In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

Whisky out of TeacupsStefan Collini
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir, 1935-75 
by David Lodge.
Harvill Secker, 488 pp., £25, January 2015, 978 1 84655 950 1
Show More
Lives in Writing: Essays 
by David Lodge.
Vintage, 262 pp., £10.99, January 2015, 978 0 09 958776 7
Show More
Show More

In​ the preface to The Ambassadors written for the New York Edition of 1909, Henry James insisted that although the conception of the novel required that the unfolding action be in some sense seen through Strether’s eyes, there had been no question of using first-person narration. That technique, he insisted, would have been too self-indulgent: his treatment of Strether had ‘to keep in view proprieties much stiffer and more salutary’ that ‘forbid the terrible fluidity of self-revelation’. Not all writers would share James’s need for the discipline of free indirect style, but his slightly stagey horror at the likely excesses of the first-person mode may nonetheless strike a chord with readers of a variety of free-running or confessional forms, not just novels (think Christmas circular letters).

But what about autobiography or memoir? Surely here self-revelation is of the essence. Yet James’s stricture still has purchase: any autobiographical account is the achieved effect of selection and arrangement, not spontaneous or artless recall. At the same time, a salutary discipline cannot be achieved by submitting to the technical demands of third-person narrative. That the ‘I’ who writes and the ‘I’ who is written about are identical is the defining premise of autobiography. So what would constitute a comparable kind of ‘terrible fluidity’ here and how might an author guard against its perils?

Few writers are as well qualified as David Lodge both to diagnose and to overcome these potential difficulties. One of the leading critics and literary theorists of the past few decades, he has interested himself above all in the mechanics of narration: both the nuts and bolts of expository technique, the subject of his first critical book, Language of Fiction (1966), and the deeper structures of pattern and archetype treated in several later works, notably Working with Structuralism (1981) and After Bakhtin (1990). As a novelist, he has exhibited a winning dextrousness in matters of form, from the parodies threaded into The British Museum Is Falling Down (1965) through the filmic intercutting of Changing Places (1975) and on to the temporal dislocations and frame narratives employed in his most recent novel, A Man of Parts (2011), a fictional treatment of the life and loves of H.G. Wells. He has also, not coincidentally, long been a keen Jamesian, devoting an acute chapter to The Ambassadors in Language of Fiction, and later attempting a fictionalising of James’s life in his novel Author, Author (2004). Whatever else we might expect of it, we can be sure that his autobiography won’t be artless.

Actually, we can also be sure that its main outlines will be largely familiar, since he has already told us the story of his life several times over. His early novels, in particular, were unashamedly autobiographical: The Picturegoers (1960) centred on a group of Catholic teenagers, Ginger You’re Barmy (1962) dealt with National Service, The British Museum Is Falling Down (1965) riffed on life as a contraception-averse Catholic graduate student and budding novelist, and Out of the Shelter (1970) recorded the encounter with ‘abroad’ after growing up in austerity Britain. Even Changing Places, still his funniest book and the one that made him famous, clearly reworked his own experience of going, as a lecturer in English at Birmingham, to be a visiting academic at Berkeley. And he has never hesitated to report directly on his own life in a series of confessional essays, reflective prefaces and – a form in which he has been notably proficient – discursive review-articles (Lives in Writing reprints several examples, mostly from the New York Review of Books).

So we already know a lot about his growing up in a lower-middle-class family in an inner suburb of South-East London; about his inherited Catholicism and his struggles with it; about his time studying English at University College London; about his long-lasting marriage to a fellow student and the fact that their third child was born with Down’s syndrome; about his having lived in Birmingham since he was appointed to his first teaching post there in 1960, though he retired from the university to become a full-time writer in 1987; about his several extended visits to the United States; about his close friendship and rivalry with Malcolm Bradbury; about the onset of deafness in late middle age; and about much, much more besides. Lodge said in a recent interview that the idea of his writing an autobiography had been suggested by a reader of Lives in Writing, given the collection’s evident interest in the relation between lives lived and books written. But this is an odd inference on two counts: first, it isn’t obvious that the curiosity and attentiveness that fuel the best of this kind of biographical criticism have any necessary carry-over to the quite different task of writing an autobiography; and second, Lodge has already brought his own life into so much of his writing that we may wonder whether there is much left to say.

