodge’s work.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences