A Catholic Novel
In late August 1964, at the age of 29, I embarked at Southampton on the Queen Mary, bound for New York with my wife Mary, our two children, five suitcases and the first chapter of what I hoped would be my third published novel. I was beginning a year’s leave of absence from my post as lecturer in English Literature at the University of Birmingham to take up a Harkness Commonwealth Fellowship in America. This marvellous foundation allows the lucky recipients of its Fellowships to pursue their own programmes of study wherever they like in the United States, requiring them only to spend at least three months travelling, and providing them with a hired car in which to do so. We settled first at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, where I studied American Literature; before we set off, in March 1965, in our brand new Chevrolet Bel Air, on the long, leisurely journey westward that would eventually take us to San Francisco. I had finished The British Museum is falling down and had it accepted.
This is easily the shortest period of time in which I have ever succeeded in writing a novel. My freedom from teaching duties, combined with the generally stimulating and liberating effect of the American experience, was one obvious reason for this. But another reason for the relative rapidity of composition was my conviction that I had lighted upon a subject of considerable topical interest and concern, especially (but not exclusively) to Roman Catholics, and one that had not been treated substantively by any other novelist as far as I was aware – certainly not in the comic mode in which I proposed to treat it. That subject was the effect of the Catholic Church’s teaching about birth control on the lives of married Catholics, and the questioning of that teaching which had very recently begun within the Church itself. I wanted to get my novel out while the subject was still a live issue, and before any other writer cottoned on to its possibilities.
I need not have worried on the first score: Rome did not attempt to settle the matter until 1968, and Pope Paul VI’s encyclical of that year, Humanae Vitae, endorsing the traditional prohibition of artificial birth control, succeeded only in provoking a much more fundamental debate, which continues to this day, about authority and conscience as well as sexuality. Since I have treated this subject in the course of a more recent novel, How far can you go? (1980), as part of a longer, wider look at changes and developments in Catholicism over the last quarter of a century, I would like to remind readers of the reissue of The British Museum is falling down that it was first published in 1965, some three years before Humanae Vitae. The relationship between the two novels, and the differences between them, can hardly be understood without bearing this in mind.
Adam and Barbara Appleby are not portraits of myself and my wife, and the circumstances of our married life never, I am glad to say, corresponded very closely to theirs. Nevertheless, it would be idle to pretend that I would have thought of writing the novel if we had not, in the early years of our married life, found (like most of our married Catholic friends) that the only method of family planning sanctioned by the Church, known as ‘Rhythm’ or the ‘Safe Method’, was in practice neither rhythmical nor safe, and, therefore, a cause of considerable stress. In How far can you go? a number of the characters, gathered in a pub, ask themselves why they ‘persevered for so many years with that frustrating, inconvenient, ineffective, anxiety-and-tension-creating regime’, and come up with a variety of answers: it was conditioning, it was the repressive power of the clergy, it was guilt about sex, it was the fear of Hell. Let me put forward another reason, which was perhaps not given its due in How far can you go? Any intelligent, educated Catholic of that generation who had remained a practising Catholic through adolescence and early adulthood had made a kind of existential contract: in return for the reassurance and stability afforded by the Catholic metaphysical system, one accepted the moral imperatives that went with it, even if they were in practice sometimes inhumanly difficult and demanding. It was precisely the strength of the system that it was total, comprehensive and uncompromising, and it seemed to those brought up in the system that to question one part of it was to question all of it, and that to pick and choose among its moral imperatives, flouting those which were inconveniently difficult, was simply hypocritical. This rage for consistency was probably especially characteristic of British and American Catholicism – Continental European cultures being more tolerant of contradiction between principle and practice – and especially characteristic of the working-class and petit-bourgeois Catholic ‘ghetto’. Mr Auberon Waugh, in an exceptionally hostile review of How far can you go?, asserted of the traditional Catholic teaching on sex: ‘No doubt a few Catholics who took it seriously found it oppressive; but the majority lived in cheerful disobedience.’ Well, that is what it may have looked like from the perspective of Combe Florey House and Downside, but not, I can assure Mr Waugh, from the point of view of the Catholic ‘majority’ in ordinary parishes up and down this country.
