David Lodge Essay - Critical Essays


In order to understand David Lodge’s novels, it is necessary to place them in the context of postwar British literature—the “Movement” writers and “Angry Young Men” of the 1950’s, whose attacks on the English class system had an obvious appeal to the author of The Picturegoers, the English Catholic novel and campus fiction traditions, and finally the postmodernism to which British fiction (it is often claimed) has proved especially resistant. In addition, Lodge’s novels are significantly and doubly autobiographical. They draw not only on important events in the author’s life but also on his work as a literary critic. In The Language of Fiction, Lodge defends the aesthetic validity and continuing viability of realist writing on the basis of linguistic mastery rather than fidelity to life, and in The Novelist at the Crossroads he rejects Robert Scholes’s bifurcation of contemporary fiction into fabulistic and journalistic modes, positing the “problematic novel” in which the novelist innovatively builds his or her hesitation as to which mode to adopt into the novel. Lodge’s own novels are profoundly pluralistic yet manifest the author’s clear sense of aesthetic, social, and personal limitations as well as his awareness of working both within and against certain traditions and forms.

The Picturegoers

Set in a lower-middle-class area of London much like the one in which Lodge grew up, The Picturegoers is an interesting and even ambitious work marred by melodramatic excesses. As the plural of its title implies, The Picturegoers deals with a fairly large number of more or less main characters. Lodge’s title also is indicative of his narrative method: abrupt cinematic shifts between the different plots, use of a similarly shifting focalizing technique, and a stylizing of the narrative discourse in order to reflect features of an individual character’s verbal thought patterns. Of the seven main characters, Mark Underwood is the most important. A lapsed Catholic and aspiring writer, he arrives in London, rents a room in the home of a conservative Catholic family, the Mallorys, and falls in love with the daughter, Clare, formerly a Catholic novitiate. The affair will change them: Clare will become sexually awakened and then skeptical when Mark abandons her for the Catholicism from which she has begun to distance herself. Interestingly, his return to the Church seems selfish and insincere, an ironic sign not of his redemption but of his bad faith.

Ginger, You’re Barmy

Dismissed by its author as a work of “missed possibilities” and an “act of revenge” against Great Britain’s National Service, Ginger, You’re Barmy continues Lodge’s dual exploration of narrative technique and moral matters and largely succeeds on the basis of the solution Lodge found for the technical problem that the writing of the novel posed: how to write a novel about the tedium of military life without making the novel itself tedious to read. Lodge solved the problem by choosing to concentrate the action and double his narrator-protagonist Jonathan Browne’s story.

Lodge focuses the story on the first few weeks of basic training, particularly Jonathan’s relationship with the altruistic and highly, though conservatively, principled Mike Brady, a poorly educated Irish Catholic who soon runs afoul of the military authorities; on the accidental death or perhaps suicide of Percy Higgins; and on Jonathan’s last days before being mustered out two years later. Lodge then frames this already-doubled story with the tale of Jonathan’s telling, or writing, of these events three years later, with Jonathan now married (to Mike’s former girlfriend), having spent the past three years awaiting Mike’s release from prison. The novel’s frame structure suggests that Jonathan has improved morally from the self-centered agnostic he was to the selfless friend he has become, but his telling problematizes the issue of his development. Between Mike’s naïve faith and Jonathan’s intellectual self-consciousness and perhaps self-serving confession there opens up an abyss of uncertainty for the reader.

The British Museum Is Falling Down

This moral questioning takes a very different form in Lodge’s next novel. The British Museum Is Falling Down is a parodic pastiche about a day in the highly literary and (sexually) very Catholic life of Adam Appleby, a twenty-five-year-old graduate student trying to complete his dissertation before his stipend is depleted and his growing family overwhelms his slender financial resources. Desperate but by no means in despair, Adam begins to confuse literature and life as each event in the wildly improbable series that makes up his day unfolds in its own uniquely parodied style. The parodies are fun but also have a semiserious purpose—the undermining of all forms of authority, religious as well as literary. Parodic in form, The British Museum Is Falling Down is comic in intent in that Lodge wrote it in the expectation of change in the Church’s position on birth control. The failure of this expectation would lead Lodge fifteen years later to turn the comedy inside out in his darker novel, How Far Can You Go?

