A new book by David Lodge is a cause for celebration. Lives in Writing is officially published today, but I’ve already read it. Arriving early for my train to Paris yesterday, I saw the book’s eye-catching cover in Foyles at St Pancras; started to read it before I had even checked in; nearly missed the train because I was already deep into Lodge’s essay on his friend Malcolm Bradbury, and carried on reading all the way to Gare du Nord. On the Metro, I only just remembered to get off at Place Monge in the Latin Quarter, and have since read happily through the night in the garret room on the sixth floor of the friendly hotel where I always stay, in the rue Lacépède.
This is a book of essays, all but one originally published in journals such as the New York Review of Books, the Guardian Review or the TLS. It’s one of Lodge’s great virtues that he has always been an academic who believes in writing to be understood and enjoyed by readers outside as well as within the small world of academic Eng. Lit. In this he acknowledges himself a Kermodian: when he quotes admiringly the late critic Frank Kermode’s assertion that criticism ‘can be quite humbly and sometimes even magnificently useful’, he immediately adds Kermode’s comment that it must also give pleasure. This describes Lodge’s own criticism beautifully.
‘These essays,’ writes Lodge, ‘variously describe, evaluate and exemplify different ways in which the lives of real people are represented in the written word.’ Describing, evaluating and exemplifying – three words precisely defining the function of criticism at any time and of the role of a teacher of literature at any level. David Lodge is, in the best sense, a teacher of literature, and Lives in Writing proves the truth of the old maxim: ‘we teach what we are’. One of the things that makes this book so engaging is that, running through its thirteen essays - on writers as various as Anthony Trollope, Muriel Spark and Terry Eagleton – there is a fugitive memoir of David Lodge himself. He too, like all but one of his subjects (the exception is Princess Diana) has had a ‘life in writing’; and the reader of Lives in Writing can reconstruct a narrative of Lodge’s own life, his career as an academic and preoccupations as a novelist from the way in which he features as more than the implied author of every one of these essays.
For instance, he begins his essay on John Boorman (originally a TLS review of the film maker’s memoir, Adventures of a Suburban Boy, 2003) by explaining it was Boorman’s film Excalibur that had given him the structural key to his own most successful novel, Small World. Deftly and affectionately he explains how Boorman’s childhood in the world of semi-detached suburbia was later re-imagined in his memorable film about a boy in wartime, Hope and Glory (1987). He does this affectionately both because he clearly admires Boorman greatly and because his own life, as it emerges in glimpses throughout these essays, could also be summed up as the adventures of a suburban boy: Boorman and Lodge both south Londoners born in the 1930s, kids at school during the war (Lodge’s own childhood memoir is called Out of the Shelter).
I was delighted, incidentally, to be reminded of Hope and Glory, a film I much enjoyed and whose screenplay I sometimes used in my own teaching. During the war young Bill who is the film’s hero – based on Boorman himself – is sent to Thames-side Shepperton, to stay with his grandparents. I still recall each frame of the episode in which grandfather (Ian Bannen) teaches Bill to punt and warns him, with great solemnity, ‘Never give up the punt for the pole, my boy: that’s a lesson for life.’ Not many people realise, but this is one of the finest punting scenes in the history of British cinema. There aren’t many, it’s true.
There is, inevitably, a valedictory tenor to several of these essays: Lodge's reflection on the public reaction to the death of Princess Di; his discussion of Trollope contemplating his own exit in his final novel, The Fixed Period; the desperate heroism of the playwright and diarist Simon Gray confronting so many terminal illnesses that the arrival of prostate cancer was, his consultant assured him, nothing to worry about; all of these together could have made for melancholy reading. But Lives in Writing is far from melancholy. It is a book not just of evaluation, but of re-valuation – an attempt to do justice to old friends and old friendship. David Lodge is not a man for settling scores.
Unlike Kingsley Amis. Lodge’s long essay on ‘The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall of Kingsley Amis’ does more than justice to the writer who, with Lucky Jim, wrote the first of the new wave of campus novels, of which Lodge and Bradbury would become past masters. (Talking of which, I’m excluding CP Snow’s The Masters: this, though published in 1951, is set in 1937.) In a revisionary move characteristic of the book as a whole, Lodge describes how in one of his own early essays, ‘The Modern, the Contemporary, and the Importance of Being Amis’ he had admired Amis’s early work but had been relieved that One Fat Englishman had appeared too late for inclusion. Lodge had disliked the novel and its corpulent hero, Roger Micheldene, not realizing until much later in life that the eponymous anti-hero is partly a self-portrait and an exercise in self-disgust. Now he revisits the novel, reading it both more critically and more sympathetically. Finally, in a post-script to the essay he circles Amis one more time, balancing criticism and sympathy again, this time in the light of Philip Larkin’s embittered comments about Amis in the recently published Letters to Monica (ed. Anthony Thwaite, 2010). What interests Lodge here is the flow and ebb of Amis’s friendship with Larkin. As Lodge puts it,
There is always an element of rivalry in a friendship between artists in the same field, and Larkin found he had helped Amis to achieve a level of success and income neither of them had anticipated. (p.48)
Rivalry in friendship is the unexpected theme of the first essay I read yesterday. Everyone knows that Lodge and Bradbury were close friends and collaborators - ‘the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of English letters’ as Lodge suggests with wonderful self-mockery - and this essay is a testament to that enduring friendship. But with candour and regret, Lodge admits that there was also an element of rivalry, and he wonders how his friend must have reacted to seeing Lodge’s novels fare better than his own after the publisher Martin Secker took him on – at Bradbury’s own recommendation. ‘I think,’ he concludes,
we both wished to avoid getting too close to each other’s work, perhaps being influenced by it through knowing too much about it, and thus encouraging the people who insisted on pairing us together or confusing us with each other … As Mikhail Bakhtin observed, all writers glance sideways at their peers as they write, and it was Malcolm whom I most often invoked as imagined reader and critic, to test the quality of the work.’ (p.186)
If there is a sense of loss running through this book, there is also a tremendous sense of gain. I closed the book at some absurd hour early this morning feeling I had just enjoyed a master-class in autobiographical critical appreciation. For what David Lodge says of Alan Bennett in ‘Alan Bennett’s Serial Autobiography’ describes exactly how I feel now, having been lucky enough to get my hands on Lives in Writing a day early:
Again and again in this book he demonstrates that almost anything that happens to a person can be interesting, moving and entertaining if you write about it well enough (p.94).