Books

The novelist who delights in irritating people

David Lodge in 1980, winning the Whitbread prize for How Far Can You Go? (Getty)

Writer’s Luck: A Memoir 1976-199
by David Lodge, Harvill Secker, 400pp, £25

One afternoon when I was an undergraduate reading English at university, I showed up for a supervision and the academic I was meeting confessed he’d forgotten to read my essay. Rather than send me away, he suggested a game. We would take it in turns to name a novelist and the other would put his thumb either up or down. I started: “James Joyce.” He gave a thumbs up.

“DH Lawrence,” he said. An easy one. Thumbs down. I decided to venture a contemporary author: David Lodge. He leapt to his feet, kicking over his side-table and a half-finished bottle of sherry, screaming “Thumbs down!”

Lodge would no doubt love this anecdote. Within literary, academic and, indeed, Catholic circles, David Lodge is a controversial figure who delights in annoying people. The reasons for this are explained fully in the frank and self-deprecating second volume of his memoirs, Writer’s Luck. When the first volume came out in 2015, some critics were dismayed by the Pooterish stream of inconsequential detail – “life was not entirely trouble-free … I had to have a tooth extracted … then Mary was stung by a wasp” – but Lodge has doubled-down for book two, which instead of covering 40 years of quiet achievement, spans a mere 16.

The reason why Lodge gets up the nose of so many novelists and critics – and he sportingly includes details from bad reviews from almost everyone in the literary establishment, including Paul Theroux, Peter Kemp, Blake Morrison, David Sexton and many more – is that his realism-plus-metafiction formula seems to some a reductive simplification. In many ways, he’s a commercial novelist disguised as a literary one, and it is less his borrowings from authors such as James Joyce and Henry James that elevate him than his popular success.

He annoys academics because he occupies a curious middle ground as a critical thinker, open to innovations in contemporary literary criticism and critical theory, but not above dumbing it down for the general reader.

And he annoys Catholics, especially more conservative ones, because (by his own admission) his novels about his faith, such as How Far Can You Go? (1980), are heterodox and sexually explicit.

These heterodox views certainly lead him into some troubling places in this memoir, such as his admiration for the Dutch Catholic founder of the downmarket holiday camp Center Parcs. He worships the man for introducing nude saunas to the north of England, something now discontinued and preventing Lodge from further delighting in such sights as “two beautiful young girls aged about 17, naked and wet from the swimming pool”. Lodge’s attitude towards women throughout the book is troubling. His favourite word for describing women, especially female academics or wives of friends, is “feisty”, which makes it easy to understand why Germaine Greer, placed next to Lodge at lunch, turned her back on him.

But it would be unfair not to recognise Lodge’s accomplishments. His novels may not be modernist masterpieces, but they have sold hundreds of thousands of copies and been turned into popular television series.

With his campus novels, he managed to interest a mass audience in the machinations of university life, which is no small achievement. David Sexton might have found the “Art of Fiction” pieces he wrote for the Independent on Sunday “appalling” (and I have some sympathy with his verdict), but it would be obtuse not to recognise that Lodge is better able to simplify complex literary concepts like “the unreliable narrator” than any academic rival. His desire to be understood might outweigh the obligation to surprise, but no one could accuse Lodge of obfuscation. He is a born “mansplainer”, lucky to have lived in an age when this was regarded as charming rather than oppressive.

His most unique quality, however, and it is this that is likely to be his legacy, is that he is a Catholic novelist of a very different stripe to other Catholic authors such as Graham Greene, Muriel Spark or Evelyn Waugh. He has written about all three at different times and notes that, while Greene and Waugh had a vision that “was essentially anti-humanist, privileging the supernatural drama of sin and salvation over the secular pursuit of material progress”, his “passage into adult life [coincided] with a revolution in the Church triggered by the election of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council” which transformed Lodge into a liberal Catholic. This liberalism freed him to write Catholic novels that replaced black comedy with something much lighter.

While his novels do not compare with those of Greene, Spark and Waugh, they do offer an alternative – a lighter, kinder vision of the world where comeuppances still happen but few individuals are fully beyond salvation. Metafiction ensures that his characters are less at the mercy of God than the author who created them.