When my wife and I married in 1959, the Catholic prohibition on artificial contraception seemed to us as fixed and immutable a component of Catholic teaching as any article of the Creed. It was conceivable that, not being able to obey it, one might leave the Church; inconceivable that one might in good faith remain a full member of the Church while disobeying, or that the Church itself might change its views. But in the early 1960s, those last two possibilities did at last become thinkable, and came to be thought. There were two reasons for this change of climate. First, the invention of the progesterone pill seemed to offer the prospect of a reliable method of contraception which would not be open to the objections of traditional Catholic teaching, and which might therefore be approved without apparent inconsistency. Second, Pope John XXIII, elected in 1958 as a ‘caretaker’ pontiff, had surprised everyone by encouraging Catholics to re-examine many aspects of their faith previously regarded as sacrosanct. In 1962 he called for a second Vatican Council to reinterpret the Catholic faith to the modern world, and in the same year set up a Pontifical Commission to study problems connected with the family, population and birth control. Pope Paul VI, who succeeded him in the following year, charged this Commission specifically with the task of examining the Church’s teaching on birth control with reference to the Pill. This seemed to admit, at the highest possible level, the possibility of change in the Church’s teaching.
That was the context in which The British Museum is falling down was written, and it explains, among other things, why the book is more purely comic than How far can you go? By the kind of contrivance for which comedy is traditionally licensed, the story has a ‘happy ending’: the hero finds Fortune, and the heroine turns out not to be, as they had both feared, pregnant for the fourth time. But this resolution of their problems is of a very provisional, short-term kind. For both of them, the long-term solution to their sexual frustration is assumed to lie in the prospect of some change in their Church’s teaching. The possibility of making a conscientious decision to ignore that teaching is not raised. Like most traditional comedy, The British Museum is falling down is essentially conservative in its final import: the conflicts and misunderstandings it deals with are resolved without fundamentally disturbing the system which provoked them. (That more fundamental disturbance is the subject of How far can you go?)
The ‘system’ depicted in The British Museum is falling down was specifically Catholic, but in writing the novel in the comic mode I was hoping to engage the interest and sympathy of non-Catholic and non-Christian readers as well, by presenting the ironies and absurdities of married life under the dispensation of the ‘Safe Method’ as one instance of the universal and perennial difficulty men and women experience in understanding, ordering and satisfying their sexuality. Barbara makes the point explicit in the course of her reverie in the last chapter:
there’s something about sex perhaps it’s original sin I don’t know but we’ll never get it neatly tied up you think you’ve got it under control in one place it pops up in another either it’s comic or tragic nobody’s immune you see some couple going off to the Continent in their new sports car and envy them like hell next thing you find out they’re dying to have a baby those who can’t have them want them those who have them don’t want them or not so many of them everyone has problems if you only knew ...
This example of interior monologue brings me to the second aspect of the novel on which it seems appropriate to comment: the element of literary parody and pastiche. In looking for a character, or pair of characters, and a milieu, in which to explore the Catholic-sexual theme, I turned to an idea I had casually jotted down some time before, for a comic novel about a postgraduate student of English literature working in the British Museum Reading Room, whose life keeps taking on the stylistic and thematic colouring of the fictional texts he is studying. In this I was drawing, not only on my own experience of writing a thesis (on ‘The Catholic Novel from the Oxford Movement to the Present Day’) in the British Museum, but also on more recent research into the way fictional worlds are constructed in language – work completed just before I left for the United States on the Harkness Fellowship, and published a few months after The British Museum is falling down as Language of Fiction (1966).