He has also been consistently reflective about his own work. Writing as long ago as 1976, when he was 41, Lodge recalled that in his youth he had been attracted by the existential dilemmas treated in the fiction of Greene, Mauriac and other Catholic writers, but that in his own novels ‘I domesticated their themes to the humdrum suburban-parochial milieu that I knew best.’ This was certainly true of his fiction up to that date: the baked dusty roads of Mexico or the sweat-soaked bedrooms of West Africa familiar from Greene’s exotic morality tales are replaced by rows of identical terraces in South-East London, and instead of guilt-ridden whisky priests agonising over damnation and redemption we have spotty young men wondering whether they will get to kiss the girls after ping-pong at the church youth club. But although he has continued to mine the material of fiction from the seam of his own life (Deaf Sentence, published in 2008, is the most recent example), Lodge isn’t as easy to classify as he may at first appear.

Despite having been admirably faithful to Birmingham, where he has now lived for 54 years, he is in no sense ‘a regional writer’: there is no great celebration of place in his work, no obeisance to local deities, no real attempt to capture or write in any local dialect, and so on. Nor is he an overtly political writer: there is some gentle satire on contemporary mores scattered through the novels, but such exasperation as it allows itself seems directed mainly at individual instances of idiocy rather than larger structural failings. He definitely isn’t any kind of historical novelist: his fiction, like his criticism, mostly confines itself to the 20th century and he has never seemed greatly interested in more distant periods. Although he has written several times about his Catholicism, which also provided the central theme of one of his most serious novels, How Far Can You Go? (1980), it would have to be said of him, as Greene said of himself, that he is a novelist who happens to be a Catholic, not a Catholic novelist. And although he is probably best known, and cherished, as a comic writer, neither his early nor his late novels comfortably fit this classification, and the range and seriousness of his critical writing suggest an enduring interest in the potentialities of types of modern fiction far beyond the comic.

Indeed, a fascination with form is characteristic of all his work. When one thinks of the novelists who influenced him most, it is Greene and Kingsley Amis who come to mind. He has written more than once about Amis, emphasising his range as well as his comic invention, but also the importance of the Movement’s freedom from traditional metropolitan class snobberies. However, the fictional master to whom Lodge has given his most unstinting allegiance is, surprisingly perhaps, James Joyce. There may, it’s true, be a Catholic connection, especially with the author of Portrait of the Artist, but that is minor: the chief reason he can speak of Joyce as ‘the writer I revered above all others’ has to do with his linguistic virtuosity and the daringness of his experiments with form. Lodge’s late novels, reimagining Henry James or H.G. Wells, may seem like departures from his earlier work, which mostly stayed close to that ‘humdrum suburban-parochial milieu’, but they can also be seen as further instances of his interest in the ways the resources of fiction can be deployed to reimagine the familiar. In the same way he has been appreciative of the work of writers as different (different from each other as well as different from him) as Muriel Spark or Truman Capote in part because in each case their work demonstrates that, where formal inventiveness is concerned, playfulness doesn’t merely issue in comedy.

Still, it may be his fate to be celebrated as a contributor to the sub-genre now known as the ‘campus novel’ since his two best-known books must be Changing Places and Small World (1984). In the former, a British and an American academic exchange jobs (and much else) for a semester, while the latter takes the form of a grail quest pursued through a series of international scholarly conferences; both depict academic life largely in terms of comedy, sex and self-importance. Indeed, so little do the serious concerns of the scholarly world feature in these novels that some commentators have seen them as contributing, along with works such as Bradbury’s somewhat darker The History Man (1975), to the decline in public regard for universities and academic life in the 1970s and 1980s. Significantly, Lodge himself has discussed the campus novel more in terms of literary form than social effect. In a 1982 essay, he described the genre as ‘a form of stylised play … a modern, displaced form of pastoral’. That may be a helpful way to see his own campus novels (there are three if one includes Nice Work, published in 1988), while bearing in mind that pastoral usually functions as a vehicle for social criticism. It would be a mistake, however, to define his work exclusively in terms of this sub-genre: his fictional achievements are far more diverse and, in some respects, weighty than that.

