A sparkling insight into the world of books — and beyond
Lives in Writing By David Lodge Harvill Secker, 272pp, $49.99 (HB) IT took me years to realise David Lodge was no more a throwaway writer than he was a throwaway critic. A bit less, in fact, because the kinds of essays collected in this beautifully warm and glowing book, encompassing the lives in brief of a bunch of literary figures, was the first sign to me, when the pieces first appeared in The London Review of Books or The New York Review of Books, that Lodge was more than a farceur or a theorist.
It did take me years to realise Lodge was a formidable novelist who could combine a wholly credible representation of everyday life at its most untidy or bereft with a deep sense of comedy. If you are in any doubt read Paradise News (1991), his novel about an ex-priest, now an academic, heading off to Hawaii with his cantankerous dad to see a terminally ill aunt: a beautiful grave, humane book, full of hilarities. Or try the absolutely perfect pitch, the deep grey depressive humour of the opening of Therapy (1995).
But for years Lodge left me behind. In a fine essay in Lives in Writing about his great comrade-in-arms, fellow professor and fellow satirist Malcolm Bradbury, Lodge attributes to him the crucial advice that turned him towards comedy. It’s a characteristic exercise in the biographical critical move that Lodge has made his own. Bradbury comes across as charming and as one of nature’s conservatives, and Lodge captures, with no hint of exaggeration, both his indebtedness and his sense of rivalry.
He is unrivalled in showing how the life can illuminate the work while also being worth telling for its own sake. And it’s a funny fact of literary history that some of the greatest critical writing in the language — think of Dr Johnson’s life of Milton — burn with such a fire of illumination because they allow for the author as more than merely a footnote to the work.
The life teller has time, as well as life, on his side and no one can tell a life in miniature with the narrative momentum that comes from a half-century’s preoccupation with fiction better than Lodge. This book begins with the last volume of Norman Sherry’s The Life of Graham Greene and Lodge captures a tremendous glow about the contradictions of the man — always through the dark glass of Lodge’s own residual Catholicism — and it concludes with an authoritative critical assessment: “... he combined his page turning narrative technique with a unique and unsettling view of the world which subverted and transformed the stereotypes of popular fiction”.
Lodge is resistant to the pomp and circumstance of literary criticism that can so easily obscure quality in the search for a first XI. Most of the writers he talks about here could be seen as minor (from a Joyce-Proust perspective) — Kingsley Amis, Muriel Spark, Alan Bennett — but Lodge belies this kind of distinction.
With Amis he traces the crucial indebtedness to Philip Larkin — who did an editing job on Lucky Jim to rival Ezra Pound’s on TS Eliot’s The Waste Land — but never makes us think less of the human beings involved.
He’s superbly steady at putting his finger on the slightly gay atmospheric of Amis’s and Larkin’s Oxford circle without overplaying his hand. He also quotes Larkin’s plaint, only published posthumously, about his different luck with girls: ‘‘It’s strange we never meet each other’s sort: / There should be equal chances, I’d’ve thought. / Must finish now. One day perhaps I’ll know / What makes you be so lucky in your ratio. / One of those more things, could it be? Horatio.’’
One of Lodge’s great strengths as an essayist is that he can isolate the revealing human moment. You wouldn’t expect him to be especially sympathetic to Bennett, who can sometimes seem so intent on the complexities of his own tendency to show off, but the moment when Lodge quotes Bennett’s description of his mother in a state of breakdown and the response of his father, who has always addressed her as ‘‘mam’’ in his son’s hearing — “‘Nay, Lil,’ he said, and kissed her hand. ‘Nay, love.’ ”— is beautifully registered.
‘‘It is hard to imagine that such an experience could be described more movingly and convincingly,’’ Lodge writes, adding that the use of Yorkshire dialect is ‘‘freighted with inarticulate apology, deprecation and dismay’’.
If you want a refreshing book about the world of books and the greater world that books reflect you can’t go past Lives in Writing. Lodge establishes Spark at the outset of his essay on her as arguably the most innovative British novelist writing in the second half of the 20th century, a writer who moves ‘‘at dizzying speed from present to past to future and back again sometimes in a single paragraph’’.
In an essay on Simon Gray he pays the author of Butley and of those diaries the extreme compliment of imitating his style, in mock elegy to himself, and it’s a tiny sign of the virtuosic streak in Lodge, which is almost always denied. It’s a superb portrait of the mind, the diamond-faceted quality of mind, the reasonableness and recklessness of Gray.
Lodge says he read the diaries ‘‘with the kind of trance-like pleasure that I associate with childhood reading’’.
Elsewhere Lodge is discernibly cooler about Pico Iyer and his smorgasbord of exquisite (and privileged) spiritual choices, and there is a powerful reckoning with Terry Eagleton that — without unfairness — makes mincemeat of some of his remarks about literary theory and casts a theologically expert eye on his equivocations, sometimes expertly polemical, about religion. He seems to come close to concluding that Eagleton is too much of a self-serving chameleon not to be a bit of charlatan.
He reveres Frank Kermode and says he was the kind of critic who would always pass the ball to another critic rather than score vaingloriously. Lives in Writing also includes a previously unpublished article about the death of Diana, princess of Wales, emphasising the religious nature of the outpouring of grief that followed and linking it finally to the extraordinary lyric by Gerald Manley Hopkins, Spring and Fall — the one that begins, “Margaret are you grieving’’ and ends, ‘‘It is Margaret you mourn for’’.
Lodge has a quickness that comes from his intimacy with the worlds of entertainment. There’s a wonderful review of John Boorman’s memoir that includes the story of a Los Angeles cop stopping Boorman and asking, ‘‘Do you know you have Lee Marvin on your roof?’’
Lives in Writing concludes with an account of how Lodge wrote his 2011 novel about HG Wells, A Man of Parts, which is by way of a reply to the objections to ‘‘faction’’ by biographer Robert Skidelsky and war historian Antony Beevor, among others. Lodge says they are coming from opposite directions: “Beevor because it is not wholly factual and Skidelsky because it is not wholly imaginative.’’ It’s an interesting and scrupulous account of his own — formidable — procedures in writing historical fiction.
It’s not often, alas, that you can wholeheartedly recommend a book of critical essays to the general reader — even allowing for the fact that, as Dr Johnson once said, the critic may well cry, ‘‘Sir, you are speaking of an art you cannot judge.’’
The thing is anyone can judge Lodge’s art, which doesn’t depend on an expert or highbrow interest in orders of words. Lives in Writing is simply a lucid, beautifully paced account of some extremely vivid human beings who wrote a bit and, surprise, surprise ... it may make you feel, in Johnson’s words, more useful, happier and wiser.
English writer and literary critic David Lodge has written a sensitive and wellpaced account of the lives of some significant contemporary authors