That, then, was my basic concept of the novel: a young, married, impoverished Catholic research student, racked by anxiety about his wife’s putative fourth pregnancy, would be propelled through a series of picaresque adventures centring on the British Museum Reading Room, each episode echoing, through parody, pastiche and allusion, the work of an established modern novelist. The shifts of tone and narrative technique involved would be naturalised by making the hero prone to daydreams, fantasies and hallucinations, which would in turn be motivated by his chronic anxiety about his marital circumstances. The basic irony of Adam Appleby’s plight is that the only element in his life that seems authentically his, and not already ‘written’ by some novelist, is the very source of his anxiety. ‘It’s a special form of scholarly neurosis,’ says his friend Camel, as Adam recounts a Conradian experience in the Reading Room. ‘He’s no longer able to distinguish between life and literature.’ ‘Oh yes I am,’ Adam retorts. ‘Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children. Life is the other way round.’
No doubt the use of parody in this book was also, for me, a way of coping with what the American critic Harold Bloom has called the ‘anxiety of influence’: the sense every young writer must have of the daunting weight of the literary tradition he has inherited, the necessity and yet seeming impossibility of doing something in writing that has not been done before. There is a passage in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds that is à propos:
The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before – usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimbleriggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature. Conclusion of explanation.
That is all my bum, said Brinsley.
There are ten passages of parody or pastiche in the novel, mimicking (in alphabetical order, not the order of their appearance in the text) Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence, Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo), C.P. Snow and Virginia Woolf. There are also allusions to other texts, such as William Golding’s Free Fall, and to literary schools and sub-genres: the Chester-Belloc style of essay writing is caricatured in Egbert Merrymarsh, and there is a postgraduate sherry-party scene that was supposed to be a kind of distillation of the post-Amis campus novel (three aspirant novelists are present at the occasion and taking notes on it) but which bears the impress especially of Malcolm Bradbury’s Eating people is wrong (1959).
Malcolm had come to the English Department at Birmingham in 1961, a year after me, and we quickly became friends and collaborators. In 1963 the two of us and a talented Birmingham undergraduate called Jim Duckett (who, sadly, died in 1980) were, through Malcolm’s contact with the artistic director of the Birmingham Rep, commissioned to write a satirical revue for that company. It was the era of Beyond the Fringe and That was the week that was and satire was in fashion. Our revue, entitled Between these Four Walls, ran for its scheduled month in the autumn of 1963 and enjoyed a modest success, though audiences were badly affected by the assassination of President Kennedy halfway through the run. Like many people, but with better reason than most, I can remember exactly what I was doing when the news broke. I was sitting in the stalls of the old Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Station Street, watching a performance of Between these Four Walls. In one of our sketches in that first half, a candidate for a job demonstrated his insouciance by turning up for an interview with a transistor radio playing pop music held up to his ear. The actor playing the role used to carry a real radio tuned to an actual broadcast. On the night in question it was suddenly interrupted by a newsflash: ‘President Kennedy has been assassinated.’ The actor quickly snapped the receiver off, but some members of the audience had caught the words and tittered uneasily, taking it as a joke in poor taste. In the interval everybody discovered the awful truth, and the second half of the show fell very flat. Among the cast was a young actress called Julie Christie, who was working at the Rep for £15 a week to acquire theatrical experience – in spite of being a very bankable film-star on the strength of her recent performance in Billy Liar. We writers made even less money out of the show than Julie Christie, but I did not begrudge the time and effort for I found the experience of seeing one’s work performed, and of sitting in a theatre and observing every nuance of an audience’s reaction to one’s words, utterly fascinating. The work itself was comparatively trivial and ephemeral, but it was, necessarily, in the comic mode, and for me that, too, opened up new horizons.