Seen​ from another angle, the university has been the key institution in Lodge’s life, and here his biography is a microcosm of the much vaunted social mobility experienced by many of those who came to adulthood in the decades immediately after 1945. At first sight, it would be tempting to say that he is not an academic novelist but a novelist who happens to be an academic. However, that not only understates the extent to which his critical and theoretical work has informed his fiction (his skilful exposition of the role of metaphor and metonymy in Nice Work is an obvious instance): it may also misrepresent his identity. Lodge doesn’t just ‘happen to be’ an academic: he owed his writing voice to the university, just as in a more material way he owed the opportunity to establish himself as a writer to the financial security provided by his academic career.

His version of class ascent has not been the most eye-catching or celebrated, nor has it involved finding some kind of authenticity in fidelity to one’s origins even while rising into a more privileged stratum, as in the case of Richard Hoggart, his one-time Birmingham colleague. Still less does his life story make a classic Bildungsroman: his climb up the educational ladder doesn’t appear to have involved formatively picaresque adventures or years of Sturm und Drang. Rather, his education and academic career seem to have stimulated and nurtured his natural intellectual curiosity and literary gifts in ways that have allowed him to develop a lucid, intelligent writing voice without either falling back on class resentment and chip-on-the-shoulder touchiness, or miming the affectations of traditional high culture (it may have helped that his education and career took place entirely outside Oxbridge).

Though his fiction is minutely observed and in that respect faithful to the conventions of traditional English social comedy, Lodge writes from a perspective that has been freed from inherited class associations as much by the corrosive of critical thinking as by the fact of economic and professional advancement. At one point in Language of Fiction, where he is discussing the continuing contrast between the traditions of high modernism and the conventions of social realism observed by work that is contemporary without being, in this sense, ‘modern’, he writes: ‘Anyone who has had a literary education, who has experienced the work of the great moderns instructed by such education, will tend to feel dissatisfied with “contemporary” work, with its thinness of texture, its lack of complexity, its simplifications and evasions, its indifference to significant form.’ In the passage as a whole, Lodge doesn’t entirely endorse this modernist credo, but his clear identification with ‘anyone who has had a literary education’ (implying an education well above the minimum) says something important about where he is writing from and who he is writing for. Lodge’s writing voice, as opposed to the facts of his biography, can make him seem both classless and placeless, but the truth is that this relative freedom (or, more sociologically, displacement) has been enabled by the institution of the university and the part it played in opening up the world of the mind to new social strata in the three or four decades after 1945. In some of his fiction Lodge may have depicted academic life satirically, but in his life he has been a striking beneficiary of its world-opening power.

Writing about Kingsley Amis’s early novels in Language of Fiction, Lodge declared that they ‘speak to me in an idiom, a tone of voice, to which I respond with immediate understanding and pleasure’. I suppose I might say something similar about my own response to the best novels of Lodge’s early and middle periods, in part because of coming from much the same stratum of society, in part from having attended an almost identical school, and in part because of having been similarly nurtured and empowered by the institution of the university. But Lodge went to university in 1952, in an England still subject to rationing, social deference and the deferral of pleasure. Things had changed by 1966. For example, Lodge confides, rather surprisingly, that ‘I had no ambitions to have sexual intercourse as a teenager.’ By contrast, I sometimes think that at that age I had no other ambition to speak of, but, further differences aside (notably Lodge’s Catholicism), this may be a telling illustration of the development of ‘teenager’ as a category between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s. All this reminds us that Lodge has in many ways been the chronicler of the expanding horizons of English society in the postwar decades, reporting the experience of prosperity as encountered by an austerity-conditioned sensibility.

