Whisky out of Teacups

Stefan Collini

  • Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir, 1935-75 by David Lodge
    Harvill Secker, 488 pp, £25.00, January 2015, ISBN 978 1 84655 950 1
  • Lives in Writing: Essays by David Lodge
    Vintage, 262 pp, £10.99, January 2015, ISBN 978 0 09 958776 7

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.

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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.