My first two books, The Picturegoers and Ginger, you’re barmy, had had their moments of humour but both were essentially serious works of scrupulous realism. Through the experience of working on Between These Four Walls, I discovered in myself a zest for satirical, farcical and parodic writing that I had not known I possessed, and this liberated me, I found, from the restrictive decorums of the well-made, realistic novel. The British Museum is falling down was the first of my novels that could be described as in any way experimental. Comedy, it seemed, offered a way of reconciling a contradiction, of which I had long been aware, between my critical admiration for the great Modernist writers, and my creative practice, formed by the neorealist, anti-Modernist writing of the 1950s. My association with Malcolm Bradbury, and the example of his own work in comedy, was therefore a crucial factor in this development in my writing, and the dedication to The British Museum is falling down, as well as the sherry-party scene, acknowledges that debt. A few years later, Malcolm left Birmingham for the University of East Anglia. We both regretted the separation, but it was probably a necessary one for the healthy development of our respective literary careers. We are often enough linked, not to say confused, in the public mind. I was once rung up by a man who asked me to settle a bet by declaring whether I was the same person as Malcolm Bradbury.
I was well-aware that the extensive use of parody and pastiche in The British Museum is falling down was a risky device. There was, in particular, the danger of puzzling and alienating the reader who wouldn’t recognise the allusions. My aim was to make the narrative and its frequent shifts of style fully intelligible and satisfying to such a reader, while offering the more literary reader the extra entertainment of spotting the parodies. This in turn meant that the parodies had to be comparatively discreet, especially in the early part of the book. In the later chapters they become longer, more elaborate and more overt. For aesthetic reasons I wanted the last of these passages to be the most obvious, most appropriate and most ambitious parody of all. At the same time, I was aware, as the book approached its conclusion, that Adam Appleby’s marital problems needed to be seen, however briefly, from another perspective – that of his wife, Barbara. But could such an abrupt and belated shift in ‘point of view’ be contrived without an effect of clumsy improvisation? Solving this problem, and the problem of finding a climactic parody, in a single stroke, was one of those moments of happy inspiration that make the labour of composing literary fictions worthwhile. In what famous modern novel did the character of a wife, up to the penultimate chapter an object in her husband’s thoughts and perceptions, become in the last chapter the subjective consciousness of the narrative, and give her own wry, down-to-earth, feminine perspective on him and their relationship? Where but in James Joyce’s Ulysses, the novel which (I belatedly realised) had, in limiting the duration of its action to a single day, and in varying the style of the narrative from episode to episode, provided me with the basic model for The British Museum is falling down. Molly Bloom’s famous unpunctuated interior monologue lent itself to my purposes with uncanny appropriateness: my novel could end, like Joyce’s, with the hero returned to his home, reunited with his spouse, asleep in the marital bed, while the more wakeful wife drowsily pondered the foibles of men, the paradoxes of sexuality and the history of their courtship and marriage. For Molly’s keyword, ‘yes’, I would substitute the more tentative ‘perhaps’, as more appropriate to Barbara’s character and the mingled notes of optimism and resignation on which I wanted to end the novel. I had always intended that Barbara’s immediate anxiety should be relieved in the last chapter. When I recalled that Molly’s period also started in the last episode of Ulysses I knew, if I had not known it before, that there is such a thing as writer’s luck.
When the novel was in production with MacGibbon and Kee (the publishers of my two previous novels, later to be swallowed up by Granada), I discussed with my editor, Timothy O’Keeffe, the advisability of drawing attention to the parodies in the blurb on the dust-jacket. He was against doing so, and I accepted his advice. I later came to think that the reader is entitled to a hint about what to look for in the book. Very few reviewers recognised the full extent of the parodies, and a surprising number made no reference to them at all. Some complained that it was a somewhat derivative novel, without perceiving that this effect might be deliberate and systematic. When an American edition was published later, the blurb carefully drew attention to the parodies, and they were duly noticed and generally approved.