He is also representative of a moment in the history of literary criticism in Britain – post-Leavis but pre-theory – that has almost disappeared from view. In publishing terms, its early habitats were periodicals like Essays in Criticism and Critical Quarterly, journals in which an undogmatic, conversable but intensely serious form of literary criticism could be confident of reaching a like-minded audience. Published in 1966, when Lodge was 31, Language of Fiction was an important expression of this style of criticism, applying to the novel some of the same attention to verbal texture that close readers of the previous generation had addressed to poetry. He drew on eclectic older critics like John Holloway, Ian Watt and, above all, Frank Kermode – many of his circle, he reports, ‘were covert Kermodians inasmuch as we regarded him as the most accomplished literary critic of his generation’ – but also on outliers of American formalism such as Wayne Booth. He shared interests with near contemporaries such as Tony Tanner while his literary doppelgänger (and closest friend) was Malcolm Bradbury. Like Kermode and Tanner, Lodge was initially receptive to new theoretical ideas coming from Europe, particularly Russian formalism in his case but also early structuralism, and he did much to show how concepts derived from these sources could illuminate the mechanics of fiction and indeed narrative in general. Drawing on such sources didn’t mean abandoning his lucid, relaxed mode of writing, but it enabled him to supplement the kind of close reading he had always been good at with a broader grasp of patterns and archetypes, seeing beyond the surface texture of a novel to the structuring design of its narrative choices. But then, again like Kermode and Tanner and some others, he became uneasy with some of the more rebarbative or implausible applications of post-structuralist ideas, and he never became a card-carrying member of any of the most militant sects in the theory wars. In this respect, he has remained, if not exactly a traditional literary critic, then at least someone with too much interest in, and respect for, the way his fellow novelists have used their shared tools to feel quite at home in more strenuously ideological company.

The essays collected in Lives in Writing are for the most part nicely turned, workmanlike pieces of professional literary journalism, though in places lacking the engaged energy of the best of his earlier critical essays. But every so often he reminds us what an acute and sympathetic reader he can be. In the course of an appreciative essay about Alan Bennett, he suddenly swoops on the passage in Untold Stories in which Bennett recounts a visit with his father to see his mother who has been committed to an unbearably awful mental hospital.

Dad sat down by the bed and took her hand.

‘What have you done to me, Walt?’ she said.

‘Nay, Lil,’ he said and kissed her hand. ‘Nay, love.’

Lodge responds tenderly to the pathos of the scene, singling out Bennett’s use of ‘Nay’: ‘Semantically equivalent to “no”, it has a quite different force here, freighted with inarticulate apology, deprecation and dismay.’ It’s a small example of the attentive reading, devoid of critical showiness, that Lodge at his best is so good at.

The essay as a whole is responsive to Bennett’s writing, in part because Lodge is interested in how he achieves his distinctively flat yet engaging tone. ‘Bennett writes very honestly about himself, or he creates the effect of doing so.’ Lodge, too, creates the effect of seeming to write honestly about himself, though in a less mock-morose and downbeat manner than Bennett (being less downbeat than Bennett is not an unusual quality). It’s a pity that this essay is marred by a quite unmerited ticking-off of Bennett for his failure to express the approved reaction to the events of 9/11. I can’t help wondering whether Lodge would have added this reprimand had he not been writing for a primarily American readership.

Quite a Good Time to Be Born, published to coincide with his 80th birthday, is almost bound to be a bit of a disappointment. There is, to begin with, the question of how much of it really is new writing. He not only quotes fairly generously from his own earlier books, but he also reworks – and in some cases reuses almost verbatim – whole passages he has published before, sometimes more than once. For example, he recalls first encountering Frank Kermode in 1961:

At the Cambridge conference he [Bernard Bergonzi] introduced me to Frank Kermode and as a result I found myself sitting with a group late one evening in somebody’s room, sipping whisky out of teacups and bathroom mugs, listening to Frank discoursing in his relaxed, drily amusing style. Unfortunately I cannot recall anything he said on that occasion except his enjoyment of the drive down from Manchester in his Mini, then a new and trendy vehicle.

