Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1332
David John Lodge is a writer who is able to extract comedy from the soul-searching of Roman Catholics in an increasingly secular world. Unlike converts such as Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, whose faith seems to wobble when pressed, Lodge, a born Catholic, never leaves the fold while still burdened with doubts. He was born in 1935 to William Frederick and Rosalie Murphy Lodge. Out of the Shelter portrays a five-year-old boy living through the excitement of the London Blitz, as Lodge did. He was educated at University College, London, and graduated in 1955. Lodge was in the British army, mainly in Germany, from 1955 to 1957. Ginger, You’re Barmy suggests how much he hated this experience. He returned to University College, receiving his master’s in 1959. That year, he married Mary Frances Jacob; they would have two sons and a daughter. In 1960, Lodge began teaching modern literature at the University of Birmingham, where he received his doctorate in 1967. He has been awarded the Harkness Commonwealth Fellowship, the Hawthornden Prize, the Royal Society of Literature Fellowship, and the Whitbread Award.
For some time, Lodge successfully maintained two careers, one as a scholar and the other as a novelist. He published school texts of novels by Jane Austen and George Eliot and a widely used collection of essays, Twentieth Century Criticism. Also an astute reviewer, his critical leanings are most clearly displayed in Working with Structuralism. In Modes of Modern Writing, he defends the role of resemblance in literature and attacks art that is content with configuration. This view is consistent with Lodge’s very British commonsense practicality. In 1987, however, he resigned his university post to concentrate on writing.
It is Lodge’s novels that draw most readers to him. The novels have been increasingly impressive; their comedic element is striking, while their seriousness gives them substance. Ginger, You’re Barmy indulges in barracks humor, yet the work is mainly an attack on national conscription and the colonial spasm during the Suez crisis. The main contrast is between the angry but passive narrator and an Irish conscript who deserts to join the Irish Republican Army. There is more humor, even farce, in The British Museum Is Falling Down. This novel traces a day in the life of Adam Appleby, a graduate student at University College, London. He is worried whether his wife is pregnant with a fourth child, whether his dissertation (“The Structure of Long Sentences in Three Modern English Novels”) is foundering, and whether he can get a teaching position to support his growing family. The Joycean parallels are occasional, although the novel ends with a Molly Bloom-like reverie.
Out of the Shelter is an initiation story in which the child hero comes to consider the shelter, to which his family goes during an air raid, as a lost haven as he grows older. The central episode takes place in Heidelberg, where the fifteen-year-old hero goes to visit his sister, who works there for the Americans. There he is a foreigner among foreigners, and his sexual awakening under the tutelage of a precocious American girl deepens his sense of estrangement. This work clarifies the basic concern in Lodge’s novels, which is a search for order. That order may be cultural (as in Out of the Shelter), or it may be literary (as in the farce The British Museum Is Falling Down).
The whole question of order becomes more complex in How Far Can You Go?, which reviews three decades in the life of a dozen Roman Catholics who struggle with the question of birth control. It is an angry novel, in which Lodge takes the Church to task for burdening the faithful with families that they can barely support. There is even the contention that the rhythm method produces mentally handicapped children (one couple has a child with Down syndrome). This quarrel with the Church may seem to be a limited subject for a novel, but Lodge uses it to examine a whole generation. There is a priest who becomes a gay activist and a nun who (after a visit to Disneyland) is swept up in the Charismatic movement. Another becomes a liberated advice columnist. She marries a producer of pornographic films who tries to organize a group sex session with another couple. Lodge’s point is that one should be able to go further than the Church permits, but it is possible to go too far. In the end, the various characters in their own way have made their peace with the Church.
In 1967, Lodge taught at the University of California at Berkeley; he later admitted that the Berkeley campus is the model for the State University of Euphoria (“Euphoric State”) of Changing Places. Philip Swallow goes from Rummidge, a “redbrick” university in the Midlands, to Euphoria, while the bustling Morris Zap goes to Rummidge. The novel follows their year in tandem, and the humor often derives from their attempts to take on local coloring, to the extent of seducing each other’s wives.
Small World, which follows many of the same characters, is a more ambitious work, a parody of the medieval romance. In the 1980’s, according to Professor Zapp, education is not confined to campuses. The real business of education is conducted at airports and at conventions. The main character is named Persse, and throughout the novel he pursues the learned, beautiful, and chaste Angelica. Unknown to him, she has a promiscuous identical twin, a situation which leads Persse to believe that Angelica leads a double life. There is much more to the mock plot. Zapp travels about the world reading the same paper over and over. He is kidnapped by the Red Brigades, and his wife (now a successful writer of romances) refuses to ransom him. Philip Swallow has an affair that he pursues at literary meetings but ultimately returns to his wife. In the end, all is clarified when, at a convention of the Modern Language Association, it is revealed by the elderly Miss Sybil Maiden that she is the mother of the twins Angelica and Lily and that Arthur Kingfisher (a now impotent founder of modern criticism) is the father. She left the infant twins in a Gladstone bag in the washroom of a plane on a transatlantic flight (updating Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest). Persse loses Angelica to another, but he is last seen in pursuit of another young woman. The sympathies of Lodge are conservative, and the romance conventions in Small World are employed with as much nostalgia as parodic wit. He knows all the up-to-date self-reflexive devices, but the air here is old-fashioned.
A sequel to Changing Places and Small World, Nice Work is a blend of academic and industrial novels. The lives of a young university lecturer and a middle-aged businessman cross, permitting Lodge to provide a witty portrait of the state of business and education in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.
Paradise News centers on the quest motif and the conflicts of postmodern English Catholic Bernard Walsh, formerly a priest but now teaching theology at the University of Rummidge. Accompanied by his old father, he undertakes a family mission of mercy to Honolulu, where his explorations of the earthly paradise lead to discoveries about himself, life, death, and love. Therapy centers on another spiritual and existential quest. Lawrence (Tubby) Passmore, a writer of television comedies, is troubled by knee pains and anxiety and tries psychotherapy, aromatherapy, massage therapy, and acupuncture. When his wife asks for a divorce, he seeks consolation with a series of women before launching a quest for the sweetheart he wronged in adolescence.
The two protagonists in Thinks . . . , Ralph Messenger, a professor of Cognitive Science at Gloucester University, and Helen Reed, a novelist serving as a creative writing instructor at the university, embark on a passionate affair. Things do not turn out well for the secret lovers, who go through numerous subtle shifts in their emotions and end up with a relationship that neither of them wants.
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