My working title for the novel from an early stage of composition had been ‘The British Museum had lost its charm’, a line from a song by George and Ira Gershwin that I particularly liked in Ella Fitzgerald’s lilting rendition, and often intoned to myself during my two years’ stint in Bloomsbury:
A foggy day in London Town,
Had me low, had me down,
I viewed the morning with alarm,
The British Museum had lost its charm.
The proofs of the novel had been sent to me in San Francisco, corrected and returned to London, and the book was about to go into the final stages of production, when it occurred to Tim O’Keeffe to ask me if I had obtained permission to use the words of the Gershwin song in my title. I had not. I wrote immediately to the Gershwin Publishing Corporation in New York, requesting permission. It was refused. I pleaded with them to change their minds. They were adamant. I was deeply disappointed because the title, and the song from which it came, had been so intimately connected with the genesis and composition of the novel. It was the Gershwins’ song, rather than Ulysses, which had consciously suggested to me the idea of limiting the action to a single day, and contributed the fog which is such an important part of the atmosphere of the story and the machinery of the plot. But time was short, and Tim O’Keeffe was pressing me for a new title. I suggested ‘Wombsday’, but MacGibbon and Kee were not happy with it. Tim wrote to say that if we could not agree on a new title immediately, publication would have to be postponed till the following year. Desperately, I airmailed a list of about a dozen titles. Tim O’Keeffe cabled back his choice: ‘The British Museum is falling down.’ Not a bad title, by any means, particularly when one recalls that the nursery rhyme, ‘London Bridge is falling down’, is supposed to have originated in a double entendre about male potency, but very much second-best.
This was not the only setback I experienced in connection with the publication of this novel. Indeed, The British Museum is falling down was very nearly consigned to oblivion as a result of a strange mishap that a more superstitious Catholic author might have attributed to divine displeasure. New novels are normally reviewed in the national press in Britain immediately on publication, or not long after, and there are always more novels published than can be reviewed in any one journal. Hence something like a Darwinian struggle for recognition goes on between competing titles, especially at the peak publishing seasons. The reader may readily guess, therefore, at my state of mind when, ten days after the publication of The British Museum is falling down in October 1965, I had not been able to find a single review of the book. Puzzled as well as despondent, I rang up the offices of a few literary editors whom I knew, to inquire about the fate of my book. I started with the local daily newspaper. The girl who answered said there was no record of their ever having received the book. I phoned a national newspaper and weekly review and got the same reply. Not a single review copy had reached its destination.
The mystery of the disappearing review copies was never solved. The office boy, whose job it was to dispatch them by mail, swore that he had done so in a single batch, but they never turned up, though the GPO instituted a search. If the incident had occurred at a later stage of my literary career I think I should have made more fuss, but at the time my dominant emotion was one of relief that I had not, after all, been written off by the reviewing establishment. A fresh batch of review copies was sent out to the press with a covering letter of explanation, and in due course reviews appeared, only a little more scattered than would normally have been the case. The novel’s most devoted admirers have been, not surprisingly, Catholics, or academics, or both. I have noted in How far can you go? that ‘most Catholic readers seemed to find it [The British Museum] funny, especially priests, who were perhaps pleased to learn that the sex life they had renounced for a higher good wasn’t so very marvellous after all ... agnostics and atheists among my acquaintance, however, found the novel rather sad. All that self-denial and sacrifice of libido depressed them. I think it would depress me, too, now, if I didn’t know that my principal characters would have made a sensible decision long ago to avail themselves of contraceptives.’
I will always have a special fondness for this novel, however, because of its affectionately ironic evocation and celebration of that wonderful place, the Reading Room of the British Museum (now, apparently, doomed to be superseded by a more functional, and probably soulless, new building at King’s Cross). I am told, by those who have made the experiment, that if you apply to read The British Museum is falling down in the building itself, you are required to do so in the North Library, that inner sanctum which (as a passage in the novel explains) is reserved for the perusal of books deemed to be either especially valuable or obscene. I have not ventured to inquire which of these criteria has been applied to my novel.