It is a little dismaying to find that Lives in Writing had already reported the same vignette in almost identical words, complete with the whisky and Kermode’s Mini. But then it turns out that that piece is itself substantially a reprint of an essay that appeared in Critical Quarterly in 2012, where the whisky and the Mini had previously done duty, and then that that piece in turn had largely reproduced Lodge’s earlier contribution to a 1999 volume honouring Kermode, which seems to have been, as far as I have followed the trail, the first public appearance of the whisky, the Mini, and the otherwise defective memory. Autobiographers, like those holding forth round the late-night whisky, are allowed some slack in the matter of repetition, but such examples reinforce our sense that, where the main episodes of Lodge’s life are concerned, we’ve heard it all before.

In addition, Quite a Good Time to Be Born contains too many passages that fall below what we have come to expect of Lodge. Thus, we are told of his visit to the United States in 1963-64: ‘Life was not entirely trouble-free. I had to have a tooth extracted, the first since childhood … Then Mary was stung in the foot by a wasp.’ That ‘terrible fluidity of self-revelation’ is too much in evidence, and the dispiriting cadence of the Christmas circular letter echoes through whole stretches of the prose. In the same year Christmas was spent with his sister-in-law and her husband: ‘Eileen and John entertained us kindly in their suburban apartment, and Christmas Day was enhanced by the excitement of the four children opening their presents. On Boxing Day we went to an open-air skating rink in the centre of the city so that Eileen’s elder boy could try out his new skates, but the surface was wet with melting ice so that if you fell over you got soaked.’ This may, of course, be a subtle parody of an Alan Bennett monologue, perhaps called ‘A Letter from Uncle David’. And maybe there is an untravelled elderly relative who needs to be told that ‘Rhode Island is not an island, but is the smallest state in the Union, with a history that goes back to colonial days.’ Other passages suggest an ear more corrupted by the PR-speak of contemporary public life than one would have expected of this sharp writer of dialogue. To take a tiny example, he reports how his aunt, temporarily attached to an American military base in Germany after the war, ‘at least made an effort to relate to members of the German community’. When I played soldiers as a boy I don’t think that, in my film-fuelled imagination, I was killing large numbers of military representatives of ‘the German community’.

At times I wondered whether his frequent choice of an old-fashioned, almost bufferish, expression was deliberate: something is described as ‘a thoroughly sound decision’; something else ‘interested me exceedingly’; guests at his wedding were ‘satisfied with the modest repast we gave them’; and so on. After such language, it is not altogether surprising to find him saying, when recalling his shock at the frequency with which his fellow national servicemen used ‘fuck’ and its derivatives: ‘Needless to say, I had never uttered the word myself, and during my service I did not acquire the habit of doing so.’ Quite so. All this, one has to remind oneself, comes from the creator of the immortal Morris Zapp, the self-appointed Crapfinder-General of academic life.

One of the many passages Lodge quotes from his own earlier writing is his playful parody, in The British Museum Is Falling Down, of Molly Bloom’s final, epically unpunctuated soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, where he has his own female character shift the register from Molly’s joyous, sexual ‘I said yes’ to an altogether more hesitant, sceptical ‘I said perhaps.’ Reading this again I said alright it was a nice idea but repeating it seems a bit like showing off or just not being able to think of anything so inspired these days not that I mind much and anyway its alright to do this because he is so cherished now and no one wants to say anything bad about him and thats alright because he is a good thing and over the years he has made me laugh and can still make me smile a bit and anyway its only an autobiography and its alright to go on a bit about yourself there in fact it wouldn’t work if you didn’t really but even so I wanted to say to him that its not really very good but I didnt quite have the heart and perhaps Im only disappointed because I used to enjoy him a lot when I was younger and when he was younger too and perhaps its never quite as good when youre older only alright and so thats what I said about his book I said it was alright though it isnt really but thats alright.

Send Letters To:

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

letters@lrb.co.uk

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.