A sparkling in­sight into the world of books — and be­yond

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Peter Craven

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

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