Out of the Shelter

Published after The British Museum Is Falling Down but conceived earlier, Out of the Shelter is a more serious but also less successful novel. Modeled on a trip Lodge made to Germany when he was sixteen, Out of the Shelter attempts to combine the bildungsroman and the Jamesian international novel. In three parts of increasing length, the novel traces the life of Timothy Young from his earliest years during the London Blitz of World War II to the four weeks he spends in Heidelberg in the early 1950’s with his sister, who works for the American army of occupation. With the help of those he meets, Timothy begins the process of coming out of the shelter of home, conservative Catholicism, unambitious lower-middle-class parents, provincial, impoverished England, and sexual immaturity into a world of abundance as well as ambiguity.

Lodge’s Joycean stylization of Timothy’s maturing outlook proves much less successful than his portrayal of Timothy’s life as a series of transitions in which the desire for freedom is offset by a desire for shelter, the desire to participate by the desire to observe. Even in the epilogue, Timothy, now thirty, married, and in the United States on a study grant, finds himself dissatisfied (even though he has clearly done better than any of the novel’s other characters) and afraid of the future.

Changing Places

Lodge translates that fear into a quite different key in Changing Places. Here his genius for combining opposites becomes fully evident as the serious Timothy Young gives way to the hapless English liberal-humanist Philip Swallow, who leaves the shelter of the University of Rummidge for the expansive pleasures of the State University of Euphoria in Plotinus (Berkeley). Swallow is half of Lodge’s faculty and narrative exchange program; the other is Morris Zapp, also forty, an academic Norman Mailer, arrogant and ambitious.

Cartoonish as his characters—or rather caricatures—may be, Lodge makes them and their complementary as well as parallel misadventures in foreign parts humanly interesting. The real energy of Changing Places lies, however, in the intersecting plots and styles of this “duplex” novel. The first two chapters, “Flying” and “Settling,” get the novel off to a self-consciously omniscient but otherwise conventional start. “Corresponding,” however, switches to the epistolary mode, and “Reading” furthers the action (and the virtuosic display) by offering a series of newspaper items, press releases, flysheets, and the like. “Changing” reverts to conventional narration (but in a highly stylized way), and “Ending” takes the form of a film script. Set at a time of political activism and literary innovation, Changing Places is clearly a “problematic novel” written by a “novelist at the crossroads,” aware of the means at his disposal but unwilling to privilege any one over any or all of the others.

How Far Can You Go?

Lodge puts the postmodern plays of Changing Places to a more overtly serious purpose in How Far Can You Go? It is a work more insistently referential than any of Lodge’s other novels but also paradoxically more self-questioning: a fiction about the verifiably real world that nevertheless radically insists on its own status as fiction. The novel switches back and forth between the sometimes discrete yet always ultimately related stories of its ten main characters as freely as it does between the mimetic levels of the story and its narration. The parts make up an interconnected yet highly discontinuous whole, tracing the lives of the ten characters from 1952 (when nine are university students and members of a Catholic study group led by the tenth, Father Brierly) through the religious, sexual, and sociopolitical changes of the 1960’s and 1970’s to the deaths of two popes, the installation of the conservative Pope John Paul II, and the writing of the novel How Far Can You Go? in 1978.

The authorial narrator’s attitude toward his characters is at once distant and familiar, condescending and compassionate. Their religious doubts and moral questions strike the reader as quaintly naïve, the result of a narrowly Catholic upbringing. The lives of reader and characters as well as authorial narrator are also strangely...

(The entire section is 3979 words.)