BOOK REVIEW / If only you had faith: The Picturegoers - David Lodge: Penguin, pounds 4.99
Initially their courtship follows a predictable pattern. Though attracted by Mark's witty, world-weary languor, Clare is discomfited by his designs on her body and by his flippant agnosticism ('Mark . . . if only you had faith'). Subsequently the customary 'Catholic' theme of sexual proscription inverts: Clare begins to spend less time at the altar and ponders anew the sins of the flesh, while Mark attends mass, joins in a pilgrimage and wonders whether he might not have a vocation. In the next clinch on the staircase it is he ('No, Clare') who turns aside.
To a modern sensibility untroubled by spiritual conscience, all this might seem simply ridiculous. Such is the strength of Lodge's writing and the intentness of his grappling with motive that the moral dilemmas have a sense of genuine conviction. Only the denouement - Clare's mother finds Mark's porno-fantasy diary about her daughter and promptly bars him from the house - seems slightly forced, an arbitrary line ruled beneath the story rather than an aesthetically satisfying conclusion.
If there is an unseen hand lurking behind these accounts of smoky, peanut-strewn courtships in the three-and-nines and prowling teddy boys it is Richard Hoggart, whose investigation of changing working-class cultural styles, The Uses Of Literacy, was published three years before. A self-conscious cultural tourist ('In the Mallorys he felt he had rediscovered the people') Mark is nevertheless appalled by the people's expression of their cultural preferences: 'the popular art he looked for to accompany this rediscovery was sadly lacking', he decides after a visit to the Palladium.
Fans of Lodge's later novels will find much that is familiar here: the usual armfuls of parody, the literary allusions, the mildly sentimental ending in which Clare subsidises the honeymoon of two other cinema-goers whose wedding she is invited to witness. In a nervous introduction the author offers it up as 'a curiosity, a piece of apprentice work'. This anxiety is misplaced. Despite its tyro gaucheries and the minor characters who fail to come off - notably the stage-Dickensian cleaning ladies - The Picturegoers' appeal derives as much from the quality of the writing as for its absorption in a bygone way of life.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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